Tony Cha, 34, head sommelier at Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco, grew up in New York City, where his parents owned two restaurants, but it wasn't until Cha moved away to study hotel and restaurant management at Penn State University that an experience with the classic ribeye steak and California Cabernet pairing inspired him to take a wine class. After college, Cha moved to Colorado where he held food and beverage and restaurant management positions. A move to San Francisco in 2001 led him to the Grand Award-winning Rubicon, where Cha studied under the restaurant's wine director Larry Stone and earned his stripes as a sommelier before moving on to Michael Mina.
Wine Spectator: How did you become a sommelier?
Tony Cha: When I was working at 9545 Restaurant, in Telluride, Colorado, I was managing, and for the first time, buying the wines for the restaurant. Even though I would also sell wines to the diners, I didn't consider myself a sommelier, but I wanted to learn more about wine and knew I had to move to where I would be more exposed to the culture. I moved to San Francisco and landed a job at Rubicon. There I started my wine studies through the Court of Master Sommeliers, under Larry Stone's guidance.
WS: As head sommelier at Michael Mina in San Francisco, what are your main duties?
TC: My main duty is basically running the program. This includes tasting and buying wines, staff education, getting together with the chef to come up with food and wine pairings, maintaining the wine list and the multiple cellars, selling wine on the floor, and the list goes on and on.
WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at the restaurant?
TC: We have a section in the wine list called "Wines of Consequence" on which we offer wines from off the beaten track, from progressive producers. This section is a lot of fun because there are unusual wines that offer great value—Skouras Moscofilero from Greece or Domaine de Triennes Viognier Vin de Pays du Var Ste.-Fleur from Provence in France.
WS: When you open a bottle of wine for a guest, do you taste the wine?
TC: We taste every wine because we don't want a faulty wine going out. A lot of people know cork taint, but I don't think that many people know oxidation or brettanomyces as well. And sometime people feel uncomfortable refusing a wine if they taste it and it's flawed. It's just like food, and I know how it goes because I'm that person who won't send a dish back if it's slightly overcooked. We don't want that to happen with the wines at Michael Mina; we want the wines to be perfect.
WS: What is the hardest dish on the dinner menu at the restaurant to pair with wine, and what do you pair with it?
TC: The most difficult dish to pair is the American Kobe Beef and Foie Gras Shabu-Shabu with Dashi Broth, Watermelon Radish and Cilantro. The broth is a tough pairing with any beverage. In my opinion, the best pairing is an ice-cold Asahi beer, but for a wine pairing, I usually go with an earthy red such as the Albert Morot Beaune Teurons 2004 or an old Domaine Tempier Bandol. The dish is earthy, and gets richer as the foie gras and beef melt into the broth.
WS: What is your personal go-to wine-and-food pairing?
TC: One of Michael's signature dishes is the Ahi Tuna Tartare. It's mixed tableside with pine nuts, Bosc pears, Scotch Bonnet peppers, minced garlic, mint and sesame oil. I've had many opportunities to pair wines with this dish, but the go-to wine is a German Riesling Kabinett. Currently, we're pouring the Leitz Riesling Kabinett Rheingau Rüdesheimer Klosterlay 2006. There's a little spice in the dish, so the light sweetness in the Riesling is a great counterbalance to the spice, and the acidity of the wine refreshes your palate, making you want another bite.
WS: What is your favorite wine region?
TC: I'm going to have to say what most other sommeliers would say—Burgundy. There is just something magical about these wines. When I taste a great bottle of Burgundy, it really moves me, because it has so much soul. Spending time in Burgundy makes it that much better as well. You get to taste with the friendliest winemakers and growers and to see the beautiful vineyards. The wines you taste start to make so much sense. I also love Champagne and German Rieslings.
WS: How many bottles do you have in your own personal cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
TC: I don't have many bottles in my cellar, maybe 20 cases or so. I have mostly Burgundy, Rhône, Champagne, some Bordeaux, German Rieslings and Italian wines. As a gift, I received a rare bottle of 1996 Jacques Selosse Champagne which I'll enjoy drinking sometime soon, or maybe down the road a bit.
WS: What are you drinking today, and what are laying down for tomorrow?
TC: Everyone has been going crazy over the 2005 red Burgundies, trying to buy as many as possible and drinking them as well. In my opinion, they're shutting down and are way too tannic to drink now, but they should be unbelievable down the road. I'm drinking the 2004s right now, and they're wonderful. The 2000 and 1997 reds Burgundies are drinking well, too.
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