“Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” ~ Albert Einstein
I came to Raj through his name. Someone mentioned it, and it was mentioned again, and then again. And my husband Lloyd had bought the book Secrets of the Sommeliers (co-written by Raj and Jordan Mackay) and I read a part about blind tastings at Daniel Patterson’s COI in SF, and I thought someday I want to do that with Lloyd…With that in the back of my head, when I was thinking about a wine collection of gowns to go with the Chez Panisse collection I was creating for a photoshoot and runway show, I contacted Raj. It was that simple. I reached out, emailed him, and he responded. He was in the south of France and we met up as soon as he returned. I went into our meeting thinking he might think l was crazy ~ showing up at RN74 with a bunch of silk, brocade and wool felt swatches of fabric that I asked him to tell me which ones evoked Chablis versus Meursault, a Pinot Noir versus Nero d’avola, a Pierre Pieters champagne versus a Pouilly Fume. My language around wine “back then” in 2011 was pretty rocky (though I obviously did some research), and it still is, but I’m amazed at how much I have picked up by being around so many brilliant wine makers, writers, distributors and collectors these past few years. That day at RN everything changed for me. What was once allusive and abstract ~ the color of wine, its vintage, its terroir, was suddenly made relevant and memorable once I associated it with a fabric’s texture, weight, transparency, and a story. Suddenly it was something I could relate to, understand, and became even more curious about. A couple hours later when Raj and I departed, I realized that it was a beginning of a friendship that would lead to many wine dinners at my studio, and eventually one we co-hosted together, the launching of a birthday rocket at Scribe Winery for his 40th, lunches at Zuni with his colleagues and more recently at Les Marchands in Santa Barbara with my family, a visit to his vineyards in Lompoc, dinners and blind tastings in his loft above RN74, being introduced to his and Jasmine Hirsch’s IN PURSUIT OF BALANCE and its philosophy, and overall a beautiful exchange of wine stories, experiences and even literature (Eric Asimov and Salman Rushdie), always contextualized and inspirational ~ which all began with an idea.
Above ~ A few of my wine-inspired looks from the Chez Panisse Collection. Left: “Sorelle Bronca Prosecco” tulle and “Pouilly Fume” satin with “Cremant” taffeta sleeve details SKIRT SUIT worn with a “Vouvray” metallic silk 3-ruffle sleeveless top. Center: (3rd from left):Nero d’Avola” halter GOWN with swirled artichoke hem. Right: “Shiraz” fleece cauliflower rosette swing coat. photos: Sarah Rice, for the SF Chronicle, October 2011.
RAJ PARR ~ INTERVIEW #14, excerpts ~ March 17th, 2014. St. Patrick’s Day. Grand Fare, Oakland.
On his personal TERROIR ~ “When you go out and say you’re American what makes me American is I live in America. But i’m 100% Indian inside. That is my core. It’s a lot about respect. How did it start? Eastern religion. And why is this day the way it is? In India there is a day to celebrate a god or a goddess or someone returning. With the Hindu religion, even though i’m more Buddhist, there is always a WHY behind it. It’s cultural. “It is what it is.” I literally mean that. That is what I am. I let go more than i grasp, and this comes from living in a very religious environment where there’s religion all around you. I went to Catholic school, but my parents believed in a spiritual leader and my nanny was a staunch believer of temple; so I went to school, recited hymns and was in the choir but then I went with my parents to a spiritual leader, and temple with nanny. But I ended up following the Buddhist path, especially when I started reading about it, which was around the traumatic end of a relationship. I was 34. I started with the Power of NOW which was very good but dogmatic; but it was the ART of HAPPINESS that I read. I was in Bali with Jim Clenendon and his two kids. It was so tranquil and peaceful. It changed my life.”
On meeting the DALAI LAMA twice ~ “It was in Aspen and then in Irvine. It was magic. The first time, I was in the audience among hundreds of people. and on the second day i was walking up the stairs and he came straight towards me. I touched his feet and shook his hand and something changed. It was this electric energy, this wooww. I can’t describe it. What were the chances that it was I, amongst hundreds of people? That was July 2008.”
Above ~ Raj’s vineyard and barrel room for his Sandhi Wine in Lompoc, CA; above with my husband Lloyd Bernberg.
On how we met ~ “It’s curiosity; like tomorrow I’m going to lecture to a few East Coast wine growers in Pennsylvania. If my knowledge can be spread around, that makes me happy… and I learned about how you were thinking about clothes, color, the seasons, food. It’s how life takes its own path. You’re on a path and the path takes you. Life needs to be fluid.”
Above, left ~ snapshot from my 40th birthday party at Chez Panisse, Nov 28th 2011. Center ~ Salon dinner #11, with guests: Bill Mayer, Andrew Browne, Susanne Kauer, Raj, Alice Waters, Bill Haney, me, Josh Jensen, Emily Schindler, Jamie Kutch, Lloyd Bernberg, Stephan Schindler, Kristen Green
Mark Danner, Michelle Sipe, Chad Arnold and Roshni Shukla. Right ~ that evening’s “dead soldiers.”
On CHEZ PANISSE ~ “The idea of being local and of being true to yourself and everyone around you. That was so special. In the early nineties we were so far away from farm to table. I was recently at a restaurant in Napa that only serves French cheeses. It makes no sense. Alice continues to define everything. The first time I showed wine to Jonno, 2 years ago, I thought OMG I have my wines at Chez Panisse, and I have my own Zuni Chardonnay. It’s just surreal. Those things are way more important than everything else. The idea of local has been in Europe for centuries. Everyone comes back to their own roots. I love French wines and things from overseas, but to do it locally is just so special.”
On ANDANTE’S SOYOUNG SCANLAN ~ “At La Paulee this weekend, she had a cheese named after me. She made a cheese, knowing the cheeses I love. She’s one of the most amazing souls I’ve met. She’s very old world. She does everything by herself. She’s an artist in the world of commerce and she will not scale her business because she wants to make it herself. I’m lucky to know her. She’s a true artist.”
On KERMIT LYNCH ~ “His influence is his style of wine. he made so many regions so famous and just to tell the wine world to be as natural as possible. He made wine much more understandable. It’s a lot more about the casualness and informality around great food and wine. Sometimes there’s too much celebration…”
On HIS GANDHI QUOTE ~ ”The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ~ “It starts with HOSPITALITY. You have to love to serve people. That has to be the #1. Only if you’re dedicated for service, then you will find the best values for your guest versus always picking a wine that you love. Who cares what we like? it’s about your guest. So, #1, hospitality, serving, listening to the guest. You have to ask, what flavors do you like?”
On being a sommelier versus producer ~ “There’s always a QUEST for new experiences; but as a producer you want to try to be true to yourself. Wine has to have its own expression. Just like every chef has a different touch. You can taste it, see it. Just like you can look at a dress and see the mood of the artist ~ a happy mood this year, bad mood next year. I remember when Daniel Patterson did mostly vegetables. Same thing happens with grapes and at a restaurant. I remember when L’Arpege in Paris went vegetarian.”
On RAJ’S 40th BIRTHDAY ~ “I found the video finally. The rocket sits on my bedside table. I see it every day. Someone said ~ don’t have the party for yourself, have the party for your friends, then you recognize who’s your friend.”
Above collage ~ Raj’s 40th birthday at Andrew and Adam Mariani’s Scribe Winery. Pouring wine: top, Daniel Patterson, above left, Raj’s mentor Larry Stone. My gift to him ~ a signed copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which had just premiered at Telluride Film Festival 2012 as a film directed by Deepa Mehta, with Satya Bhabha, a few weeks before. Lloyd’s gift ~ a hand made rocket with a pic of Raj on the side, which we launched that day…
On GRAPES ~ “It was my favorite food to eat. I didn’t know wine came from grapes. It was 1993 and I went to England and tasted wine with my uncle and he said these are from grapes, and I wondered how can that be, how do grapes become wine. I knew grape juice, but I was mesmerized.”
ON WINE ~ “Wine is something… In making it, a vine doesn’t want to grow straight, it wants to grow this way but a man is training a vine, and the vine doesn’t want to listen. When you make wine, wine wants to become vinegar, so we have to add sulphur. It’s very much like the human, who is born, and then dies… Wine one day will be vinegar, so it’s the human hand that must be pure. The hand of man is to grow it and make it, and this letting go helps in making wine. It’s a feeling, it’s in our spirit. From the making to drinking ~ that translation you can feel. You can map the feeling. When you’re designing you’re taking your imagination into someone else’s body. You either get it or you don’t get it. So you have a sip of wine and think this has finesse, this has power. Someone who knows me thinks that’s the kind of wine he drinks, that’s the kind of wine he makes. Other winemakers who don’t drink the types of wine they make, they’re not true to themselves. What you make, what you drink ~ they have to be the same.”
On BURGUNDY ~ “My first love and my only love in wine is Burgundy. For the last 18 years I’ve been thinking about and celebrating burgundy. Here in California there is more brightness in the fruit. Same grape, same idea, and that is something I’m proud of. It’s not about copying Burgundy but being inspired by Burgundy.”
On MUSIGNY ~ “I love the vineyard and the wines from the vineyard. So that’s what I named my dog. She’s unique and she’s brought me as much love as any dog. It’s funny how dogs have their own character.”
Above, left ~ Raj’s menu from one of his dinners. Center ~ that evening’s wine, with Raj’s rocket. Right ~ me with Musigny.
On RN74 ~ “I was so in love with Burgundy. In 2000 when I first registered the name I wanted to have a wine bar that was an homage to my favorite winemakers in the world. I wanted to have a casual restaurant where you could drink good wine in jeans and a t-shirt, not a suit and a tie. It was more about an homage to the Burgundians. They are so dedicated to the craft, and the image of the winemaker is totally transparent in the wine. That’s what makes Burgundy special. For example ~ Aubert de Villaine, DRC, Jean Marc Roulot, Freddy Mugnier. Their touch is in the wine. You have their wine, and you know who made it. It’s their softness. “
ON being a PRODUCER ~ “You’re passionate, but there’s also a product. It has to be an image of you inside. It has to mirror your own personality. The process is painstakingly long. Our children will take care of it. It’s old world culture so it should be timeless. It’s something you build. It’s a legacy. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’re in it for the long run. With my collaboration with SANDHI (and Sashi Moorman) it’s a dialogue with like-minded people. If you take two friends with similar ideas, that’s a true collaboration. We know the parameters, there’s trust, and it just happens. It’s a natural product. It’s truly representative of the region and the vintages it’s from. The format is more like togetherness versus competitors. In today’s world everyone is judging everyone because there’s so much competition. I’ve been doing this 18 years and now I’m moving to a new chapter. I have 25-30 vintages, or different tries. It’s nothing.”
ON BLIND TASTING ~ “It’s very similar to a combination of a rolodex and a slot machine; and so think of the slot machine, you have three or four reels. So before the slot machine, when I was young, I tried to create that rolodex by smelling everything in different forms ~ fruits and herbs, vegetables, cooked, uncooked, rotten. I always had this keen interest in all the types of flavors and smells. So when I was at CIA, when I started tasting wine I didn’t drink alcohol at that time from 1994-96, so when I tasted I spit out. I was building my memory, building the rolodex. And from 1996-98 onwards I was tasting with Larry Stone. What I did is pay serious thought about what it tasted like and Larry was my sound board. Wine today is mostly styled very similarly versus the 70s and 80s when they were very different, less recognizable. So with blind tasting you pay keen attention to taste, the nose. I took the rolodex and put them up and BLING… you’re putting the rolodex in the slots versus flavors, which is what you do in the Masters test. I want to recognize the wine. For me, it’s more important than the flavors. Once you see the label, you’re putting it into a box. So tasting without a label is important…”
ON WINE AND FOOD ~ “It’s just one. Wine needs food and food needs wine; it’s this little perfect marriage and the only way it gets better than that is when you’re with the perfect person or group of people. And that’s magic ~ wine, food, togetherness. You have to understand food to understand wine, and understand wine to understand food. My goal was to study food. Since I was 10 I loved to cook, and now I love to cook. It never has been apart and it always has been together. During harvest you eat and you drink every day and celebrate food and wine. I just know I’m in the zone ~ ”the happiness wine, the love wine”… Like Cornas, Allemand ~ Every time I have the wine and meet the man ~ that is magic. It changes everything. It is true to where it comes from. The wine is so alive and has so much energy. I love every vintage, every wine. And my favorite food to go with it is Zuni’s roasted chicken; that is perfection right there.”
Above ~ Lunch at Zuni in December 2013 with Raj and his friends, to talk about dinner #35 later that month ~ with oysters, crab and Zuni’s roasted chicken; at the next table my friend Richard Hylton with his wine friends Zuni wine director Thierry Lovato and Steve Ledbetter of Kermit Lynch.
EAT: every day
DRINK: (ha!) necessary
LISTEN: to calm soothing music
READ: mostly buddhist inspired
LOVE: finally found one
REMEMBER: “The great cooking of my grandmother… that’s the most important thing of my life. The idea of family was instilled really early. It was a celebration. We planned every day and we were always planning our next meal. Food was always a part of our life in Calcutta. I never had anything frozen because there were no freezers. We didn’t have ice, or milk in a carton, and every day we went to the market.”
On the film SIDEWAYS ~ “It was so funny, so real. That’s life, and life happens. Usually when we go to see a movie we experience something that doesn’t happen in real life, but this was just a very real film. That actually happens.”
Above, left ~ during out recent family road trip, a visit to the “original” Hitching Post in Casmalia, CA (I booked the wrong one!), inspired by Sideways, where Raj met his fiancé Jessica. Center ~ Raj and Alexander Payne (director of Sideways) at dinner #35. Right ~ lunch at Les Marchands, Santa Barbara.
On FAVORITE MEMORIES ~ “Me sitting next to Alice (Waters), the first time (dinner #11) ~ just sitting and listening and talking about the same restaurant in Sicily we ate at in Taormina. And the second time too, but I was cooking in your studio. I usually cook for 5 to 8 people and this was so much bigger. It was the funnest time I’ve cooked. It was a pretty incredible guest list and cooking for Alexander and Alice and Michael Pollan and getting an email from him a few days later saying he used the sauce. Those are experiences that trump anything else. Cooking for other people is giving your interpretation. You’re cooking with your heart. It brings togetherness even more. There’s a connection, because you’re speaking the same language. That’s what’s amazing at those dinners. Everyone’s a god in their own world but when you’re there you’re just there. You’re in Cari’s studio. It’s so well curated. It was a highlight of my life…. and cooking for Rene Redzepi.”
Above collage ~ Salon dinner #35, co-hosted (and cooked) by Raj and “sous chef” Soyoung, and with guests Lloyd Bernberg, Jessica Glaeser, Alice Waters, Alexander Payne, Evan Goldstein, Mark Danner and Michelle Sipe, Michael Pollan and Judith Belzer, Soyoung and James Scanlan, Eve Love, David Evans, Dorka Keehn, Josiah Cain. Raj putting on Lloyd’s Ratatouille apron, overseeing the guests, and his menu for the evening.
Left ~ Raj with Jessica and Soyoung. Center ~ with Mark, Alice and I. Right ~ with Alexander and Evan.
On TRAVEL ~ “I traveled the world to see and to meet as many artisans I could who just exist to create the best they can ~ people who don’t follow the pattern of commerce. People like Jean Louis Chave who got vineyards from his ancestors. So he’s following history while making history; versus Thierry Allemand who started his own estate. It’s hard to follow in the footsteps of your ancestors because you have to follow tradition, but hopefully it makes sense for the next generation. I travel to meet people and talk to people – farmers, wine makers and chefs. What is their vision, how did they get there and how did they get their three stars? They all had VISION! No one said I’ll do everything. They all went there to create something. So in my life I want to do that. I want to do the best I can and make the best wine I can make. It’s a lifetime goal, where tradition and history play a bigger part, in that someone is going to take what you did and follow along with that…”
ON BALANCE ~ “We live in a world of extremes. every day, this or that. Eat a lot, drink a lot. In today’s world there are so many things we do and decisions to make, so balance is important. Living, eating, drinking, socializing ~ everyone has a different balance. I’m a Libra, September 25th. So it’s a big part of how I live every day. Yesterday was like this, today is like this; now’s a check, to get back to reality ~ a balance. There’s nothing right or wrong; it depends what your own balance is and to try to live by it every single day.”
Above, left ~ from Salon dinner #11 ~ “My Grandmother’s Ricotta Gnocchi” with my favorite Zalto glasses from my 40th birthday.. Right ~ Wines from my very first “wine” dinner (#4) April 2012, including Andrew Mariani’s Scribe Chardonnay and Scribe Sylvaner, Joh Jos Prum, Raj’s Sandhi Chardonnay,
Vina Tondonia, Corison Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 Seghesio Barolo.
“A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks he becomes.” ~ Gandhi