An Interview with Wine Renaissance Man Rajat Parr

by Chris Struck
September 2014

Restaurant

Par on the evolution of California Wines, Climate Change, and Mentors

Chris Struck: What are your impressions of new winemakers in California today compared to those of 20, 30 years ago? Are new generations or those coming to the craft as second careers doing anything notably different?
Rajat Parr: I think the new generation is looking at the past and adapting to the present. Also, they have an open mind. They are trying Old World techniques that might work in the New World.

Rajat Parr of the Mina Group
Rajat Parr of the Mina Group

CS: Sweetness, acidity, and polyphenolic structure from tannins play significant roles in how well a wine can age. Will this new wave of lighter winemaking in California affect the cellaring potential of these wines in the future?
RP: I think this “new wave” is the “old wave.” We’ve seen that older bottlings of Au Bon Climat, Mount Eden, Ridge, etc., have aged quite well even though they were light textured and have lower alcohol content. As long as the wine has a balance between fruit, tannin, and acid, the wine will age gracefully.

CS: What projects are you currently working on in your vineyards and restaurants to showcase leaner-style California wines?
RP: We have two labels based in the Santa Rita Hills: Sandhi, which focuses on Chardonnay and Pinot from purchased grapes and Domaine de la Côte, which is predominantly Pinot from our Estate vineyard in the western edge of the Santa Rita Hills.

CS: It seems as though many wine lists either tend to be dominated by California selections, or they are downright absent from them. Given the historical spread of European immigrants in this country, especially on the east coast, are California wines still in any way disadvantaged in domestic markets outside of the state?
RP: Yes. I think primarily because most sommeliers were trained in classic European wines and were not that exposed to domestic wines. And for years American wines were produced only in the big and juicy style. Now there is more diversity and we see sommeliers around the U.S. supporting and loving domestic wines.

CS: You have professed your love of red Burgundy on many occasions, citing Bourgogne as your favorite winemaking region. What unique challenges do California producers have working with finicky grapes, such as Pinot Noir or Graciano?
RP: I love Burgundy but Pinot Noir from Burgundy cannot be made anywhere else. California producers can learn from Burgundy and adapt the techniques of viticulture and oenology but that's it. I think having a Burgundian sensibility is a great thing but that's as far as it should go. Pinot Noirs from Sonoma or Santa Rita Hills have their own identity and that should be the focus of the producers.

CS: You have overseen the wine program of Michael Mina’s restaurant group for over 10 years. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities that you've discovered managing the wine of such a large empire?
RP: There have been lots of great opportunities to discover different wines from around the world and to serve them to a diverse client base all over the U.S. The challenges were mostly price-based. Due to a varied distribution system, the pricing at every restaurant was different. That really frustrated me. Also, finding interesting wines in smaller markets was always challenging.

CS: How can California—and the U.S. as a whole—do a better job marketing their wines to the rest of the world?
RP: I think it's very important to export your best wines. Historically, U.S. producers only exported the wines they could not sell in the U.S. or sometimes put it under a different label. We must be proud of what we produce and the appellation we are in. The reputation of California wine is oaky and sweet. We all must change that by producing wines with structure and balance.

CS: There’s been a trend in the past five to 10 years of some European vignerons producing higher alcohol and more heavily oaked wines in order to better compete with New World wines in the global market. What do you make of this?
RP: I think that’s just a trend to satisfy certain wine critics. It will pass!

CS: What can European producers learn from their California colleagues and vice versa?
RP: I think there is a lot to learn from California. With a change in climate and early harvests, Europeans can learn the challenges we’ve had. Also, there’s a lot more experimenting happening in the New World. Many New World producers take their inspirations from Europe and this will continue. 

CS: What nuances distinguish a wine produced in California from one produced in Europe in the same style?
RP: I think the soil and climate are the predominate differences. 

CS: Who are the notable players of Old World style-winemaking in California today? Which of their specific wines comes to mind as most indicative of the balance and subtlety traditionally found in European wines?
RP: Au Bon Climat- Isabelle Pinot Noir, Copain- Halcone Syrah, Kutch- Fallstaff Pinot Noir, Sandlands- Chenin Blanc, Arnot Roberts- Trousseau, Pax- Trousseau Gris, and many others. These guys are pushing the envelope to produce wines that are in a European style.

CS: What governmental regulatory constraints on wine production, marketing, sales, and transport are preventing U.S. consumers from the consumption habits and prices historically enjoyed by those in Europe? Do you see State Liquor Authorities (SLA) existing in the future? How can Direct to Consumer (DTC) sales be improved at an interstate level?
RP: I think the government should look into creating a control body similar to the  Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité (INAO) or Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP). We must control beverage production. It's the only way to move forward with high quality products. DTC sales have been predominantly based on scores by critics. With social media, a lot is changing. Interstate boundaries are slowly disappearing. People are a lot more aware.

CS: In both your book and in previous interviews, you mention the importance of the role that your mentor, Larry Stone, played in the onset of your career, and how important having a mentor is for young somms. What other advice would you give young people working as servers and junior/assistant sommeliers and what bad habits have you seen among these freshmen?
RP: It’s very important to have a mentor or teacher. Someone who has walked the walk and can offer you sound advice and perhaps teach you the classics. I think the biggest problem with the newer generation of sommeliers is that they skip the classics and move straight towards the geeky and esoteric wines. It’s of prime importance to master the classic wines of the world. As far as bad habits, I don't think that's a big problem but what is a problem is work ethic and hospitality. A sommelier must know that the number one job in a restaurant is hospitality. Yes, wine service is important but being hospitable is MOST important. Second is training. Young sommeliers must patiently work and study. Too many are in a rush to become a Wine Director or Master Sommelier. They miss the path. Every young sommelier must learn everything about service--bartend, bus tables, stock wine cellars etc.

CS: Where do you see California winemaking in 20 years?
RP: I think we’re just scratching the surface. The revolution is just starting. Most producers are going to look to the past to make wines with balance, wines made for the dinner table. Climate change is happening worldwide. We’ll all have to figure that out. I'm sure grape varieties will change. The question is, who will lead that change...