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In this episode of the Spilled Salt podcast, we’re uncorking the story of Maiah Johnson Dunn, a dynamic advocate in the wine industry.

Maiah’s journey into the world of wine is as vibrant as the flavors she explores. From her roots in marketing to her serendipitous encounter with the Finger Lakes region, her path is a testament to the power of passion and possibility.

That said, Maiah’s story isn’t just about swirling and sipping—it’s about breaking barriers and building bridges. As the Beverage Education Manager at New York Kitchen, she’s on a mission to make wine approachable for everyone, from novices to connoisseurs.

Enter Wine for Normals, a class where the only prerequisite is curiosity. With Maiah’s guidance, guests embark on a journey of discovery, learning to navigate the world of wine with confidence and flair. From decoding tasting notes to decanting wine myths, every session is a toast to inclusivity and empowerment.

Maiah’s impact extends beyond the New York Kitchen’s Tasting Room. With classes like DEI Over Wine, she’s sparking conversations and driving change within the industry. By pairing discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion with a glass of wine, she’s proving that education can be as enlightening as it is enjoyable.

What’s next for Maiah? Well, she’s gearing up for her WSET Level 3 certification—a testament to her commitment to mastering her craft. And with dreams of starting her own winery on the horizon, the future is ripe with possibilities.

So, whether you’re a seasoned sommelier or a curious beginner, raise your glass to Maiah Johnson Dunn—the woman who’s turning sips into stories and breaking down barriers one bottle at a time.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage, and agriculture industries. 

Today’s guest is Maiah Johnson Dunn. She’s the beverage education manager at New York Kitchen in Canandaigua, New York, where her focus is building a space for everyone to learn about New York’s craft agriculture, especially wine, which is a personal passion of Maiah’s.

She first set foot in a winery in 2016 and, in 2023, Wine Enthusiast named her a Future 40 Tastemaker. I think that shows us that Maiah will continue to make a huge impact in the wine industry and she’s only just getting started. 

One of the things that I love about working with Maiah, I’m on the Board for New York Kitchen, and so I wanted to ask her to join me on the podcast today to talk about some of the classes that she’s doing at New York Kitchen, including one called Wine for Normals and another one DEI Over Wine. She talks about those today as well as her journey into the wine industry. 

We touch on the sober curious movement as well, including some of the changes that are happening in the industry as we move more in that direction. 

Enjoy the conversation.

Maureen: Hey, Maiah! I’m so excited to have you on the show today. Thanks for taking the time. 

I’m going to jump right into the question that if anybody knows your work experience, they will have the same curiosity. You’re in the wine industry now, but that wasn’t always the case. So take us through your work history and what led you to the work that you’re doing now.

Maiah Johnson Dunn: Thank you for having me.

So I actually started my career doing really silly product marketing for what was called CSN stores at the time and is now Wayfair.com. It seems absurd, I see these Wayfair commercials and I’m like, I was that person writing about the table that you’re buying today. 

And from there I started doing more marketing on an event scale. So experiential marketing for corporate clients like Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola. My favorite was Essie and Maybelline. Just so fun to work on those makeup brands. 

I was doing the event production for those clients living in New York City for a bit and then moved back home to Boston and continued to do that work. 

And then I sort of fell into the wine industry. 

I keep saying by accident, I met my husband randomly at a wedding in Cabo, Mexico, and we started dating long distance. 

I was in Boston, he was in Rochester. And the first time I came to visit him, he took me to Keuka Lake, and it was peak foliage and just truly a total trap because I started falling in love with him as I started falling in love with this wine industry. 

And that led me to eventually making this pandemic change which is working in wine.

Maureen: Wow. So your work when you were doing product marketing and experiential and event production, how much of that was writing? That’s your core focus, right? Writing.

Maiah: Yes, I, you know, it’s funny, I went to school for English Lit and I had a focus on creative writing. 

So when I fell into the event world, people would always say to me, you write really good emails, which ended up actually being a major part of the role because I was doing event production and also account management. So communication was just key. So I had to not only be clear and direct an email, but in talking to my clients directly.

But yeah, I love the written word. I just think that words are so powerful and it’s amazing to be able to write about wine now.

Maureen: I think that I want to go back to something that you just said that communication was key. I’m a big believer that if there is someone who can clearly communicate something, anything, their intention, event that they want you to come to, whatever it is, I think that that is the cornerstone of a person’s ability to have success in getting someone to do what they want them to do, whether that’s understand something, you know, whatever it is, but communication is the cornerstone of it.

Maiah: It really is. And you know, sometimes it’s funny, I find myself when I’m having a hard time communicating, I think it’s because I’m finding myself trying to be really nice, which not that you can’t be nice and communicate, but sometimes you end up skirting around being direct with what you’re looking to accomplish. And so whenever I find myself struggling with communication, I have to think to myself, am I being nice or am I being clear and direct?

Maureen: Mmm, such a great point. I used to struggle with that a lot, especially when it came to like colleague feedback. I would feel bad telling someone if there was an area that they had an opportunity to improve. But I came across something and I can’t remember who said this, but it was the idea that clear is kind. And that’s exactly what you’re talking about. And so now I find that when I feel like I’m struggling and I’m.

Maiah: Yes, absolutely.

Maureen: Also, I’m a direct communicator. I think that you are too. And when I find that I’m struggling with that, I just say to myself, or sometimes we’ll say out loud to the person across from me, this is not going to come off in the way that I intended to come off. I want you to know that I support you and give all the disclaimers at first, right? And then just say like, this needs improvement or whatever it is that I’m trying to get to.

Maiah: Yeah. It’s funny though, it takes work. I did not used to be a direct communicator. I was very good at sending emails for my client work, but when it came to just having a conversation with friends, it was like, well, I want them to know how much I love them, right? So I had to kind of learn how to lean into this. What I’m about to say might not come off right, but it’s rooted in love at the end of the day. And that whole like, you know, clear is kind, not just for the person you’re talking to, but I realized clear is kind for me because the anxiety that I would go through trying to figure out why the communication was a struggle was not worth it.

Maureen: So true. So how did you make that shift?

Maiah: gosh, it’s still a work in progress. But I try to give myself grace and remind myself that clear is kind, like you said, and that’s how I’m getting there.

Maureen: Great, it’s important work. So you mentioned that it was a pandemic shift into wine. How did your interest in wine start?

Maiah: As I kind of hinted, you know, at this sort of trap, I like to say that my husband set up for me. I came to visit him one night after a hard day of work in Boston and drove up here late at night and he brought me to Keuka Lake. It was the middle of the night. It was peak foliage. 

So when I opened the curtains the next day, all I saw was just the lake lined in, you know, these beautiful peak foliage colors and then he took me to Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery and he took me to what was at the time, Limeberry is now Vice Winery. And we went to Heron Hill and a couple other places on Keuka. 

I was just blown away by the beauty of this region and the proximity that you have in this region to the winemakers and the people who are actually doing this incredible work. 

I was blown away by the heart that these people demonstrate and how much they care for this region and are doing all they can to just make it incredible. And I was hooked. 

We would try to see each other every three weeks at least. And it was always my favorite when I got to come up here and spend a little bit more time running around the lakes. And we kind of spent our formative years as a couple, you know, also exploring the Finger Lakes. 

It was a great way to get back to communication, learn how to talk to each other and really communicate well and have this really cool thing that we were learning about together. 

So I was hooked. I was falling in love with my husband as I was falling in love with the wine industry. And so now my day to day is just all entangled and intertwined and I’m not mad at it.

Maureen: Yeah, there’s, I say all the time, there’s definitely worse things I could be doing with my time than focused on, you know, food and beverage. 

Iit sounds like you really fell in love with the region and many aspects of the industry itself. Like you mentioned proximity to the winemakers and, you know, sort of this, probably the stories, right, behind those wineries and the winemakers more so than the product. 

It wasn’t like you were a lifelong connoisseur of wine and you had, you know, followed the industry for years or anything. It was you who found the interest after coming to the region and falling in love with the Finger Lakes.

Maiah: Exactly. I had never been to a winery before that trip to Keuka Lake. And I had never seen what a vineyard looked like. I was drinking wine because, you know, that’s what you do. But I just didn’t know how much went into it. 

I fell in love truly with the people up here more than anything else. And now that I write about wine, I really try to focus my stories around the hands and the people who are making these products beyond just the grapes that they use and whatever may have happened during that growing season.

Maureen: Never been to a winery before. And so that was 2020, right? That was all happening or somewhere around there.

Maiah: Well, he and I met in 2016 and I came up, you know, that year. So my first time seeing the winery was 2016.

Maureen: Okay, 2016. Wow. And so now you’ve come a long way. You’re a significant thought leader in the wine industry and just was named in 2023 a Future 40 Tastemaker from Wine Enthusiast. That’s quite, I mean, people work their entire careers for acknowledgement like that. What did that mean for you to receive that kind of recognition?

Maiah: It means the world. I feel like I still don’t know how to put words around it. And in some ways, I’m still kind of processing that this is a reality. And sometimes I get all nervous and uncomfortable because it’s huge. 

I mean, wine is one of these things where you’re just never going to know everything. It is constantly evolving and changing. Truly, as our climate changes, these wines change and it’s every day, right? And so, there is just some inherent fear, I would say, in being a thought leader in this category because nothing is ever consistent. But at the same time, that’s kind of what makes it exciting. 

I think that I kind of fell on the scene in wine. I had an Instagram account called Chasing Graveness, and I was using it to kind of learn, take everything I was learning in real time and sort of put it through my body and out my fingers. It’s the best way for me to learn as a writer and a nerd. 

I ended up writing a post one time about the wine industry up here and the lack of diversity that you see in it. And this post went viral and it made me, I ended up posting a couple pairing dinners because of it, thanks to Chris Grofke who saw the post and shared it more widely. 

Just to have really burst on the scene talking about the issues in some ways felt extremely vulnerable. And I just am very thankful that it was received in the way that it has been to get me to this place where I’m in Wine Enthusiast’s Future 40 2023. It’s just, it’s crazy. And I’m very appreciative.

Maureen: Amazing. So I’m on the board for New York Kitchen where, Maiah, you now are the beverage educator. And one of the reasons why I love that organization is because of some of the work that you’re doing in your classes, like Wine for Normals and DEI over Wine. Can you talk about those a little bit? Where did those ideas come from? What’s it like leading those classes?

Maiah: It’s so fun and thank you for saying that too. We just had a bus tour group of 35 people from Pennsylvania and they had a little 30 minute beverage experience so I decided to give them a 30 minute Wine For Normals class.

Wine for Normals was inspired by the podcast Wine for Normal People by Elizabeth Schneider. It’s a great podcast. She has since turned it into a book and it really just breaks down the basics of wine without it feeling pretentious or scary. 

I wanted to take that concept and put it into the classroom and have it be this open space where people felt like they could ask any question at all. And it’s really funny to see as the class starts, the room is very quiet and towards the end, there’s a million questions of anything and everything. Like, where should I store my wine? It’s on top of the fridge. Is that OK? And the answer is no.

It’s funny because people will come and they’ll ask me questions like that. And then I will get an Instagram DM from somebody that says, I took my wine off the fridge and I put it in a dark, cool space where it should be. And it’s, it’s really neat to see people taking these, you know, small learnings about wine that people don’t necessarily talk about much and put them to practice. 

That’s sort of the crux of Wine for Normals, just making everybody feel like they can interact with this product a little bit more.

And then DEI Over Wine was an idea actually that my husband came to me with. And he suggested I create a class having done so much talking about, you know, the lack of diversity in the industry, do a class surrounding DEI and do it over a glass of wine and that I should call my good friend, Sid Bell, and we should do it together. 

My friend Sid is a licensed practitioner of DEI work. She has a full-time job here in the city and then does this work with me on the side. And I’m just so appreciative to her because she took what was, you know, a one -off consumer facing class and helped us turn it into this three series cohort model, the first of which was fully sold out and just finished, which was pretty incredible. And now we’re getting ready to sort of hit pedal-to-the-metal for cohort two coming up in June.

Maureen: 

That’s amazing. And so the DEI Over Wine class in particular is to kind of educate on DEI topics and the over wine idea. So that’s not wine education, right? That’s more DEI education and it just is breaking down barriers and bringing people together with the wine. Is that the idea?

Maiah: That’s exactly right. So what we do is Sid will talk about a topic within our concept within DEI, be it building an inclusive space and what that looks like, different policies that you as a business should consider having, code of conduct and what that means, how to build the space that you wish existed. 

And then I will line each of those concepts up with a beverage example of somebody who’s always already doing the work locally, a go-to for me actually, is Wagner Vineyards because they’ve done a lot of really good work, in the inclusion space, not just for people of color, but truly for everybody. and I have a lot of examples, not just in wine, but also beer and spirits that I’m thankful that I get to lean on for, you know, bringing these concepts to life a little bit with a drink.

Maureen: I love it. That’s great. You mentioned the idea of the Wine for Normals being the idea of small learnings about wine and creating this inclusive environment. 

Where did your learning come from? I mean, I assume you’re a sponge and you kind of just, you know, when you love something, you take it in from all angles and kind of everything that you do, right? So where did your education for the industry come from?

Maiah: Honestly, truly that being a sponge, every time I would come visit my husband before I moved to Rochester, we would go to as many wineries as we possibly could. Every trip that we took, we would find the nearest wine country. And we are those people that just ask maybe too many questions. But the more questions we asked, the more I learned. And then I would write it down and it would be fascinating to me.

For a little while, I thought I’m going to be one of these wine professionals that doesn’t do any kind of wine certification. But I recently did my WSET Level 2 last year. And it was just so affirming for what I realized I actually did know. So I think we talk a lot about how some of these certifications are a little bit of a racket. But they can also just be really fantastic and a little bit of a confidence boost to make sure you know what you’re doing.

Maureen: Yeah, for sure. I remember years ago, I used to be really hung up with the fact that I didn’t have a master’s degree. I didn’t have a business administration, you know, administration degree or anything like that. I mean, I went to school for graphic design and the rest of my strategy and marketing work is taught from things that I’ve learned in, you know, working with folks throughout the industry in the years as well. And that used to be something that I would get really hung up on. And I had to do some reflective work to think about why that really mattered, right? And so you’re right, it’s a great confidence booster when you go through a program like that where you realize, I actually knew a lot of this already and, and, you know, taking the time to reflect and realize that, you know, you were already there.

Maiah: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s funny you say that because sort of as I continued on my career path in events previously, when I got into the place where I was hiring a team to work with me, I realized that everybody coming after me had gone to school for events marketing. And I was fascinated by this because I feel like I went to the event marketing school of hard knocks where we just learn trial by fire every day. But there’s such value in this becoming a course curriculum and even learning how to talk about these things. But it’s interesting and having that reflection moment of saying it’s okay that I didn’t necessarily go through the curriculum like somebody that came after me is a good thing too.

Maureen: And sometimes it means you approach the work in a different way. Like one of our designers on the team at Agency 29 does not have a formal education in design work. And so it’s really interesting sometimes to see how she approaches things compared to how somebody who went to school approaches things. You know, I mean, she tends to break the rules in ways that we previously learned in school, you know, like you start with the grid and then you can break the grid. 

There’s certain rules that, you know, we were taught to follow that she’s kind of just like. I put this together and I because I thought that it worked and it sort of met the vibe because she’s got a real knack for that kind of skill. And it just shows that when you’re really passionate about the work that you’re doing and you really immerse yourself in it, like you were saying that you and your husband, anytime that you would travel and you would get together, that was your thing was like going to visit the wineries.

When you love something so much that it’s a big part of your life, I think that there’s a lot to be said about that kind of education.

Maiah: Absolutely. And I’m also convinced that saying that’s the way we’ve always done it is like a curse word and having those people around us, it just makes us, you know, liven things up a little bit, freshen up our take. And I think it’s so important just to keep it interesting and exciting.

Maureen: I would imagine that that’s that philosophy and mindset is probably one of the things that makes your wine for normals class really approachable, too, because there has previously been this big stigma of if you don’t know, you know how to taste, then why are you at the tasting bar at a winery? You know, whereas I think that there’s a lot of shift that’s happening, especially in the Finger Lakes, about like you don’t have to come with a fancy. You don’t have to know what you like. Just tell me what you’re looking for and it’s okay to say I don’t know.

Maiah: Exactly, exactly. And you know, Wine for Normals, a lot of it is trying to get people comfortable with shopping for wine, sitting at the tasting bar and saying, now I know that I don’t love a heavy -oaked Chardonnay, but I like one that’s done in stainless steel, and sort of trying to remember those things as you go. But I agree with you. I think we, as a wine industry, have been marketing to people in a certain way for pretty much our entirety.

And now we’re seeing the audience change. There’s this sober curious movement. And there’s also a movement of younger people that really want to know where everything came from. And it’s not enough for us as a wine industry just to say, well, drink it. It doesn’t matter because it won’t work anymore. Right? Like people genuinely want some education. And I think, you know, the goal with my classes is to let them be able to take in that education and help them figure out what they should keep that serves them so that they can go back later and have a better experience the next time they’re at a liquor store or winery.

Maureen: I love that. I’m so glad you mentioned Sober Curious. It wasn’t on my list of things to ask you about today, but there are some concerns. We have some winery clients and you know, every wine conference that I go to, there’s this new sort of undertone of fear about the Sober Curious movement, right? And the people are consuming less and the World Health Organization just recommended consuming less. What are your thoughts about that and how it may impact the industry?

Maiah: You know, it’s going to be interesting to see how this evolves. I’m definitely hearing the rumblings of people being really nervous, especially with the World Health Organization, pretty much saying no amount of alcohol is good for you. I do think we are coming off a really interesting time post pandemic, right? It’s 2024. It’s been four years of us stuck inside with the only thing that we probably kept a good amount of stock of being alcohol and perhaps we all kind of need a little bit of a reset just to hit pause and maybe get on a more of a moderate healthy kick. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s funny, I think every year there’s an article that comes out that says the wine world is in trouble. And it’s either because the people who drink wine are aging out or because of the sober curious movement. These things are never going to change. They’re not different. What needs to be different is how we as an industry approach people. And we’ve got to help them understand that, with moderation, wine could still be good for you. There actually are some antioxidants in red wines. It’s not a bad thing, right? You don’t need to drink a bottle of it every night.

Maureen: I think that’s great advice. What is something inspiring or surprising that you have found as you’ve dove into the wine industry?

Maiah: There are so many layers of small producers or individual people doing really amazing things. And that just kind of makes me really excited for what’s to come within this wine world. One of them would be my friend, Mariam Ahmed. She’s got a company called Maryam & Co. And with her work, she’s created a program called Field Blends. I was really lucky to be Maryam’s community partner for Field Blends Finger Lakes. So what Field Blends is, is an immersive program for underrepresented people who work within the wine industry, but have never necessarily been to a region or are curious to learn more. Miriam’s worked really hard to get local partners within each region that she’s been to so far. Finger Lakes, as I’ve said, being one, Walla Walla, and the next one coming up is in Michigan.

And with those local partners, she’s able to offer scholarships for these underrepresented people to come and experience these regions and then take back what they’ve learned to their restaurants or bars or liquor stores. And it’s really amazing to see individual people, you know, marry them just as a person creating experiences for, if the finger lakes anyway, up to 12 people to just learn this region deeper than anybody ever could on their own.

And so I think seeing things like that, it just makes me so inspired for the future of the wine industry and for people really having these immersive learning experiences and hopefully getting more and more people up here to do that will just help them appreciate, you know, not only the region, but the product of wine even more.

Maureen: I think that everything that you’re talking about just makes me feel like you’re such a perfect fit for the role at New York Kitchen to be leading the beverage education, not only from your mindset of everyone is welcome and no matter your level, come on in, the water’s fine kind of idea, but also this approach of immersive learning and there’s endless ways that we can learn about wine and its production and its makers and its consumption and, you know, but putting you squarely at that place for beverage education for the entire state of New York at New York Kitchen is a pretty remarkable fit for you based on where your passions clearly lie.

Maiah: Thank you for saying that. That means so much, truly. And it’s really fun to be able to do this work. I joke sometimes that I’ll be driving to work and I’m not mad about it. Like, it’s really an amazing way to be able to spend the day. And, you know, like the bus tour I was telling you about earlier, I taught them how to swirl and aerate their wine in a glass and sip it and how the flavors come even more alive after you’ve introduced a little oxygen into your wine. And the whole room went, Wow, which was wonderful. It’s just incredible to see people have these aha moments for something that truly didn’t take much out of my day to tell them. There’s no reason why we can’t be doing more of this, I think, throughout the industry.

Maureen: I love it. I live for those kinds of reactions. We once had a client that we presented her logo to and she nearly fell out of her chair. I think it will truly go down in history as one of my favorite moments. Her feet went up and she nearly fell out of her chair. She was so excited. And it’s, those are the moments, right? Where you know that you’ve got, when somebody brings their whole body and their voice, right? And their reaction to something that they’re learning or seeing or experiencing is just like those are the ones to put in the bank. Tell me about what’s next for you. My last question, something you’re excited about for the future.

Maiah: So I’m excited about two things. I’m going to be taking, and this is the nerd side of things, I’m going to be taking my WSET Level 3, which I’m nervous about because it is a huge undertaking, but I’m excited about it just for that confidence boost of making sure I know what I think I know. So that I’m very excited about, and I’ll be taking it at New York Kitchen, which I can’t wait for. And I’m also excited about a couple sort of side projects that I’ve got going on. I’m hoping to start my own winery one day. So I figure the more I can talk about it, then hopefully I’m manifesting this to come to fruition one day. But I want it to be sort of this small thing that grows organically with the support of the community. And it’s something that I want to start with my husband. And talking about it gets me really excited. So I’m hoping to figure out what that looks like within the next year and start bringing it to life soon.

Maureen: My God, that’s exciting. Wow. If I can help with that in any way, let me know. That sounds incredible. I’d love to support you in those endeavors.

Maiah: Thank you.

I appreciate you saying that. Thank you. And for all the kind words that you’ve said in this interview, it’s been, it’s wild sometimes to hear yourself reflected back from other people. And I just really appreciate that from you.

Maureen: You deserve it. Thanks for taking the time, Maiah. How can people find you if they want to follow along with your musings and news?

Maiah: So my website is Maiah.com. You can find my stories there, articles that I’ve written and stuff that’s going on at New York Kitchen. I’m also on Instagram at This Is Maiah and Maiah is spelled M-A -I -A -H.

Maureen: Wonderful. Thank you. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Maiah: Thanks for having me Maureen, I appreciate it.