Secrets of the Sommeliers: The Panel Version at IPNC

At the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the wine tasting and eating is occasionally punctuated by pursuits of a more intellectual nature. One such diversion this year was a panel of some of the top sommeliers in this hemisphere, loosely organized around the theme of a book called Secrets of the Sommeliers, co-written by the panel’s moderator Jordan Mackay and one of the panelists, sommelier Rajat Parr.

I’ve done my usual attempt to capture the discussion here. I didn’t get everything but hopefully you’ll get a sense of the conversation.

Jordan was introduced by Joshua Wesson, who offered this about Mr. Mackay.

Jordan loves Pinot Noir as much as he loves life itself. He is going to lead this extraordinary panel — not four horsemen of the apocalypse, but the four hoarse men with a pair of lips – from whom you will get many perspectives on the kaleidoscopic deliciousness of Pinot Noir. Jordan writes for everyone except the Wine Spectator. He is wise beyond his years, encyclopedic in his knowledge of Burgundy and in the breadth of delight for the grape we all love. His most recent book was the James Beard Award winning Secrets of the Sommeliers. These secrets will be revealed in good time. They’re not secrets, actually, but points of wisdom. Sommeliers are not the keepers of the keys of wine happiness. They are simply interlocutors – they take delicious wines and connect them to the people who enjoy them. You’ll walk away from today’s panel not only wiser and happier, but you can torture your friends with the secrets they won’t know.

JORDAN MACKAY: Let me introduce you to your panelists.

Ken Frederickson is a master sommelier and has done great things in the wine world. He runs a new company called Tenzing and manages a portfolio of wines in Chicago. He just found out he was on this panel a few minutes ago.

Rajat Parr is the wine director for the Michael Mina Group. He makes beautiful wine himself, and a profound font of knowledge on wine.

Daniel Johnnes has changed a lot of the way we perceive wine in this country. He was one of the first people to beat the drum for Burgundy. He started off working with Drew Nieporent at Montrachet restaurant in New York, and then went on and now works with Daniel Boulud, has an importing company, and has trained dozens of sommeliers around the country.

Larry Stone needs no introduction. He is one of the greatest wine minds around. He made his name in Chicago at Charlie Trotters and then later in San Francisco at Rubicon. He is now representing Evening Land wines. My assignment was to not let him talk too long.

JORDAN MACKAY: When Raj and I were researching the book. We spent a great deal of time with everyone on this panel, and had a great night with Josh Wesson who drove us around Brooklyn in one of his many cars.

The book was a labor of love. I was lucky to have been brought into the world of wine thanks to my writing work, and soon after I entered this world I took interest in the work of professional sommeliers, especially that of my wife.

I should note that the panel was originally going to feature Kevin Zraly but he couldn’t make it due to a family emergency, so Ken Fredrickson has kindly offered to sit in.

Let’s get started.

Daniel, do you think the rise of Pinot Noir in the wine world has had anything to do with the simultaneous rise of the sommelier in the American wine scene? What does Pinot mean to sommeliers?

DANIEL JOHNNES: Nothing. It just makes good wine. It’s hard to follow or explain trends. Pinot isn’t a trend. It’s always made great wine. When I started in 1985 at [the New York restaurant] Montrachet Oregon was just getting started, but Burgundy wasn’t well known either at that point. I know everyone hates to hear this but back then I could buy as much Roumier as I wanted (and I wish I had). I don’t know what to say. It’s taken off. It’s a wine we all love. People’s palates have evolved over the years to more sophisticated wines. My first wines were late harvest zinfandels. But as our palates evolve, we enjoy sophistication, elegance, subtlety, balance, and that’s what Pinot Noir is all about. I was lucky enough to have a forum to communicate about it. It’s being able to communicate with the clientele that type of enthusiasm that is an important part of being a good sommelier – to tell a story about a wine and communicate a passion. Hopefully I’ve done a little bit of that.

LARRY STONE: I think that it’s true, that when we began you could buy whatever you wanted when you wanted it. You could buy Petrus for $17.50. That was in the 1980s, and it was still possible to do this. The same is true when I was a student. I started enjoying wine when I was young. When I was in college I decided I wanted to try Burgundy. I remember after I made this decision I saw a 1971 [Domaine Romanee Conti] La Tache and a 1971 Romanee Conti in my local wine shop, and the price was $35 a bottle. But I couldn’t afford it. My tuition for the quarter was $300. My rent was $40 a month. That was poverty level anyway. I couldn’t think about buying it, but I wanted to badly. Those bottles stayed there for three months. I saved and saved, and then I went in one day to buy them, and the guy said I just sold those this morning. Thankfully I have had a chance in the meantime to try those.

We all grew up during a time when wine became more appreciated. It became more expensive because people liked it. When I was growing up, Riesling was the wine of the future for Oregon. There were pioneers that planted Pinot, and people didn’t believe. What has promoted Pinot Noir and helped it grow with this era, is that in large part winemaking has improved. Pinot is so versatile of a wine. People realized you could drink it with fish.

JORDAN MACKAY: Raj’s first job was under Larry at Rubicon in San Francisco. Was Pinot a big part of that list at Rubicon?

RAJAT PARR: I was very lucky to never experience Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1996 when I was a food runner at Rubicon I took an interest in the wine program. I eventually talked my way into helping with the wine list, and became an assistant. And I was only exposed to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. So my experience was straight to Burgundy. In the 1990s when the California wines were getting bigger and richer, I didn’t love that style. I used to go to Sonoma and Napa all the time. But my first experiences were tasting Burgundy with Larry. I used to fly to NY to do a dinner with Daniel Johnnes in NY, and offered to work for free, and he felt bad for me. My experience has largely been tasting wines the wines from Burgundy. And Oregon. Daniel, I remember in 1997 the first time I had Ponzi. Daniel was serving it to Dominique Laurent. All my experiences with Pinot Noir have been with these guys [gesturing to the folks on the stage]. It’s the intellect and curiosity that makes the connection with Sommeliers. How can it be so different, changeable. How can this one grape be so mysterious? I think it’s a quest forever.

JORDAN MACKAY: Part of the book charts the evolution of the role of sommelier, from someone who made wine list and poured wine, to now someone who is visible, on a panel. Ken, now that you’re off the floor, what have you noticed in the attitude, spirit, or role of sommeliers?

KEN FREDERICKSON: I think that’s a fair question being on the wholesale side of the business. Pinot is a key to unlock a lot of accounts. There aren’t too many sommeliers that are anti-Pinot. Most of them are intellectual and trying to learn as much as they can. Great wine lists have Pinot. I have to make sure that we’re bringing great stuff to the market. Pinot is Pinot, but Burgundy and great Pinot in general.

JORDAN MACKAY: Daniel, you’re doing more managing of sommeliers now. What are your concerns for the profession? What are the things you need to instill? Being faced with a growing army of sommeliers, is this a tricky or dangerous thing, in terms of how they are growing in power?

DANIEL JOHNNES: When I started as a sommelier in New York, Kevin Zraly was working at Windows on the World. He didn’t work on the floor. Josh Wesson and Larry Stone were on the west coast. There weren’t that many others. Now there are legions. My fear with a lot of them is that they want to follow a career path that they’ve seen Larry and Kevin and Josh blaze. They don’t always want to do the work. Being a sommelier entails doing a lot of work, unpacking boxes, making money for the restaurant, creating the list, communicating about wine, and I’m a little concerned that a lot of the sommeliers I see these days aren’t willing to get on the floor. A lot of them see being a sommelier as a way of becoming a superstar. There are opportunities for that but it should not be the goal. The opportunity is to express your passion and work in an industry you love. I’m concerned about the work ethic.

JORDAN MACKAY: What would you, Larry, do to deal with this problem in the industry? Where restaurant wine departments are expanding and growing.

LARRY STONE: It’s difficult. I don’t know how you solve it. Were up here [on stage] but there are hundreds and hundreds of others. There is even a professional Guild of Sommeliers. They publish a lot of their secrets right there online. The sommelier community shares a lot of secrets. Right now there are 1000s of people waiting to take the certification for the Court of Master Sommeliers. When there’s that kind of growth it’s hard to control the growth. Us early ones, w didn’t join for the money. I thought it was fun. Really interesting. My family was distraught, I was on my way to becoming a professor, and here I was working at a restaurant. I worked 7 days a week. The next job I worked 6 days a week, and didn’t have a vacation for 10 years. They kept paying me for my vacation, saying I couldn’t leave, and I wouldn’t . Here I am on vacation, and I’m at a wine event. People think Daniel and I are a married couple and Rajat is my son. What I love about this profession and what drives me is the community. You have to work hard to be a part of that. When I was training people, those who didn’t work hard were out. If they don’t work, I can’t stand them.

JORDAN MACKAY: On the panel we have two people who are official Master Sommeliers, and two who are not. Is this important?

KEN FREDERICKSON: I think it’s probably a good foundation program. But I’m not the right person to ask. Every day I’m in the wine business I meet people who know more than I do. You don’t have to be a Master Sommelier to be an expert. It certainly helps cull out people who aren’t dedicated. I think the average time to pass the exam now is 8 years. I passed before they knew were wines in Australia. I got off easy. Both in the business itself and in the profession of sommelier, you’ll see ascendency. America will soon be the number one wine consuming country in the world. You’re going to see superstars in this industry because it’s always changing.

JORDAN MACKAY: I had an editor once that wouldn’t let anyone use the words veggie or legendary. The prime sport for sommeliers, the game that they want to play all the time, is the game of blind tasting. Rajat has distinguished himself as legendary in this department.

Raj what is the greatest feat you can remember Larry doing when it comes to blind tasting, and what role does blind tasting play in the development of sommeliers.

RAJAT PARR: I remember in 1997, Larry spent all day doing an event with Bill Clinton. Gary Figgins from Leonetti was there in the restaurant, and Gary asked for an old bottle of port. So I go downstairs and get something special and I’m bringing it up and tasting it. So in walks Larry who hasn’t slept in a couple of days, and I hand him the glass to see what he thinks. He says, “I think it’s 1927 port from a small shipper.” And I thought, what the hell? The bottle had no label on it. It wasn’t on the wine list. And he nailed the vintage and the fact that it was a tiny producer. Blind tasting is an amazing art. It’s something we love doing, its like a samurai trick. It’s how we respect each other. Which is not to say if you can’t do that you’re not a sommelier. You have to get in there and do it. All the masters have done it. I did one last week in San Francisco. We had 22 people there and we were blind tasting for 4 hours until 2:30 AM. Some people were shy and not saying much and some were. It’s the infrastructure of the business of sommeliers.

JORDAN MACKAY: Daniel, how much blind tasting did you go through in the last 25 years.

DANIEL JOHNNES: We were talking today at lunch and we did a blind tasting. It was very entertaining. One of the things I said at lunch was that when we were working the floor at Montrachet (where we tasted all the wines) the most fun we had during the evening was when we were opening a bottle and we would give a taste to someone working with us. You’re tired by the end of service in the evening, but we tasted all the time. Now frankly I’m the wine director and not in service. So I’m not doing it as much any more. It’s like a sport, when you’re not doing it as much, you’re rusty. You have to keep it up.

RAJAT PARR: I’ll tell you how I learned to taste blind. Larry used to come upstairs where I was working at Rubicon. I was a waiter and helped out in the wine service. He used to come up to me with one tiny little sip. A 1/4 ounce of wine and ask me, “What is it?” I remember once I said it’s Lynch Bages 1989, and he said, “No, you’re absolutely wrong. It’s Lynch Bages 1990” and walked away.

KEN FREDERICKSON: I think that that was good for You. Rajat is the only person I’ve ever seen nail a wine he hasn’t tasted before, by analyzing it piece by piece and coming to the conclusion based on his experience with other wines. It was wickedly impressive.

DANIEL JOHNNES: This is dangerous Raj, now everyone is going to stick a glass in front of you.

JORDAN MACKAY: What kind of feats of blind tasting have you seen Larry?

LARRY STONE: Recently I was at the Masters of Food and Wine in Pebble Beach. There was a Pinot panel that Raj led, and we were all up there blind tasting these wines from all over the world. We had no clue what they were, it was double blind. All of us were looking for Burgundy in there. But we didn’t find one. The second wine, I knew I had never smelt it before. It smelled like tomato leaf. The sommelier that was picked to talk about it was from Colorado. He wasn’t kind. He said this smells like tomatoes and stewed fruits, it smells like all the bad South African Pinot Noirs that I don’t like. He was right.

Raj said I nailed a 27 port once, which was true, but I got the Twomey Pinot Noir wrong on that panel. Both Raj and I thought a wine was Italian, but it was Sicilian. All of you can learn how to taste like this. You just have to practice it. If you’re not practicing you won’t have the ability. You have to learn how to analyze a wine in a way that you can remember. That method we all learned takes a while to learn, but all of you can do it.

JORDAN MACKAY: I’m going to bring the discussion back to the young sommeliers. All these young sommeliers still focus on service. Daniel, when you go out to dinner in a place where you are not recognized, what are your biggest complaints about wine service?

DANIEL JOHNNES: Well, that’s a good question. I think one of the most important things to be a good sommelier is being able to read the customer’s psychology, to know who you’re talking to. When I’m out to dinner, I’m out to dinner. I’m not looking for people to teach me or prove how much they know. It’s about that understanding of the customer. Knowing what they want to know. How much do they know, what are they looking for, the style they like, how much do they want to spend? You can figure all that out with a couple of key questions. My biggest pet peeve today, though, is red wine being served too warm. I’ve had fights over this with sommeliers. I get angry very quickly. Those of you who know me, know this is true. Service is everything. Another thing that a lot of sommeliers do, I had to address, when I started at Restaurant Daniel. A customer orders a wine that is 10 years or older and the sommelier comes up from the cellar holding a bottle upright with the sediment flowing down the neck of the bottle and mixing into the wine. I see people doing this in the greatest restaurants in France. It’s criminal. If the old bottle has been stored horizontal, it needs to be carried horizontal.

JORDAN MACKAY: I see that in the diverse world of wine, there are sommeliers who, despite your own stated preferences, push wines on you, wines that have syllables that don’t make sense to you. Ken you now represent a big portfolio of wines. How does a sommelier balance their love for esoterica with the wines that people love?

KEN FREDERICKSON: That’s a great question. A portfolio or wine list or a restaurant should have balance. You get adventurous people and people who want to stay close to home. I hate to take away the energy and chaos of youth and the interest in obscure varietals, but it is possible to go too far. I’ve seen a wine list in Chicago where I literally don’t recognize any of the producers. They’re out there. I’m not sure how you do it. You have to have balance. Raj, you have 20 wine lists. What do you do?

RAJAT PARR: You have to have the wines people want and then just a few of the interesting ones. At RN74, the restaurant is more eclectic, and there’s a concept behind it, and the wine list is also that way. We have to have some wines that people recognize, but at Restaurant Michael Mina, for instance, we have to have those that people love. In every section of the list I put 25% that are completely recognizable, and the rest are not totally esoteric. I’m not so focused on esoterica. I’m not into the whole natural wines thing. That’s interesting but not really recognizable to anyone. You have to balance it, but you do also have to have some interesting stuff.

JORDAN MACKAY: I’m going to open it up to the floor for questions if you want to raise your hands.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Do you ever bury a little treasure on the wine list to see who finds it? And what advice do you give to those of us who want to find it?

RAJAT PARR: Yes, there are always treasures. Maybe we find good deals, get wines from private cellars, and the only way to find these is by asking. My advice is to chat with the sommelier. Most sommeliers love to talk, that’s why they’re sommeliers. A little chatter, and you’re going to find it. There’s no wine list that is written with passion that doesn’t have treasures.

DANIEL JOHNNES: Sommeliers DO love to talk. Some people are intimidated, afraid of exposing what they don’t know. They’re afraid of sommeliers being arrogant. Just tell them what you like, and sommeliers will like you and guide you towards what they like. They might not reveal that hidden gem right away, but eventually you’ll get it.

JORDAN MACKAY: Especially if you go back! Some of you get wines that just don’t go on the list. Sometimes you can earn that as a diner, right?

DANIEL JOHNNES: We always had gems in the cellar, and all you had to do was be nice and we’d go back and find something. As a sommelier you want to be in control of who you’re selling that last special bottle to.

LARRY STONE: Rajat said what I would have said. If you want to know, all you have to do is ask. Don’t be afraid of us. There are gems in plain view and some that we’re hiding.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: We’ve all been in a restaurant we tell a sommelier something that we’re interested in, and he comes back with a wine that is 50% more expensive. How do you put down a guy like that?

DANIEL JOHNNES: With a baseball bat!

KEN FREDERICKSON: I know what you’re going through. When I’m asking about wines on a wine list, I’m usually pointing to a price, but nonetheless that happens. Don’t ever be embarrassed to ask how much the bottle is. The more education that happens with young sommeliers, the better this situation gets. But there is some commission structure happening here as well that drives this behavior no matter what.

JORDAN MACKAY: Just be firm. Speaking of pricing, one question that people ask me all the time is whether the cheapest wine on the wine list is the worst? Is there anything to be embarrassed about in choosing that wine?

KEN FREDERICKSON: I’ll tell you this my highest margin bottle is the second least expensive.

RAJAT PARR: The cheapest wine on the list is always a good buy. If I’m going to be selling a bottle under $20 I better make sure it’s very good. We have this half bottle on our wine list for $17, and no one buys it. It’s hand picked for a reason.

DANIEL JOHNNES: I talk to the sommeliers at Daniel – and I’ll tell you that this goes somewhat contrary to what the CFO of a restaurant would say – and tell them that even though they think sometimes what they have to do is upsell, this runs counter to the interest of the customer most of the time.

I tell my crew to go to the diner and if they’re looking for a first wine to start with, maybe you want to suggest a Saint Romain. You talk about the story, talk about how it’s less expensive than a major white Burgundy. You’re showing them that you have their interest in mind. It’s about building confidence, but also about helping people discover great wines.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Many of us have gems in our cellars that we’re excited to bring to restaurants and share with friends. Talk about corkage these days.

DANIEL JOHNNES: We don’t allow you to bring your wine at restaurant Daniel. You can’t do it. That’s New York, though.

RAJAT PARR: Corkage is a privilege, it’s allowed to us, and we should be thankful for it. Everyone has different policies. What I recommend is that at the end of the day, if you bring a bottle of wine into the restaurant, you should offer a taste to someone. Then instantly you get an “in.” If you don’t share that’s a different feeling. It’s a great thing to do.

DANIEL JOHNNES: There’s another important element. Sharing, yes. Share with the Maitre’d, with the sommelier. But remember that the sommelier and server in a restaurant make their living off tips. The beverage adds considerably to the bottom line. So there’s a great deal of dissent among the staff, when a restaurant or sommeliers encourage people to bring their own wine. Do offer a taste, but please leave a gratuity as if you purchased that bottle. If anything do it to show you’re not cheap.

JORDAN MACKAY: As sommeliers what do you like to ask people and what do you want them to tell you?

LARRY STONE: It’s the sommeliers job to engage. You have to ask questions. But you also have to know whether people want to talk with you or not. If you’re looking for a common conversation point, a good place to start is about wine. But it can also be art, literature, life. It’s the sommeliers job to connect with you on what you’re interested in. “What are we doing tonight,” We ask. You have to establish the occasion. Is it a wedding, a business deal, or two buddies out for a good time. Should you get something to celebrate and commemorate the occasion? Is it time for a trophy wine or an obscure wine that is special for you or for your budget? Knowing the occasion is important, and then the taste of the customer. If the sommelier doesn’t ask you, you have to tell them. Tell them that you’re looking for something about $25, something sappy, maybe Pinot maybe Gamay. But hopefully they’ll engage you first.

DANIEL JOHNNES: I would love it when the customer would offer information. “You know it’s hot out, I want something fresh and crisp and lively.” You need to communicate and give as much info as you can. You don’t want to say a price sometimes, but you can say, we’re on the way to the movies after this, and it’s clear that it’s not time for the big guns.

LARRY STONE: But sometimes you don’t want to say these things in front of the people where you’re with. Or sometimes you’re with someone who will want to spend way more than you’re comfortable with. Go ahead of time to the restaurant or call them. Tell them that when you arrive you’d like the sommelier to come over and not to recommend anything over $100. You could even tell them that someone will want to order something over $500 and you don’t want that to happen.

RAJAT PARR: Someone came in doing just the opposite that the other day, with a client, thinking that they wanted to be big spenders. But the client decided to order a wine that was around $100. Sometimes people want to make friends by buying fancy wine, but you don’t have to.

KEN FREDERICKSON: We’ve got modern technology, use it to do your homework. I was just in Israel, and wanted to go to the best restaurant in Tel Aviv. I called to make a reservation, and asked if the wine list was online or if they could e-mail it to me, and they immediately knew I was serious.

DANIEL JOHNNES: I need to say one more thing. It doesn’t matter if your sommelier is a Master Sommelier or not. People get hung up on these titles. I remember when Raj came into Montrachet in 1996 to ask for a job. He asked if we had an opening. I asked him some questions, and I didn’t have an opening, and so I said no. And it was a lesson that I learned that has stayed with me ever since. I don’t care if people are in a program. I want a conversation with them, I want to see their passion and enthusiasm. I made a huge mistake not hiring Raj then.

JORDAN MACKAY: I’ve never been around more passionate people about the wines of the world than these panelists. Thank you everyone everyone.