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From Service to Soil: Sommeliers Join the Winemaking Game

Beverage professionals are going back to the land

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Maybe it’s inevitable. If your job is to learn about the world through wine, teach those bottles to others, collect the juice that excites you the most, and bear firsthand witness to vintage variation year after year — perhaps you belong on the other side of the bottling line. In the past few years, some of America's top sommeliers have turned to winemaking, immersing themselves in the cellar, concentrating on the vineyard, or partnering on a shared vision with carefully selected worldwide winemakers.

First, there was Rajat Parr, whose prized Sandhi Wines was founded in 2009 in California’s Sta. Rita Hills, a Pacific-cooled climate that grows some of the U.S.’s best wine grapes. Currently also the wine director of chef Michael Mina’s San Francisco-based restaurant group, Parr initially fell in love with food: In his native Calcutta he enrolled in restaurant school, then departed India for New York to attend an intensive program at the Culinary Institute of America, which, back in the 1990s, included wine classes taught by celebrated wine writer and teacher Steven Kolpan.

To learn more, Parr took his food and hospitality training to San Francisco’s legendary, though now shuttered Rubicon restaurant and started anew as a busboy under the helm of storied sommelier Larry Stone (who, in 1988, passed the notoriously difficult Master Sommelier exam after months, not the usual years, of study, to become the country's 9th MS). Parr later went on to fuse his passion with California vintner Sashi Moorman, and together they released their first bottles of Sandhi wine, a chardonnay and a pinot noir; one year later in 2010 they founded their Sta. Rita Hills winery, with a special focus on those varietals' potential for greatness in that viticultural zone’s cooler climate. These days Parr is also a co-winemaker under two other labels: Domaine de la Côte in Lompoc, California, and Evening Land Vineyards in Washington’s Willamette Valley, with the famous Burgundy-likened Seven Spring site.

"It really helped me to understand the wines better."

At Sandhi, alongside Moorman, Parr works closely with local growers to source grapes from historical sites like Sanford & Benedict, the first vineyard of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. From there, Parr produces his Sandhi varietal chardonnay and pinot noir the hands-off way, relying on wild yeasts: "It’s humbling," he says of his lauded wines. "You’re completely exposed to nature and fate."

Sommelier turned winemaker André Hueston Mack with his Mouton Noir wines. [Image via Facebook]

With a more cellar-oriented bent, there’s former Eleven Madison Park (New York) sommelier Dustin Wilson, who wine film fans will recognize from SOMM, the 2012 documentary which followed his attempts to join the Master Sommelier ranks through a battery of rigorous written and service exams. While Wilson has a new retail project in the works, he plays a quieter role at his Vallin Winery in Santa Barbara, California, from which he released his first vintage in 2012 in part as a way to learn more about the wines he was serving. Wilson cites Parr’s Sandhi, along with Scarpetta Wine — Boulder, Colorado-based MS Bobby Stuckey’s winemaking partnership with producers in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Piemonte areas — as influences. "It really helped me to understand the wines better. I started to dig in a little more; once the fruit is pulled off the vine, all the things that happen before it makes its way into the bottle," he says of his own undertaking. At Vallin, Wilson concentrates on Rhône Valley varieties syrah, marsanne, and viognier — which are at home in Santa Barbara’s cool climate and works with local Lieu Dit Winery's Eric Railsback and Justin Willett to make a red and a white, both firmly on the fresher side. "As much as we romanticize it, there’s a lot more to it. It helped me understand where it’s coming from, but also the hand of the winemaker," Wilson says of his wine label.

Chasing understanding is a common thread among somms turned producers: after an initial restaurant gig sparked an interest in wine, now-winemaker André Hueston Mack set off on a trail that would lead him to sommelier positions at San Antonio’s Palm Restaurant and New York City’s Per Se, gathering recognition like Chaîne des Rôtisseurs’s Best Young Sommelier in America in 2003 — the first African-American sommelier to receive the award — along the way.

"I felt like I’ve always been on this quest to become closer to wine.

In 2007, Mack took the ultimate wine-lover’s plunge and founded Mouton Noir Wines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley: "I felt like I’ve always been on this quest to become closer to wine. I was a waiter, then I became a somm to get closer, then traveled and worked harvests, then it reached a point that the only way to be closer was to hop on the production side," he says. To that end, Mack does everything, from working in the vineyards with his grape growers, to cleaning tanks in his winery, to sending personalized notes to customers.

Along with Mack and Parr, Willamette Valley is oenological home to somm-winemaker Josh Nadel, too. Nadel, who appeared in Esquire Network’s Uncorked, runs Gothic Wine, growing Burgundy varieties pinot noir and chardonnay, and making his wines with a Old World philosophy as well: intervene in neither vineyard nor winery, and make elegant, lighter-bodied wines that are indispensable at mealtime.

Then there’s a love for under appreciated local wines. After moving to New York’s farm- and vineyard-rich Finger Lakes area, Thomas Pastuszak left medical school to pursue food and wine. Now, as wine director at Eleven Madison Park’s sister restaurant, The NoMad in New York, Pastuszak has looked back at the region: his Empire Estate winery on Seneca Lake’s east side released its first vintage, 2014, in order to promote the Finger Lakes's natural affinity for quality riesling. "I love dry riesling. Especially having a background in restaurants, for me the biggest frustration is that people think sweet when they think of riesling," he says. "I saw that chefs are able to source their ingredients and craft dishes they can call their own, and similarly bartenders can create a cocktail of their own. Starting a project like this was being about to create something from scratch."

L to R: Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon, and a bottle of Gothic rosé. [Images via Facebook]

On the West Coast, Los Angeles somm Maxwell Leer let his love of wine guide him locally, too: the steadily disappearing Cucamonga Valley AVA in Southern California, about an hour drive from Los Angeles, was once the center of stateside winemaking. The area's first vines were planted in the early 19th century, and its total vineyard a century later was double that of Napa and Sonoma. But after decades of vine destruction first by way of Prohibition, then more recently by real-estate developers, less than 1,000 acres of vines remain, among them some of the nation’s oldest, including those of estate producer Joseph Filippi. In 2013, Leer collaborated with the winery to create the Fleur de Valle vin gris — wine made from red grenache grapes but without skin contact and therefore with less color — in an enthusiastic nod to Cucamonga’s prosperous past and experimental present.

"Starting a project like this was being about to create something from scratch."

That sense of collaboration drives others, still. In 2009, New York’s famed Le Bernardin wine director Aldo Sohm teamed up with winemaker Gerhard Kracher, of Austria’s well-regarded sweet wine producer Kracher, to make their dry Sohm & Kracher grüner veltliner with grapes from just one vineyard in the gently hilled Weinviertel grüner stronghold of Sohm’s native Austria — the wine is poured at Sohm’s Midtown wine bar, as well as next-door Le Bernardin.

Bringing her sommelier talents to the winemaking side, too, New York's Momofuku beverage director Jordan Salcito founded Bellus Wines in 2011 as an alliance with winemakers for a "socially and environmentally conscious wine company that makes organically grown, terroir-driven wines," as reads her website. Her partnerships extend across the world to include a frappato, grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, from Sicily’s southern coast (proceeds go to the Nomogaia NGO, which works with global corporations to protect human rights), and a California rosé that’s lightly fizzy, slightly sweet, and warm weather-ly low-alcohol: a flattering imitation of France’s bubbly Cerdon wines made by California sparkling wine guru Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Co.

Beneath all the reasons for making wine  the curiosity, the local lure, the how and the why there’s one crucial cause: people. "It allowed me to better understand and explain the wines I was serving," says Wilson. "As a somm," notes Pastuszak of the desire to help people drink well, "one of the things you try to do is you try to paint a picture and tell a story to your guests, you tell the story of the land that the wine comes from. I get to show these off to our customers." For Mack, "I want to know who the people are who are drinking my wines, to know that this is not an empty transaction, for me it’s about the people." For the people, then, below are the munificent wines these sommeliers have made.

  • Sandhi Wines, Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay, 2014 ($55)
  • Empire Estate, Riesling, 2014 ($17)
  • Mouton Noir Wines, Oregogne Pinot Noir, 2013 ($44)
  • Sohm & Kracher, "Single Vineyard" Gruner Veltliner, 2011 ($53)
  • Vallin, Syrah, 2013 ($30)
  • Bellus Wines, La Vie en Bulles, 2015 ($36)
  • Gothic Wine, Maelstrom Pinot Noir, 2012 ($45)
  • Joseph Filippi Winery, Fleur de Valle, Grenache, 2014 ($10)

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