Winemakers Turned Sommeliers

Now more than ever, sommeliers are making the wine start to finish

The wine world was buzzing recently over news that the sommelier at Noma in Copenhagen was making his own cuvée. But actually, he’s joining a list of notable U.S. wine directors who have launched their own brands, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "house wine."

We’ve written about the exciting Mouton Noir wines by former French Laundry somm Andre Mack. Now, starting a wine label has gotten to be particularly fashionable for the current crop of restaurant sommeliers. Master sommelier Greg Harrington — who worked for Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck before founding Gramercy Cellars — sends up the cliché with his tongue-in-cheek video "Sommelier Starts a Winery."

Since sommeliers spend their evenings pairing wines with food, it stands to reason that they might tend to make wines with nuance and balance that complement cuisine rather than overwhelm it. And their wine biz connections make it easier for them to source great fruit from the best vineyards.

Here are some of our favorite sommelier wine brands to check out:

GRAMERCY CELLARS — Harrington makes Old World-style single varietals based on grapes grown in Washington State. He dubs most with humorous names, like the club-only Gramercy Cellars "L’Idiot du Village" Red Blend (Columbia Valley, Wash.) 2010.

Look for: GRAMERCY CELLARS Syrah (Walla Walla, WA) 2010, $55.

LIEU DIT WINERY — French for "the place known as," Lieu Dit wines are the pet project of San Francisco’s RN74 sommelier Eric Railsback and Justin Willett of Tyler Wines. They like taking Loire Valley varietals grown in Santa Barbara County and turning them into place-driven wines.
Look for: LIEU DIT Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley, CA) 2011 $24.

LIOCO WINE — These wines are crafted by Spago Beverly Hills wine director Kevin O'Connor and wine importer Matt Licklider. Their style includes stainless steel fermentation, native yeasts, and hands-off winemaking so as to reflect the terroir, whether it's pinot noir from one of the best vineyards in Sonoma Coast, chardonnay from Anderson Valley, or a blend of carignane and petite sirah from Mendocino.
Look for: LIOCO “Demuth Vineyard” Chardonnay (Anderson Valley, CA) 2010 $40.

Sandhi Wines — Sanskrit for "joining," Sandhi is a collaboration between Michael Mina's star sommelier Rajat Parr, former Screaming Eagle owner Charles Banks and winemaker Sashi Moorman. They specialize in California pinot noirs with a beautiful balance of earth, fruit, and intensity.
Look for: SANDHI WINES “Evening Land Tempest” Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills, CA) 2010, $90.

SCARPETTA WINE — Master sommelier Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson run the stellar Frasca Food & Wine, a Boulder, Colo., restaurant dedicated to the rustic and meaty cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy. Their wines celebrate northern Italy, too, with distinctive pinot grigio, a brut rosé sparkling wine from franconia and pinot nero grapes, and a barbera monferrato.
Look for: SCARPETTA Pinot Grigio IGT delle Venezie (Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Italy) 2010, $17.

SKYLARK WINE COMPANY — Wine directors Robert Perkins and Jon Lancaster of Boulevard Restaurant in San Francisco use their contacts to source grapes from top vineyards to make California wines with Euro sensibility. They’re especially fond of Rhône-style blends.
Look for: SKYLARK WINE “Red Belly” Red Blend (North Coast, CA) 2009 $20. 

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