Interview with Los Angeles Rising Star Sommelier Rob Harpest of Bouchon

by Emily Bell
May 2014

Emily Bell: Bouchon is a bistro at heart, which means a certain sophistication but a pervading sense of comfort, local flavor, and sociability. How do you feed into this and what do you take from it as a sommelier?
Rob Harpest: I take a certain pride in being the approachable kind of somm. Personality and approachability speak so much more these days than an encyclopedic knowledge of sub-regions of South Africa. Being able to provide a top-notch wine service in a cool, casual way is all I could ever ask for in this career. We love for things to be on point, but also fluid and for it to make sense in the moment. Stuffy service just isn’t the expectation anymore. It’s all about sophistication with personality and genuine heart. 

In regards to the wines, we’re so spoiled to have all of California wine country as our backyard. “Local” is incredibly easy for us. We have Moraga vineyard in Bel-Air just down the street from us, and within two hours, all of Santa Barbara. Four hours away is Paso Robles. And six, Napa and Sonoma. Our relationships with vintners are incredibly close, to the point that they’re able to provide us our Vin en Carafe wines that we purchase barrels of to bottle and serve by the glass. These relationships are so very important to Thomas, and are the entire soul behind a bistro. In many ways, Bouchon is like a sandbox that Thomas has allowed me to play in. He encourages experimentation and new ideas. With so many exciting new things to introduce people to, everyday is a new adventure to embark on. And mostly it all comes down to the idea of family for me.  We treat everyone who walks in that door as our family.

EB: You mentioned how for you, "pouring wine is the fruit," seeing how the wine and fruit interact with the dish. Can you expand upon that a bit? Also, you mentioned fruit in the beer pairing. How does fruit behave to benefit beer pairings?
RH: Wine IS fruit. And the chemical compounds in each grape remind our brain of other fruits. So that a Cabernet tastes like blackberry and currant and a Pinot Noir tastes like cherry and pomegranate. Appreciating these flavor profiles, aside from just the body of the wine, make all the difference in what flavors you’re adding to the chef’s dish. Sometimes the chef will go completely earthy with a composed dish that could also have benefited from a fruit component. That’s where we can step in and add another layer of complexity to the table. 

Fruit is refreshing. A crisp green apple or cold watermelon on a hot summer day is miraculous. Having that fresh acidity and bright flavor with a heavy, rich dish can make all the difference in the experience of the meal. Have a bowl of super-rich, cheesy mac n’ cheese with a glass of whole milk. Then have the same mac n’ cheese again with a glass of Champagne. You can just imagine the crispness of the bubbles cleansing your palate and making that cheesy goodness taste so much better after a sip of crisp green apple, lemon custard, and Melba toast flavors. 

I never understood the people who ignore the jams and dried fruits on the side of a cheese plate. Much like wine, these just add different flavor components to the experience. 

EB: You did a pairing for us where you "added" to the chef's dish. Would you say that your pairing style is less often to add to a dish, except for those occasions when it's of obvious benefit to the wine and cuisine? How do you and Chef Hands collaborate, generally?
RH: In general, I like to try to stay out of the way of a chef’s dish. I’d rather go leaner than heavier in most cases. They work incredibly hard back there to execute a perfectly conceived dish every time. As a somm, I like to allow them to be the stars of the show. But there are occasions where I’ll taste a dish and say, “this is really good, but it’d be cool to have a second spin on this where they could add another flavor component, if they wanted to.” 

Chef Hands and I are very open and experimental in terms of pairings. We know what’s expected, classic, and obvious. But we like to keep our senses open for the surprises and the underdog, the pairings that we taste and say, “where did this come from?” I like to take a dish and line up eight wines just to give everything the benefit of the doubt. Most days, it’s what you’d expect. But sometimes, you find those surprises and that’s what makes the chemistry of these pairings so much fun. It’s nature, and nature can always throw you a curve ball when it wants to.

EB: Tell me about the Vin de Carafe program. When did you guys decide to implement it and what is the response like? Are diners as interested in the heritage and wine maker? Does it spark more conversation about the origins of the wine? 
RH: Vin de Carafe is pure bistro. It was spawned in Yountville, where many of the vintners and winemakers are regulars. It’s a real feather in their cap up there to have their wine being poured as the Vin de Carafe. A bragging right! The general concept is the same as it would be in a small restaurant in Europe. Run over to the local vineyard and buy your carafe wine out of their garage. It’s a little different for us in that we seek out a barrel or two of something interesting and local—usually Santa Barbara—that suits the season and showcases a great winery or winemaker. We don’t usually announce the winery since the wine is technically declassified, but we’re happy to tell you what vineyard it came from or who made it. Most diners don’t ask the details, but we’re proud of the effort we put in and when people are willing to hear about the relationship and the story, we love to regale the tale. I also like to pay it forward to the winery by adding their commercial wine to our by the glass program or one of their premium wines to the list.