TalkTime: The Oenophile
Sommelier Rajat Parr, a three-time winner of the prestigious James Beard Award, grew up in India and started training as a chef in New York, before getting hooked on wines. Parr co-owns wineries in Oregon and California.
You started off by training to be a chef, am I right? What got you on the path to becoming a sommelier then?
Growing up in India I was always around food, with my parents and my grandparents. I always loved cooking and thought I should be a chef. When I came to culinary school in New York, I tasted wine and [thought], ‘Wow, this is interesting.’ That’s how I got more curious. I was like, ‘How can this be from grapes?’ You eat grapes and you're thinking it's a fruit, and then you realize this is something more profound than that.
You are a James Beard winning sommelier and have a lot riding on your business. How do you go about demystifying wines to people who don't know much about them in the first place?
I always talk about flavors. I don't necessarily talk about where it's from. Do you want fruity flavors or drier flavors?—things people can relate to. Sometimes they don't have the verbiage to describe wine, so then I try to ask them what they drink usually and then kind of gauge from there.
Do you have to have a lot of money to appreciate good wine?
Not necessarily. It just depends...you can buy a good bottle of wine for $30. Although the more you know about wine, the more your palate gets exposed to it, it gets more expensive. It's like art and fashion…the same thing applies.
What got you to the point where now you own a vineyard? Is that the logical extreme of your love for wine?
Yeah. I was always curious about making wine and I decided to partner with my business partner to make wines. It was a natural transition for me from being a sommelier to making wine. And I had a good opportunity. It came to me. I didn't chase it. Now we have three wineries. And we are very lucky to make wine and do something we love.
Do you feel that it's more challenging now? You’re watching the sausage being made as it were?
Well, sure. It's humbling. It's difficult. It's not easy, but you learn as you go. You buy vineyards and you're in some serious debt, and you have to pay the bank back. It's much harder than you can imagine, but it's also fulfilling. You're creating something, you're working with the land, and you're doing something you love.
When you say that it's much harder, what kind of challenges have you encountered?
You work with Mother Nature, and you can't take it for granted. That's the reality. But we welcome the challenge. We like a certain style of wine, and then we go in the market and try to sell the wine. It's a very competitive market out there; there are a lot of people making lots of good wine. We are trying to fit in, trying to create our own niche. We try to make earthy and more restrained wine. We don't make big juicy white wine. Our wines are much more spicy…much more high acid. It takes time. I don't expect it to just all work in one day.
I imagine the James Beard Award helps as well, right?
Yeah, it does. I don't really use it that much. I believe in the quality of the wine, and that's more important for me that just using my name. I appreciate the James Beard Award; it's an amazing honor. But, at the end of the day, the wine still has to speak for itself. For me, that's more important.
What misconceptions do people commonly have about wine?
Wine is a very complicated beverage. Most people don't always think about how wine is made. It takes a lot of effort, especially if you're making wines which are farmed organically. It's also time-consuming and expensive to plant vineyards. If you're buying grapes, it's easier, but if you're planting your own vineyards, growing grapes, it's much more challenging and a lot of work. That's something that's important for people to know.
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor. Learn more at WordCumulus.WordPress.com.
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