At one of our restaurants, we host a monthly event called the Sommelier Showdown. Our Chefs cook up a brand new menu of five dishes and I do battle with fellow wine professionals (Sommeliers, Chefs, restaurant owners, brown baggers, I’m not picky) as we each try to select a wine that pairs best with each dish.
In a rather intuitive moment (some would say Counter Intuitive, but that’s a whole other blog), I realized that a number of the wines poured at Somm Showdowns are wines made by actual Sommeliers! Winemaking is, at its essence, all about farming. Certainly, there’s science, and marketing, and math in the equation (“there’s always math in the equation!” according to Master Mixologist Jason Asher, among others), but great wine starts in the vineyard. How on Mother Earth do these guys find the time to be both Master Sommeliers and fantastic farmers?
Greg Harrington was the youngest to ever pass the Master Sommelier test at age 26. He worked in all the major US foodie cities (NY, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, NOLA, Phoenix) for several big names, including Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. He found the wines of Walla Walla, Washington, particular earthy and balanced, yet displaying expressive, ageworthy fruit profiles. What was originally a retirement plan become a five year reality and Greg is nearing his tenth harvest at Gramercy Cellars. They produce 6000 cases annually of syrah, cabernet, rosé, tempranillo, mourvèdre, picpoul, viognier and a grenache blend called the Third Man. Across the board, the wines are rich yet elegant, dense yet nimble.
Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kimiji visited us at our flagship location to sell his first vintage of Miura chardonnay from the California Central Coast in 2000 and recently returned to introduce his new(ish) project from Spain, Clos Pissarra. Having left the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco to pursue winemaking full time in 1999, he is fully in charge of his direction and ambition. His wines are a full-fledged variety show – ’09 Miura pinot noir from Silacci Vineyard in California’s Santa Rita Hills region a showcase of high-toned vibrancy and a kaleidoscope of aromatics ranging from husky groundcherries to pickled strawberries, while the ’09 Miura pinot noir from nearby Gary’s Vineyard is, in one word (and yet in every sense), meaty. His expressions of Spain were no less intriguing – ’07 Clos Pissarra Artisan, a syrah/grenache blend from the Montsant region, was clearly Old World in nature, reminiscent of a cool vintage Saint Joseph from France, while the ’10 Clos Pissarra El Ramon, a mélange of cabernet sauvignon, carignan, grenache and syrah from the region of Priorat, had a New World bent, explosive fruit carrying notes of charred oak and black raspberry liqueur. Emmanuel also leads a pair of other projects in Spain (Arrels, Clos d’Oc) and California (Almvs, Antiqvs), because apparently being a Master Somm working in one winery on two continents isn’t enough for some people.
Raj Parr is co-owner/co-winemaker at Sandhi Wines. In his spare time, he oversees the wine progams of 19 restaurants in eight different states as the Wine Director of the Michael Mina Group. The Sandhi wines are as eclectic as Raj’s selections for the Mina Group – Burgundian in nature, but still true to the intense, vibrant fruit of the Santa Barbara vineyards he uses to create Sandhi chardonnay and pinot noir. Raj is one of the more influential Somms working in restaurants in the US, yet is constantly humbled by the winemaking process. Oh, he also co-authored the tome Secrets of the Sommeliers. The worst-kept secret being these cats are all massive overachievers, obviously.
There are others. Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey (who also owns Frasca in Boulder, Colorado, and a partnership with Chipotle to create the Pizzaria Locale chain in Denver, has wines from Friuli, Italy, under the Scarpetta label) (see: overachiever), Master Sommelier Richard Betts (Betts & Scholl wines from France, Australia, California and Spain, as well as Sombra mezcal and a new tequila, because, ditto) and perhaps my current favorite, Sommelier Paul Lato’s eponymous wines from Santa Rita Hills. Paul follows similar guidelines to the other Somm/Winemakers – small lot production, minimal winemaking intervention, hold true to the expression of the vineyard – but Paul has a stronger belief in intuitive winemaking, which takes us full circle. Like the old adage says, if you want something done right, you better get somebody with a Somm certificate and multiple jobs to do it.