There’s a palpable enthusiasm amongst wine aficionados when Rajat Parr’s name is mentioned. The 47-year-old American sommelier-turned-winemaker is a rock star in this realm. Mentored by legend Larry Stone at Rubicon in San Francisco at the onset of his career, Parr has since served as Wine Director for Chef Michael Mina’s award-winning restaurant group in the United States. Today, with vineyards across California and a critically-acclaimed portfolio of Sandhi, Evening Land and Domaine de la Côte wines, Rajat Parr is considered one of the world’s greatest sommeliers. The fact that he was born in Kolkata makes him a home-grown hero too and, of course, that results in an immediate sense of kinship when we meet him for a master class in Mumbai.
Dressed in a baseball cap, chambray shirt and khakis for the occasion, Parr is an anomaly in a room full of sharp suits. Prior to all the wine-swirling, we sit down for a quiet tête-à-tête. It isn’t long before I realise that ‘Raj’ sees himself more as a farmer than as an internationally-acclaimed winemaker, despite his staggering reputation. “Wine is maybe on too high a pedestal,” he says with a soft smile, when I ask about the frou-frou image that is often associated with his industry. “Wines are a lot more expensive now than they used to be, and it is sad because that creates a barrier. To me, wine is an amazing beverage to be shared with friends. It builds relationships. It brings joy,” he adds.
Parr is unmoved by price tags, though he has often imbibed some of the world’s most expensive vintage wines, including the 1945 Romanée-Conti — which is sold for half a million dollars — and the 1870 Lafite. He isn’t a collector, nor is he particularly impressed by collecting for the sake of collecting. It’s not about labels. It is simply about pleasure. “I don’t believe in marketing. I don’t have Facebook. I don’t even have a business card. I am very transient. I collect nothing,” he says.
There’s an honesty and spirituality to Parr that is impossible to ignore and I am compelled to believe him. He doesn’t wear a watch, but in mid-November he is still wearing the rakhi his sister sent him in August. He laughs when I mention it. “When there is time, there is time. What does one need a watch for?” he asks.
It’s a fitting perspective for a man who embraces the “old way” of living. “In this crazy, fast life, too much happens too quickly. I like the old. I like the slow,” says Parr. “We make wine in the most old-fashioned way imaginable. We ferment our wine in concrete. We do everything by hand. We punch down with a chestnut stick. Yes, we do have a press, but our technology is absolutely basic. If there is innovation, it comes from where and how we plant our vineyards, and how we farm them. We don’t believe in additives. No clones. No GMO. Humans tend to have a lot of influence in everything, but we restrict our involvement to just as much as is required to keep the wine stable. We are not attempting to make our wine taste the same every year, or to recreate a specific experience. The ambition is only to make wine in an honest and truthful way,” Raj explains.
In an age when authenticity has become little more than a catchphrase, Parr is the real deal. His ideology isn’t reserved for winemaking; it defines him. “Believe what you want to believe in. I’m not here to tell anyone to change, but I do think all our lives must be whole. You eat, you drink, you live, you are compassionate, you are sincere. In the end, we are all on the planet for the same reason. We need to ensure its continued existence. It’s as simple as that.”
As I discover, on a lighter note, it isn’t
quite that simple — especially for Rajat’s Delhi-bred mother. Ever since he has ‘evolved’ to embrace the old ways, he’s given up eating an array of obvious foods. Like tomatoes, eggplant and other nightshade vegetables, for instance. “Even wheat was domesticated by humans only recently,” Raj pontificates, so he will only consume the grain if it is fermented in some way. “I sent my mum a list of things I don’t eat any more and she went bananas!” he laughs. “I wasn’t trying to complicate things. I don’t eat three meals a day. No one ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the old days. I fast for 16 hours. Honestly, I just don’t eat very much.”
“You must do your fair share of drinking though,” I interject and that elicits more laughter. “I am very, very particular about what I drink. On an airplane — even in business or first class — I won’t drink wine. If someone serves me something, I’ll taste a little bit… I am not a bad guest. I won’t be rude to my host, but it’s not like I’m drinking all the time.”
When he is tasting wine though, Raj’s palate computes the experience in a particularly novel way. “I look at wines in triangles, squares or rounds. I think the texture of wine is very important. In our wines, you can feel the crunch — it’s a funny word, I know — but there’s that textural experience. I also believe that the same wine could be different tomorrow. Expecting the exact experience is, in a sense, unnatural. It isn’t just the grapes and soil that you are tasting. Where you are drinking it, who you are drinking it with and what you are eating, all this will impact the texture.”
It is said that you can feel the personality of the winemaker in the wine. If this is so, purity and finesse are the two words to associate with Parr’s wines. “The world is changing. Now we have frost in May and hail in July. Climate change means an uncertain future. Regenerative, organic farms are the way forward,” Rajat opines.
Clearly, running a vineyard now is a metaphor for life — and that makes Rajat Parr a guru of sorts. “You need to be constantly curious, patient and disciplined,” he says. “And, when faced with an uncertain future, there’s only one thing to do: adapt.”
What accessories does a wine connoisseur really need to own?
- Don’t buy into the hype. You don’t need everything that’s out there
- Invest in a good wine cabinet — a EuroCave perhaps — to keep the wine at the right temperature
- Buy a good wine key; Code38 is the best in the world
- Have nice stemware.
- Zalto is good
- A simple decanter is all you need; no one needs to have an aerator at home!