Jeff Hickenlooper’s passion for wine is like the drink itself — it only gets better with time. But fortunately, like the beverage’s lengthy journey from the grape to the glass, time has proved necessary in creating a career sweet and robust.
It all began in the early 1990s when Hickenlooper ’92 found his start in the food industry at the Famous Maisonette Restaurant in Cincinnati. There, his interest in wine was uncorked. Hickenlooper shadowed the Maisonette’s Sommelier, Gary Boswell, and absorbed his expertise. When Boswell left the Maisonette, his position was handed to Hickenlooper.
“It was then I started tasting a lot of wine and read any book I could get my hands on to learn as much about wine as I could. I quickly found out that there was so much to learn and it changed from vintage to vintage. Wine is ever changing, which is why I love wine,” Hickenlooper says.
This love sparked his desire to officially transition from the restaurant business into the wine industry, and so in 1998 Hickenlooper left the Maisonette, where he had also been promoted to general manager, to join a small wine wholesaler in Cincinnati. He bounced from there to another stint as a restaurant Sommelier before finally landing in the wholesale industry again.
And this time, he hopes, for good.
Gordon Hullar, longtime friend of Hickenlooper and owner of Vintner Select, the premier wine importer and wholesaler for Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, seized the opportunity to have Hickenlooper join his company as its sales manager.
“I am really pleased to have Jeff working for us. Jeff is very competitive. He’s got these goals he’s setting, and every year he’s wanting to pass those goals. He stands out — he has that drive for always wanting to be better than last time. Much more than lot of people,” Hullar says.
Hickenlooper’s position now grants him the luxury of traveling throughout the world in pursuit of the best wines to distribute, and throughout the three-state region to provide these wines to customers.
“One of the great things about the wine business is that wine is made all over the world. I have been very lucky to be able to travel to a lot of the wine regions in the world. I have been to the wine regions in France, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina, of course all over California, Oregon, Washington and the Finger Lakes in New York. My hope is to go to Italy and Spain with in the next year,” Hickenlooper says.
Hickenlooper reflects on his adventures in wine chasing, and deems a trip to Argentina as most memorable. While there, at a vineyard in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, he participated in wine harvesting, a process in which every step was performed by hand, from picking the grapes to racking the wine in barrels.
This is what separates wine from other spirits, and other career fields, for Hickenlooper: each wine comes with its own unique story in its long process from the vineyard to the table. Because of every wine’s individual personality, narrowing down his favorite type does not prove easy.
“This is always a tough question: My usual answer is ‘My favorite wine is the one in my glass.’ I think all wines have their place and time. So is it a cop out if I say I really enjoy all types of wine?”
Hickenlooper does, however, have a few expert suggestions: for white, he prefers wines that are crisp and clean, such as a German Rieslings, as these make the best partners for food. For red, lower alcohol, lighter bodied wines like Pinot Noir win his recommendation. As for champagne, Hickenlooper says nothing beats one that is hand crafted.
For self-proclaimed “winos” to those new to the drink, Hickenlooper stresses what wine should and should not be: wine should be fun, and it should lead to new adventures. It should be artistic but not always expensive. It should come straight from a vineyard and shouldn’t be intimidating. It should not sit on a shelf.
“I don’t feel wines are trophies. They are made to be consumed. If you are saving a bottle for a special occasion, make the special bottle the occasion!”