Shifting Gears

L.A. Somm Taylor Parsons Explores His Entrepreneurial Side

How the star wine director turned a side hustle into a full-time hospitality consultancy

Taylor Parsons
Photo courtesy of Taylor Parsons.

Like many seasoned pros in the food and beverage industry, Taylor Parsons fell into his career a bit by chance. While working as a jazz pianist in Lake Tahoe, California Parsons blew out a knee on the ski slopes. No longer able to sit at the piano, he took a job at a small grocery store that he went on to develop into a go-to spot for wine.

Parsons quickly evolved from enophile to expert, and he eventually moved back to his native Los Angeles, where he ran wine programs in some of the city’s most esteemed restaurants. He started off as the wine director at the now-shuttered Campanile, a pioneering force in the L.A. dining scene, before moving on to Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s iconic institution. He then became the beverage director at the Mozza Restaurant Group. In 2011 he started a consulting company called Whole Cluster Beverage and Hospitality as “a mechanism to bill for the occasional side project that every sommelier does,” he explains, such as wine seminars, producer consortiums, and staff trainings for clients.

In November 2013, Parsons joined the team at République, where, as both the general manager and the wine director, he added his name to the upper echelon of the city’s food and wine cognoscenti. As one writer put it, Parsons’ constantly evolving wine list, which was designed to complement chef Walter Manzke’s daily changing menu, will not be ignored.”  

Nowadays, however, Parsons is savoring a new phase of his impressive career, with a wife, Briana Valdez, who continues to shine as one of L.A.’s rising culinary stars (her Texas-style taco restaurant, HomeState, has become hugely popular since opening in 2016), and a three-year-old son. In early 2017, after stepping down from République, he shifted his focus from the floor to full-time consulting. The decision was driven by a combination of personal and professional reasons, the most pressing of which was the desire to take a step back from the relentless pace of the restaurant industry to spend time more time with his family.

Parsons’ new role also allows him to tap into the dynamic skill set he’s honed over the years, which spans education, training, management, and of course, all things wine. “I love my life right now,” he says. “I get to work with a huge diversity of clients, I get to see my son and my wife, and I get to sit on my porch. And at least where I am, there is a real need for wine professionals. I’ve been super fortunate to have [clients] coming out of the woodwork.”

Parsons says he began to think about slowing down after République’s launch and subsequent rise to become one of L.A.’s buzziest restaurants. At that point, he’d been in the industry for a decade, working up to 100-hour weeks. As his son approached the age of two, Parsons found himself reflecting on a night out he’d had with his friend Brian Kalliel, the wine director and a sommelier at Mèlisse, a two-Michelin-star restaurant in L.A, and the father of two. Parsons had asked Kalliel over drinks that night, which was soon after he and Valdez found out they were expecting, how he balanced fatherhood with a career in the restaurant industry. Says Parsons, “He told me that when your kid is around two, you look for ways to rebalance your life a little bit, and you try to carve out more time—and sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.” Parsons’ last day at République was in early January 2017 (by his calculation, the one-thousandth menu was his last service). The next day he jumped into the world of self-employment.

Parsons’ business relies almost solely on word of mouth. In fact, the company doesn’t even have a website, a subtle marketing move suggested by Valdez as Parsons began to build one.

“My wife said, ‘Maybe you should just not have one—it makes it a little more exclusive, word of mouth, under the radar.’ And I think she was right,” Parsons says. “It’s all word of mouth. I’ve built the contacts, and people just seem to find me, which is great.”

If Whole Cluster did have a website, however, it would likely include an “About” page that would dig into the meaning of the name, which is a nod to the method of wine production in which grapes are not removed from the stems before fermentation—they’re fermented in “whole clusters. Says Parsons, “For me the meaning is metaphoric—like a whole suite of services, no waste. I like those connotations. And I also like the more aromatic, more textured flavors of stem-included wines—but not always.”

Parsons says about 70 percent of his business consists of work with restaurants: developing wine and cocktail lists, assisting with management and personnel hires, training, and education. He also leads seminars and writes tasting notes and marketing materials for clients, such as groups of wine producers. A small portion of his revenue comes from handling mail order and Internet sales for his clients, who are located in California and beyond.

What makes Parsons an especially valuable asset, according to Carl Schuster, the CEO and managing partner of Wolfgang Puck Catering and a founder of Cast Iron Partners, a restaurant investment and management company, is a deep knowledge of all aspects of the hospitality industry—and how they fit together. Schuster has worked with Parsons on several projects, the most recent of which was The Hearth & Hound in Los Angeles, which opened in early December.

“Taylor was brought on early in the process, even in the construction,” Schuster says. “He ended up doing a lot more than wine—he helped set up all the systems. When he was [leading] the training, the detail and education he gave to staff was like going to grad school. It was unlike anything I’ve seen.”

Parsons collaborated on the Hearth & Hound’s wine list with Mike Diamond, better known as Mike D from the Beastie Boys, and the restaurant’s wine director, Maxfield Schnee, who also has music industry ties (his dad is the Grammy-winning recording engineer Bill Schnee). The trio worked together to develop an approachable, unpretentious list to complement the restaurant’s California-casual cuisine, including some bottles commissioned from Diamond’s personal cellar.Mike is a super-dedicated student of wine and extremely interested in it,” says Parsons. “He’s a really interesting dude. The three of us talk about the overlap of wine and music.”

For Parsons, one of the biggest challenges in moving to a consulting position has been adjusting to the less intense work environment. In his home office, there’s no excited frenzy of the dinner rush, for example, or thrill of buzzing around a restaurant full of satisfied guests.

Another common hurdle for the self-employed set is getting comfortable with the lack of a steady paycheck. “When you’re doing a good job at a restaurant, and you have job security, the chances that they’re going to dismiss you are very low,” Parsons says. “But you never know when an account is going to say, ‘We’re good, we don’t need you anymore.’ Not having that security is a huge shift.”

In his first year of full-time consulting, Parsons worked with 18 clients, applying the skills he developed as a somm—for example, the ability to incorporate guests’ desires and tastes into a carefully chosen recommendation—to a more business-centric setting. “Listening is even more important in a consulting arrangement,” he explains. “You might be dealing with someone’s actual dreams, which are the result of a lot of hard work. You have to be sensitive to the fact that this [project] is theirs, and you’re just here to help and translate their goals and objectives into something that surprises and impresses and delights—just like a bottle of wine.”                                                                                                             

On the horizon for Parsons, eventually, is opening his own wine shop and bar. He was originally looking at 2018 but now has his sights set on 2019, mostly because a number of similar spots are slated to open in L.A. next year. He plans to continue his consulting work as well.

Another priority for 2018 (and beyond) is more time dedicated to playing music. “This year,” Parsons says, “was all about learning how to run my own business. Next year, it’s about how to open up a business and consult—and return to those [music-oriented] passions.”

Blane Bachelor is a lifestyle and travel writer based in San Francisco. Her work regularly appears in New York magazine, Marie Claire, the Washington Post, Hemispheres, and many other publications.

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