His small-volume Santa Rita Pinots are an elegant rebuke to those who think Californian wine is all big brands, big fruit and big egos. Chris Losh meets Raj Parr, sommmelier turned terroir icon
Most winemakers grow up, if not in a family that makes wine, then at least surrounded by a wine culture of some description, and with a calling to the world of grapes from an early age.
Not so for Raj Parr. The sommelier-turned-Pinot-Noir god was raised in Kolkata, didn’t taste wine at all until he was 20 and originally wanted to become a chef.
‘As a kid growing up in India, you’re surrounded by grapes,’ he muses. ‘When I finally tried wine, I wondered how something I used to eat all the time could produce something that tasted like that.’
Parr first tasted wine when visiting relatives in the UK, but his real lightbulb moment came when he started studying at culinary school in New York in the mid 90s. While mostly food-related, the course also included a module on wine, and enticed by the complexity and potential of the subject, the young Raj was hooked.
1994 Attends The Culinary Institute of America, New York
1996 Joins Rubicon restaurant, San Francisco, as a busboy
1999 Joins Fifth Floor Restaurant, San Francisco, as head sommelier
2003 Becomes wine director for
Michael Mina’s restaurants
2010 Sets up Sandhi Wines with
Sashi Moorman and Charles
‘Screaming Eagle’ Banks
2011 Becomes partner in Domaine
de la Côte
2013 Stops working in restaurants to
concentrate on winemaking
2014 Buys vineyard in Oregon
After graduating, he moved to San Francisco to work at the now-defunct Rubicon restaurant – a venue carefully chosen so he could learn at the feet of one of the country’s best-known sommeliers, Larry Stone. He began at the bottom, clearing tables, but worked his way up fast. Within six months he was Stone’s assistant.
After three years of absorbing information like a sponge, he got his first job as a head sommelier at Fifth Floor restaurant, also in San Francisco. He moved on from there to the job of buying wine for Michael Mina’s serious (and seriously pricey) Michelin-starred restaurants across the United States.
For most somms, a job as prestigious, pressured and demanding as this would be enough. But not for Parr. Somehow, he continued to do what he’d always done with what little time off he had – visiting vineyards and wineries. His holidays, too, were taken visiting the wine regions of France, usually the Rhône and Burgundy, and that’s when something began to niggle away at him.
‘Even back then I loved whole-cluster crunchy Syrah, and I asked a friend of mine why he didn’t make wine like this,’ he says. ‘He told me it wasn’t possible in California. I took that as a challenge and started to try and find vineyards where I thought I could do it and make it with other winemakers.’
There followed a period of low-level experimenting, making small volumes of wines here and there, and searching for ‘the place’, before what was, with hindsight, to become his big break. Parr and his winemaking buddy Sashi Moorman, who incidentally also trained as a chef before delving into the world of wine, were consulting for a business that was planting vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. The company’s backers, however, were not happy with the team they had in place and asked Parr and Moorman to come on board to run the operation. ‘We were most involved with the vineyard. It was our baby,’ he says. ‘I just kind of fell into this winemaking world. It wasn’t planned. [Our business partner] said “Do you really want to do this? You’ll be in debt for the rest of your life.” And we were like “Yep”. If your hobby and your life are the same thing, you go for it.’
Staking its domaine
Given how sought-after the wines are now, it’s worth remembering just what a leap of faith Parr and Moorman’s decision was. The Santa Rita Hills might have been gaining a growing reputation for their Pinot Noirs, but the place where the Domaine de la Côte vineyards were planted was still very much an unknown quantity.
‘When we planted these vines the closest vineyard was five kilometres to the east,’ muses Parr. ‘People said “you’re crazy, you’ll never ripen grapes there”.’ It’s true that Santa Rita is 300 miles south of Napa Valley, but the lower latitude is heavily mitigated by the fact that it’s significantly more exposed. As anyone who’s ever been caught in San Francisco when the fog rolls in and the breeze picks up can attest, the Pacific air is cold rather than cool – and there’s nothing between the Domaine de la Côte vineyards and the ocean eight miles to the west. Gamble though it was initially, it’s paid off in spades. The Pinot Noir at this western edge of the Santa Rita Hills ripens naturally at around 12 to 13% abv, and is capable of the grape’s holy grail: a clear and distinct expression of terroir.
The Domaine de la Côte wines are all single-site bottlings, and a tasting of them at Imbibe Live earlier this year fully supported Parr’s assertion that the wines are every bit as unique as their counterparts in the Côtes de Nuits. The differences are not due to shifts in microclimate, since the vineyards are very close together, nor are they down to winemaking, since the various wines are all treated the same: wild yeasts, no sulphur in the grapes until after bottling, mostly whole-bunch fermentation, concrete vats and no temperature control. Everything sees a barrel, but it’s only 10 to 20% new oak, so the flavour influence is negligible.
Raj Parr on...
Place We took our inspiration from Burgundy, though the weather and soils are completely diff erent. The idea was to create a Pinot Noir that captures the identity of the place [it was grown]. We got lucky that the wine is drinkable, I guess.
Being a somm I miss working on the floor, but I like this life! Being a sommelier definitely influenced my winemaking
Soil Memorius and Bloom’s Field are right next to each other. La Côte is 100 yards away. The differences in the wines are entirely down to soil.
Somms as leaders Sommeliers like crunchy, fresh wines and that style is coming back. Somms are the tastemakers of today and the future.
Having two jobs I was actually still on the floor until the end of 2013. I used to drive to Santa Barbara – a four hour drive – two or three times a week.
‘We don’t chill it or heat it or anything,’ says Parr. ‘We don’t add anything. We just control the temperature by doing punch downs or pump overs. Is it natural? In our minds, yes – but we don’t use that word because natural wine can also mean wine that is zero-sulphur.’
He and Moorman are currently in the process of converting the vineyard from an organic system to include biodynamic practices as well. They’ve gained some experience with the latter in the Oregon vineyard that they bought in 2014, which is farmed using biodynamic methods.
‘[Biodynamic viticulture] is basically taking the organic element and following the moon cycle, so you’re really deeply in touch with the soil and the natural cycle. Anything you do, it’s a pattern… there’s a format about when you put the various preparations in the ground. It’s a belief.’ Given that Raj Parr’s entire winemaking mission has been driven by expressing the land, the shift to biodynamics might seem obvious. But interestingly, he sees it as part of a wider belief system rather than it being purely about the quality of the wine.
‘Yes, biodynamic wines have a different energy,’ he says, ‘but they’re not necessarily better wines than non-biodynamic ones. That’s not the reason for doing it. It’s just better for your life. If you drive a Ferrari and go biodynamic it makes no sense. It’s a lifestyle. You eat and drink from the place you live in. You’re in tune with the place.’ This is very much a reflection of Raj Parr’s personality. He’s personable, approachable, generous with his time and – for want of a better word – humble. Certainly there can’t be many winemakers with a global reputation who sign off their emails with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi about the importance of ‘losing yourself in the service of others’.
‘It’s not about having an ego,’ says Parr. ‘The place is the key. We don’t have our names on the label. We want to learn as much about it as we can, then turn it over to the next generation because it’s a young vineyard. It’s going to be at its best in 20 or 30 years time.’
We love you Raj!
A gaggle of screaming sommeliers throw their grape badges onto the stage in praise of their hero. Kind of...
James Payne, Fonab Castle, Scotland
‘My introduction to these wines was at a blind tasting during the Pinot 2017 conference in Wellington, New Zealand, last year. It was the finesse and elegance of Raj Parr’s style that struck me, both aromatically and on the palate.
‘Without knowing the origin, I would have said they compare well to very good Burgundy from producers such as Dujac or Armand Rousseau, in terms of purity of expression and power through length and complexity, rather than fruit intensity and tannin structure.’
Andres Ituarte, Coq D'Argent, London
‘I love these wines. Rajat makes great wines and is one of those success stories of a somm-turned-winemaker. We carry Sandhi Chardonnay here at Coq and l love the purity and expressiveness of the wine. It is undeniably Californian with a good sense of place.’
Oliver Gasselin, Hakkasan, London
‘I tasted the Bloom’s Field Pinot Noir 2015 at a special Californian trade tasting at the new US Embassy in London. It was stratospheric, with incredible length and complexity; a very Burgundian style, savoury, but with impeccable and precise fruit. One of the best wines I have tried this year and surely the best Pinot outside of France.’
Dan Davies, Whatley Manor, Cotswolds
‘I first tried Raj’s wines at his Pinot seminar at Imbibe Live, and they really are fantastic. They are subtle, with a sense of elegance, focusing on terroir. Raj adapts and makes wines that represent both his style and his area.’