Sunday, January 17, 2010

Chat with Paul Roberts, MS, Bond, Wine Director



7th Generation Texan

Hung out w Julia Child

Frat Boy

Chef Robert Del Grande, Café Annie

Chef Thomas Keller, Per Se, Bouchon, etc



Winery Technology and Operations

Adventures on the Wine Route

From Vines to Wines

Science of Wine from Vine to Glass

Paul is an interesting man and the best part is he is an approachable and friendly person. Sure, he has had the life that all of us wish for, perhaps, but he is without pomp and circumstance about every bit. When you talk with Paul it is as if every success that has happened has…just…well…happened. He has a clear view of how the people in his life have influenced him and I am guessing that this innate sense of humility is one of the many keys to his success.

The concept that grabbed my attention the most; the running theme, if you will, was that he never once said “I did this” or “I made that.” Instead – everyone that he spoke about was in the manner of “this is what I learned from that person.”

So, let’s get to the interesting points, shall we?

It is Texas and Paul is 5 years old. His Aunt and Uncle own a small gourmet grocery store where he “works” and is paid. At this point no one in his life has any strong interest in wine. At the store one day a woman shows up to do a cook book signing. Paul, immediately taken with this woman decides to buy his mother one of these books with his own hard earned money. Thank goodness she signed the book for him. Yes. Suspense drawn and flushed she was no other than the lovely Julia Child.

Food was definitely a major influence in his childhood, but what about the wine?

Pan forward to Paul’s college career where he was a self admitted Frat boy. One Semester he had an accident that left him with a leg fractured so severely that he was going to have to be out of school for a semester and in physical therapy. Well, Paul is a smart one…he negotiated with his parents and convinced them to let him stay in his college city while having physical therapy AND taking a semester off….Nice work Paul…..

Well, here he is… a smart PoliSci major with a broken leg and a whole semester to blow off while his friends study…hmmmmm…..what to do? Well, it just so happened that the girl he was dating at the time talked him into taking a wine class at the University of Texas. I am guessing there was not much arm twisting there.

Class 1: Gran Reserva Rioja….with Spanish cheese….to a bored Poli Sci Major this was some much needed brain candy….he was able to understand and learn the wine pairing with the cheese and put it into context of what was happening in the world at the time.

Wine Interest Piqued.

He learned bits and pieces about wine in this class and really began his appreciation. While his friends went to the class to get a buzz, Paul went to learn. Over the next few months and years Paul eventually decided that his interests mainly lied in the restaurant industry and he went to work in the back of the house. Again, Paul is a smart man. He had no clue at the time what a Sommelier even was, but he knew what he saw: him in the back, peeling 100 pounds of onions and a guy in front in a nice suit showing people wine and getting handed 100 dollar bills; time to make the change to the Front of the house.

Here is where he meets his first main mentor, Chef Robert Del Grande, while working at Café Annie. “He taught me how to taste,” says Paul. This is where he earned his chops and paid his dues. What intrigues me is Paul’s humility. He knew he had a great mentor in front of him and he went in with eyes and mind open ready to learn everything he could. This was also the time of his life when he learned about the Court of Master Sommelier’s and began taking the exceedingly difficult exams to become a Master Sommelier. 3 exams, and a veiled threat from his wife to pass the final exam quickly Paul Roberts not only passed the Master Sommelier Exam but was the 2002 Krug Cup Winner…..a small detail he practically glossed over during our chat. Winning the Krug Cup means that you pass all three sections of the Master Sommelier Exam on your first try. Trust me – that is hard to do….

So now, Master Sommelier from peeling potatoes in about 4 years….impressive. This is when the likes of Chef Thomas Keller call you. That’s right; Thomas Keller called Paul and offered him a job. Enter mentor #2. “We were simpatico in our beliefs,” Paul commented and in 2003 he was hired. Thomas Keller taught Paul about focus and attention to detail – “about the here and now and its importance.” I had to laugh when he told me within months of his being hired they opened Per Se and Bouchon in Vegas within seven days of each other. What? – That’s insane – He managed a 16 million dollar wine inventory and a 22 million dollar total beverage inventory combined among the restaurants. Focus and attention to detail, indeed.

“I wouldn’t know what I know if I didn’t live in Napa.” Living in Napa is where Paul’s interest in production became piqued and he began making Syrah and Chardonnay. Paul remarked that wine is intellectual, sensual and tactile and “watching the seasonal change of the vines was drawing me more than working in the restaurants.” So, now what? Well, this is when Bill Harlan and Don Weaver call you and ask you to oversee Bond. I…know…right? CRAZY stuff. Enter Mentor #3. Bill Harlan taught Paul the importance of the big picture and the long term view point. So, August 2008 he goes to Bond.

I don’t know how familiar you are with the theory behind Bond but it is quite interesting and something I could totally get on a soapbox about so I will try to refrain. Basically, they believe that, like Burgundy, if you control the land, have the best farming and best vinification the only thing that will be different among the wines is the terroir. Basically, the DRC model –one producer, different vineyards, same team and the only difference in the wines will be the way the different sites come through the wine itself. Paul believes that at Bond, they have found the best vineyard sites in the Napa Valley. “In 50 to 100 years we will talk about all new world wines like we do old world; right now we just do not have the language. We will talk about individual sites of Napa like we talk about individual sites of Burgundy and Bordeaux.” I don’t know about you, but this makes perfect sense to me.

So Paul learned how to taste from Robert Del Grande. He learned focus and attention to detail from Thomas Keller and Bill Harlan taught him the importance of the big picture and long term planning. What did Paul Roberts teach me? A business mindset and a passionate mindset must be aligned to achieve success and humility, my friends…humility is key.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Any person of Italian descent knows what it means to be passionate. We are intrinsically programmed to throw ourselves “all in” when we find our heart’s desire. For Renzo Cotarella, Italy’s premiere winemaker and head enologist for the wine icon Antinori, his passion is wine making. The histories of both Renzo and the Antinori family are well embedded in the wine industry. Their beliefs, values and passions are what have added to the longevity of their careers and the quality of their craft. Antinori currently has vineyards in several different winemaking regions around world. The ability to produce wines of such quality at vastly different locations is an art form that Renzo seems to have mastered. He is one of the lucky few to be able to produce wines in both the old world (Europe) and in the new world (The rest of the World). Along with overseeing the wine making at eighteen Italian locations producing Super Tuscan wines like Guado Al Tasso and Umbrian Chardonnay blends like Cervaro della Sala he is now also producing California Cabernet and Chardonnay at Antinori’s newest venture, Antica Napa Valley.

The Antinori family has been producing high quality wines for over six centuries. Their philosophy stands in their roots and reaches for innovation. For Renzo Cotarella, the passion for wine came very early. Both his father and his uncle were wine makers and as Renzo says, he was “born with the smell of wine.” When Renzo was very young Piero Antinori offered him the opportunity to make wine at the Cervaro della Sala property near his home in Umbria and thirty years later the relationship is as strong as ever. Over these many years Renzo has come to believe that there are two different categories of grapes. The first are grapes like Cabernet and Merlot where drinakability is the main factor. The second are grapes such as Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese that have strong personalities. He says, “you feel more involved with these grapes and once you succeed – they are yours – you feel more complete.” To be certain, in Renzo’s eyes, it is not a matter of one grape being better than the other he simply feels that one is more intriguing, more challenging. For Renzo, working with grapes like Pinot Noir is “something you feel in your soul.”

Being able to produce wines in both the old world and the new world is a challenge that is unique to few winemakers and it is a challenge that feeds Renzo Cotarella’s passion for winemaking. To Renzo, the old world and the new world are two different “ideas” of wine. He believes that with old world wines there is an identity, elegance and a soul that comes from its long history. The new world is fruit driven, approachable and muscular. In an old world wine makers approach to new world wines Renzo tries to capture some of the soul and the fire of the old world style and impart this on the new world grapes. “The ideal wine is a blending of the two ideas,” he says. Renzo’s goal is to impart the elegance of place as well as the history of the vine in each wine that he makes whether it be new world or old world.

Renzo’s philosophy on grapes and wine making is proven in the quality of wine that he makes and the consistent high ratings that he achieves. The proof is in the bottle. I recently had the opportunity to taste four of the Antinori wines. The 2005 Cervaro della Sala and the 2006 Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay were the two whites. The 2003 Guado al Tasso and the 2004 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon were the two reds. All were simply amazing in their own ways.

The Cervaro della Sala in Renzo’s words is “a mix of Mediterranean with a touch of minerality, citrus and white flowers.” This wine is an Indicazione Geographica Tipica (IGT) classified wine made from 85% Chardonnay and 15% Grechetto. There is more flower than fruit to this wine and it is, in my opinion, savory without being heavy. In our conversation about the wine Renzo told me that the previous Friday he had the opportunity to taste the 1988 vintage and remarked that it was fabulous. 1988 would have been Renzo’s third year as a winemaker for Antinori. The Antica Napa Valley Chardonnay is a completely different wine, as you may have guessed. This is the first vintage of this 100% Chardonnay wine and has much more alcohol, intensity and weight than her Italian counterpart. This wine is not an over-the-top California Chardonnay, but it is very intense; the balance of oak and acidity is simply amazing.

The reds were an even bigger treat for me than the whites. The 2003 Guado al Tasso is a Super Tuscan wine from the Bolgheri region on the coast of Tuscany and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Renzo describes this wine as being “spicy, approachable, salty, big and intense.” I had the good fortune of also recently trying the 1993 Guado al Tasso and can tell you first hand that these wines are huge. They are almost too big for the bottle that contains them. Give them a few moments to catch their breath after you open them. A few minutes in a decanter and a sip of this wine will make you throw your head back and surrender to its intrinsic beauty. I was also honored to try Renzo’s first vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet. The 2004 Antica Napa Valley Cabernet was, for lack of a better term, pretty. Renzo feels that this wine has a little more minerality than the Guado al Tasso mostly because of the soil. It is one of those wines that has the complex duality of being approachable now but will age as well as Sophia Loren.

For Renzo, there is nothing in common with these wines except the wine maker and “that is me,” he said. I could almost hear the smile of pride on his face as he said that to me over the phone. With Renzo, there are no favorites among the wines that he produces. All he will tell you is that because the Cervaro della Sala was his first winemaking position with Antinori he is emotionally attached to the wine. He says, “It is like your first love; you never forget.” So wondrous is the Italian passion for what we love.

Sara Jane Fasolino
Certified Sommelier