There’s no one in the world like Rajat Parr. An accomplished sommelier, winemaker, and award-winning author, Rajat made his way to the States back in the early 1990s, diving head first into the world of restaurants and hospitality. However, for Raj, wine came later in life; a passion unearthed through his time spent in the kitchen. Today, Rajat is one of the wine world’s most influential figures, bringing excellence, honesty, and a humble attitude to every project he touches. Get to know more about Raj through our exclusive interview with him, here.
Where are you from: Kolkata, India
Where do you currently live: Santa Barbara, California
Rumor has it that you didn't have your first sip of wine until you were 21. Why was that?
I was in London, back in 1993, and I was 20 years old. My uncle used to drink wine and I went there to visit him; that was the first time I had real wine. I had Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. As a kid, I ate grapes and I loved grapes-- I never thought you made wine from grapes! I thought, this is fascinating! How can grapes become something so profound? It was stuck in my head.
What happened next?
I wasn’t planning on getting into wine at that point, I was just curious. I went to the Culinary Institute of America in October of 1994. That’s when I realized that there was a whole culture around wine, so I decided to take a wine class.
Describe the path that brought you to San Francisco/RN74.
I graduated and worked at Rubicon, starting as a busboy, then after that, went to the Fifth Floor in San Francisco from 1999-2001. After that, I started working with Michael Mina in 2002, and then, we opened RN74 in 2009.
What made you move from restaurants to winemaking?
I was thinking, I’m not going to be working the floor all my life, so, I decided that I should do something else, and it just kind of happened. It was fate. I started making a little bit of wine, just to check it out and see how much I could learn-- it was only for learning-- then, things just came my way. I found Sashi and it happened by chance, it wasn’t something I’d initially planned. In 2004, I did my first vintage: Syrah from Ballard Canyon (with Steve Beckman) and Chardonnay from Santa Rita Hills (with Jim Clendenen.)
What is the difference between Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote?
Sandhi is mostly Chardonnay and DDLC is mostly Pinot Noir. DDLC uses estate fruit and Sandhi wines are produced from purchased grapes.
Tell us a bit about Bibi ji.
We decided to open a little restaurant to have a small Indian spot where we ourselves could eat (laughs) and you know, just have something that was fun and affordable, something approachable, not fancy, and also, a place to carry a list of almost all natural wines. Basically, we just wanted a place to have fun in Santa Barbara, a place where the industry hangs out. It’s super simple, fresh, and uses wholesome ingredients.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced moving from working in the restaurant industry to operating a winery?
Well, I still oversee the wine program at the flagship restaurant that I opened with Michael Mina in 2004. In terms of operating the winery, Sashi does a lot of the financial stuff. I think they’re similar in a way, though it's different when you involve mother nature. It’s still about sales here, but we rely on mother nature a lot, and that’s the biggest difference. Restaurants are relying on people coming in and eating; here, we’re relying not just on selling wine, but mother nature, too.
Tell us a bit about your other various winemaking projects.
What inspired you to begin writing books?
Me and Jordan wrote our first book in 2010 and recently, we decided that we wanted to write a more serious book. It was something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time-- it took us six years to get it (The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste) done! It was a massive project, the biggest project I’ve ever worked on in my life, and something which had been on my mind for many, many years. It was worth all those years of travel and research. We learned so much.
What sets The Sommelier's Atlas of Taste apart from other books that you've written?
I think the most important difference is that in one book, you have all the classic parts of Europe represented. There aren’t many books that talk about the real taste of wine. You can go to Jura or Beaujolais and talk about what the soil is, but [explaining] why it tastes the way it tastes is what makes the book different.
What will a reader get out of 'The Sommelier's Atlas of Taste' that they might not get from other wine books?
Primarily looking at the classic wines, but also, reasoning on why they taste the way they taste. Many books just have ‘here’s the wine region, here’s the soil,’ but with The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, we say ‘here’s WHY it tastes this way,’ from the soil and taste perspective, which I find really important to discuss. There’s a reason why Vouvray is different than Savennieres, or Saint-Julien vs. Pomerol, so really looking at the soils and going back in time, really putting geology and history and culture all into perspective, that’s what the reader will get.
What role do you believe social media plays in the wine world?
Oof. Social Media. A huge role now. Messaging and news, those things are super important. You can pass your message onto the user/consumer. The educational aspect is really important as well. If someone is at a place and takes a picture of the soil, the message/news passes quickly. Back in the day, the only way to learn about a place was to go there yourself. Now, you can follow people and get education. I think both social media and Google play a huge part. Back in the day, I had to open a book to read about a place!
What are your feelings on the natural wine movement?
Amazing. I’ve never called it that, though. A movement is what people have made it into, but when I was drinking Lapierre 20 years ago, I didn't call it natural wine, I called it Lapierre. I think it has a name, a stamp, an ideology, that of course people call a ‘movement,’ because more people are following through, but for me, it always has been. It’s just getting bigger and bigger, and more important. It’s a huge part of what people are drinking currently, and hopefully soon, people will stop calling it a movement and call it a reality.
What was a wine that changed your life and why?
‘86 Raveneau Chablis Les Clos. I had it at Rubicon in ‘96 and couldn't believe a white wine could taste like that. I’d had nothing like it, and the flavor profile... that’s what got me hooked on Burgundy.
What is your go-to beverage aside from wine?
Where is a place that you've visited recently that inspired you?
Oaxaca, liters of Mezcal everyday! Oaxaca is way more special than any wine place I’ve ever been to; how they make it... it’s just amazing.
What are some current restaurants/wine bars around the world that you are excited about?
I love the scene in London: Noble Rot, what Sager’s doing, Brawn in East London... and Montreal actually might be the best place to eat and drink in North America. I learn so much when I go to Montreal.
What are some of your hobbies outside of food and wine?
I’m picking up hobbies right now! I started sailing. I’ve been working 100 hours a week for so many years, that I didn’t have a hobby. Now that I’m living in Santa Barbara, I have time.