Wolfgang Puck, 57, is an Austria-born chef whose name is synonymous with California cuisine. Classically trained in Europe, Puck arrived in the States in 1973; inside of 10 years, he'd managed to open what remains one of Los Angeles' defining restaurants, Spago. It has since been relocated from Hollywood to Beverly Hills, but remains the flagship for Puck's massive multinational food service company that encompasses high-end dining (Spago, Cut), the mid-level market (Wolfgang Puck Cafés across the country) and the fast-food niche (Wolfgang Puck Express, with stores also scattered throughout the country). His reach extends to retail food and kitchen equipment, catering, cookbooks and television, including a recurring role as himself on the series Las Vegas. (He has also appeared annually as part of the Four Chefs seminar at Wine Spectator's Wine Experience.)
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Wolfgang Puck: I lived in France when I was 18 years old, and I tasted the best Burgundies. I had no idea at that time that wine could be so good. I would go to all the little towns in the Côte d'Or … when I was working at Baumanière, the sommelier took me to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When I first got there I said, "It's only stones! How can anything grow there?" He explained to me the taste of the terrior and I could really taste it, the earthiness, the stones.
WS:What were some of your early experiences in the United States with wine and food?
WP: I came to New York to open La Goulue, and then I wanted to work in a three-star restaurant. I went to see Charles Masson at La Grenouille and he had a friend who needed a chef in Indianapolis. I had lived in Monte Carlo, where there is a big auto race, and in Indianapolis, they have the 500—it was because of the auto racing that I went. [Laughing] We used to go to restaurants, and to find a Mouton-Cadet was a stretch. Most of the restaurants had just Hearty Burgundy and Chablis. At that time, everybody ate dinner with whiskey sours or Scotch.
WS: What was your next move?
WS: I went to California, first at Ma Maison. In 1982, we opened Spago in Hollywood.
WS: How has Spago's wine program evolved over the years?
WP: For the first 12 years, the general manager or maitre d' did the wine list with me, but as we opened more and more restaurants it became more and more difficult. We hired [the late] Mike Bonaccorsi in the mid '90s. He was our first sommelier.
WS:Is there someone in your company who oversees wines for the whole business?
WP:No, but I give some direction when I can. For example, at Chinois I'm telling [manager] Bella [Lantsman] that we have to beef up our Austrian Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. I believe Austrian white wines are world-class, and they go very well with the food at Chinois, which is a little spicy, a little sweet and a little sour.
WS:What are some of your best memories involving wine?
WP: We've done a lot of lunches and dinners with great wines from all over the world. We've done 100 years of Château d'Yquem. We did Château Latour back to 1860, the pre-phylloxera era. We did all the best 1945 Bordeaux. I did a 50th birthday party in Cleveland … for the main course we had Scottish pheasant with a 1900 Margaux, a 1947 Château Cheval-Blanc with cheese and a 1929 Château d'Yquem with dessert. The Cheval-Blanc is my favorite wine of all time. I don't know if I have tasted any wine more amazing than that. Maybe a few vintages of La Tâche, but it's hard to say.
WS: Have you ever thought of getting into the wine business yourself?
WP: Actually, before Mike [Bonaccorsi] bought his winery, we almost bought a winery up in Sonoma, next to Rochioli. It didn't work out, because we would have had to buy a million-dollar wine inventory that they had, and I didn't like the wine. I said to Mike, "I'm not drinking it, I know you're not drinking it, and we're not going to sell it, so what are we going to do with it?" [Laughing] But I would like to make some really first-class wine, even if it's just 500 cases [a year]. Manfred Krankl [of Sine Qua Non] is a friend, another Austrian guy, and to make wine like him would be amazing.
WS: Do you have Sine Qua Non wines on the list at your restaurants?
WP: Whenever we can. … We might get six bottles at a time; you can sell them pretty fast. There's enough money out there today … that people who want to can try it.
WS: In March 2007 you announced an animal welfare and environmental initiative for your entire business. Will this also extend to your wine program in any way?
WP: I think so. What's interesting is that in Europe, a lot of people are farming biodynamically already. [Spago sommelier] Kevin O'Connor is actually working on putting together a whole page of biodynamic wines [on our wine list].
WS: Is there a "dream" wine you'd love to have for a wine list or your own consumption?
WP: To have had the 1900 Margaux and the '47 Cheval-Blanc, that's as good as it gets.
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