Winery Owner and Designer André Hueston Mack Finds Success In Embracing What Makes Him Different

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Listing all of André Hueston Mack’s accolades is, well, exhausting

The San Antonio, TX native currently owns and operates seven businesses (and counting) on a single street in Brooklyn where he and his sons and wife, Phoebe, also live, while simultaneously running a winery across the country in Oregon—Maison Noir Wines. He authored a culinary coloring book in 2014 (with plans to create 19 more) and a memoir in 2019, 99 Bottles: A Black Sheep’s Guide to Wines.

I’m overwhelmed just writing up that intro. 

Indeed, Mack is a special breed of human who can seemingly do it all. After quitting a job in finance out of college that was (understandably) unfulfilling, he pursued a career in wine, working at the chic French Laundry in California before moving to New York in 2004 and landing the coveted head sommelier position at Thomas Keller’s new restaurant at the time, Per Se. 

But once again, Mack craved more. Ultimately, he left Per Se to start his own winery in Oregon in 2007. As a scrappy entrepreneur, he honed his design skills to make the labels for his wines and then began designing and selling cheeky wine-related t-shirts to boot. 

Suffice to say, I needed to speak to this man. And lucky for me, Mack was down to chat. 

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

What brought you to the world of wine in the first place? 

Wine wasn’t something that my parents drank. It’s not like my father or my grandfather had a wine cellar. The whole way I got to wine in the first place was through watching old episodes of Frasier after quitting my job in finance. Quitting that job was probably one of the greatest things for me. I took some time and spent a lot of time on the sofa, taking naps, in and out. And then Frasier would be on. These two pompous brothers really made me think that wine was kind of fun and made me feel like I was missing out on being a part of it. 

I learned so much from watching the show. I learned that 1961 Bordeaux was a coveted vintage, plus it was just really funny. It was a mind-blowing thing for me! I’ve always thought that the greatest foil to pretension is humor. And from watching the show, I could arm myself with comedic antidotes, which gave me the courage to walk into a wine shop for the first time. And then that was it! 

At the height of your career as the Head Sommelier at Per Se in New York, you quit your job to open up your winery across the country. Why did you make that choice? 

I quit to strike out on my own. I wanted to continue to learn about wine, but I also wanted to scratch a couple of other itches. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and have a little bit more creativity in my life. Up until 2004, I would have never described myself as being creative. 

It came from work colleagues that kept asking me if I had gone to school for graphic design. That was because we had a meeting at the beginning of each shift right before service, and we had a printed-out page dedicated to beverages with whatever notes we wanted to put on it. So I just started playing with graphics, text box, all kinds of stuff. It was pretty raw, all Microsoft Word, not InDesign or anything. It’s just funny how they were all enamored by it, and I was like, “Oh, no, I’m just messing around.”

I never knew I was creative, but I wanted to explore a little bit of that, so I had to leave this all-consuming job while also continuing to learn about wine through a different lens of being able to make it. It scratched that itch of wanting to be more creative and to be an entrepreneur.

I was just like, I’m gonna do this. You have to have the audacity or the gumption to be like, “I’m gonna quit this job, and I’m gonna go do my own thing.” And not ask anybody’s permission.

Aside from designing these pre-shift meeting beverage pages, how did you become a bonafide designer?

The design part of it just came from a need. I had a long conversation with a graphic designer to design my wine labels, and they sent me an estimate of $25,000 per label. And I was like, oh, shit, I don’t have $25,000 for corks! For bottles! For fruit! 

In the same way that I taught myself about wine, I taught myself about graphic design. I just dug in. From when I got off work to three or four in the morning, I sat behind a computer screen and dove in.

I put myself out in the world, and that has opened up a world of opportunities for me. I feel like I’ve gotten this far in life by saying yes. 

Where did the name Maison Noir originate?

We were talking about nicknames at Per Se, and there was one wine in particular there called Black Chicken. “Black chicken” was code for wine from back in the day on farms when wine was illegal. So somebody said they should call me Black Chicken, but I didn’t really like that. Someone else suggested Black Sheep. I said no, but I’d like it more if it was translated to French. So that’s when my peers started to call me Mouton Noir, which translates to Black Sheep. We had to change the name of the winery to Maison Noir because of a legal battle with Mouton Rothschild.

Being a black sheep in the wine industry seems to be something you embraced throughout your career and has carried over to not only the name of your winery but to its entire brand identity. 

In general, in the wine business, there are not a lot of people who look like me who do what I do. But for me, I never looked at that as a disadvantage. If I did, I would just be angry all the time. I realized that I got to choose how I wanted to feel about that.

Black and white just felt right to me. And it stands out from any wine label that you really see, so that was something I ran with. 

The whole thing is about embracing what makes you different. That’s what sets you apart from everybody else. I don’t need to wear an ascot to know anything about wine. Generally, anytime I walk into the room, most people think I’m the last person there that knows anything about wine. But I love to operate from that perspective. I challenge the status quo just by showing up. But in warfare, that’s a great thing, right? They don’t see you coming. That part has always been fun for me.

How did the t-shirt design side of Maison Noir factor into all of this? 

I was always a t-shirt guy. When I worked at Red Lobster, I scanned a bag with the Red Lobster logo on it, put X’s in the eyes, and changed the “Red” to “Dead.” I put the design on t-shirts to wear during an employee meeting. Part of what helped me learn design was creating t-shirts. 

I grew up going to the skate shop, listening to punk rock and hip hop. That was how I developed this parody way of seeing the world when I walked down the street. I was so immersed in the world of wine that my brain was competing. I’d see a Burger King commercial and think, “Burger King… Oh, Barolo King. Barolo is the king of Italian wine.” 

That’s just how I operate. Then I just started to do these designs based on those ideas and put them on t-shirts. I did way more work on t-shirts than on wine labels.

So your t-shirt designs are an extension of how you’re poking fun at the wine industry with wit and humor. 

Yeah, absolutely. And there’s this sense of being irreverent! I wanted to bring my worlds together. What I realized was that, with a lot of my colleagues, no matter what they looked like, hip hop raised them too. And how we would talk and the slang we would come up with to talk about wines was all so interesting to me. That’s why I always talk about merging a subculture of wine.

There weren’t really any wine t-shirts out there that were cool. There were the “Wine Diva” t-shirts with the rhinestones on them, but there wasn’t anything from our perspective. The fun part for me was knowing that I had something to offer this industry, which I thought was going to be through making wine, but I realized that it was through design.

The wine industry didn’t take too kindly to me at the beginning; they had never been parodied before. But this is how I show love. I’m enamored with wine, and where I come from, this is how you immortalize that.

What fuels your drive to keep pursuing the next thing?

I’m constantly asking myself, “Wouldn’t that be cool if…?” and then doing it. I’m always trying to connect the dots of my world.