Interview with Sommelier Rom Toulon of Restaurant at Meadowood St. Helena, CA

October 2011

Antoinette Bruno: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Rom Toulon: I grew up in the Loire Valley. My parents drank wine with every single meal. My father would give me a little bit of wine in the water when I was nine. By 12 I could have an ounce of wine. When you are young you want to travel, but I could have wines from everywhere and not have to travel.

AB: Where have you worked previously?
RT: I worked for The Four Seasons for nine years. I worked in Toronto, London, Paris, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Mexico.

AB: Who is your mentor and what did you learn from him/her?
RT: Enrico Bernardo. He was the youngest sommelier to receive the title “Best Sommelier in the World.” He was at George V and The Four Seasons.

AB: What courses have you taken? Any certifications?
RT: I went through an apprenticeship when I was 15 years old where you worked two weeks and then were in school for two weeks. I did that for two years and then took an exam to be a certified sommelier. You don't have this in the US. You don't want to be a Master Sommelier in Europe—that's an American thing.

AB: What’s your fondest wine memory?
RT: It wasn't so long ago. We had a cult wine maker, Philip Togni—at the time he was the winemaker at Chappellet—and he brought a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Pritchard Hill 1969, which is impossible to find. It was supposed to be the most amazing wine. I didn't really believe that wines from Napa could age. It was a slap in the face. This wine was out of this world. Philip wanted me to decant half of the bottle. He wanted me to keep one third of the bottle of the wine with the sediment—he wanted to chew the sediment. This was one of the most incredible wines I have had in California in 10 years. It had structure and fruit, and the tannins were impeccable.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and wine?
RT: To be honest to our customers that means spending time with the chef and the wine. Here this is our strength—65 percent of our sales are wine pairings. In this economy that is amazing. [The diners] do not expect cheap wines, that is for sure. But we serve wines from all over and that is the beautiful thing about Napa Valley.

AB: How do you compile your wine list?
RT: We are so blessed to be so close to San Francisco to do trade tastings. I'm also part of the tasting panel for The San Francisco Chronicle and I get the opportunity to taste wines from all over the world.

AB: Is there a perfect food and wine match that you’ve recently discovered?
RT: The Junmai Taru, Ichinokura sake with the Cold Smoked Toro Osetra Caviar, Crème Frâiche, and Warm Brioche. Beer could work very well with dessert. There is no exact science. With this sake, some people are shocked. Is it a risk that we are taking here, yes. But 65 percent of our wine sales represent pairings and 40 percent of our customers are staying here at the hotel.

AB: What is your favorite wine?
RT: That is a tough one. Chateau Cheval Blanc—The White Horse 1985. That is a vintage that I tasted years ago and it made me stay in this business and love it even more.

AB: What regions are you interested in at the moment?
RT: I'm interested in the Ukraine. The Massandra Collection from the Ukraine is going to be the next big thing.

AB: What is your favorite wine resource?
RT:—it is the most objective publication or website.

AB: Which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine with, and what would you pour?
RT: Robert Mondavi. I would pour Chateau Cheval Blanc—The White Horse 1985.

AB: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
RT: I would be a cartoonist.

AB: What are your ultimate career goals?
RT: Following Enrico [Bernardo]. When you come to his restaurants, you start with picking the wine and then someone recommends what dishes to go with the wine. I'd like to have my own place where wine is key.