WineInk: Raj Parr’s Secrets of Taste
The unlikely journey of today’s top tasting expert
2016 Sandhi Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills
When Raj first began to make wines at Sandhi he was taken by the beauty of the fruit found in the Sta. Rita Hills, especially the legacy vines planted in 1971 by Santa Barbara winemaking legend Richard Sanford. This wine is representative of a region and a vineyard that holds a special place in the history of Santa Barbara wines.
Full, fresh and balanced, the fruit in this wine is a story in itself.
When you think of people who taste wines for a living your thoughts likely turn to a Frenchman who was raised on the stuff or a trendy New Yorker who came up through the restaurant trade. But the man who may be today’s most important and significant tasting expert in the world of wine grew up in Calcutta, India, and did not have his first glass of wine until he was 20 years old.
The journey of Rajat Parr, known in wine circles simply as Raj, from a nation with nearly zero wine traditions to restaurant sommelier, wine producer, author, James Beard Award recipient and tastemaker is a very 21st-century story. One that reflects both the changes and the globalization of the current wine world.
Raj was in Aspen this spring where he introduced diners and guests to his latest book, “The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe.” He also poured the balanced Sandhi wines that he makes in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara, California.
The book is an indispensable guide to the most significant wine regions of the world’s most significant wine-producing continent. But more importantly, it takes a completely different tack as it describes regions and their wines based upon the taste of those wines, or what Raj believes the wines should taste like. It discusses soils in detail and profiles winemakers who bring life to the wines, while the geographic descriptions beckon one to travel to each and every village the two authors visited in their exhaustive, thorough journey through France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria.
Co-writer Jordan Mackay is not only a wise and knowledgeable wine expert in his own right, he brings a soulful style to the verbiage that helps to distinguish each wine or vineyard from any other. Even wines made just across the road from each other. There is little doubt that Mackay also used his enviable gift for organizing thoughts and information to make the book infinitely more accessible and consumable than a book as detailed as “The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste” has any right to be. This is inside baseball stuff written in a way that a wine novice can still enjoy.
At the dinner and book signing, in a luxury laden wine room, Raj sat wearing the blue jeans and puffy vest that have become his trademark attire. While he is often found in high-end climes with oenophiles straining to hear his every utterance about wines and markets, he almost always looks like he is on his way to a vineyard. It is an apt image for an age when people in wine can lead hybrid lives while wearing multiple hats.
“I thought I wanted to be chef,” he told me with a shrug.
That was in the 1990s, when the young man enrolled in Hyde Park’s Culinary Institute of America. His plan quickly took a detour when he discovered a passion for wine and followed his obsession to California, where he found a spot working for Master Sommelier Larry Stone at Rubicon, a San Francisco temple of wine. He quickly proved his propensity for not just knowing more about the great wines and regions of the world than just about anyone else in the wine-drenched Bay Area, but also his ability to use his palate to differentiate between them.
Raj paired with Michael Mina, a San Francisco-based superstar chef who was born in Egypt, and ran the wine program for the Mina Group, which eventually grew to over 20 eateries. For wine-lovers, the jewel was San Francisco’s RN74, named for the autoroute that cuts a path through the Burgundian vineyards, which became a mecca of sorts for those who loved ethereal and pricy pinot noir and chardonnay. While there, Raj not only wrote a James Beard Award-winning book, “The Secrets of Sommeliers,” with Mackay, he also mentored a generation of young somms who went to work at other restaurants and spread the gospel of taste.
Today, Raj makes wines under three different labels, the aforementioned Sandhi, single-vineyard wines from the same Sta. Rita Hills region under Domaine de la Côte, and wines from Oregon’s Willamette Valley dubbed Evening Land. All three brands focus on the Burgundian varietals, pinot noir and chardonnay, and are noted for their balance and ability to reflect the regions of their birth.
When Raj began his wine journey no single career in wine existed that offered the diversity that his current position exemplifies. But by walking an untrodden path he has not only provided enjoyment for wine consumers and knowledge for those interested in the greater world of wine, he has helped to redefine how limitless a life in wine can be.
As he travels the world today, he, too, spreads the gospel of taste in many different ways.
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