2015 Seattle Rising Star Sommelier Jackson Rohrbaugh of Canlis

2015 Seattle Rising Star Sommelier Jackson Rohrbaugh of Canlis
November 2015

Though he was born and raised in the lush and verdant Pacific Northwest, Jackson Rohrbaugh didn’t really fall in love with food until he spent a year abroad in Italy.

Rohrbaugh was a student at the University of Washington, studying creative writing when he began his career at Canlis. He dove in head first, serving as the resident jack(son) of all trades—working as a barista, bartender, lead server, and eventually sommelier. It was here that Rohrbaugh found his niche. By 2012, he’d passed his Advanced Exam in the Court of Master Sommeliers—with the highest score of the year.

Not only did said high score earn Rohrbaugh the prestigious Rudd Scholarship and Johnston Medal, it got him attention within the industry, as did his participation in the National Finals of the Young Sommelier Competition. After a short time away from Canlis in which he helped Master Sommelier Chris Tanghe open Aragona, he returned to Canlis as Assistant Wine Director. Sealing his fate, his full-fledged love affair with wine has led Rohrbaugh to further his education and chase the highly coveted Master Sommelier pin.

And the love doesn’t stop there. Rohrbaugh may be training himself for the test, but his process as a sommelier is all about mentorship, and pushing the next young somm to reach the same heights. Not a bad fit for a city like Seattle, where even in wine, community is key.  

Interview with Seattle Rising Star Sommelier Jackson Rohrbaugh of Canlis

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
Jackson Rohrbaugh:
I started in 2008 at Canlis as a back server, then I became a server, and began delving into sommelier things and studying.

SK: Have you had a mentor?
[Canlis Sommelier] Nelson Daquip. Our process is all about mentorship. For example, we're now giving another server a sommelier test. There's coaching, mentorship, and time spent together asking questions or saying, "Research this, lets talk about this, taste this." It's the pressure you need to succeed and keep learning, and because you love it, too. People here will push you because they want to see you grow. It's a part of our culture here. We want people to grow and get better.

SK: What's the biggest challenge you face in your position at Canlis?
It's a combination of providing comfort to the guest but also the avant-garde. We’ve been around 65 years. We have to be true to who we are and incorporate elements from our past. There are people who have been coming here for 40 years. We want to keep those people happy. You can't bend a guest to your will; I learned that early on. But there needs to be balance.

SK: How has it been with Brady Williams coming on board?
It's been awesome having Brady come on and add new life and excitement to the program. It's fun working with his food because there's a lot more subtlety
not a lot of reduced, powerful sauces, or a focus on protein. [His dishes are] more delicate and layered. You can’t steamroll them with huge wines. I have to be careful, and delicate, more Japanese in style.

SK: What's your definition of success?
To have the mastery of knowledge and proficiency at my job, to mentor and bring up other people, and to help the grander goal—to have wine seen as less as a specialty product and be more of a communal and important part of the dining experience.

SK: Where do you see yourself in the future?
I'm taking the Masters exam next year. I'd love to travel more. I've had great opportunities, but I want to see more of the wine world, like Africa, New Zealand, France. It's so important to travel. Masters, I’ve noticed, get to travel.

SK: If you could drink any wine, anywhere in the world tonight, which wine and where?
My happy place would be with a bottle of 1990 Gaja Tilden over looking the vineyard in Barbarasco with a plate of terrine and white truffles. I actually might go to Piedmont in November.  

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