Posted on | October 22, 2014
Written by | Jim Clarke
The siren call of the vineyard has influential somms launching their own labels.
One rarely hears of car salesman leaving the lot and going off to design and make their own cars, but it’s becoming increasingly common for sommeliers to make their own wine.
Some leave the restaurant business to do it. In 2005 Master Sommelier Greg Harrington left his position running the beverage program at the BR Guest Restaurant Group and moved to Walla Walla, Washington. “Almost every somm gets to a point where they say ‘Okay, I have to get off the floor.’ It’s natural. People have families. They want to see friends at normal hours. The ‘next step’ is ambiguous and difficult.”
Making one’s own wine can be a way to carry on in the business without compromising. For Harrington, the mindset at Gramercy Cellars isn’t far removed from his days/nights on the floor. “A winery is a restaurant in slow motion,” he says. “If you understand the restaurant business, a winery is a natural extension. I really believe it, so much so, in fact, that I make all employees read Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table.” He also routinely hires somms to work the harvest. “ I think we live in an extremely fortunate time,” Harrington says. “Somms have really helped create a true wine culture in the U.S. And I love that somms are now moving into making wine. It’s amazingly exciting.”
Not every sommelier who makes wine moves across the country to do it. Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson is busy running the beverage program at New York’s Eleven Madison Park, but finds the time to contribute to Vallin, a Santa Barbara-based project he concocted together with Eric Railsback and Brian McLintock (Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant) and boutique winemaker Justin Willett (Tyler and Lieu Dit labels). Their idea was to focus on Rhône-like, Syrah-based wines: “not necessarily a monster style, something meant for the table.”
While Wilson may not be out in Santa Barbara picking grapes, his input and direction keep his stamp on the project. “I’m out there a few times a year. We give direction, and expose Justin to the Syrah-based wines we’re interested in, explore some of the techniques used in the Rhône. Justin does the ‘legwork,’ but it’s our palate and ideas that drove things.” Their first vintage, 2012, yielded 800 cases of wine; 2013 brought it up to 2000.
Wilson and Railsback were actually following in the footsteps of Rajat Parr—which is only appropriate, seeing as they met when working together in San Francisco at RN74, one of the gems Parr oversees as wine director for the Michael Mina restaurant group. Parr began making wine to articulate a philosophy and make a point about wine styles; Sandhi, his Santa Barbara winery, focuses on moderate alcohol, food-friendly wines.
Jordan Salcito, wine director for the Momofuku Group, has gone further afield, making her Bellus wine in Tuscany after working several vintages in Burgundy. She had been pondering whether so-called “accessible” wine had to be “synonymous with a mass-produced product masquerading as something artisanal.” After friend in the finance industry purchased a winery in Montalcino, that first harvest his head winemaker fell ill and ended up in the hospital. “My husband and I were in Burgundy working harvest and our friend asked if we could help at his estate.” She recalls. “We made the wine that year. That estate became Bellus’s partner for the
According to Master Sommelier Christopher Bates, somms bring two sorts of experience to winemaking: “a ton of exposure to wines from all over the world, not just my wine and wine from [their own] area,” and the “dining experience with wine.” He started Element Winery in the Finger Lakes seven years ago. For him the restaurant background helps create “wines that don’t need to be an experience on their own,” more food-friendly and perhaps lower in oak and alcohol.
“I think all the somm wines have acid and a sense of earthiness in common,” says Harrington. “Also, the somm wines tend to be very experimental and non-traditional, which I think is fantastic.” Bates, for example, is focusing on reds in the Finger Lakes rather than the more usual Riesling.
Birds of a Feather?
It doesn’t hurt to have the industry connections when it comes time to sell the wine. Charlie Bird in Manhattan has taken on so many of their friends’ wines that they’ve made a special section for them, “Shameless Plugs.” “It was tongue in cheek,” says Wine Director Grant Reynolds. “We blatantly called ourselves out on having our friends’ wines on the list. But it became an interesting way to branch out.”
“People get excited by it; they know the sommeliers, the restaurants. They’re curious about what’s going on.” He actually finds the range of sommelier-made wines to be diverse. “I think they’re making wines which for the most part aren’t trying to be anything but an expression of where they come from. They’re not necessarily low alcohol, high acid—there’s no buzzword.”
Currently Charlie Bird’s sommelier list includes Italian wines from Rajat Parr, California wines from Eric Railsback and a Bordeaux from Richard Betts. The latter has made wine from several parts of the world, and even went and made mezcal for a while with the Sombra brand.