The first chapter of Secrets of the Sommelier, a 2010 book written by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay, recounts an encounter that happened years back at Michael Mina, a top San Francisco restaurant where Parr was the wine director. A couple had brought along a bottle of wine for Parr to taste — blind. Parr, however, was slightly under the weather with a congested nose and dulled palate and relented only after persuasion.
After nosing the glass, he guessed “Volnay, Premier Cru”. After a sip, he postulated that the wine was of the 1998 vintage, stopping short of naming a producer. Even through his muted senses, he was spot on with his guess, correctly identifying the grape varietal, country and region of origin, as well as the wine’s designation and year it was made. Ask around the American sommelier fraternity and one will find many other such instances where Parr impressed with his precise and unerring blind tasting.
Considered one of the top sommeliers of his generation, Parr’s blind tasting abilities are a result of inherent inquisitiveness and decades of training. Growing up in Calcutta, Parr’s foray into the home kitchen from age 10 exposed him to a kaleidoscope of smells and tastes. With an initial ambition to become a chef, he enrolled into a hotel school at 18, and while visiting relatives in England a couple of years later, had his first taste of wine. Suffice to say, Parr was bowled over that grapes could produce such complexity of flavours.
Later, upon graduation from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and winning the Wine Spectator Scholarship, Parr moved to San Francisco. Within six months, he became celebrity-sommelier Larry Stone’s assistant at Rubicon Restaurant. Parr’s obsession with acquiring wine knowledge saw him pouring over books, tasting religiously, and visiting vineyards in California whenever he could squeeze in the time. Just three years later, Parr was named sommelier of San Francisco’s Fifth Floor and in 2003, was appointed wine director of the Michael Mina Group of restaurants.
As he wrote in the preface of Secrets of the Sommelier, “Wine is a journey, and we each have a path. My journey is ongoing…”. And indeed, in the few years before he published the book, Parr’s wine journey took him into the vineyards and the winery.
Parr says of his evolution from sommelier to winemaker: “In 2003, I was tasting wines with a winemaker friends who had just switched from a sommelier role to making wine. We were having a glass of Graillot Crozes Hermitage and I asked him how come he wasn’t making wine like this: whole cluster [fermentation], fresh and crunchy; and was just told it wasn’t done in California. That stuck in my head and I thought maybe I should find a vineyard where I can make whole cluster [fermented] Syrah. And in 2004, I found a biodynamic vineyard in Santa Barbara with Syrah.”
“When I started [making wines], it was more of just wanting to be curious and learning about viticulture. I was using my own money and savings to teach myself how to make wine; it was a personal endeavour. I made some wines in Sonoma, different parts of California, but my favourite area of all is Sta. Rita Hills. That’s where I met my business partner Sashi [Moorman], and we decided to start making wines together.”
The partners have two labels based in the Sta. Rita Hills: Sandhi and Domaine de la Côte. Sandhi, focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir from purchased old-vine grapes, ranging between 30-50 years old. The vineyards have cold temperatures, windy exposures, north-facing expositions, and clay and diatomaceous soils. At Domaine de la Côte, the estate consists of five vineyards in the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills region, planted predominantly with pinot noir. Up in Oregon, the winemaking duo also make wine under Evening Land Vineyards, where they work with pinor noir, chardonnay, gamay and a little chenin blanc.
Parr lets on that at his newest estate vineyard, Phelan Farm, in Cambria, he has planted a wide array of grape varieties: trousseau, poulsard, savagnin, mondeuse, gamay. The vineyards are on granite and shale and enjoy a cool climate. “So far, we’ve made a pinot noir Pet Nat. We’ve also made a wine called Tres Chingones that features gamay, pinot noir and mondeuse, and it’s inspired by an alpine wine from Savoie called Autremont, which uses that varietal mix. Many of our new wines are zero-zero [zero additives and zero Sulphur], hence I’m not sure if they’ll leave the country. Maybe, we’ll see,” he teases.
“My overarching idea [across my labels] is to make wine honestly,” says Parr, specifically avoiding the term “minimal-intervention” because “all wine is made through human intervention”. By utilising stylistically similar winemaking techniques for all his wines, Parr aims to highlight terroir distinction.
From pruning to planting in the vineyards, organic and biodynamic farming practices are followed. In the cellar, everything is done by hand, with no temperature control and no additives during vinification — except for tiny bits of sulphur at bottling and sometimes after malolactic fermentation (malo) — and with a preference of concrete vessels for fermentation and neutral barrels for ageing. All wines are wild-yeast fermented, all chardonnays go through malo, and almost all pinot noirs are whole-cluster fermented. “Extraction is gentle, we don’t want a big tannic monster; we make wines that are textural, balanced, fresh,” and Parr emphasises, “highly drinkable.”
Parr notes that as both a sommelier and winemaker, his travels around the world made him realise that diverse wine drinkers globally are trending towards drinking similar style wines: Wines that have high drinkability, great energy, and genuine stories behind them.
For Parr, “wines are stylistic of soil, of place, and of person”. Which is why travelling when as a winemaker is just as important as when a sommelier. As a sommelier, “I will want to first taste it, read about it, then go visit its place of origin, then talk to someone who made it and learn from them,” he explains. As winemakers, he and Moorman “don’t go everywhere all the time but we like to travel to meet and understand our wine drinkers, and to proudly represent the place where our wines come from”.
In his unending quest for wine knowledge, Parr is on the road about 40 percent of the year. He expounds, “I’m interested in people and how they influence the things they grow, so not only vines, but farming. I want to go see and learn more about permaculture, how to work with animals and incorporate them into our farming; I’m curious about how we can implement some of the ideas that we see in other places and how we can all live together, better. I can hire a consultant who will tell us what to do, but I want to experience things myself. Instead of just saying we hired 10 people to help us do something, we want to be part of the process and not just the idea.”
From day one as a winemaker, it has always been hands on for Parr. “It was only challenges,” Parr says matter-of-factly when asked about his foray into wine making. “Wine comes first and fore-mostly from the vineyard, so every part of the production cycle from pruning to bottling, it’s hands on. We don’t have a big team, it’s mostly just me and Sashi, and we’re there for everything: harvesting, vinification, receiving visitors etc.”
“There are definitely other easier ways of making money but we do it because we love it.”
In Singapore, Parr’s wines are distributed by Arcodyn; fermentedconnections.com