The wine world is a big place, so it follows that the sommelier scene is culturally eclectic: Men and women from France, Italy and Austria have made their names in some of America’s finest restaurant cellars. Togo, in West Africa, is pretty far afield for wine, yet the peripatetic life of Anani Lawson ultimately landed him in Napa Valley, where he works as beverage director of Lucy Restaurant & Bar in Yountville.
Growing up in Togo, Lawson never considered a life in restaurants, though it was his family’s business. Instead, he moved to San Francisco in 1982 to pursue a career as a tennis pro, giving lessons at health clubs and hotels. During this time, Northern California’s wines piqued Lawson’s interest. Starting as a server, Lawson worked up to become a sommelier at Thomas Keller’s Grand Award–winning French Laundry in Yountville for seven years before transferring to fellow Keller Grand Award winner Per Se in New York.
Today, Lawson is back in Napa, this time as the inaugural beverage director of Award of Excellence–winning Lucy. Assistant editor Christine Dalton sat down with Lawson at the restaurant to discuss his unusual background, pairing wine with locally sourced, seasonal cuisine, and working as a sommelier in one of California’s foremost wine regions.
Wine Spectator: What’s the restaurant and wine scene like in Togo?
Anani Lawson: Togo, being a former French colony, has many French restaurants, bistros and brasseries. When I was living there, you could get basic wine from—when I think back—the south of France or Morocco, maybe. People did like wine, but this was back in the ‘70s, so the culture of fine wine as we know it didn’t yet exist over there. Today, you could go to a fancy grocery store and find high-end French wines.
WS: You originally moved to the United States to work as a tennis pro. How did you make the transition to wine?
AL: As a tennis pro, guest relations are very important. Making sure that you’re charming, and at the same time, making sure that you’re teaching people something. So I think I was able to translate that personal aptitude into working in restaurants.
WS: What were some of the highlights of your early wine career?
AL: After my first restaurant job at Terra in St. Helena, I moved to Portland, Ore., in 1995. There was a pretty vibrant wine culture there, and I was part of a tasting group. It was a time when Oregon and Washington were truly coming on the scene as credible winegrowing regions. It was exciting.
WS: Did you have any mentors during these early days?
AL: I learned so much from [former French Laundry wine director] Bobby Stuckey. He is the archetypal sommelier not only because he is uniquely knowledgeable about wine, but he also thinks like an entrepreneur. He’s a consummate guest-relations person. He teaches by example. He’s funny, he’s gregarious and he’s generous with his time.
WS: What were your goals when you were putting together Lucy’s wine list?
AL: My goal was to make the list reflect my own path. I had come from two over-the-top wine lists [with Thomas Keller], so that was my cultural background in terms of wine. I wanted to bring some of that knowledge, but I also I wanted to find a place on my wine list for top small producers.
WS: What do you take into consideration when pairing wines with Lucy’s "garden-inspired" menu?
AL: I like that it’s a garden-driven cuisine; it gives us a chance to really emphasize various wines with the seasons. For fall, I bring in wines that express some earthy tones, but still have lively acidity. So, for example, I have a lot of Grenache on my list, certain styles of Zinfandel that go well with some of the earthier or heavier vegetables or meats the chef is cooking. Obviously, Pinot Noir always dominates fall, but I’ll also have older Napa reds, older Cabernets from the mid-’90s.
WS: How does your Napa location influence your wine list?
AL: It’s critical to have a nice stable of Napa wines on the list, because at the end of the day, most people want to come here to try something new from the region. I will have Napa wines, but Napa wines that you cannot find anywhere else—the wines that take a little homework to discover. I have plenty of those on my list.
WS: What is your current favorite pairing?
AL: Right now, we have a New Zealand snapper that the chef serves with pickled vegetables that I like to pair with a wide range of aromatic white wines with moderate to high acidity. For example, there’s a wine called Skipstone Viogner 2013, a fantastic wine with beautiful aromatics, great acidity and floral notes that complement this dish perfectly. And it’s local, from the Alexander Valley.
WS: Do you have any favorite recent discoveries?
AL: One of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs—I can’t talk about it enough—is the Lail Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Blueprint 2014. It’s such a versatile white wine. When a guest comes in and they can’t make up their mind whether they want Chardonnay or a Riesling or a Viogner, this wine is all-encompassing.
WS: As a Napa local, do you have any favorite wineries to visit?
AL: I really like the wineries on Spring Mountain. I like Vineyard 7 & 8. It’s a spectacular place, the physicality of it, but the vineyard management is also quite impressive, and the wines are really expressive. Also on Spring Mountain, I really like Pride Mountain Vineyards. It’s an amazing place because [the estate vineyards are] in both Napa County and Sonoma County. It’s a unique narrative with beautiful wines. I could go on and on.