If she wasn’t a sommelier, Pascaline Lepeltier would be a professor of Ancient Greek Philosophy, tucked away somewhere in the ivory towers of a poorly ventilated university exploring the meaning—or meaninglessness—of life among a bunch of wan undergrads. Fortunately for us she did well on her baccalaureat, so well in fact that her professor congratulated her with a great bottle of Champagne. The cork was popped and Lepeltier was entranced. But if the Champagne uncorked Lepeltier’s passion for wine, it was a bottle of Yquem 1937 that convinced her to pursue a wine career in earnest.
Lepeltier started as assistant sommelier at the two Michelin-starred L’Auberge Bretonne, under celebrated Chef Jacques Thorel, eventually presiding over a list of over 4,500 wines. Within a year, she was named both the Best Loire Valley Young Sommelier and Best Brittany Sommelier. As the accolades poured in, Lepeltier’s career ascent continued. By 2008 she was already the beverage director for the Rouge Tomate group and had placed second in the Best Sommelier of France, the best result ever achieved by a woman, proving this idealist a natural fit for the hedonistic pleasures of wine.
Throughout her career, which finds her now at the New York outpost of Rouge Tomate and studying for her Master Sommelier certification, Lepeltier has championed natural, authentic wines—a preference reflected in the large number of organic and biodynamic bottles on her list. She tempers formality with warmth and balances her extensive knowledge with an endless curiosity. And with a pairing style that is generous, and an enthusiasm for the subject that is highly infectious, Lepeltier is an apt prototype for the next generation of sommeliers, as they encounter an increasingly diversified, natural, idiosyncratic wine experience.
Interview with Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, Sommelier of Rouge Tomate – New York, NY
Antoinette Bruno: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Pascaline Lepeltier: I got 19 out of 20 on my Baccalaureat in philosophy, so my professor offered me a bottle of Champagne and we used a knife to saber it. We drank it together and it was a kind of a revelation. He made me taste wine while I was studying, so I discovered more and more about wine. At one point I was on my way to getting my diploma to be a philosophy professor. I realized I was too young to go into philosophy. So I decided to go into wine.
AB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
PL: When I was 24, I tasted a Chateau D'Yquem 1937 that convinced me to work in wine. Before that I had wanted to work in restaurants, but I had too many degrees and they wouldn't let me on the floor. One day I tasted this wine and I said, “Okay,” and I started from the beginning to become a sommelier.
AB: What courses have you taken?
PL: I took a very short one-year program. It was one week in class and three weeks in a restaurant. I was in a two-star restaurant called L’Auberge Bretonne in Brittany, France. The sommelier was part-time, so the rest of the time I acted as sommelier. Jacques Thorel was chef. Over 100,000 bottles—it was totally crazy. It was the best wine of each category. It was the best Mersault; there was a vertical of Petrus. I just learned with the best.
AB: What do you look for when tasting for Rouge Tomate?
PL: I just try to have good wine. About 35 to 40% of the wine [here] is American. It’s a question of having a product with as few additives as possible. I know there's a very low amount of additives in our wine. Wine is the only product that you can eat or drink that has no regulation in terms of labeling. And there are more than 200 additives that are regulated to be mixed into wine.
AB: What is the benefit of working in New York?
PL: Here in New York, I taste a new grape from a new country every day. Every day has a new surprise, from either the New World or the Old World. I always go back to the classics because I love Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is such an amazing grape that is a result of where it grows. You have this strength, and it's delicate at the same time.
AB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
PL: It's really about the structure and the texture of the dish and the wine, first. It's like a human being. You have some components that are going to be the same all the time, like your body. The wine has acidity, tannin, sweetness, gas, alcohol. If you take a bottle of wine, from the initial bottling to twenty years after that, the components are going to change. When I make a pairing, there is no main rule except to listen to the structure and the texture. I want the wine to have a dialogue with my dish and my dish a dialogue with my wine.
AB: If you could have any chef cook for you, who would it be and why?
PL: I really like Joël Robuchon because for me, he manages to keep the traditional gastronomy and our entire French heritage, and he has welcomed the influences of other countries. And of course I love my chef [Jeremy Bearman] and pastry chef [James DiStefano] at Rouge Tomate.
AB: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you discovered.
PL: Here at the restaurant for example, we have a dessert with fresh pineapple, pineapple sorbet, coconut milk, tapioca, and passion fruit. I paired it with the 2005 Jurançon Domaine de Souch. It's a Gros Manseng-Petit Manseng blend. It's a bit of an acidic grape, so when it makes a sweet wine, it's absolutely gorgeous. It's got a bit of tropical flavor but also amazing acidity, like passion fruit almost. The aroma and spice come out with age. With the pineapple, it's perfectly balanced at all levels. It's the end of the meal, so most of the time your palate is very tired and you need to have something refreshing. And it works so well.
AB: Have you gotten involved in the local sommelier community? How?
PL: I was lucky because at a tasting I knew a few importers and they introduced me to sommeliers. When you taste wines with sommeliers you know you have the same taste, so we tell each other you have to go to this restaurant because the sommeliers are good. So I'm getting to know a few sommeliers here. It's about the wine. We are drinking the same wine and it's two in the morning and let's talk about the wine.
AB: What’s your favorite wine resource and book author?
PL: Of course the Jancis Robinson; it's the bible—it's great. Also Alice Feiring. She's an American writer and I really like her work. She's very brilliant.
AB: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would you go?
PL: I would take an around-the-world ticket and I would go to every country where there is a vineyard. Even a tiny vineyard, I'd go. From Australia to India to Indonesia. To see the highest vineyard to the lowest vineyard. Every vineyard. Because where there is a vineyard there is a great gastronomical culture.
AB: What's the ultimate career success for you?
PL: As a sommelier I am already a very, very lucky girl, because I can do almost whatever I want with the list, but I think at some point I want a vineyard. At one point I want a vineyard to make my wine. I want to do something like that.
AB: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
PL: I’d be a philosophy teacher. I like Ancient Greek philosophy.