Serve Wine, Make Wine

Paul Blow

“Every sommelier seems to be making wine these days,” a friend who works at a winery said to me the other day. And, he added, “a lot of them have no idea what they’re doing.” He’s right, about the first part at least. In Walla Walla, Washington, master sommelier Greg Harrington, who has served as wine director for Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, is making wine under the name Gramercy Cellars; in San Francisco, John Lancaster and Rob Perkins of Boulevard have Skylark Wine Company; in Aspen, Colorado, Frasca owner and wine director Bobby Stuckey has Scarpetta; and in Beverly Hills, Spago wine director Kevin O’Connor is running Lioco. Those are just a few of the sommeliers who have gotten off the restaurant floor (at least part of the time) and are selling their own wines.

Maybe some of these projects are acts of vanity or an attempt to use a high-profile wine job to make money on the side. But that’s not what I’m seeing. I’m seeing a sommelier’s love of wine extending beyond the restaurant. It seems only natural, after you’ve devoted your career to the study of a subject, to want to have a hand in it yourself. In fact, I think these projects are gutsy and potentially putting reputations on the line. But my real hope is that the sommelier wines, if they are successful, can have a stylistic impact on the larger world they inhabit.

Take, for example, the projects of Richard Betts, a master sommelier and wine director of Aspen’s Little Nell. Betts makes wines under the Betts & Scholl label (with partner Dennis Scholl), offering wines from Australia, California, and France. They’ve partnered with local wineries in each country. Betts, notable for his shoulder-length, bushy hair and upbeat disposition, landed in Australia to make Grenache, a grape largely overlooked in that country. “I consider Grenache to be the warm-weather equivalent of Pinot Noir,” Betts told me on his recent visit to San Francisco. “I knew I wanted to make it and traveled all over looking at vineyards—Spain, Sardinia, France, California. But it wasn’t until I got to Australia and saw 80-year-old Grenache vines that were completely abandoned and unused … that I knew I had found the right place.” Betts went door-to-door approaching growers about reviving and buying fruit from the vines. He then made the wine in a distinctly un-Australian way: low-tech with no new oak. The result is gorgeous, smooth, and elegant, with bright brambly red fruit and a lively bounce on the tongue. And no trace of new French oak. Perhaps other vintners will see that great wine is not reliant on oak.

Rajat Parr, wine director for the ever-expanding Mina Group, is making wine under a label called Parr Selections. He’s also relying on the help of local winemakers in the regions he’s chosen. A master of Burgundy and Rhône wines, Parr is making Pinot, Syrah, and Chardonnay in Santa Barbara County. What’s notable is that he’s doing things most vintners down there don’t: harvesting at lower sugar levels, fermenting the grapes “whole cluster” (without taking the grapes off the stems), and, like Betts & Scholl, backing off on oak. These techniques are common in France, the country of origin of Parr’s favorite wines, but rarely seen here. Most vintners in California are afraid to ferment Pinot Noir with any stems, fearing the appearance of green, herbal flavors. Few ever even try. If used correctly, though, the stems can provide inimitable texture, spice, and backbone to a wine, such as is found in the offerings of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Leroy, two preeminent Burgundy producers that practice whole-cluster fermentation. The results so far have been wines of lacey, lovely texture and encouraging complexity, though they are still very young (whole-cluster wines often take longer to come around). “I’m going to make lower-alcohol wines that work with food,” Parr told me, “and wines that I want to drink.”

“I didn’t choose the most commercially viable wines and make them in the ubiquitous style on purpose,” Betts said. “And I’m prepared to drink them if no one else does.” Luckily, the advantages of the sommelier winemaker in selling wines are his or her position as a tastemaker and access to the channels of sales, through connections to distributors and other sommeliers.

What sommeliers can bring to the winemaking world—an understanding of balance, restraint, elegance, and food-friendly wine—are qualities lacking in many of today’s blockbuster wines. “We sommeliers taste the great wines of the world every night,” said Betts. “Our palates that we taste with and paint with for guests are better than anyone’s. Why not use them for blending or selecting barrels? Why not use what we have learned in wine-tasting to inform winemaking?” They may not technically know what they’re doing. But with enough help (which isn’t hard for them to find), I’d be as happy to let a great sommelier’s palate make my wine as I would to let him choose it.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.