Rajat Parr used to be a sommelier in top Californian restaurants until he took up winemaking as a full-time profession. From this unique perspective Parr talks to The Buyer about the qualities that define a good sommelier, how to get ahead in the business and how he keeps learning every day.
Indian-born and US-trained, Rajat Parr first intended to be a chef but a stint under Larry Stone MS at the (now defunct) Rubicon in San Francisco in the mid-1990s set him on the path of wine.
He became wine director for the Michael Mina Group of restaurants, including the legendary RN74 in San Francisco. He started winemaking projects in the late 2000s and now devotes all his time to winemaking and writing.
Parr’s approach is refreshing – “there’s too much arrogance around us,” he says.
How does it feel to live the dream, to make your own wine as a sommelier?
Since last April I no longer work in restaurants but my entire background is as a sommelier working the floor in restaurants.
What qualities define a good sommelier?
A good sommelier is someone who listens and someone who talks about wine from the perspective of wine.
Of course we all have opinions, but it’s about listening to guests and what they want; it’s almost like being a psychologist for a couple of minutes on the floor. But the somm does more than that. He creates the wine list and educates the staff and gives information back to the winemaker or importer.
There are many layers to it.
What is the central focus?
I think humility is important.
The most important thing is to listen to what the guest wants.
Hospitality is top. You have to be hospitable whether you are pouring water, wine, beer or cocktails or are serving food. The number one goal is to make the guest happy.
What are the qualities you need in order to progress as a sommelier?
I think you need to be open-minded, to really look at wine as a whole, at all the different wines of the world and not to have prejudices.
Of course you can have favourites but you need to be open to tasting and experiencing different things and that’s what you give back to the guest.
Open-mindedness might be the most important thing. If you just live in a dogma you miss out on so many wines in the world.
There is nothing wrong in liking a wine, but when you are serving guests you have to think of them, not yourself.
How did you start your wine education?
Back when I started out, Google wasn’t around 20-some years ago. So I travelled everywhere, read books, asked questions, always listened.
Even today I am always trying to listen to people, see what’s happening out there, keeping in touch, talking to producers, looking at vineyards.
Travel was the most important thing.
You can learn a lot from books, maps and videos, but when you go to the place it all makes a lot more sense. You see it and it makes so much sense. You taste the wine and you connect these two things, nothing beats that.
What did you learn first on the restaurant floor?
I had to learn service.
Hospitality was always in me. Service needs to be hospitable to welcome guests, some people have more of it naturally, some people have to learn it. The important thing is to always be at service for your guests, whatever they need. Be it wine or anything else. That’s where you start, you can always learn about wine.
A person’s temperament is very important. You can feel the energy, you want to feel calm and that’s what I learnt first with my mentor Larry Stone: to be very welcoming and to be present and give the guests 100% attention.
What tips do you have for aspiring sommeliers?
Read, study, travel, taste, ask questions, go to the place, talk to the people who produce the wines.
Keep doing that and repeat.
That’s just the way to do it. There is no easy way, it takes hours and hours.
Never assume that you know something, always ask and find out and keep asking questions.
Ask and really focus on the place, on the wine, on the person.