A Glass Of Wine With Sommelier and Winemaker Rajat Parr
- By Somm360
- 30 Apr 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 201
Somm360: You grew up in Calcutta, India, and have said that there wasn’t much of a wine culture there at the time. How has wine culture changed in your home country since then?
Rajat Parr: I think the consumption is growing by the hundredfold every year. There is more interest but the availability is very, very small as you can’t get a lot of the wines.
The domestic wines are fine. I’ve had a few of them, not too many. The market is still small and availability is also quite limited. But it’s growing as the interest is there, especially because of the health factor, they like to drink wine there because they think it is healthy.
Somm360: Please tell us about your wine and hospitality education, and what got you started on that route?
RP: I started in a college in southern India and it was part of the Sheraton group and I went there to study hotel management, and that’s how I started. After that I moved to New York and went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, where I studied Culinary Arts… cooking school basically, for a couple of years.
I love cooking... I loved spending a lot of time with my grandmother and mother in the kitchen, and cooking became my love, and I wanted to learn to cook European food, I wanted to open my own restaurant, I wanted to be a Chef!
Somm360: You have said previously that you got a lot of your inspiration from your mentor, Larry Stone. What was it that made him so special, in your eyes?
RP: He was just a great educator and a very compassionate person, he just loved teaching and he spent most of his career teaching and mentoring people. He was very patient and thoughtful, and spent time with people to teach them.
Somm360: What with you being an Indian guy in what is still a very white guy-dominated industry, I’d be interested to hear of any barriers to entry you encountered on your career trajectory?
RP: Nothing out of the ordinary, you know, I think that everyone is really welcoming. In the industry I have never felt anything, maybe when I have been travelling to other states there has been a little apprehension, but nothing more than one would find anywhere else in the world.
I’ve always felt welcome and included in everything.
Somm360: Back in 2003, you were one of the very first employees on the payroll of the Micheal Mina Group, staying in your role as wine director for around 14 years. How did you see the US wine and hospitality landscape evolve and grow over those years?
RP: The main thing I saw was how important wine became, because in the beginning it was only Chefs, and only food, and only cooking, and then as things got to a bigger scale beverage was playing a much bigger role. I mean, now with the pandemic things are changing, but before the pandemic everyone had a sommelier or a team of sommeliers or a beverage director. That wasn’t the case when I started. There were very few sommeliers and a manager usually took care of the wine program.
In the last 20 years we’ve seen how important beverage is, not only as a program but to the bottom line of a restaurant.
Somm360: And where are we at today? What with the ongoing pandemic, things are still looking bleak for hospitality. What are your thoughts about how the industry will come through this?
RP: The industry definitely will come through because hospitality is a part of human nature. It will maybe take a little time and people will have to pivot. I think everyone from the employees to the owners to the guests, everyone has to play a role to make sure that we continue hospitality, and everyone has to contribute.
I’ve already seen restaurants taking smaller margins, having less employees, but still trying to deliver value, and I think that those little changes will serve us in the long run because we can’t give up on hospitality, because that’s what humans like, we like to be taken care of, and we like to take care of people… it’s in our DNA.
Somm360: Does that mean that we may see less sommeliers employed in restaurants?
RP: I think that is something that we’ll definitely see, as some sommeliers will pivot to different roles, and you’ll see other managers coming in. We have to go back two steps to go forward two steps, I think. So I think it’s going to take a little bit of rebuilding and restructuring. But we are going to come back to a new reality.
We might have less people working on the wine front, but we’ll have more people knowledgeable about wine, especially with all the online educational platforms.
Somm360: When did you get the urge to start making your own wines? And what was it that drew you to Burgundian varieties in the Santa Rita Hills? And I know you aren’t going to say that it was that crappy romcom Sideways (2004)…
RP: No. *laughs* No.
I just wanted to learn how to first make good wine and grow grapes, and it has been an amazing journey. I’m still embarking on new things every year. It started maybe in 2003, and slowly I started to buy grapes, met my partner Sashi, and planted a vineyard. It’s been a step by step process.
2004 was my first vintage, and I love Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and we found a special spot, and we kind of just went after it, and tried to farm it the best way we could to make it a unique spot. And the journey continues.
Somm360: How did you meet your business partner in the winery projects, Sashi Moorman, and how do you work together? Who does what?
RP: Yeah, Sashi came to sell wine to me once at Micheal Mina, when he was making wine. We had a similar palate and became friends and started making wine together.
Our roles have, of course, evolved, as we started making 600 cases, and now we have three wineries. I spend more and more of my time in the cellar during harvest and most of my other time in the vineyards, farming our vines and helping with the other vineyards we buy grapes from.
Sahi oversees all the business part of it. We don’t have exact roles and we play off each other, and every year is different, and very different from five harvests ago, when I would spend my time selling the wine and he would be in the cellar, but now we have a team, I spend most of my time in the vineyard and he spends most of his time taking care of the business.
This is going to be our fifteenth vintage together!
Somm360: And you chose to go down the biodynamic route. I’m curious as to why? And what do you believe this brings to the wines?
RP: I’m not saying that it’s the only way to grow grapes, but the holistic way of growing grapes definitely gives a wine a special energy. The vineyard is alive, you know, we have a lot of animals we work with in the vineyard. We put a lot of compost in from what is around us. I think it is more holistic than biodynamic.
Biodynamic is a spiritual journey, and I think it is very important to follow that journey. [Rudolf] Steiner has put forward an amazing template for us to go off. We don’t follow every single thing that Steiner put forward, but we do use the holistic idea of the lunar cycles and putting things that are alive and spiritual into the land.
Somm360: You are known for producing leaner styles of Californian wine, but surely global heating may be making that a little more challenging down there? Is there anything you have been doing to mitigate this? Won’t you have to start thinking about different grape varieties at some point?
RP: Luckily where we are it is very cold. The problem is less the temperature, and more the lack of rain. That has been the biggest issue. We try to work with more cover crops, using different things in the vineyard to try to retain moisture in the soil. It’s a pretty cool climate. We haven’t had any real heat issues as this area was always known for being too cool and windy.
Somm360: Being arguably one of the most successful sommeliers in the world, can you give us three nuggets of advice that we can pass on to aspiring sommeliers who would like to follow in your footsteps?
RP: Always remember the classics:
Build the infrastructure… know what’s around you… be very aware of what’s around you… and the most important thing, be very humble, learn from examples, learn from nature, learn from people who have done things ahead of you.
And if you follow these three things you will definitely be successful.
Somm360: Thank you so much, Rajat!