Sommelier Talk: Paul Roberts

The wine director for the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning French Laundry talks Texas, beef and making the switch from beer to his favorite Brunello
Oct 24, 2007

Paul Roberts, 35, is the wine director for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group located in Yountville, Calif. Roberts joined the group in 2003 and now oversees the wine programs at its six restaurants, including the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning French Laundry, the Best of Award of Excellence-winning Per Se and two Award of Excellence-winning Bouchons.

Born and raised in Houston, Roberts had little interaction with wine until college. But since his first wine class in 1995, he has taken the accelerated path to his position with Keller's group. Along the way, he worked in retail and spent four years as the wine director at Houston's Café Annie. In 2002, Roberts successfully completed his master sommelier examination, passing with honors.

Wine Spectator: What first got you interested in wine?
Paul Roberts: It was my junior year at University of Texas and there was a wine class taught on Thursday nights. It seemed like a good way to learn something and to meet girls. The first class we tasted an old Rioja gran reserva, and the light bulb went off. Immediately the world of wine fascinated me and I began to read about wine constantly and taste as much as I could. The transition from keg beer to Côtes du Rhône was relatively easy for me.

WS: How did you become a sommelier?
PR: In 1996 I was doing marketing and public relations consulting in Austin after graduating from college … and I hated it. One day I quit my job and moved back to Houston to live with my parents. After a trip to New Orleans where I spent all the money that I had in the bank, a newsletter for a great wine shop in Houston appeared in the mail. They were looking for part time help and it felt that this was a sign for me. At this same time, a close friend needed some assistance as a sommelier. I jumped at the chance and began working days in the wine shop and nights as a part-time sommelier.

WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine lists that you assemble for the various restaurants?
PR: Value is very important for our whole restaurant group. We want to be able to provide a multitude of experiences. At the French Laundry and Per Se, we have focused wine pages in the front of the wine list that give myself and all of the sommeliers the chance to write unique notes about some of our favorite wines, new discoveries or small producers, and we make sure that these wines are in different price points. We also have a highly recommended wine in each major section on the list. They serve as a guide for our guests and our captains. They also have varying price points, so our guests have options. We don't simply want to have expensive wines.

For the Bouchons, we really to try drive value in our carafe [or by-the-glass] programs. We are looking for a variety of styles and varietals for our carafes, so guests can have the classic bistro experience of great food and quality wine. This includes a large selection of the great classic wines of France. The wines are offered at a variety of prices and volumes (a glass, half-liter carafe, bottle, liter carafe), so guests can have just as much wine as they would like and in a variety of prices. If we can find a great glass of wine which can sell for $6, we are excited to get our guests to try this.

Ad Hoc, our newest restaurant, is all about value. We decided to have a price ceiling and keep the list small and focused. Yet we still manage to cover nine countries with 40 selections. It is my job and the job of our sommeliers to constantly be on the look for new wines which can be given to our guests for great pricing.

WS: What is your personal go-to wine-and-food pairing?
PR: This is a tough question. I would say that one of my favorite combinations—and there are a lot—would be grilled meat, say rib-eye or essentially bisteca alla Fiorentina, seasoned with sea salt, olive oil, garlic, and balsamic, served with a Brunello di Montalcino. The aroma of grilled meat with the earthy notes of a Brunello is a home run for me. Maybe because I am a boy from Texas … I love my beef … but this pairing is one that really sings to me. Sangiovese is one of the great grapes of the world, and I love the flexibility which it offers at the table.

WS: What is your favorite wine region?
PR: I know that this probably sounds like a broken record of so many other sommeliers, but Burgundy fascinates me. The thousand-year history, the difficult growing conditions, the intellectual challenge of learning producers and vineyard sites and the ethereal nature of the wines produced make this a region close to my heart.

I now live in Napa Valley and the local regions have started to fascinate me. The Cabernet-based wines from southern Napa in Coombsville are some of my favorites. And more and more, I'm serving Pinot Noirs grown in Anderson Valley and around Occidental in the Sonoma Coast at home.

WS: How many bottles do you have in your own personal cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
PR: I have about 1,500. We are cutting that back now, because my wife, Katie, is expecting our first child and she has put me on a wine budget. She and I are huge fans of the Brunellos of Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona and we probably own more of this than anything else. We are also particularly fond of Modicum, the Cabernet blend that Thomas Keller and I have worked on for the last few years. It's a blend that we made for the restaurants and has a special spot in my heart, because we collaborated together on the project.

WS: What are you drinking today, and what are you laying down for tomorrow?
PR: We are drinking a good selection of Barberas and cru Beaujolais. We are aging more and more Napa Valley Cabernet and red Burgundy. I have also lately been lying down more of the great Chardonnays from California to see how they age. Lately we have had some older Brewer-Clifton, Ojai and Kongsgaard and they have been extraordinary.

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