Interview with Chef Claire Paparazzo of Blue Hill - New York City

September, 2009

Amanda McDougall: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Claire Paparazzo: I think it goes back to when I was a child and I wanted to blend perfume. My friend had a perfume kit and I was obsessed with it. Later I was working in a restaurant and was forced to drink wines; I started developing a palate back then. My boss took me aside and said that I have a really good palate. When I was in wine tastings I was not overanalyzing. Other seasoned staff were using classic wine terminology but I was saying [things like] “caramel on a toasted bagel.” Maybe it didn’t make sense, but it was more accurate.

AM: Describe your fondest wine memory.
CP: I will say two years ago in France when I met Anselme Selosse. I went up to his table and took a sip of his Brut Initial. Taking his glass was the most profound sensory moment. I had to savor it. I was blown away by the complexity. Then he came to visit me at Blue Hill in New York. He hadn’t been to New York in a long time. Doing a wine pairing for him was surreal.

AM: What are the most important restaurants where you staged or worked?
CP: Definitely Vong because it’s where I met Annie Turso and Susan LaRossa. They were passionate about wine and they spurred me to further my career. I left to be the assistant to Patrick [Bickford] to open ‘Cesca and that was where my love for Italian wines blossomed.

AM: Who are your mentors? What have you learned from them?
CP: Susan LaRossa, Annie Turso, Andrew Bell, and Patrick Bickford. Susan taught me that the possibilities for wine are out there. Annie taught me that strength is knowledge and being a female never came into the equation. Andrew Baum taught me to go with my instinct. He somehow always understood how I got regions. Patrick taught me to taste everything. He challenged me and made me want to seek it out myself. My ex-husband and I started [attending] the American Sommelier Association. He really pushed me to great heights and constantly challenged me, with constant blind tastings at home.

AM: What courses have you taken? Certifications?
CP: I’ve done the American Sommelier Association. I did the Viti course years ago. Everything else is my own vacation time. From the moment I started working at Blue Hill I’ve been around wine and winemakers, whether through Blue Hill or on my own. I haven’t actually had a vacation, but I’ll get there some day.

AM: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
CP: One is incomplete without the other. My philosophy changes seasonally. Just when I think I’ve understood a connection between food and wine, being exposed to a new flavor and pairing, it changes my mind. Keeping an open mind is part of it. I feel like I work with the best chef in the world. I feel I can zero in on pairings because [Chef Dan Barber] makes it so easy. I don’t have to use big name wines. You have to know your flavors and balances.

AM: What is your favorite up-and-coming wine region?
CP: That is such a loaded question. Right now I’m obsessed with Loire, but it changes based on season. I’m also obsessed with the Languedoc region.

AM: What is one of your favorite pairings and why?
CP: Currently Sylvaner and asparagus. I was in Germany recently and found a poetic relationship between the two. I put a Grand Cru on the menu with asparagus. I’m not doing this to make money, but because it’s profound. They thought I was crazy!

AM: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you discovered.
CP: I go back to Rioja with lamb. No expense. I pair Barolo or Barbaresco with pork. With egg it fluctuates between Riesling or, more recently, Burgundy [that is] 5 to 8 years old.

AM: What is your favorite wine?
CP: For a while now it’s been the Jacques Selosse Brut Initial. If I had to choose one, no expense spared, it would be that. On my list it’s $400. I can get it retail at Chambers for $140 or something like that. It’s an expensive habit.

AM: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
CP:I usually don’t purchase a lot of wines. Except for Jacques Selosse. They are usually gifts from winemakers or friends. And they usually sit there until a special occasion and then I invite friends over and we crack open a bunch and taste.

AM: To what extent do you control the wine list? How much existed before you arrived?
CP: I’ve been at Blue Hill for four years. I’ve been with the company for five and a half years. I do it all. I‘ve changed everything on the list since I’ve been there. It preoccupies my mind all the time.

AM: How do you compile the wine list?
CP: It’s broken into categories of weight. I try to have a flow and fill it up in a way that is very visceral. At certain times of the year I focus on lighter categories and other times on the heavier [categories], but I always have a flow. Some things are more recognizable and some things are more obscure. It has to do with price point as well. I taste with people about three times a week, which gives me a good index for ideas of what I need to get.

AM: Did the tasting reflect Old World or New World wines or a mix? How do you choose?
CP: I think it was a coincidence that it was all Old World; I usually mix it up. I’ve been exposed to wines from Oregon that are amazing. I also do local wine pairings. And from California I do multi-vintage and multi-varietal blind tastings. I try to seek out New World producers who are Old World in profile. There’s a real connection between how you blend and how you use oak. I blended a wine—it's the Hirsch Vineyard Blue Hill Special Cuvee 2007. I tasted from 16 different barrels, from new oak and from neutral. It came out just how I wanted and it was so crazy. If you try the wine it tastes really Burgundian.

AM: What is the most exciting trend in wine right now?
CP: People are open to trying wines that they don’t know. People are finding it refreshing to find new ideas in wine. Like carbonic maceration in Languedoc.

AM: What organizations do you belong to?
CP: Vino Vixens is the one I’m currently involved with. It’s something I go back and forth on. I feel like my job, wine director, wouldn’t allow the time for more.

AM: What languages do you speak?
CP: Conversational Spanish and at one point conversational Italian but I think it’s gone.

AM: Which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine? What would you pour?
CP: I guess Rumi. A lot of his poetry is about the perils of life, love, and passion. And I think it would make for a really unforgettable time. I would probably serve a really old burgundy. I just think it would be poetic in the opening and the breathing during the conversation. We’d have lots to cover.

AM: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
CP: That’s a good question. I actually consider myself an artist. I love to paint and draw. I also fantasize about being a rock star. I’ve written songs over the years and I haven’t been singing recently, so probably I’d be a broke artist.

AM: What's your next project?
CP: London to research wines for Blue Hill, staff seminars at the restaurant, and I will probably try to do more tastings with the Vino Vixens and do more events with them. I want to try to break out more with women in wine and the strength we have.

AM: What are your ultimate career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
CP: I actually I would love to be able to include more of my creativity in my own way and do experiments with people and have it published in a magazine. I’d love to do wine travel and wine documentaries. I think that would be great. I feel like I would a good person to introduce wine to people who are too scared of it because they feel it’s pretentious. I don’t start out with technical terms. I’d just ask them to take an adventure with me. The idea of being a sommelier is not about being pretentious. I feel like I am more empty than full so I can keep learning and growing.