Rajat Parr
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Rajat Parr

Carolyn Jung - July/August 2014

Food Arts presents the July/August 2014 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Rajat Parr, who despite growing up in a non–wine drinking culture, managed to develop such formidable tasting skills as to become not only wine director of the expansive Mina Group, but one of the most respected sommeliers on the planet as well.

Now, after nearly two decades of dedication to wine service, the 41 year old, Calcutta-born Parr is turning his attention full bore to the delicate craft of winemaking. Although he remains wine director for Mina’s 20 establishments nationwide, Parr no longer works the floor at any of them. Instead, his feet are firmly planted in the cool cellars of Santa Barbara’s Sandhi wines, where he crafts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in his favored Burgundian style. Sandhi, which means “collaboration” in Sanskrit, is a joint venture founded in 2010 with winemaker Sashi Moorman and Charles Banks, former managing partner of Jonata and Screaming Eagle.

“Even now, it’s still kind of funny to hear the word ‘winemaker’ used with my name,” Parr says. “The change is refreshing. It’s also a big challenge. For so long, I was known as someone pouring and judging the wine. To be on the other side now is a humbling experience.” In addition to Sandhi, Parr also makes his own Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at nearby Domaine de la Côte and at his small winery in Burgundy, Maison L’Orée.

It’s a path he never envisioned, for he was always intent on being a chef. That is, until he enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he took a mandatory wine class that ended up changing his life. Even now, he remembers sitting in class, swirling, sipping, and pondering, “How can grapes produce something so profound?”

After graduating, he sent out a slew of résumés. When San Francisco’s Rubicon restaurant asked him to come for an interview, Parr flew cross-country on a one-way ticket, so intent was he on getting a job there. Who could blame him, when that stellar wine program was being overseen by the illustrious Master Sommelier Larry Stone? The only position open at the time was that of a food runner. Parr took it and worked his way up in five months to become one of Stone’s assistants.

“He’s dedicated and so gifted,” says Stone, now estates director for Huneeus Vintners, which includes Quintessa in Napa Valley and Flowers on the Sonoma Coast. “He’s really helped engender a whole movement to more classic winemaking in California.”

After Rubicon, Parr went to work at Fifth Floor (now Dirty Habit). When Michael Mina left as executive chef of Acqua to start his own restaurant group in 2002, he asked Parr to be a part of it. And when Parr wanted to branch out on his own to open a wine bar, Mina immediately joined the project and expanded its scope into a full-fledged French-inspired restaurant, RN74, named for the highway that runs through Burgundy. For Mina, it was a no-brainer to do so, because he says he learned long ago that it pays to bet on people with great passion.

“I’ve been around many somms who were really talented,” Mina says. “But I’ve never worked with someone like Raj, who could make me and the staff understand wine in such a thoughtful way. It’s the relationships he has with winemakers, the approaches he takes with his somms and customers, and his overall knowledge. He’s the full package.”