Wine expert, educator
A former model with a growing reputation as a consultant and instructor in wine appreciation, Melba Allen-Buillard has worked for some of the most prestigious institutions in the French wine and food industry, including the Institut Vatel in Lyon, and the European Centre of International Hotel Management. She studied at the Université de Vin to become a Sommelier-Conseil (wine consultant) and is a member of the Union des Sommeliers de France and the Chaîne des Rotisseurs.
Born Melba Allen in Houston, Texas, on June 23, 1960, Allen-Buillard grew up in Galveston and the small Texas town of Shepherd with two half sisters and six half brothers. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) she said the family was poor; her mother was a housemaid and her father and stepfather were skilled manual workers. She attributed at least some of her success to the need to compete in such a large family. At the University of Houston she studied for a bachelor's degree in sociology and education and was a successful athlete on the track team alongside future Olympic star Carl Lewis. But Allen-Buillard's academic and track careers were cut short when, as she put it, she was "waylaid by modeling." She moved to Paris to pursue a modeling career in 1980 and worked for the fashion houses Jean-Louis Scherrer and Balmain.
At first Allen-Buillard was an unlikely candidate for a career in wine. She told CBB that until she moved to France she didn't even like wine, though she realized later that she didn't really know at the time what good wine was like. She was given an introduction by her French first husband and his parents, who took her to top Paris restaurants. She first realized she had a talent for "using her nose" when her then father-in-law offered her some wine without telling her what it was and asked her to smell it first. Her description of what she experienced surprised everyone, including herself.
On the advice of her mother-in-law, Allen-Buillard thought she might move into perfumery, but a chance encounter propelled her towards wine. One evening at a Paris restaurant she was knocked off her chair by a man who turned out to be a wine professional. They struck up a conversation and he asked her to try some wines. He was amazed by her ability to identify aromas and flavors, and by her memory for them, and asked her to visit CIDD, a wine learning center where he worked. At first Allen-Buillard pursued her new interest in wine as a hobby, attending "open house" events where wine experts open their cellars to other enthusiasts. She also took courses in the French language that were focused on the language of wine. But what began as something she described as an "expensive hobby" eventually became a career when Allen-Buillard joined CIDD as a translator of wine appreciation courses for English-speaking countries; she worked there until 1992.
Allen-Buillard told CBB that she "fell into" the educational and entrepreneurial side of wine appreciation mostly because she enjoys being with people and sharing her love for wine with them. She studied at the Université de Vin (University of Wine) at Suze la Rousse, France, earning the right to use the title "Sommelier Conseil." She also studied for a diploma at the London Wine and Spirit Educational Trust. Allen-Buillard has worked for prestigious institutions such as the Institut Vatel in Lyon and the European Centre of International Hotel Management in Paris. She told CBB that her aim as a teacher is to give people the information they need to be able to know what a wine fault is and how to recognize them; she emphasized that she did not want to start telling people "this [wine] is good, this is bad." Perhaps for this reason her entrepreneurial success has been as a consultant, organizing wine appreciation classes for professionals and amateurs.
Her first success as a wine entrepreneur was with her second husband, Michel Buillard, a French oenologue (wine expert) who worked at CIDD. Although they didn't meet until after she had left the organization, they were brought together as outside experts to run projects for CIDD and ran their own consultancy firm. They were soon hired by the Culinary Institute LeNôtre, in Houston, Texas, where Allen-Buillard set up the state's first wine institute, teaching wine and food appreciation and training future professionals. But despite the success of the Houston institute, the pair moved back to France, where Allen-Buillard began teaching at the university level at the Institut Vatel. Her professional courses at the European Centre of International Hotel Management are augmented with other activities, including organizing "wine and food pairing" dinners for travelers to Paris. These range from small-scale groups in wine bars to major events at Michelin starred restaurants. With her husband Michel Buillard she is involved in promoting one of his designs, the Oeno-sablier, an hour-glass spittoon used in wine tastings.
With a developing reputation as a wine expert in a fiercely competitive field, Allen-Buillard told CBB that what motivates her is a love of wine and the desire to share that love with others. In 2003 she was one of several African-American food and wine professionals chosen by travel company Discover Paris! to front Paris—A Culinary Delight, a food and wine tour aimed at African Americans. As a result of this work she was featured on the Food Network's program Recipe for Success in April 2004; she has also offered wine advice through an "Ask the Expert" column for the e-publication Elle.com. She is a member of the Union des Sommeliers de France and the Chaîne des Rotisseurs.
At a Glance …
Born Melba Allen on June 23, 1960, in Houston, Texas; married first husband (divorced); married Michel Buillard. Education: Attended University of Houston; earned diploma as Sommelier Conseil, Université de Vin, Suze la Rousse, France; attended London Wine and Spirit Educational Trust.
Career: Model, approximately 1980–88; CIDD (wine learning center), Paris, France, translator, 1988–92; wine consultant and teacher, for clients including Institut Vatel, Lyon, European Centre of International Hotel Management, Paris, and Culinary Institute LeNôtre, Houston, Texas, c. 1992–.
Memberships: Union des Sommeliers de France; Chaîne des Rotisseurs.
Addresses: Home—Burgundy region, France.
Houston Press, December 12, 2002.
"Houston's Oenophiles," HoustonWine, www.houstonwine.com/houston.htm (September 29, 2005).
Wells, Monique Y., "A Woman and Her Wine," Paris Woman Journal, www.pariswoman.com/paris/reports/woman_wine.htm (September 29, 2005).
"Wine and Food Pairing," Manstouch Travel Paris, manstouch.com/travel/wine-tasting-paris-003.html (September 29, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Melba Allen-Buillard on September 23, 2005.
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