Timothy Nishimoto, 45, has dueling careers: one as the owner of a successful wine bar in Portland, Ore., the other as a member of Pink Martini, a jazz and Latin fusion band. Nishimoto began working in restaurants at the age of 15. After graduating from California State University at Long Beach in 1990, he moved to Portland, where he worked for various local restaurants, including the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence-winning Papa Haydn. In 1999, he joined one of the local Wild Oats natural food stores as the wine department manager and spent six years honing his skills as a wine taster and developing a deep passion for working with wine.
During this period, he also performed part-time with Portland-based Pink Martini for nearly a decade, eventually joining the band full-time in 2003. In 2005, looking for greater flexibility in his schedule as his commitments to music increased, he jumped on the chance to buy one of the city’s first wine bars, located in the Pearl District. Now called Vino Paradiso Wine Bar & Bistro, it offers a smart 220-bottle selection and has earned Wine Spectator' s Award of Excellence since 2007. Nishimoto spoke with Wine Spectator about how he splits his time between wine and music, what he drinks on the road and what he looks forward to when he comes back home.
Wine Spectator: What’s the first wine that caught your attention?
Timothy Nishimoto: I was probably 21, and I had a friend who was a little bit older and had been drinking wine for many years. He opened a bottle of the Grgich Hill Chardonnay, I want to say it was an '82. I had mediocre wines before that, but that was my epiphany.
WS: Which job was the most influential in developing your interest in and knowledge about wine?
TN: The most influential job was my job at Wild Oats as the manager of the wine department. Every week all the wine managers in the Portland area would get together and go through the approval process. It was great for me to sit in a room with seven other people with a common interest and taste wine for four hours straight.
WS: How do you balance your time between running your wine bar and performing with Pink Martini?
TN: You would think that having this kind of schedule would make someone insane, but being a Libra I need balance. If I’m always working at the restaurant and stressed out and only doing food and only doing wine, it would drive me nuts. And if I was only performing and always on the road, that would drive me nuts too.
WS: Do you take wine with you when you are on tour?
TN: I always do. I don't ever take a wine on tour that I can get wherever I'll be. Lemelson Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Thea's Selection 2006 and Cowhorn Viognier Applegate Valley 2007 were my two choices this [past tour]. Balance is a huge thing for me, and [the Lemelson] strikes a great balance of just enough of those mushroom, barnyard and smoky notes, blended with typical '06 ripe fruit, and a beautiful, elegant mouthfeel. Cowhorn is in southern Oregon, in the Rogue Valley, where the climate is totally different than in the North Willamette Valley. It's often desertlike and arid. Cowhorn makes my favorite whites—all biodynamically grown grapes—from down there, and this Viognier is just delicious. Rich, round with honeysuckle and delicate quince flavors, and a surprising acidity.
WS: What do you pack the bottles in so they don't break in your luggage?
TN: I recently started using WineSkins, which are nothing short of brilliant for travelers. If you haven't seen them, they're wine-bottle-shaped plastic bags, prestuffed with bubble wrap. I used to wrap bottles in a sad swaddling of clothes, then a plastic bag in case they broke.
WS: What’s in your personal cellar?
TN: I like my cellar to have wines for any mood that I’m going to be in. I love white Burgundy, German Riesling and a good Austrian Grüner. I also like having things that are older on hand for special occasions or if I’m just by myself.
WS: Do you have a special bottle in your cellar that you are aging for such an occasion?
TN: I have a 1970 Lafite that I almost brought to the French Laundry with me when we were in Napa in October. It was my birthday, but I felt like it was something that I should probably not travel with and then drink. I have a feeling that it might not even be ready yet.
WS: Is there a food and wine pairing or a favorite dish at your restaurant that you look forward to eating when you return from a long tour?
TN: It’s difficult because my chef changes the menu often, but I cannot wait to get home and have his margherita pizza and a good white. I love Savennières. We usually have one on the list.
WS: It’s interesting that you picked a white wine to pair with that. Can you tell me why you like a white wine with your margherita pizza?
TN: It’s the acidity in the tomatoes. People think red wine with red sauce, but white goes better, I think. The acidity in the tomatoes makes it difficult for the red wines. You know the red wines are pretty darn fruity. And there is something about that Savennières and margherita pizza … they just sing together.
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