Somm 3 is the latest installment in the documentary series that explores the wild world of sommeliers. It focuses on wine industry veterans like Fred Dame, Jancis Robinson and Steven Spurrier, as well as the next generation of primarily New York-based influencers that include Aldo Sohm, Laura Fiorvanti (nee Maniec), Pascaline Lepeltier and Sabato Sagaria.
Amidst the biographical segments and arguments over the merits of blind tasting, the film’s narrative tension concerns tastings inspired by the 1976 Judgment of Paris. That famous blind tasting, in which California wines outshined their French counterparts, set the stage for the modern wine universe. This time, however, Pinot Noir is the wine in question, rather than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The two separate tastings of six Pinots from acclaimed producers from around the world includes the 2014 Bloom’s Field bottling by Domaine de la Côte. Some of the judges consider it on par with, if not more “Burgundian,” than two celebrated wines from Burgundy.
Domaine de la Côte is owned by superstar sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr, who sources grapes from his estate in the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. When not in the vineyards, he’s been writing his second book, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe (Ten Speed Press, 2018), with co-author Jordan Mackay.
Parr sat down with Wine Enthusiast to discuss how he got into winemaking and why he chose Santa Barbara County.
Tell me about your background.
I’m from Kolkata . My family had a restaurant in India, and I was interested in being a chef. In 1994, I moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. I had tasted wine before in England with my uncle, but then I had some wines in college, and was like, “This is amazing.” I started studying and tasting, and then did really well in the required wine class. I decided that I wanted to learn more about wine.
This was 1996 and, in those days, the only way to learn was to work in a restaurant with a wine program. So, I moved to San Francisco to work at Rubicon with Larry Stone and was there for three years.
At another restaurant, Fifth Floor, I met Michael Mina. I still work with him in some ways, assisting in some projects, and overseeing their wine list at their flagship restaurant in San Francisco.
What happened to the cooking?
That was the end of my cooking career. I didn’t even really take classes. I did little gigs here and there, but I was in no serious cooking positions. Cooking is still a hobby and love of mine.
When did winemaking start?
In 2004, I decided to learn more about viticulture and winemaking. My first wine was a Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay with Jim Clendenen [of Au Bon Climat] and Purisima Mountain Syrah with Steve Beckmen.
I met Sashi [Moorman] around that year when he was a winemaker for Evening Land Vineyards’ California labels. I began to make wine with him three years later, and also [started to consult] for Evening Land. That’s how we got together on the vineyard [that would become Domaine de la Côte] and start the planting process.
At that time, Evening Land owned the vineyard at Domaine de la Côte. After a few changes in the ownership, the guy who owned the winery said, ‘Why don’t Sashi and you take it over?’ He knew how much we loved that vineyard.
Sashi and I went all-in to create Domaine de la Côte in the same vineyard we had helped in planting. We took it over in 2011, and we started making some changes. Since the vineyard had been planted in 2007, this year was the 10th harvest.
You were a world-famous sommelier at that point and could have picked anywhere to make wine. Why Santa Barbara?
After tasting old Au Bon Climat wines, I was like, “Oh, wow.” The vineyard that attracted me was Sanford & Benedict. I’ve been making wine with fruit from that vineyard since 2004.
The first red wine I made from the Sta. Rita Hills was in 2007, a Pinot Noir from Presidio Vineyard, which is now called Duvarita. For the 2007 and 2008 vintages, I made Pinot Noir from Presidio, Chardonnay from Sanford & Benedict and Purisima Mountain Syrah.
I always loved the Santa Barbara wines better. This is my style: high acid and crunchy. That’s why I decided to settle in Santa Barbara. Not that you can’t make similar wine in other places, but it’s easier here. No sulfur, no additives, really purely from the place.
How did you find out about [your wines] doing well in the film?
Well, when they came to film me, they told me that they wanted to film on Bloom’s Field [one of four small adjacent Pinot Noir vineyards]. I thought, “Why Bloom’s Field?” La Côte is way more beautiful. Bloom’s Field is kind of a mound. It looks nice, but it’s not a picturesque vineyard like La Côte or Siren’s Call.
I had no idea about the blind tasting until after he interviewed me. My comments in the movie are without any knowledge of that tasting.
What do the Sta. Rita Hills bring to your wines?
Every place has its own identity. I think the Sta. Rita Hills has a very unique personality. There is something with the Pacific and the soils that are so unique. The only place in California where you find diatomaceous earth on the coast is here in Santa Barbara.
That salty flavor of Pinot Noir, you get it other places, but it’s quite unique here in the Sta. Rita Hills. It’s the perfect place to do whole cluster. If you pick at the right time, there are such low [pH levels, which are necessary to make high-acid wines]. It works really well.
What is Santa Barbara’s standing in the greater wine world?
I think it’s changing rapidly. In the last five years, definitely for people who drink Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, they now know there is a uniqueness and freshness of the wine in the area as compared to other parts of California.
The styles are so different. There is not one overarching idea, but it’s the easiest place to make superripe wine and still have freshness, or super-crunchy wines that are salty and savory.
The key thing is that people and sommeliers understand that there is an epic kind of freshness in wines from Santa Barbara that is very unique because of the soils and how close we are to the ocean. It’s so different than anywhere else in California.
Where are your wines popular?
We sell almost a third of our wines in Europe. I was shocked. That wasn’t our goal, but that’s what it has become. We have a bigger following in Scandinavia than in California, for example. We even sell a bunch of wine in France.
What do you think of the Somm 3 attention?
It’s funny. I love blind tasting, but I never ever wanted to compare my wines to Burgundy. It’s great for the region, for California and Santa Barbara and the Sta. Rita Hills. The goal is to promote where we’re from. This is our livelihood. This is where we live. It’s super cool for California and the Sta. Rita Hills to be acknowledged in a tasting like this, especially by our peers.
I know everyone who tasted the wine. They’re close friends of mine. I know Jancis and Spurrier, and I’ve known Fred Dame for 20 years. It’s pretty cool to even be talked about in this context. I’m happy for the region, and it’s pretty amazing to even be in that group of wines.
Movies like this bring awareness. Some consumers might not even know Santa Barbara makes Pinot Noir. That’s very exciting to open a whole new world for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the region.
What’s your take on the state of the wine industry at large?
This is truly the most exciting time in my career for sure. There are such amazing wines and so much connection between producers and consumers. You can find some pretty incredible wine and pretty reasonable prices. It’s definitely the best time to be buying and drinking wine.