Rajat Parr is wine director of the Mina Group of restaurants, which includes Sea Blue (Atlantic City), Michael Mina (San Francisco) and Bourbon Steak (Miami). Born in Calcutta, Parr now lives in San Francisco. He produces his own wines under the “Sandhi” (“alliance” in Sanskrit) label, and recently published a best-selling book, Secrets of the Sommeliers (Ten Speed Press, co-authored with Jordan Mackay).
Wine Enthusiast: I was recently invited to an event you hosted at RN74, your restaurant in San Francisco. The invitation invited guests to “Celebrate balance in California Pinot Noir.” How do you define “balance”?
Rajat Parr: Balance is the word we use to describe our version of what we think is balanced. A balance of alcohol, acidity, freshness, fruit. Our reference point is Burgundy. We’re tasting producers who are using Burgundy as their model, not making Burgundy but trying to make wine in that style, with alcohol in the 13 and low 14%. These are like-minded people whom I know, trying to make Pinot Noirs that are more delicate and subtle, more to work with food.
WE: Is it just a question of alcohol levels? Because Calera is on your list, and they tend to run fairly high in alcohol.
RP: Yes, Calera is the only one on our list [of wines to be tasted] over 14%.
WE: The Evening Land wines you carry are mostly over 14 percent, aren’t they?
RP: Well, Sashi [Moorman, the winemaker] is changing his style. So the new Evening Lands, the 2010s, are, like, 12.5%.
WE: What impact do you hope to have on balanced wines? Are you on a crusade?
RP: No crusade. Just being in the sommelier side of the world, and now making wine, I know that wines with finesse, style and balance can be made, not everywhere, but in certain places.
WE: So what about warmer places in California, like Paso Robles. Should they just give up trying to make balanced wines?
RP: Well, I have nothing against Paso Robles, I just don’t like wines with 16.5% alcohol. I can’t drink it. They have to figure it out if they want to satisfy a certain segment of the wine industry that likes lower alcohol wines, then have grapes that work in that climate. Maybe it’s not possible.
WE: What is the role of the critic in driving high-alcohol wines?
RP: [Laughs.] Let’s take a good example. Saxum got 100 points [from Robert Parker], and a top [score] from [Wine] Spectator. I tasted it. Nothing wrong, but for me, I just can’t handle the alcohol. It’s the heat. The critics give the nod, and then the world says this is the way the wine must be, and suddenly it becomes the benchmark.
WE: Tell me why you wrote “Secrets of the Sommeliers.”
RP: In 2004, a publisher asked me to write a memoir. I said, “I’m only 32, I’m not writing a memoir!” Then, four years later, everyone was always asking me about being a sommelier, so we [Mackay and Parr] put together a proposal and showed it to the publisher, and he said, “Let’s do it.”
WE: In “Secrets,” you had kind words to say about Burgundy, obviously, and even Oregon. But you described your relationship with California’s wine industry as “rather uneasy.”
RP: Well, it’s difficult to be in the sommelier world, because I write from a sommelier perspective. Almost every sommelier I know and work with, that is what they talk about. I don’t know many sommeliers who will open a bottle of Paso Zin, or California Cabernet, or drink a lot of California Pinot Noir or anything California. They’re into Austria, Germany, the cool new regions. I interviewed 60 sommeliers across the world [for “Secrets”] and everyone said Burgundy, Germany, Champagne. Nobody even mentioned California.
WE: Isn’t that snobbism?
RP: It can be perceived as that, but that is the culture of the sommelier.
WE: Yet Larry Stone, who’s quoted extensively in the book, worked for Frances [Ford Coppola, at Rubicon], who makes a very California-style Cabernet.
RP: Yes, and I can tell you, if you go to Larry Stone’s for dinner, he’s not going to open Rubicon for you.
WE: Tell me about your Sandhi wines.
RP: Between 2004 and 2008, I was just trying to understand the wines. Finally in 2009 we decided to make them commercially available. It’s always been interesting to me to understand wine. First for the fun of it, then I thought there are lots of great vineyards in Santa Barbara County and I wanted to focus on that, wines with a little more acidity.
WE: With all the ethnic foods we have available in California, what foods do you particularly enjoy Pinot Noir with?
RP: I always think of game birds. My favorite is Peking duck. Pork is okay if it’s opulent and juicy, but I think more of pheasant, chicken, duck. I love Pinot Noir with the food at Slanted Door, but not if it’s too spicy. And a lighter Pinot, even in California, works for me with Asian flavors. Indian food is tough.