The restaurant industry is filled with characters, running the gamut from noble to criminal. I have worked with nearly all of them.
Usually, the noble and creatively eccentric geniuses in the business are the ones who succeed. Chefs are like movie stars and are often very jealous of their image in the press. They should be, since their success in business often depends upon the kind of press and the awards that they receive.
Sommeliers and managers are less the objects of media attention and also therefore less competitive with each other. We often share ideas and experiences. In San Francisco, we are very lucky in that we can get together frequently and share wines.
When I was at Rubicon, I always welcomed sommeliers to participate in our weekly wine tastings, which were usually conducted blind. The real purpose of blind tasting is not to impress others by performing the hat trick of naming the exact region, producer and vintage of a wine, but to be able to hone one's tasting abilities to accurately assess the quality and evolution of all wines. You could see that some people were naturally gifted, while others had to take a more logical approach, but nearly everyone could ultimately do well.
I have been very fortunate to work with and help train some of the best sommeliers and tasters, such as Rajat Parr of Michael Mina, Chris Meeske of Patina and Mission Wines, Alan Murray of Masa’s, Sara Floyd of Jorge Ordonez Fine Wines, Rob Renteria of Martini House, Tony Cha of Michael Mina, Ed Ruiz of Incanto, Jason Smith and Serafin Alvarado, both formerly of Trotter's, and Ralph Hersom, formerly of Moose's and Le Cirque.
I have also been able to learn from people like Daniel Johnnes of Daniel Boulud's group, Tim Kopec of Veritas, Bernie Sun of Jean-Georges, Rebecca Chapa of Rubicon Estate and Michael Bonadies of Drew Nieporent's Myriad Restaurant Group. And among the great tasters (though not sommeliers) who first encouraged me were Darrell Corti of Sacramento and winemaker André Tchelistcheff. What they did in a few words probably was a brief forgetful moment to them, but to me meant the course of my life.
It is hard to explain how close-knit the circle of sommeliers can be, even at the national and international level. I have known and enjoyed the company of sommeliers not only from Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco where I have worked, but also from Japan, New York, Los Angeles, France, Italy and Germany. I have learned from the previous generation, such as Yves Durand (former head of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale in the United States), as well as from contemporaries like David Gordon and Karen King and from those younger than myself, like Richard Betts at Little Nell, Bobby Stuckey at Frasca and Paul Roberts of French Laundry and Per Se.
One of my favorite stories is from Limón, a Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco that was started by a group of cooks, busboys and food runners who worked at Rubicon. When they worked for Rubicon, they were always fascinated by the wine component and asked me a lot of questions. One day a food runner, Rigo Quinonez, asked if he could join in and taste wine with our serious weekly sommelier study group. At first he didn't want to speak or give his opinion, but after several months of training and study, he did so well that at times he outperformed some of the more senior members of the group. When he helped to open Limón, he became the sommelier. In its first year, Limón got a great rating by the local critics for the food, the service and the extremely creative wine list.
Does anyone out there have a blind-tasting success story of their own or an experience in a restaurant where the sommelier shared a new kind of wine with you and changed your drinking habits?
Ola Vedin — Uppsala, Sweden — January 24, 2007 7:19am ET
John Poggemeyer — Cleveland, OH — January 24, 2007 8:52am ET
Kirk R Grant — Ellsworth, ME — January 24, 2007 10:34am ET
Bernard Kruithof — San Antonio, Texas — February 4, 2007 4:12pm ET
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