"My very first job, at 15 years old, was working for McDonald's' 1,000th restaurant, in my hometown, Des Plaines, Illinois," reminisces Richard Matuszczak, 60. That humble start in the food-service industry—and a few dozen hospitality jobs along the way—eventually catapulted Matuszczak to wine director at chef Ken Frank’s downtown Napa wine paradise, the Wine Spectator Grand Award winner La Toque.
The path to managing the 2,100-selection cellar, the "jewel in the crown" at La Toque, was one of many detours and divergences. After moving to California at age 20, Matuszczak tried his hand at a variety of food and beverage careers. He cooked at a local coffee shop, attended culinary school, waited tables, managed and opened restaurants and eventually began working as a floor sommelier.
In 2012, after passing the Court of Master Sommelier's Advanced Exam, Matuszczak landed his current gig. Assistant editor Christine Dalton recently met with Matuszczak to discuss the restaurant's emphasis on food-and-wine pairing, local Northern California wines and how somms should build a rapport with guests.
Wine Spectator: Your wine list is peppered with wine-related quotes. Do you have a favorite?
Richard Matuszczak: I found this [excerpt from Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Wine"]: "I like on the table, / when we're speaking, / the light of a bottle / of intelligent wine," and I thought, "Wow! That is the coolest thing I've ever heard anyone say." It just spoke to me—like a wine! When I taste a wine, it has to speak to me in some way other than, "It's a good wine, it will work with food." Something else has to resonate. It has to be telling me something.
WS: How do you approach wine pairing at La Toque?
RM: We do a lot more in terms of wine pairing than at other restaurants where I've done it. We don't just go to the table, grab the bottle and say, "Here's your 2000 Chassagne-Montrachet. We're pairing it with your sole," and walk away. We come up and say hello, and I make a joke. We talk about the wine. I try to have some labels that people can relate to, but also some they wouldn't expect, like chilled sake or some weird late-harvest Furmint from Tokaji or a Vacqueyras Blanc from the Southern Rhône. It's exciting to be able to say, "Hey look what I've got for you!"
WS: With such a pairing-focused strategy, you must work closely with executive chef Ken Frank.
RM: (Whispering) Ken is the best boss ever. Don't tell him. He has given me the longest leash imaginable. I don't know where the end of it is. He's never said "no" or "you can't" or "don't."
That being said, I know what my parameters are—what I know and don't know. I never think, "I have a great palate, my pairing wines are perfect." I usually say to him, "Try this. Do you like it?" because I want to see that my gauge is still working.
WS: Given your location, do you feel obliged to feature local wines with your food?
RM: We like having local wines, but our food covers a wide range of styles and cuisines and cultures, and so does our wine program for the pairings. I had some local sparkling wine, now we're back to Champagne. Half the time, the rosé is domestic. We had a Plouzeau rosé of Cabernet Franc from Chinon. Now, it's a local wine called Lorenza, a beautiful Old World–style rosé. Generally, there are a couple of Pinots; one of them happens to be from Oregon now, but they're often from California. Our best-selling signature entrée is the chef's rib-eye, and it's always paired with a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from a smaller producer and with a little age.
I do have 400 selections of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in the cellar. So if someone wants a Napa Valley Cabernet or Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, we certainly have that. People who come to Napa have an opportunity just by turning around to be in a tasting room and to taste all the beautiful new current releases. But I would hope that when they come here, for the kind of menu we offer, they would want to try something a little different.
WS: What’s it like serving so many visitors who are genuine wine lovers?
RM: In talking to guests, I can use expressions not just like "oak," but "malolactic" and "terpenes" and "pyrazines." I'll briefly explain characteristics in the wine that I want them to notice or taste. Maybe it’s the diesel in an older Riesling.
People will leave and say things like, "Thanks for the education, thanks for spending time at the table." One guy recently said, "Was anything you said true?" And I joked, "Did you think it was true? Then it's true!" We get to have that kind of rapport. It's really cool that people are really interested in what we're doing.
WS: Is there a wine that has excited you recently?
RM: I get excited by new wines from regions that I've never heard of. I recently tasted a new Spanish Garnacha from the Madrid D.O. and the sub-zone was … San Martín de Valdeiglesias? OK! And then I read the story of the old vines planted in 1923 [that survived through] the Spanish Civil War. The history of wine is so interesting. And I know that no one here will have had this wine before! Discovering new wines is like driving a new car. I want to show it off to all my guests.
WS: You've transitioned to an iPad wine list. How is that working out?
RM: It's fantastic. We used to have 16 paper wine lists with about 81 pages in them. And every time I had to change a page, I'd have to print 16 pages just to change 1 page. … Now, a few clicks, and we've updated the wine list. Even with 2,100 selections, this list is 99.9 percent accurate.
WS: What's your favorite pairing currently on the menu?
RM: I really love the Evening Land Seven Springs Pinot Noir. We're pairing it with a guinea hen. Pinot Noir is great with any game or fowl. It's very versatile.
WS: What has been your proudest moment as a sommelier?
RM: Receiving the Grand Award in the spring of 2014. That was really a game changer for us. For me, it made me feel like I had accomplished so much.