Rajat Parr has invested two decades in restaurant and wine service and oversight, wine education, and now wine making, to become one of the world's most influential Sommeliers. While juggling all these responsibilities and collecting the industry's highest honors, he remains abundantly outgoing and gracious. Clearly, he lives the quote of Mahatma Gandhi that adorns his email signature: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." Here are highlights from conversation he shared with me surrounding his passion for wine.
On how he got started with wine...
I was born and grew up in India, and went to hotel school. I always loved cooking, but there was not a cooking school in India at the time. So I went to hotel school, and then I was accepted and moved to New York to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. While I was there I joined the wine club, and I fell in love with wine. So my focus shifted to wine, and I started working, and moved to San Francisco and worked with Larry Stone at a restaurant called Rubicon. I started as a busboy and moved up to Sommelier with Larry as his assistant. Then I was Sommelier at Fifth Floor, and then Michael Mina, and opened around twenty restaurants. I was already making wine, so I did both from ’04 to 2012, and then I finally moved full-time to Santa Barbara.
So you have four different wine projects. I can see why you had get out of restaurant business. How do you manage all of them?
Ha ha! I don’t know. Yes, two estate projects and two negociant or purchased grape projects. There is Domaine de la Cote in Santa Rita Hills, and Seven Springs Vineyards in Oregon that are estate. Then we have Sandhi, and Maison L'Oree in Burgundy, small negociants. All of these things just happened very naturally and nothing was forced. We have great partners, and we work it out. We have fun doing it. We have a great time working with Seven Springs, an old vineyard, planted in the mid-eighties. It’s pretty great to work with an almost thirty-year old vineyard. Then Domain de la Cote is a new vineyard, planted in ’06. Pretty great to see the potential of the young vineyard. Hopefully it will be great in twenty or thirty years.
On Santa Barbara and the new California wine scene...
I always loved Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and I think you can grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir pretty well in Santa Barbara. You can make wines which have good levels of high-acidity, very vibrant wines. Sonoma was another option, and Santa Cruz. They all are different. I just felt Santa Barbara was more my style. When Domaine de la Cote was planted, early on, I was quite astounded by the results from the vineyard, so I decided to go all in.
In Pursuit of Balance was supposed to be just a small gathering or tasting. Me and my friend Jasmine Hirsch, when she was just starting to work with her family vineyard, and I had just started Sandhi. And we said let’s do a tasting, get some like-minded people together. So we did a small tasting of twenty people in 2011. It was a big success. There were a lot of people interested in listening to what’s happening in California, focusing on Chardonnay and Pinot, and that small tasting now has a pretty big following. There was a great article, one of the best articles written, by Anne Crable. Are you on Twitter? I put it on Twitter. One of the most informative articles I’ve seen.
What advice would you give to the wine drinking community, with so much good wine and new trends?
I think that the most important thing is to have an open mind, and to try different things. Sometimes people just always drink the same wines they drink, and stay in their comfort zone. I think it’s important to open your mind, try different things. Different wines with different foods, and see. The only way your palate will evolve is to taste different things. If you taste the same things every day, you’re not evolving your palate. Keep an open mind, try different things, that’s the most important thing. That way you can really explore new things, try some fun wines, and learn more. The younger generation (is like this) for sure. The Millennials are very curious. Quite different than the Baby Boomers. They like the classics. Which, there is nothing wrong. But if you want to learn more, you must have an open mind.
Rajat was honored with the 2011 James Beard Award for Beverage for his book, Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Wine Professionals. I asked how things have changed since it was published:
I think when we wrote the book, we didn’t really account for so many young sommeliers now. The core of the book is still really relevant. There are a lot of regions that have really developed in the past five years. Things are changing rapidly in the wine world. I think we will have to do a new edition to update all the new wines. Australia for example. California was really small at the time, and now there is so much more. I think the core story and core content are still really relevant. Definitely that. And I am working on a new book as well.
When he won the 2015 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional, I asked for his comments on a second Award:
The James Beard Award means a lot to me. It's a huge honor and an endorsement by the food and wine community. I feel humbled!