Rajat Parr: sommelier making his own wine.
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The Tastemakers

Jeffery Lindenmuth - April 2010

Influential sommeliers are heading to the vineyards to produce wines highly compatible with food and expressive of their terroirs.

Many wines come adorned with gold medals, critics' scores, and third-party environmental certifications. However, on the wine list of Adour Alain Ducasse in The St. Regis New York, a few selections wear a more discreet badge of honor, the tiny icon of a corkscrew next to their name. Usually numbering about half a dozen selections, these wines, according to Thomas Combescot, who composed the list alongside Adour chef creator Alain Ducasse, comprise the Sommelier Grand Cru Winemaker Selection--wines specifically crafted by sommeliers.

While sommeliers and restaurateurs have long leapt at the opportunity to create their own wine blends or house custom labels as points of differentiation, Combescot is careful to point out certain distinctions: ".I have created wine blends, but I don't believe I am a winemaker. The program at Adour aims to promote the strong relationship between the grower and those who make wine from A-to-Z, which is very different than just playing with test tubes of wine," says Combescot.

To raise their profile on the list and encourage tasting, at Adour all of the sommelier-crafted wines are offered by the glass. Parr Selection Chardonnay Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Santa Rita Hills 2007 ($22 a glass) is a project of Mina Group wine director Rajat Parr with Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. Candela Pinot Noir Monterey 2007 ($24 a glass) is made by Emmanuel Kemiji, M.S., who left his position as wine director of The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco to focus on his Miura vineyards and Candela wines. Soon to be included, a Greek wine from Ducasse corporate chef/sommelier Gérard Margeon and Domaine Le Clos des Fées from the Roussillon, crafted by former sommelier Hervé Bizeul, whom Combescot considers to be the first sommelier-gone-winemaker.

At C-House, chef Marcus Samuelsson's Chicago fish and chop house, beverage manager Lucas Henning offers a "Tribute to the Masters" section, 10 wines made or imported by individuals who hold a Master of Wine (M.W.) or Master Sommelier (M.S.) title. Included are the Cabernet Sauvignon of California's Rubicon Estate, with Larry Stone M.S. as general manager; a Riesling from Betts & Scholl, with Richard Betts M.S., former sommelier of Montagna at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado, as a founding partner; and Scarpetta Pinot Grigio, the creation of Bobby Stuckey M.S., formerly of The French Laundry in Yountville, California.

These lists are more than a fraternal show of support for winemaking sommeliers. It's safe to say that sommelier-crafted wines share some powerful themes, among them a sense of place, varietal veracity, and, above all, a superb affinity for food.

"Sommeliers are always working with and discussing wine with the mindset of ‘does it go with food?' I think these sommeliers approach wine with the belief that it should express terroir and also be food-friendly. This is why we often see the level of alcohol and use of oak go down for these wines," Combescot observes.

The sommelier winemaker also brings a breadth of tasting experience that is seldom matched by conventional winemakers. "When you look at M.S. and M.W. winemakers, it's interesting to note that these people have usually tasted hundreds of thousands of wines from around the world," says Henning. Unlike winemakers who may become entrenched in a single region, sommelier winemakers seem to freely import styles and winemaking techniques from around the globe. Sometimes, their naïveté is liberating.

"I'm not in love with Chardonnay, but with Burgundy and Meursault and Chablis," says Kevin O'Connor, former sommelier at Wolfgang Puck's Spago and cofounder of LIOCO wines with partner Matt Licklider. In their quest to reveal California terroir, LIOCO focuses on an extensive range of Chardonnay, all made without fining or filtering, often employing wild yeasts, and always with no oak whatsoever. "As a sommelier I was intrigued by the idea and the reality of terroir, that the wine speaks of where it comes from and that a varietal's job is to translate the character of where it's grown. I was perplexed that the wine in America had not evolved that way," says O'Connor.

While O'Connor quickly grew bored with the physical winery, he was drawn to the vineyard. Capitalizing on his name and connections established as a sommelier, O'Connor was granted enviable access to fruit from California vineyards like Durell, Heintz Ranch, and Hanzell.

While his time is now spent in the vineyards, O'Connor's influence reaches more restaurants than ever; LIOCO's vibrant, low alcohol, fresh Chardonnays are sold primarily on-premise. "I had the best job in the world, and the sommelier will always be in me. But you can read a book in a readerly way or in a writerly way. I always tasted wines in a writerly way," he explains.

Pinot Noir proseletizer Daniel Johnnes, sommelier and wine director for Daniel Boulud's Dinex Group, not surprisingly makes that grape the object of his inaugural winemaking efforts. "I wanted to see if I could make wine that is really good to drink. It may not win any awards, but I wanted wine that gives a lot of pleasure. My training as a sommelier made me love wines that are best with food and accessible early," says Johnnes.

With the guidance of Oregon winemaker Eric Hamacher, Johnnes created a pair of Johnnes & Company wines from Oregon's Seven Springs Vineyard, one a Seven Springs Whole Cluster 2007, with a modest 12.3 percent alcohol, the other a 13 percent alcohol cuvée, with most of the wine coming from destemmed fruit, fermented in barrels at different temperatures. "Part of the mission was to see why wines were so powerful and high in alcohol. I thought I could make a wine that is more balanced and more to my palate. I wanted to try to make a Burgundian style Oregon Pinot," says Johnnes.

Burgundy itself was not far off. For his third wine, Johnnes traveled to Burgundy to secure fruit for a 2007 Gevrey-Chambertin. Made under the tutelage of Frédéric Mugnier of Domaine Jacques- Frédéric Mugnier, the wine is delicate, with red berry, floral, spicy, and earthy aromas. "It required a tremendous amount of sorting. I threw out 40 percent of the grapes, which was disappointing and expensive, but also fascinating." The small production wines are available in several Boulud restaurants and retail for around $50 at Sherry-Lehmann in New York City.

Kevin Zraly, former sommelier at Windows on the World and author of Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, is also no stranger to viticultural adversity. On a property adjacent to his home in New Paltz, New York, Zraly used his own hands to plant 600 vinifera vines--Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Riesling. For four years, they have been plagued by frigid cold, damp harvests, and Japanese beetles that nearly destroyed the vineyard.

Beginning in his early 20s, Zraly has planted five vineyards in as many locations, motivated by a visceral need to grow something. His challenge is made that much tougher by treating this vineyard only organically. So, despite the ongoing financial loss, he continues to research, and plant, and prune. "These are the grapes that should work; I know the climatic conditions, the wind, and one day I want to be able to sit back and have a bottle of wine from my own grapes," says Zraly.

Despite the struggles, Zraly says the process is important for anyone who wants to be a sommelier or educator. "I think there is only one way to open your own restaurant. That is to first be a busboy, a dishwasher, a manager, a maître d'. The criteria for me as a sommelier are the same. You are not there just to pull the cork out. You need an understanding from grape to wine."

Parr, who began Parr Selections as a simple negoçiant operation in 2004, saw his aspirations and involvement in winemaking grow irrepressibly with each passing year. "I soon decided that it was useless to buy finished barrels of wine, because no one shared my same vision. The next step was to make the grape picking decisions. Then I needed my own vineyard, in order to manage the wine from start to finish," explains Parr, noting that beginning with 2008 "Selections" is dropped from the label to underscore his new role as the Parr winemaker.

Parr's vineyard selection and winemaking follow three tenets: old vines; self-rooted, rather than conventional grafted plants; whole-cluster fermentations.

Parr's Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir have won favor with sommeliers. Of the 1,000 cases he produced in 2009, about 95 percent will go to restaurants, mostly in New York City. "It's wine made for the table. Fellow sommeliers love it because it's European in style," explains Parr. In fact, at 12.5 percent alcohol, his 2009 Chardonnay may have less alcohol than many French versions. "We want to make wines that are fresh and food-friendly. I'm not here to compete or say I'm better," he avers. "But I will try to make these wines, if only for the reason that it's not being done enough."