Nov 18: Rajat Parashar, a Kolkata born American Sommelier with the adopted name of Raj Parr, is the most accomplished Indian wine persona with years of experience as a Top Sommelier and now a cult winemaker, making Burgundy styled wines in California and Oregon. He was in Delhi on 16 November where he conducted a Masterclass with a Tasting of 3 entry level wines that charmed the full house at Le Cirque, Delhi, writes Subhash Arora who has been following his career graph for the last 12 years, and attended the session, despite the Indian Wine Day dinner he was hosting in the evening
I first learnt about Raj Parr about 12 years ago when I went for a wedding to Las Vegas and stayed at Hotel Bellagio. We went for dinner at Michael Mina Restaurant where the wine list was impressive. I was told that the guy who had curated the list was an Indian sommelier by the name of Raj Parr. Since then I have been following his success story including his entry into winemaking with Sandhi Wines in Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara in 2011. For some reason, I had erroneously assumed he was a Sindhi-turned American and hence Sandhi!
I was proven wrong when I met him at Le Cirque at the Master Class organised by Sanjay Menon of Sonarys, who has teamed up with Rajat (known as Raj) Parr (a Punjabi Parashar born in Kolkata where his grand-father had migrated from Pakistan) with Ansh Khanna to start Massale Wines. He did his schooling in Kolkata and Hotel management at Manipal to become a Chef before going to London in 1994 from where he moved eventually to New York.
While in CIA (not THE CIA but the Culinary Institute of America) in New York, his penchant for wine was noticed and he was advised to move to San Francisco where he honed his skills as a Sommelier. In 1997, he started working for Rubicon (shut down in 2008) which had a Grand Award Winning Wine List (3 stars) since 1998 for 3 years under Larry Stone who was his mentor before he moved on. He became the Wine Director for Chef-entrepreneur Michael Mina in 2002 and still works as a Consultant. He opened 26 restaurants before calling it a day since ‘I have had enough’, he says.
He made his first vintage in 2004 and initially ‘lost a lot of money draining lots of wine down the drain.’ He met his current partner Sashi Moorman, a half Japanese-half American winemaker next year. The two struck a chord and decided to join hands making wine. They bought a piece of land in Sta. Rita Hills and started a wine company, naming it Sandhi (a Hindi word meaning union/handshake), without any knowledge of viticulture. Now widely knowledgeable about soils and climates, he admits winemaking is easy, vine growing is difficult.
All the grapes grown are organic and biodynamic (not yet certified). ‘I don’t believe too much in tempering. I use natural yeast, old barrels and cement tanks for fermentation and French barrels for ageing. No chemical addition except just a bit of Sulphur before bottling. He uses the same cooper for his barrels, with same wood and toast. ‘Why change when you have a successful formula,’ he says casually.
He now owns Sandhi and Domaine La Cote in Santa Barbara where he makes 80,000 and 15,000 bottles respectively. Wines are exported to about 40 countries and are widely distributed with London and Norway as the biggest market. Under allocation, they sell more in New York, San Francisco, Texas and Colorado. Massale Wines which brings his wines and also those of similar genre/style, import these wines into India.
Visiting Burgundy frequently during the last 20 years has made him an expert in Burgundy where even the top producers admire him. Same with his style to make elegant Pinot Noirs, as close to his favourite region as possible - with less alcohol, fresh, pure, terroir-driven wines as compared to the big and bold Pinot Noirs that became fashionable in the US, thanks to Robert Parker. ‘I like to pick fruit before it is fully ripe, higher in acidity and lower potential alcohol.’ 13% seems to be the sweet spot he is looking for in his Pinots and craves freshness and crispness.
I ask him how much did the movie Sideways released in 2004 which sang songs about Pinot and panned Merlot, help his decision to choose California for making Pinot Noir. ‘Actually, the movie did not help Pinot Noir much. The sales went up but people started making bulk, cheap quality Pinot Noir with high alcohol and over-ripe grapes.’ He believes Pinot Noir with excessive ripeness, alcohol, oak and other discordant exaggerations cannot truly express a specific terroir which in essence is the real Burgundy trait.
He has also got a foot in Oregon, touted as closest to Burgundy in taste. With a winemaking experience in Evening Land Vineyards, he is well versed with the Pinot Noir story in Burgundy, Oregon and California. So how does Oregon Pinot really compare with Burgundy and now California? ‘People started planting grapes in Oregon because it is at the same latitude as Burgundy with some Burgundy producers even partnering in projects. The problem is that they over-planted and not all parts of Oregon are suitable for Pinot Noir which requires alkaline soil but a lot of it there is volcanic.’ Though he concedes if we selected Top Ten wines of Oregon with Top Ten of California, Oregon would come out ahead but there are small producers in California which make superior wines. Domaine de La Cote could be an example.
Parr, whose palate is accustomed to the purest expressions of a Pinot Noir in Burgundy, is a part of a group of small winemakers who believe in the total terroir expression and are contrarians and rebels in the US market used to high alcohol, oaky wines and wines with a lot of glycerine. But he has a band of followers who buy directly from Sandhi and Domaine de La Cote or Evening Land Vineyards as members of his wine club.
Somm 3 and Domaine de La Cote
In the movie Somm 3 released last year, there was a 1976 Judgement of Paris type tasting organised for Pinot Noirs. Jancis Robinson MW, Fred Dame MS and Steven Spurrier tasted the final 3 wines to decide one winner. Jancis Robinson chose Bloom's Field Domaine de la Côte as her top wine. Quite elated at the result, Parr insists they did not increase the price of the wine (unlike Parker dictated wines that used to touch the roof when they scored 100 or even 99, 98 points). Sanjay Menon insisted though that the prices in the open market went up 2-3 times after the movie came out.
Will that happen in India where the duties are exorbitant but only a small quantity is available? Delhi might not even merit paying Rs. 60,000 as the Registration cost for a small number on allocation. Menon insists that a couple of labels would be available shortly. In fact, the Chardonnay from Sandhi Vineyards, made from bought out grapes, would be available at around Rs. 7,500. A hefty price tag, you might say, for his lowest priced wines but it will transport you to a different world in a few large sips, as I discovered during a Tasting of the 3 basic wines including 2 Pinot Noirs from each of the wineries.
The Chardonnay was light, fresh and crisp with just a hint of oak, terrific nose and the end so long I am still salivating. The Pinot Noirs were different in style and flavours from each other but with precise winemaking and different terroirs evident. Coupled with the fact that they are under allocation, the small quantities would be sold out in no time. Sanjay opines that the quality is equivalent of Top Domaine, Premier Cru Burgundy wines which are 10-30 Times more expensive!
But not to worry, if you cannot always find these wines, London would be the easiest place to find them, he says. If Raj Parr is a Sommelier’s Sommelier, Massale Wines would be the Connoisseurs’ Importer, bringing wines into India from small producers who share his philosophy. Think Domaine Fourrier (Gevrey Chambertin), Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Roulot (Meursault)- where Rajat learnt about Burgundy like he could nowhere else, he says; Domaine Lapierre (Morgon) Cru Beaujolais as just a few of the domains that you can hope to buy if you have the elegant palate and a fat wallet!
Coincidentally, the movie Somm released in 2012 was about a bunch of students (4 if I remember correctly) studying to pass the final of Quarter Master Sommelier to become an MS. There was a mention made also of Raj Parr who apparently failed to qualify in the final exam. When I asked him whether he eventually cleared the MS-one has to make multiple attempts to clear it, he said dismissively, ‘ I just appeared once and realised it was not for me and so did not pursue it further.’
It must be heartening to have his wine chosen as the Top Wine by no less than Jancis Robinson MW. He has also proved conclusively that one does not have to be an MW or MS to be an extra-ordinary Sommelier or a wine producer.