Paz Levinson loves studying. It's the part of a sommelier's job that she misses most since taking on a managerial role at Group Pic, the global hospitality group founded by world-renowned French chef Anne-Sophie Pic and her husband, David Sinapian. But since starting the position of chief executive sommelier, Levinson has been able to keep learning through her travels to wine regions and training trips to Pic’s restaurants in London, Singapore, Switzerland and an upcoming location in Dubai.
At Group Pic, which is centered around the hotel and restaurant at Maison Pic in Valence, France, Levinson works with 30-plus sommeliers and is involved with an operation that not only runs high-end restaurants but also food trucks, bistros and the approachable Daily Pic restaurants for everyday eats. She spends part of her time educating her team through tastings with winemakers and vineyard visits, but the executive position at Group Pic has also given her a creative outlet to make products and contribute ideas to the wine-and-food pairing program. In a sense, this has become her new form of studying.
Under Levinson's supervision, the restaurant group has attained Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence for two of its wine lists, at Anne-Sophie Pic restaurant in Valence, France, and in Lausanne, Switzerland. Although she has achieved much since arriving in France in 2013, Levinson attributes a lot of her success to her home country of Argentina, where she found her love of wine and studied to become a sommelier.
Levinson spoke to Wine Spectator's Shawn Zylberberg about her early years in Buenos Aires, uncorking rare wines in Paris and managing the drink lists at chef Pic's growing restaurant group.
Wine Spectator: How did you get your start in wine?
Paz Levinson: I was born and raised in Bariloche but started working in gastronomy in Buenos Aires in 2003. I was studying literature at the time and worked in restaurants to support myself. I worked at a high-end restaurant called Restó, for five years, where one of the cooks was also a sommelier. She saw that wine interested me and told me to follow a career as a sommelier. I studied to become a sommelier at Argentina's CAVE (Centro Argentino de Vinos y Espirituosas) and graduated in 2006.
WS: What was your "aha" moment bottle?
PL: The first day I started studying at CAVE, they welcomed us by opening a 1998 Dom Pérignon, and I thought, "Wow, this is incredible, and I've never had anything like it!" It was a shock, and it made me realize that wine could be this amazing.
WS: What led you to move out of Argentina and work abroad?
PL: Following my graduation from CAVE, I kept teaching there and in 2010 took part in the A.A.S. (Asociación Argentina de Sommeliers) Best Sommelier of Argentina competition and won. In 2012, I came in fourth at the A.S.I (Association de la Sommellerie Internationale) Best Sommelier of the Americas, and won that competition in 2015. The next year I came in fourth at the A.S.I Best Sommelier of the World competition.
I got to a ceiling in Argentina and wanted to try working outside the country. My husband had work in China, and we decided to go to Shanghai for six months, where I learned about tea and Chinese culture. I then decided to stay outside Argentina and moved to Paris, France, in 2013 because I wanted to learn a new language and prove I could work in wine service there, and also be close to the wine regions.
I thought leaving Argentina would distance me from everyone, but the opposite happened. I'm in very close contact with what happens in my home country and being farther away let me see that world better and where our products are on the global stage.
WS: What were your first jobs in Paris like?
PL: I came to Paris specifically to open a restaurant and manage a wine list for a group I worked with in China. It took me a year before I felt comfortable talking to clients in French, which is when I started working as an assistant sommelier at hotel Le Bristol's Epicure. [The restaurant won Wine Spectator's Grand Award in 2016.] There was a specific clientele of collectors. Every day we opened La Tâche or Romanée-Conti. I opened some crazy wines such as Romanée-Conti 2002, 1990 Pétrus in magnum and 1988 Henri Jayer.
After working at Epicure, I opened a restaurant called Virtus with chefs Chiho Kanzaki and Marcelo Di Giacomo, with the help of outside investors.
WS: How did your relationship with Anne-Sophie Pic start?
PL: Several years ago, I appeared in a documentary called En Busca de las Mujeres Chefs (The Goddesses of Food de Vérane Frédiani). Anne-Sophie saw it and wanted to work with me, so she called me in 2018 and asked if I would become her global head of wine, a role she created for me. I knew her because she is a famous chef; I never would have imagined that I'd get to work with her.
WS: What's the main difference between Group Pic's Best of Award of Excellence wine lists in France and Switzerland?
PL: Both restaurants have cellars with different stories. The Switzerland restaurant focuses on Swiss wines while the Valence house focuses on Rhône wines. The Valence house is so close to the Rhône Valley that sommeliers go to Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage on the weekends.
WS: Do you try to include Argentine wines in your program?
PL: We have great Argentine wines on every menu. But my job is to open worlds for my sommeliers, orient them to what I think we should have, and they come up with their own conclusions. My greater focus is on quality and any wine on that level. We did a wine dinner in 2018 with Sebastián Zuccardi and important Rhône producers. It was set as a battle between Malbec versus Syrah. So I try to do things not because I'm Argentinian but because I believe in quality wines and that we [Argentina] have a wine to show the world. And we can't have a wine menu without Argentina’s best producers. I don’t want people to think because I'm Argentinian, I push these wines. In the end, I make sure people are happy with what I serve.
WS: Do you oversee other beverages as well?
PL: Aside from wine, I am training and creating pairings with coffee, tea, sake and more. We create aromatic beverage recipes in the kitchen, non-alcoholic and alcoholic alike, and also approach sake, cocktail, coffee and tea pairings with the same approach as wine. I work in a group that doesn't say no to anything, and we put so much enthusiasm and energy so that everything is perfect. Last year, Anne-Sophie and I also created a gin together [Anne-Sophie Pic Gin, along with a "hybrid" spirit called Fractal 2.0].
WS: How do you approach teaching diners about wine?
PL: I like to teach without being obvious about it. It's about sharing and showing, and that's what I like the most. I want to show the client different worlds and if they're not open to it, maybe finding alternatives that will leave them satisfied.
WS: Which winemaker would you want to spend time with?
PL: Henri Jayer. He is considered the master of "new Burgundy," with more modern techniques such as destemming and temperature control. Jayer crafted sublime wines from his modest home with a red garage door. And his wines are sought after by the world's most important wine collectors. I would have loved to visit the vineyards with him and for him to tell me the history behind Cros-Parantoux.
WS: What wine regions interest you right now?
PL: I am interested in southwest France, specifically Irouléguy, Cahors and the whites of Jurançon. I also enjoy Burgenland in Austria since I love Blaufränkisch.
WS: Favorite wine-and-food pairing?
PL: Bodegas Tradición Fino Jerez 12 Years Old and sea urchin.