We had the good fortune of connecting with May Matta-Aliah and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi May, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
I was born in Beirut Lebanon where I spent the first 19 years of my life. Lebanon is a compact but geographically diverse country where you can enjoy a swim in the Mediterranean during the day and a 50 minute drive later, you can spend your night comfortably sleeping in your mountain home where evening temperatures dip by a good 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It is also this diversity that makes Lebanon a terrific wine-producing country (much to most peoples’ surprise!) Growing up, as soon as the school year was over, my family would relocate to the village where we spent our summers. At the end of each summer we would drive to the Bekaa Valley, the agricultural breadbasket of Lebanon, and stock up on supplies for the winter like dried legumes, fresh onions and garlic, but most importantly wine.
I fondly remember stepping into wineries that were buzzing with the energy of the harvest, the smell of fermenting wine, and that of mature wine resting in barrels. I was fascinated by it all and that fascination never left me. As a young adult I enjoyed a glass of wine with my meals and tried to visit wineries whenever I was in Europe. With time, I realized that my desire to learn more about wine and understand it just grew deeper, so after a 10 year career in Graphic Design I signed up for my first wine class and I have never looked back. There is so much about wine that I enjoy, from visiting wine regions, to learning about the history, geography and the climate of the widely varied wine regions. Most of all however, I love how it brings people together, to enjoy drawn-out meals around a dinner table, to share stories and laughter and relish in those moments that are always enhanced by the presence of a glass of wine at the table.
What should our readers know about your business?
I am the president of In the Grape, and my entire staff consists of me, myself and I. I cherish my independence and the flexibility that not having a team offers me, so that is an ideal solution for me. I am a wine educator and wear several hats in that field. I officially represent two wine regions and one brandy region as their Official Educator in the US. Those regions are Alto Adige and Franciacorta from Northern Italy and Armagnac from Southwest France.
I am also an instructor at the International Wine Center in NYC where we teach the Wine & Spirits Education Trust programs. In addition to these contracts, I am often approached by other regions to lead educational initiatives on their behalf. For example, for the last few years I have executed several programs for the Wine of Chablis. Most of my educational focus is for the trade but I occasionally will run consumer-focused events.
When I embarked on this wine journey I came to it as a second career and in order to better understand the multiple facets of this industry, I hung my ego up with my coat and took on many jobs from working on the retail floor of a large store to interning at a winery, and volunteering at events. These opportunities offered me an understanding of the wine industry that I could not just gain from a book. I did also put a high value on my personal education and completed several rigorous wine programs to gain credentials that legitimized my knowledge. I continue to seek regional certifications in areas of interest and hold many regionally-recognized certifications. In addition to helping me better understand these wine regions, these certifications also place me on a short list of dedicated regional educators that can be tapped to lead seminars on their behalf.
As I am the owner and sole employee of my company, In the Grape the brand is solely mine. As such I place a high value on always delivering to the highest degree possible. To me that means not just looking and behaving professionally but always over-delivering. I do a lot of research and always walk into a room prepared. I make sure that I know my subject matter inside and out, and I strive to bring value to all my presentations. To me that also means understanding that people sitting in that room have taken time out of their busy lives to learn something new and it is incumbent on me to make that experience worthwhile and not a waste of their time. Additionally, I take to heart being the best ambassador that I can be for my clients, and to advocate sincerely on their behalf.
My path to where I am today was not always easy. When I stepped away from my first career, it took me a while to find my footing, I also took a big financial hit. I balanced that by continuing to take on freelance graphic design projects for several years to make ends meet. I also always kept an open mind and a willingness to stay open to opportunities. My unwavering guiding light was that no matter what I was doing I would always strive to do my best and I still live by that to this day.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Living in New York City makes this an easy answer as there are soooo many things one can do. Assuming it is a perfect spring day, I would start my day with a good coffee at my favorite neighborhood coffee shop in the East Village where I live. We would then walk from the East Village to the Lower East Side, over to Nolita, through Little Italy and down to Chinatown. It is amazing to see how the city changes from one neighborhood to the next. After all this walking one needs a rest to we would hit one of the local restaurants for lunch in Chinatown, soup dumplings usually top my list.
With our bellies full, we will take the subway to the Upper East Side and walk to the Metropolitan Museum, one of my favorite NY institutions. With so many collections, there is something for everyone. It is important not to overdue so after an hour or two, we will leave the museum and take a leisurely walk across Central Park to the west side. We will walk over to Lincoln Center and walk around its various building admiring the fountains and the new green spaces. There is something magical knowing how much talent lies behind these walls.
If we are tired we will grab a seat at a bar for a glass of wine and a few bites before heading to a Jazz concert at Lincoln Center’s venue, overlooking Columbus Circle. With the city as your backdrop there is no better setting to bring the day to a musical end.
After the concert, I would head back to my East Village neighborhood for a late night bite and cocktail at one of the many amazing places to eat at drink that are within walking distance from my home.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
This is a poignant question as the person who was my mentor and closest supporter passed away on Thanksgiving day this year. Her name was Linda Lawry, she was the first wine teacher I had at the International Wine Center in New York City in 1997. She was also the person who offered me a job at the center after I completed by Wine & Spirits Education Trust Diploma Level 4 in 2000. Most importantly Linda was also the person who encouraged me to start teaching and offered me my first teaching job the following year.
Little did I know then, that teaching about wine would become my career and something I enjoy and feel privileged to be able to do to this day. Linda had faith in me where I did not have it in myself, she encouraged me and opened doors for me for many years to come.
Beyond being a mentor and a supporter she was also a friend. After she retired from the IWC in 2018 I would look forward to our Friday lunches that were always leisurely and always over a glass (or two) of wine. She will be missed and her impact on my life is immeasurable.