Marcus Kempken has been living and breathing wine for more than a decade. As the Palm Springs sales manager for Mosaic Wine Alliance, his job is to meet with his various accounts and sell wine … but to Kempken, it’s so much more than that.
Many wine-lovers, for some reason, also love storytelling, and Kempken is no exception. During our chat, he waxed poetic about Stolpman’s 2013 Roussanne—a brand which, of course, is represented by his wine-distribution company.
Mosiac Wine Alliance—which represents and distributes brands such as Saxum, Frog’s Leap, Paul Pernot and Francois Lamarche, just to name a few—is a wine broker born here in Palm Springs. Pierre Lemieux, one of Mosaic’s founders, was working at the old Rusty Pelican 25 years ago when he saw an opportunity to bring fine wine to the desert. The company was formerly called PMDL, but Lemieux and company have rebranded and expanded to other areas of Southern California.
Marcus got his start in hospitality at Red Robin—humble beginnings, in his words. He caught the bug for wine and food service at an early age and worked his way up from busboy at Red Robin to server/sommelier at Sullivan’s. He then held various sommelier/wine buyer/manager positions at The Hideaway, Indian Ridge Country Club, and the 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro. He started working with Mosaic part-time while with 3rd Corner and has been with the distributor ever since.
Marcus and I chatted over that bottle of Roussanne, enjoying every sip.
How did you get your start in wine?
One of my co-workers at Red Robin also had a job at Fleming’s, and he showed me one of his wine-education books. Just seeing a couple of pages sparked an interest. I thought, “This could be an opportunity where I could go and learn something and better my life”—not knowing exactly what it would actually do for me. It changed my life, 100 percent, in so many different ways. At the time, I didn’t even know how to pronounce “cabernet sauvignon” or “merlot”: I knew red and white. I didn’t drink wine when I was younger, but between seeing those pieces of paper, and hearing about how servers were making $250 a night, I thought, “This is awesome.” So I went to get a job at a steakhouse, thinking I could make more money. The maître d’ at Sullivan’s took a chance and hired me. There, I met the sommelier, Robert Chancey. He had this energy for people and wine that I have not seen since. He really harnessed the energy of the passion of wine and the love of connecting people with that. He taught me that, and it’s the foundation of who I am as a wine guy today.
What was your first wine love?
I had a guest at Sullivan’s who came in alone one night and ordered himself a nice meal and an expensive bottle of wine out on the patio. In my mind, I’m going, “Why is he ordering a $150 bottle of wine for himself?” I didn’t understand at the time why he’d do that, but then he let me have a taste. It was Stag’s Leap Cask 23. That wine was truly amazing—the finish lasted 15 minutes. That experience and that wine taught me what wine was really all about: generosity and good winemaking—and on top of that, I can make a little money. All that came together that night: I can make a living from this; I can taste good wine and be passionate about it; and I can spend time with good people. Wine is great that way. It’s a bridge, it’s a conversation piece. I drink wine to share, to be with friends and family.
How was the transition from wine-buyer to sales rep?
I wouldn’t have done it any other way. For any old sales rep coming to the wine world, there is a really steep learning curve and a tough transition. For somebody like me, who has relationships from working in restaurants and a background in wine, it makes all the difference. My first year wasn’t as difficult as it could have been; because I could get a meeting based on my existing relationship with wine-buyers, it was a huge benefit. Four years later, many of those buyers are gone or have moved on, so I don’t have the same advantage. Now, I’m resting on my book, my service, my thoughtfulness and what kind of deals I can find my customers.
You enjoy being on the sales side?
I do. I love our book and working with the wineries we represent. They’re all family-owned and -operated, so representing them is meaningful and a pleasure. I really enjoy working with Mosaic and Pierre. He’s created a wonderful culture that is reflected in the way we do business. We have flexibility to do wine dinners and spend time with accounts. Pierre is all about quality of life and taking care of his reps, and I really appreciate and admire that; we’re like a family.
One thing I do miss is interacting with the end customer. Given the opportunity, I’ll chew off someone’s ear talking about the wines.
What are you drinking right now?
Rosé, white burgundy and Alsace riesling.
Desert Island wine?
Cult Cabernet, 2001. It will last forever; it’s built for the ages.
Favorite food pairing?
Steak, potatoes and cabernet. (Laughs.) I’m simple-hearted. I don’t need foie gras and caviar or champagne.
Favorite wine book?
Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. It’s the only book you use for Italian wines. And the first wine book I read taught me the basics: The Everything Wine Book. Those two really spoke to me.
Where do you like to go out in the desert?
Spencer’s. Andre (de Carteret, the sommelier) has stuff that is not on that wine list that is hiding in the cellar that will rock your world. You can get a great meal at Copley’s. Mr. Lyons. Johannes—he has a great wine list, some hidden gems. LG’s has been running some wine specials lately; you can get some good deals.
Your favorite thing to do besides drink wine?
Riding bikes and hiking the Indian Canyons. So much natural beauty in the desert!
Palm Springs native Christine Soto is a co-owner of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.