When did you first get interested in wine?
Back in high school. A friend of mine’s family was from Chile, and they had wine on the dinner table every evening. I dined with them frequently and slowly began to take a sip, and then half a glass... It was a nice way to learn that wine and food go together.
What advice would you give an aspiring sommelier?
Start taking notes. Unfortunately, it took me a few years to get around to doing that myself. But once I started writing down my impressions of wines that I tasted and keeping track of what they were, it was amazing how quickly things began to fall into place.
Is there one bottle of wine that you particularly remember?
One time, Tony McClung at Sierra Grill opened a bottle of Richebourg for me. I’d always enjoyed wine, but it was amazing to see the atmospheric heights some wines are able to reach. After tasting it, Tony said, “Now just imagine if you weren’t a smoker, how much more you would have gotten out of it.” I was a chain-smoker at the time, two packs a day. I quit cold turkey.
How did you come to be a sommelier? What inspired you to pursue this career?
When I was in college, I worked at Cafe Annie in Houston with chef Robert Del Grande and Mimi Del Grande. Robert’s love for wine, and Burgundy in particular, was really infectious, and I kind of just decided that I wanted to take this restaurant career seriously.
What advice do you give to aspiring sommeliers?
The first thing that I tell them is that they’re totally insane, and that it might be more fun to be a consumer and be able to afford Château Latour and that kind of stuff, instead of working for next to nothing—but you have to follow whatever your love is. So if it’s something you really want to do, then my advice is to go stage at whatever is the greatest restaurant in your area. See it for yourself, and work for somebody who inspires you.
Is there a bottle that you remember particularly well?
A half-bottle of 1847 Château d’Yquem that I sold while I was at Trotter’s. This guy who didn’t know a lot about wine was staring at the wine list, and all of a sudden he said to me, “So what’s the big deal with this one for thousands and thousands of dollars?” I told him the story of Château d’Yquem, even took him on a tour of the wine cellar to go visit the bottle—but I never thought I was really going to make the sale. Then he ordered it. That was kind of a legendary moment in my wine career.
How did you get into the restaurant world?
My grandparents owned a restaurant when I was growing up. I turned my first buck at the age of eight washing dishes, and I thought I was killing it. My grandfather would pay me $10, a hamburger and fries, all I could drink Coca-Cola. Fast-forward 20 years later, and I’m a sommelier at French Laundry thinking, I didn’t see this coming, but it’s a lot of fun.
Which wine shops do you go to?
Anytime I’m in the Bay Area, I always like to make a pit stop at the Ferry Building to see what’s there at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and then check out the awesome mushroom store there, Far West Fungi, where you can get your heart’s content of anything related to mushrooms black truffle sea salt, you name it.
What bottle of wine do you most remember? What’s really stuck with you?
Early in my career I remember going, “I don’t know, man. I’m just not feeling it with this Champagne and red wine,” even though the sommelier at the restaurant where I was working was giving me good stuff. He’d say, “Here, try this ’82 Lafite.” And I’d be like, “I don’t like it! It tastes bad. It’s dry and yuck.” And then he fed me this one glass of Vouvray demi-sec from Domaine Huet. And I remember going, “Oh, now this is good.” His name’s Joe Brasda. I joke around and call him Dad, because he’s the guy who helped me out from day one.