Rajat “Raj” Parr is a James Beard award-winning sommelier, author and winemaker. Born in Calcutta, Parr earned a degree from the Welcome Group Graduate School of Hotel Administration in India. Later, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After graduation, Parr moved to San Francisco to apprentice with Master Sommelier Larry Stone at Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco. In 1999, Parr was hired as the opening Wine Director at the Fifth Floor, also in San Francisco, receiving rave reviews and the first of his four Grand Awards from Wine Spectator. Then in 2003, Parr was named Wine Director for the Mina Group with over 25 restaurants around the world, and in 2010, opened RN74, San Francisco’s award-winning wine bar/restaurant. Shortly after, Parr founded Sandhi Wines in partnership with winemaker Sashi Moorman, in California’s Sta. Rita Hills. Since then he has co-founded Domaine de la Côte, also in California’s Sta. Rita Hills, and Evening Land Vineyards in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills.
Learn More about Raj from his Written Interview below:
Karen MacNeil: What is your number one piece of advice to future sommeliers?
Raj Parr: Stay humble.
KM: Why do you believe that, especially in the 2000s, formal wine training and certification became so important to those seeking to be a sommelier?
RP: I think the profession was just getting going in the US. There were many young and passionate sommeliers that wanted to get their name out there.
KM: Why did you decide to go from being a sommelier to growing grapes and making wine?
RP: After working the restaurant floor for almost 18 years, I thought I needed another challenge. Making wine was the obvious choice.
KM: Ben DiCristina, your former winemaker at Evening Lands in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, has said of you: “It’s this never-ending quest: How do you make authentic wines?” In your opinion, what makes a wine authentic or not?
RP: I think a wine that shows classic characteristics of the place is “authentic” wine. And this wine must be made with the lowest level of manipulations (organic grapes, no additives, etc.).
KM: In 2011, in partnership with Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, you organized In Pursuit of Balance – what started out as a modest tasting of stylistically like-minded California pinot noirs that you both preferred. It immediately morphed into an industry juggernaut, raising hackles as an anti-establishment disrupter. Were you surprised by the contrasting responses? Why did you decide to end a successful promotional endeavor?
RP: No, I was not surprised at the reaction of certain people. Every time we draw a “line in the sand” we should expect a reaction. We closed the organization because Jasmine and I got busy with our own businesses. The events took a lot of time and energy. I think we only did the tastings to bring awareness. And I think we reached our goal.
KM: Colète is a Napa Valley merlot vinified using traditional Bordeaux methods that you make with Pomerol native Marie Vayron Ponsonnet. What drew you to a Bordeaux project after so many years as a Burgundy devotee?
RP: Another fact about me is that I love wines of Bordeaux. In my top 10 wines of all time, there are at least 5 from Bordeaux. Colète was born because Marie really wanted to make a traditional wine from the Napa Valley. It took us a few years to find the right vineyard. We are really excited about the newly bottled 2018 and the 2019 from the Black vineyard in Coombsville.
“I think a wine that shows classic characteristics of the place is “authentic” wine. And this wine must be made with the lowest level of manipulations (organic grapes, no additives, etc.).”
KM: Did you have mentors? Tell us about them.
RP: So many mentors. The 2 most important are Larry Stone [MS and co-founder of Lingua Franca Wines in Washington] and Jim Clendenen [winemaker and owner of Au Bon Climat, in Santa Maria, California]. Larry taught me how to be a great sommelier and Jim taught me how to make wine. They are legends that continue to lead the way.
KM: Indian food, with its myriad spices; rich, complex sauces, and frequent chile heat, has often confounded wine lovers looking for the best wine pairings. Of course, India is a huge country with many different styles of cooking. But still, when people ask you to recommend wines for Indian food, what wines do you tend to recommend?
RP: Of course it depends on which part of the country the dishes are from but I always tend to pick high acid, dry and saline whites. And fresh, crunchy reds that have low alcohol and low tannins. Whites- Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Muscadet. Reds- Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Though the BEST wines with Indian food are light orange wines. Our favorite is Cantina Giardino from Campania, Italy.
KM: How many wines would you estimate you have tasted in your lifetime?
RP: Hahahaha. I wish I counted them. Probably more than 100,000 wines.
KM: What is your second favorite beverage?
RP: I love Mezcal
KM: You’ve co-authored two books. How do you feel about the sea of wine blogs out there—especially blogs by wine enthusiasts who admit to being beginners. Do you believe those who write about wine should have more than a passing knowledge of it?
RP: I am all for wine education. I think if anyone writes about wine, they should know about wine first. There is no point misleading anyone. I have seen many amateurs who are inspiring young people. It’s great as long as the information shared is accurate.
KM: You have appeared in movies such as “Somm” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Tell us about those experiences. Were you playing yourself or contributing to a documentary?
RP: Honestly, I was only answering the questions they asked. There was no acting involved. I was just being me.
KM: Name three wine professionals who you especially admire and tell us why.
RP: Thierry Allemand [of Cornas in the northern Rhône], Jean Louis Chave [of Hermitage, also in northern Rhône], and Stephane Tissot [of Jura, France]. They all continue to inspire me with their focus and dedication to the highest level of farming. They set standards for us all that hopefully one day we will understand and achieve.
KM: What quality do you possess that has most contributed to your success?
RP: I think I am very curious. That has probably kept me going…….