Sommelier Jesse Rodriguez
Addison | San Diego, CA
It was a sip of Huet Clos du Bourg Vouvray that changed everything for Jesse Rodriguez. He was working on his second master's degree at the time and waiting tables at The Phoenician in Arizona; the position of sommelier—and its singular focus on wine—was fascinating to Rodriguez. “I became very passionate about wine and its ties with history,” he explains.
The history buff spent six months convincing the wine team leads, Chris Coon and MS Greg Tresnor, to give him a shot—and the consistent harassing paid off. Since that day, Rodriguez has done nothing short of immerse himself in the study of wine—from its deeply rooted history to how it’s made—and made it his personal mission to educate people—from diner to novice sommelier—about how to best experience wine.
Rodriguez joined the wine team at Thomas Keller’s landmark The French Laundry in Napa, helping the restaurant become the only dining venue in California to earn a three-star Michelin rating, and he also spent time as a sales manager for ZD Wines. Rodriguez came to The Grand Del Mar as the opening head sommelier for the resort’s flagship restaurant, Addison, where he built an award-winning 3,300-bottle collection (recognized by Food & Wine magazine and Forbes.com) and tirelessly educated his staff and diners about wine.
Rodriguez is now the wine director for The Grand Del Mar, overseeing the wine programs at five dining venues, catering, gourmet shop, and events; training teams of sommeliers; assembling and maintaining the property’s 35,000-bottle wine collection; and still making time to be on the floor and serve guests. On top of it all, Rodriguez works with vineyards from Champagne, Germany, Austria, Italy, and California to handcraft 13 private labels for the resort—a relationship he describes as “the same idea as farm-to-table, but farm-to-barrel-to-glass.” He is currently working toward his Master Sommelier certification.
Antoinette Bruno: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Jesse Rodriguez: While I was going to school at Arizona State, I worked at The Phoenician Resort as a waiter in their restaurant, Windows on the Green. While I was there, I became fascinated with the sommelier. I thought it was so cool that his whole focus was on wine and I decided that I wanted to do everything I could to learn about his job. I started to come in early and offered to help with inventory. At first, I had to convince the wine team—which was then led by Chris Coon and Greg Tresnor—that I was serious about wine. It took six months of constant bugging for them to give me a chance, but they loved me for it! I became very passionate about wine, and its ties with history, and the sommeliers would pour me really good wine. I started helping as the sommelier for private wine parties. It was really cool to work with those guys since Greg Tresnor was the only master sommelier in the state of Arizona.
AB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
JR: It was a taste of Vouvray that got me going. It was Huet Clos du Bourg. That was the one where I went, “I want to do this.” It’s a sweet wine, very rich, from the Chenin Blanc grape.
AB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
JR: I think that wine should amplify the food and not be front stage. I try to think of myself as the PR for the kitchen's food. Like: “Let's look at these together, with this wine, that course is going to be superb.” With our food, we generally like wines with acid. Acid is like the natural central nervous system of wines. Chef Bradley’s food is not complicated, but there are so many beautiful flavors. So, you don’t want something with high alcohol or something too fruity or too tannic. Wines with acidity showcase the food quite well.
AB: Did our tasting with you reflect Old World or New World wines, or a mix?
JR: The tasting reflected primarily Old World wines. We try to take the diner around the world with the wines selected, a global experience with wine. Anyone can pick out a grand cru. But if someone else does the research, you can really push the envelope and think outside of the box.
AB: Tell me about a perfect wine and food pairing that you have discovered.
JR: A coddled egg with black truffle and parmesan fondue paired with an Albert Grivault Meursault 2005, a white Burgundy. The 2005 vintage is a classic. I like it because it has good acidity and perfectly highlights the richness you get with the parmesan fondue and the earthiness of the truffle. It’s a naturally rich course, and Meursault is the richest of any white Burgundy; so it really amplifies the profile of the dish. Also, [wines from] the area of Burgundy pairs well with truffles.
AB: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
AB: What is your favorite?
JR: Krug, I just love it. Twenty-five master sommeliers have dined here since we’ve opened; and we always like to start them off with a glass of Krug.
AB: What is it about Krug that you love so much?
JR: It’s the end all be all of Champagne. Everyone loves it. People who have never tasted it before are amazed that Champagne can taste like that. When we serve it to really serious wine drinkers, they take a sip and know that that it is the start to a great evening.
AB: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
JR: Teaching history or archeology and working on my PhD. I have two master’s degrees.
AB: You made a comparison between teaching and being a sommelier. Can you elaborate on how you think the industries overlap and share similarities?
JR: I just finished doing two private study sessions with people looking to pass their advanced sommelier certification. At the end of the day, I am a servant. It’s about providing information. Working at a place like Addison, we have immeasurable accessibility. I was able to pass this on or learn this because someone gave me their time and walked me through this first. It’s giving back to the community. Instead of a job, it is teaching people how they can become better diners. Sommeliers do research to provide the best quality of beverage, service, and experience. I share and mentor, and I can tell the huge difference it makes to be passionate. When you are passionate about what you teach, people feed off of it.
AB: Which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine with? What would you pour?
JR: Winston Churchill. I’d pour him Krug Clos du Mesnil. I would just love to hear about his philosophy and what he was thinking when everything was going on during World War II. I’d like to hear about what was going on behind the scenes.
AB: What are your ultimate career goals? Where do you see yourself in five years?
JR: Hopefully finished with the master sommelier certification. I would love to be making wine, working on a PhD or consulting on a wine list, working service one to two days per week, and teaching during the day. Right now I have taken a baby step in that direction with all the private labels we do.
AB: Tell me a little bit more about the private labels you do at Addison.
JR: It’s great. It’s finding the small little grower-producers that are offering the best the world has to offer in wine. Like those small little cheese producers at Murray’s. You build a relationship with them and support them by handcrafting a blend together. I go to the vineyard myself and actually make the blend, trying out different ones until I get it just right. It’s the same idea as farm-to-table, but farm-to–barrel-to-glass. It’s really special, helping out the small growers and producers. Right now we have 13 private labels from Champagne, Germany, Austria, California; and we are getting ready to do one with a vineyard in Italy.
AB: How do you compile your wine list?
JR: On our title page we have two styles. One part of our list is based on classical producers from around the world. The other part is from new vanguard producers that we call the hidden blue chip producers. They’re the new kids you will hear about in five to ten years. My philosophy is to offer the guest something they would not see in San Francisco, Chicago, or New York. Basically, a world-class wine list and at the same time something for people who are watching their wallets.
AB: What regions are you interested in at the moment?
JR: Definitely Burgundy, and some new areas in Germany and Austria. I’m into Washington State, too. In a couple of months, I’ll be going to Oregon to discover Pinot Noir land.
AB: Why are you so interested in those regions?
JR: They have everything you can possibly think of. The whites from Germany and Austria have layers of flavor, complexity, depth, and that acidity factor which allows wines to age. But the best part is you can serve those wines with so many different cuisines. They don’t pigeonhole you. There’s such a range of stuff you can play with, because no matter what you cook it works. It is always incredible. It only gets better from there.
AB: What wine trends are you seeing in your city?
JR: When I first got to San Diego three years ago, there really wasn’t a push for wine directors or sommeliers. The industry was driven by distributors. You can see in New York and San Francisco it doesn’t work that way. But now you can see what we have done. There is more awareness on what’s available rather than listening to what is available. Sommeliers and wine directors do their own research. It goes back to sharing and to how wine and teaching are intertwined. You see that it’s not the same wines by the glass everywhere, it’s all different. Little producers from the Bay Area have come here and you can find their wines here.
AB: What wine education topics/seminars/workshops would you find the most helpful?
JR: Talking about the taboo issue of pricing. Customers aren't afraid to say they’re allergic to something, but when they look at a wine list they are afraid to mention their price range. It's much better to say what your budget is and then we can give you a fantastic wine experience. Another topic I’d find helpful would be “Where to Get Really Cool Wines.” I’d like to hear the talk include the buying process and vendor relations, and justifying purchasing wines from certain vendors.
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