Family Tree

Six Degrees of Rajat Parr

How the wine director turned winemaker became one of the industry’s most influential figures, as told by the people whose careers he helped launch

photo of Rajat Parr
Photo courtesy of Sandhi Wines.

There’s a joke often told in wine circles that if you ask Rajat Parr if he’s had the ’89, the reply will be “1889 or 1989?” If you hear him speak about a wine or witness him blind-taste one, it’s tempting to assume he was born with a preternatural understanding of the beverage. But even legends have to start somewhere, and in Parr’s case, that was as a food runner at Drew Nieporent’s star chef-making San Francisco restaurant Rubicon. The Calcutta native moved to California after teachers at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York, suggested that he find someone to work under and learn from. That someone was Master Sommelier Larry Stone, then Rubicon’s wine director.

“I worked for free for Larry for many hours before he finally made me his assistant,” Parr says. At Rubicon, a chance tasting of 1986 Raveneau Les Clos set him down the rabbit hole of Burgundy obsession. He read every book on the region he could get his hands on.

After Rubicon, Parr opened San Francisco’s Fifth Floor, for which he’d built the wine program, before being named the wine director for the Mina Group. He oversaw the wine programs at the group’s flagship Michael Mina in San Francisco, as well as at each new restaurant as the group grew to more than 25 outposts throughout the world. Parr also partnered with chef Mina in opening RN74 in San Francisco, which recently closed after an eight-year run, though there is still an outpost in Seattle.

Now, after helming four Wine Spectator Grand Award wine lists, coauthoring the acclaimed book Secrets of the Sommeliers (Ten Speed), and partnering in three of the country’s most exciting wineries, Parr has attained a level of influence and respect enjoyed by few wine professionals. He has won three James Beard Awards, including recognition as an author and as an outstanding service professional in the drinks space, among other accolades. Yet you could just as easily measure Parr’s success by the number of sommeliers whose careers he helped launch and who have in turn become some of the industry’s most prominent voices.

Aspiring young sommeliers are naturally drawn to Parr. Beyond his legendary blind-tasting skill, Parr’s network is so wide reaching that working with him is a surefire way to secure introductions to some of the world’s most talented (and least accessible) winemakers. And over the years, he has cultivated an almost exhaustive knowledge of the wines of France, such that anyone wanting to master his or her vintages could benefit from his tutelage. Tony Cha, a cofounder of the beverage management tech platform BinWise and now the director of sales for Tyler Winery, worked for Parr at Michael Mina. But the two first met when Cha’s wine study group brought Parr in for help on Burgundy. “He was basically an encyclopedia,” Cha says. “He went through the epic vintages of the [20th] century and then got specific on what every year was like for the last 20 years, just off the top of his head. It was amazing. I still have those notes to this day and still look at them every once in a while.”

Though Parr may be the ultimate somm magnet, it’s a testament to the people he trained that Parr sought them out rather than the other way around. Parr viewed teaching the next generation of sommeliers as his responsibility. “I learned under someone who’s great,” he says, “and I knew I needed to pay it forward.” Many of the sommeliers Parr took under his wing were quite young. He hired Eric Railsback at RN74 when Railsback was 22. Mark Bright, who helped open the flagship Michael Mina, was just 21. Parr would approach them by sending what Dustin Wilson, MS, calls “a very Raj email”: dry and to the point. Says Wilson, “I think it was, ‘Hey Dustin, I was wondering if you’d like to be a sommelier over here at RN74.’”

If being tapped by the renowned Parr wasn’t enough to persuade them to join the team, he had other means of luring them in. Says Railsback, “He opened a ’95 Thierry Allemande Cornas and a Montrachet from Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey and said, ‘we’ll be drinking more stuff like this.’”  

Then he put them to work.

“I was super hard on them,” says Parr. “They’d work probably 70 or 80 hours a week. Some of them even slept on my couch because they’d just moved to town or couldn’t pay rent.” Yet they all light up when they talk about their days manning the cellar under Parr and consider him an extraordinary mentor. It was an exciting moment in their careers.

“The connections you make working with Raj are pretty amazing,” Cha says. “We hosted epic events, like La Paulée, so all the best producers from Burgundy, all the collectors, and all the best sommeliers in the country came to us. We were tasting 1911 La Tâche, Bordeaux from the 1800s, 1907 Charles Heidsieck from a shipwreck … ”

“We opened DRC every day for a year. Jamet every day. Raveneau every day,” Bright recalls. “People brought their craziest bottles for us to taste because of Raj. It was like Disneyland for wine.”

Place all that access to the finest, rarest wines in the wrong hands and you have the makings of an epic ego. But ask any of his protégés the greatest lessons they learned from Parr, and you’ll inevitably hear: humility, generosity, and trust. “He didn’t hoard his knowledge or lord it over people,” says Emily Wines, MS, who first joined Parr as a cocktail server at the Fifth Floor in 2000. “He was just eager to embrace anyone who wanted to learn.”

For Josiah Baldivino, who worked for Parr at Michael Mina and now runs the boutique wine shop Bay Grape in Oakland, the biggest takeaway was Parr’s management style, which boils down to one essential notion: Give people ownership, and you’ll get the best out of them. “I felt like he basically handed me the keys to the Ferrari and said, ‘Do what you want to do,’” says Baldivino. “If I screwed up, I’d hear from him. And if I didn’t, he’d let me keep doing it. That pushed me to be the best I could possibly be.”

Parr’s impact on the wine world doesn’t end with the restaurant floor. How many other sommeliers would have been able to persuade Peter Stolpman, of Stolpman Vineyards, to graft Trousseau, of all varieties, into his Santa Barbara County vineyard? Or get Seth Kunin, of Kunin Wines in Santa Barbara, to experiment with stem inclusion for his Syrah ferments? (It’s now an integral part of Kunin’s production technique—the exact amount of whole clusters varying by site and by vintage.) Then, there’s In Pursuit of Balance, the famous tasting celebration-turned-ripeness level manifesto led by Parr and Jasmine Hirsch of Sonoma’s Hirsch Vineyards.

“Jasmine and I were sitting at the bar at RN74. I had just started Sandhi [the winery Parr founded in 2010 with the winemaker Sashi Moorman], and she was about to start running her dad’s business,” Parr remembers. “I asked her to name her favorite California Pinot Noirs, and she stopped at three: Littorai, Williams Selyem, and Mount Eden.” To prove that there were more producers in the state turning out balanced wines that conveyed a sense of place, he suggested that they put a tasting together. But what began as an innocent experiment to kick-start the conversation about possible styles grew into a divisive affair that, as Parr admits, “ruffled some feathers.” IPOB hosted its final event in the fall of 2016.

A quick survey of California Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs today shows that the pendulum is truly swinging away from the ultraripe, high-octane wines the state had become known for. The number of producers dedicated to freshness and terroir transparency has grown tenfold in just a few short years. Even more commercial wineries are scaling back sugar ripeness and dialing down the new oak. But Parr would never admit that IPOB influenced any of that.

These days, Parr can be found in the barrel rooms in Lompoc, California, and Salem, Oregon, where he works on the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays he has produced with Moorman for Sandhi, since 2011, Domaine de la Côte, since 2013, and Evening Land Vineyards, since early 2014, or in various cities around the country hosting lunches and dinners for these brands. Several of his protégés have followed in his footsteps by making wine of their own, including Railsback, Bright, and Wilson. And Moorman has witnessed Parr foster the same enthusiasm with their own winemaking team as he did with sommeliers at Fifth Floor and the Mina Group—whether it’s pushing the boundaries with low-sulfur fermentations or sharing exciting bottles from his cellar to show them what truly exceptional possibilities exist. “With Raj,” he says, “it’s this never-ending quest, trying to get closer and closer to the truth, which is: How do you make authentic wines?”

“Can I say that the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted have been with Raj?” ponders Christie Dufault, an associate professor of wine and beverage studies at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in St. Helena, California (and a longtime friend of Parr’s). Her answer: “Yeah, no doubt about it.” But that sentiment seems to hold true even for those who have only met Parr in passing. His passion for wine—great bottles, yes, but also simple ones—is contagious.

When Parr is asked his best advice for those just starting out in the industry, it’s to travel, meet the winemakers, and taste classic wines. “If you don’t know what classic wine tastes like,” he says, “you’ll never know anything else. And always remember it’s a service. Hospitality comes first.”

Here, six significant members of the Rajat Parr family tree reflect on where they are now and what they remember most from Parr’s mentorship:

Dustin Wilson, MS, cofounder of Verve Wine, New York City

Sommelier at RN74, 2010–2011

“RN74 was where I learned the most about my palate. When I arrived to Raj, it was partially developed. When I left, I felt strong about my tasting abilities. I don’t think I would have passed the MS had it not been for Raj and his approach to analyzing wine.”

Eric Railsback, partner at Lieu Dit and Railsback Frères Wineries, Santa Barbara County, California

Head sommelier at RN74, 2009–2013

“He wanted us to travel. That was a huge perk, and it’s not at all like that in other restaurants. He would always have our back and get someone to cover for us so we could visit regions and producers. He knew the value of that, because you can only learn so much in a book or running through flashcards. When you’re in the vineyards meeting the people and hearing the stories … There’s no replacement for that.”

Tony Cha, cofounder of BinWise, director of sales for Tyler Winery, Santa Barbara County, California

Head sommelier at Michael Mina, 2005–2010

“He helped balance my tasting approach, without a doubt. The way we’re taught in the court [of Master Sommeliers] is very regimented. You look at the color. You smell it and talk about specific things. You’re just methodically figuring out what it’s not. Whereas with Raj, we would taste with our hearts. It was a more soulful way of tasting … using that tasting muscle memory to really think about the wine and what it reminds you of.”

Mark Bright, wine director-partner at Saison Restaurant, San Francisco

Sommelier at Michael Mina, 2004–2006

“I think Raj took to me because he could see how enthusiastic I was. I worked on my days off … I was excited. I loved what I did. He can see that fire inside someone. He knows that you can’t train passion. You can train someone to do a job and to count inventory and put wine pairings together, but you can’t train passion. He taught me to recognize that in other people and embrace it, and that’s what I do now with my sommeliers in the restaurant.”

Emily Wines, MS, vice president of wine and beverage experiences, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, Orland Park, Illinois

Sommelier at Fifth Floor Restaurant, 2000–2008

“At one point, I was asking him questions about Côte-Rôtie, and he said, ‘Go and write me a paper on Côte-Rôtie, and if you bring that to me, I’ll open a crazy bottle of Côte-Rôtie for you.’ So I did. And he had a bunch of his friends come by the bar one night, and they each brought a different bottle of Guigal. That’s how I got pulled under Raj’s wing.”

Josiah Baldivino, owner of Bay Grape, Oakland, California

Head sommelier at Michael Mina, 2011–2014

“One of the biggest things he taught me is that no matter how many emails you get from salespeople, you should respond to every one. Even if you’re not interested in the wines or don’t have time to taste. That was cool coming from him because he gets a bazillion emails a day, yet he responds to all of them. It’s part of why he’s so respected. There’s no ego at all. That’s so rare in this industry.”

Since parting ways with the full-time sommelier game in 2010, Carson Demmond has directed Wine & Spirits Magazine’s tastings department, worked for a forward-thinking Bordelais négoce, picked grapes in Arbois, and written for PUNCH, Food & Wine, Decanter and Vogue.com. She currently lives in Atlanta, GA and looks forward to wine pilgrimages with her forthcoming infant in tow.

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