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Sommelier Yoon Ha

La Toque | Napa


A native of Seoul, South Korea, Yoon Ha did not come from a culture that emphasized wine; nor did he find wine on his family’s dinner table accompanying the traditional Korean cuisine he grew up eating in Southern California. It wasn’t until he traveled through Germany, France and Spain that Ha became captivated by the magic of proper food and wine marriages. Since then he’s trained his palate to be at the forefront of Wine Country food and beverage pairing. Currently the sommelier at La Toque restaurant in Napa Valley, Ha surprises diners with his out-of-the-box matches, taking them on a journey that pushes past accepted flavor boundaries and challenges traditional food and wine pairings.

With a degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara, Ha has cultivated a career of over 20 years in wine cellar management and wine buying. Prior to landing at La Toque, Ha spent time working at the Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, CA, and 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles.

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Antoinette Bruno: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Yoon Ha: Working as a manager at the Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, CA. The moment I decanted a bottle of 1978 La Tache, it knocked my socks off.

AB: What was it about that wine that made such an impression?
YH: It was just layers and layers of flavors, and the finish lasted like two minutes. It was like nothing that I’d had before: It had fruit, spices, animal and savory notes; it had an incredibly silky mouth feel. It was a surreal sensory thing—a very transcendent wine experience. Like a liquid medium that was called wine.  

AB: After that bottle of La Tache, how did you make the transition into pursuing wine?
YH: The [Sherwood] Country Club went through management transitions and I moved up; the wine duties fell to me. It was a case of being at the right place at the right time. Up until that point, I was mostly enjoying California wines. The club had a deep Bordeaux cellar, so I was familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc.

AB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
YH: That [La Tache] was it—the moment I decanted that bottle of 1978 La Tache, it knocked my socks off.

AB: What courses have you taken? Certifications? Awards won?
YH: I have completed my advanced certification for the Court of Master Sommeliers. I am also a Master Sommelier candidate for 2010.

AB: What are you doing to prepare for the MS exam? How long have you been studying?
YH: I am studying books, reading flashcards, and participating in a tasting group, which I, along with two others, have been running for the past year. We meet every Monday and taste wines that are likely to be on the exam. Most of the group members are sitting for the exam; some are at the master level. In terms of the service aspect of the exam, it’s great to be on the floor of a restaurant for that.

I spend about 20 hours a week studying. I’ve been going through the levels of the Court for about four years.

AB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
YH: Flavor, harmony, and matching depths of flavor. La Toque is a place where people come and don’t want to look at the wine list because we’re known for our pairings. Wine has its most compelling impact when it’s paired with food in a complementary manner, instead of a juxtaposition or contrast. The dishes here are well thought out, use the best ingredients, and honor the individual ingredients on the plate. I feel the job of the sommelier—and my goal—is to elongate the flavors on the plate with wine, rather than truncate them. Wine and food pairings should be about doing that, and not about shortening the experience—that doesn’t do the wine or the dish any favors. My job is to flesh-out the experience of the dish with the wine.

The depth of flavor is really key, because the way I assess the wine (the levels of acid, alcohol and tannins) is also the way I approach the dish, insofar as its fat content, protein, etc. The deeper the flavor of the dish, the deeper the flavor the wine has to be.

AB: Do you work with Chef Ken Frank on pairings?
YH: He and I work very, very closely. Ideally, he will e-mail me the new dishes in advance and then the dish will get put up and tasted. I will review it and tell him what I think works best and why, and he will tell me what he thinks. I propose wines to him.

[For example], we had a phyllo-apple tart with vanilla ice cream that I paired with a local late harvest chardonnay. Theoretically, it should have fallen right in with the apples and phyllo, but it wasn’t letting the apples through. The dessert was more about the richness of the phyllo, and the apple was sliced so thinly. I told Ken that the apples were too thin and he had the kitchen prepare a tart with more thickly cut apples; that really made the wine come in and work with the dish.

AB: Did the tasting reflect Old World wines or New World wines, or a mix? What made you choose?
YH: The tasting represented a mix. With subtle courses I prefer Old World wine, but with bolder flavors I prefer New World wines.

It’s pretty diverse because our tasting menu includes [multiple] courses and desserts. It really runs the gamut. We typically start with an un-oaked white, and a lot of Chardonnay on the second course; a Pinot Noir for the next; and the last course is a bigger, heavier red wine. We run a truffle menu during the season, and we often go to Italy to find something that matches that menu.

AB: What is your favorite wine?
YH: Champagne, a blanc de blanc 100% Chardonnay; any from Cote de Blancs, especially Salon. I love Pierre Peters for something more approachable.

For local wines, I like the Cabernet Sauvignon from Realm [Cellars] in Napa Valley; Keplinger has a great Grenache; and Morlet’s Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast.

AB: List your favorite wine resource book and author.
YH: My go-to resource for wine is Tom Stevenson’s Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.

AB: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match you’ve discovered.
YH: A Korean scallion and sliced kimchi pancake called bin-deh-tuk, which is sautéed in a frying pan and served with a soy dipping sauce that has been brightened with vinegar, paired with a Gruner Veltliner from Austria.

AB: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
YH: Not many wines, primarily Burgundy and Barolos.

AB: What regions are you interested in at the moment?
YH: I’m interested in the Loire Valley for its variety. You have your snappy dry whites, Cab Francs, mineral-y whites, sparklings, and rose. There’s also less oak.

AB: What wine trends are you seeing in your city?
YH: I'm seeing people use a more judicious use of oak and producing wines with lower alcohol contents.

AB: What wines do your customers order most often?
YH: Because we are in Napa Valley, the public comes here to enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon from the Valley. But we’ve seen a big increase in Pinot Noir, which takes diners to a new region from the Sonoma Coast or to Oregon. A lot of guests are very fond of Pinot Noir.

AB: Is there any wine (a varietal or region) that you’re trying to introduce more people to right now?
YH: German Riesling. It’s very versatile. These wines never see any oak influence; there’s a lot of pure fruit and lots of acidity. It goes with a broad range of foods that don’t [belong] to one food culture. They go well with Asian cuisine or with seafood, and they’re also good on their own as an aperitif. And these wines are about the grapes rather than the wine making. I find there is a purity to the wines—the wine maker doesn’t rule, the grape does.

AB: With which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine? What would you pour?
YH: With Ben Franklin because of his genius, or maybe with my father. I didn’t grow up in a wine culture (there isn’t one in Korea); my father would ask me questions that would be so unique and so innocent. It would take me back to that time when you’re not just speaking in wine terms, but you’re just enjoying a glass of wine without any pretense or posturing.

AB: What are your ultimate career goals? Where do you see yourself in five years? In 10 years?
YH: Working in wine, perhaps wine education and possibly in the Far East.

AB: Would you go back to Korea?
YH: Certainly being in my native homeland is very interesting and it wouldn’t be just the usual—and to go to neighboring countries. It would be a great opportunity. Helping the wine trade, and consumers and collectors, and being able to share with them what struck my passion in fine wine—that would be very rewarding for me.

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   Published: April 2009