Sommelier Talk: Rajat Parr

The Grand Award-winning sommelier and wine director for San Francisco's Michael Mina draws on experiences from India to Burgundy to England
Mar 5, 2007

Born and raised in Calcutta, India, Rajat Parr, 34, attended high school there before making his way to the United States, where he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., graduating in 1996.

Parr started on the sommelier path by apprenticing alongside master sommelier and Wine Spectator Online guest blogger Larry Stone at San Francisco's Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning Rubicon. Parr started there as a food runner, but was assistant sommelier after just six months.

In 1999, he took the position of head sommelier at San Francisco's Fifth Floor, where he eventually earned a Grand Award for the wine list he helped create there.

In 2003, Parr joined the Michael Mina restaurant group as wine director, where he is now responsible for the wine programs at all nine of Mina's restaurants, including the flagship Michael Mina in San Francisco, winner of the Grand Award in 2005.

Wine Spectator: What first got you interested in wine?
Rajat Parr: When I was at hotel school in India, I read a lot about wine, but never tasted any. My first experience was in England in 1993—I was 20 years old—with my uncle who lives there. After I came to the CIA, I tasted more wines and got hooked. I also got a Wine Spectator scholarship at the CIA [for being first in my class]. What intrigued me the most is the "mystery of the grape." How does a mere fruit produce something so profound? So I set out on a quest to get answers and tried to learn as much as I could, and I ended up becoming a sommelier.

WS: And then how did you become a sommelier?
RP: [At first] I really wanted to be a chef, but after learning more about wine at the CIA, I wanted to work with a great sommelier. Since I had no experience [except cooking], I got offered a job as a food runner at Rubicon. So to get a foot in the door, I took the job. My goal was to convince Larry Stone, my mentor, that I was really interested in wine. Along with becoming Larry's assistant, I was also a manager at the restaurant. That experience was amazing.

WS: What is the hardest dish on the dinner menu at Michael Mina to pair with wine, and what do you pair with it?
RP: The seared diver scallops and marinated scallops, with Meyer lemon and Osetra caviar, sweet corn and black truffle, scarlet beet and Maine lobster. We pair it with a 2000 Prager Riesling Smaragd Kaiserberg.

WS: Many of the dishes at Michael Mina involve three variations on the same ingredient, as with the scallop dish. Does that wreak havoc on your wine pairings?
RP: Wine pairing at MM is not as tough as it looks. I work very closely with the chef and we make sure the flavors [of the dish and the wine] move in one direction. The main element is acid and low oak. Since there are three different flavors on each plate, I pick the center preparation and try to make sure all flavors are balanced with the wine. With complex flavors, sometimes it is easier with wine pairings. Michael is very sensitive about the wines, so he does not use ingredients that conflict with wines. I feel very lucky to be working with a chef who is flexible and is ready to change any element of a dish.

WS: What is your go-to wine-and-food pairing?
RP: Since our wine list is loaded with Burgundies, I try to recommend that. Great red Burgundy with game like quail or squab is fabulous. On our menu presently we have a great quail dish with three lentil soups. I love that with the 2002 Domaine de la Pousse d'Or Volnay Clos d'Audignac.

WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at Michael Mina?
RP: We have a section on the wine list called "Wines of Consequence." This section consists of wines from all over the world that are interesting and have value. Some examples are a Massy Chasselas from Switzerland for $47, and the Palmina Malvasia Santa Barbara County 2005 for $45.

I also try to find older wines that have value. It is harder nowadays, but I think we have been successful in finding some. A few examples include an Albert Morot Beaune Teurons 1985 for $135, or a magnum of Domaine Dujac Morey-St.-Denis 1995 for $275.

WS: What is your favorite wine region?
RP: Burgundy. … I love Burgundy for so many reasons. Ever since I went there for the first time in 1996, I fell in love with the people, vineyards and the food. After years of tastings in their cellars, I realized that the personalities of the winemaker are in the wine. Also, the different styles within one terroir … and then you have the influence of the new world. There are so many varying ideas, styles and attitudes. The same winemaker will tell you different facts about their own wine every time you see them. It is fascinating. The quest goes on. The mystery of the grape is so intriguing, but in Burgundy, you have an added dimension.

WS: How many bottles do you have in your own personal wine cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
RP: I have moved so much that I have not spent much energy in building my cellar. I have a couple hundred bottles [mostly stored in the U.K.]. They are all Rhône and Burgundy—some of my favorites are Dujac, J.F. Mugnier, Roulot, Raveneau, J.-L. Chave and A. Clape. I also bought a lot of 1999 red Burgundies. I think that will be one of the greatest vintages of our time.

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