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  New Sommelier, Raoul Segarra
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 A NEW VARIETAL OF SOMMELIER
 

by Elizabeth Kye

Raoul Segarara on StarChefsWhat first started as an exclamation, has turned into a career. Raoul Segarra was working as a server for Keens Steakhouse, located in Midtown Manhattan, when by chance he happened to taste a Zinfandel from the Arroyo Valley and it "blew his mind!" Now he is one of the "wine guys" at Danny Abrams' new restaurant, Pace (pronounced pah-chay). He doesn't like to refer to himself as a sommelier, as he feels the title has a tendency to create a barrier between him and guests at the restaurant. Rather, he prefers to emphasize that this approach is an integral part of his job that adds to the warmth of Abrams' restaurants. It wasn't always easy for him, but with effort, Raoul Segarra is on the road to becoming a great… sommelier?

Elizabeth Kye: When did you know that you wanted to be a sommelier?

Raoul Segarara: I first got bit by the wine bug when I was working at Keens Steakhouse. There I got a lot of information about wine from the wine director, John McClement. After working at Keens, I spent some time working at Judson Grill. I was working with Beth von Benz, the wine director there. When Judson closed Beth directed me to Danny Abrams. This is when I met Peter Botti who is the Beverage Director at Pace.

EK: What formal training have you received?

RS: I volunteered at the American Sommelier Association. There I met Andrew Bell, the president of the Association. Volunteering there I came to know there was a lot more to wine. I enrolled in a 20 week program the ASA offered, and each week we focused on different aspects of wine and the wine industry.

EK: What training have you done on your own?

RS: I’ve done a lot of reading. The Oxford Companion to Wine and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia are great textbooks. Karen MacNeil’s, Wine Bible, is an easier read with lots of good information. The American Sommelier Association has their own text which is only available through their courses; the Gambero Rosso guide and the Vino Italiano are my two most referenced books of late. As far as tastings go, I try to attend them but I’m not always aware of them. When I do attend, I take lots of notes.

EK: How much do you need to know about food to be a good sommelier?

RS: Knowledge of food is important if you work in a restaurant, regardless of your position. But, I think it's especially important in being a good wine steward. How could you pair a wine with a dish you know nothing about? Or what about ingredients that can drastically change a dish or the wine (peppers, artichokes, truffles)? Some of the most wine savvy people I know are also great cooks. Coincidence? I doubt it.

EK: What are the challenges you face as a new sommelier at a new restaurant?

RS: Pace opened in late August of this year. I began a month before the opening. The first challenge was that I had to get familiar with the labels, as Pace has 220 Italian wines. Another challenge is trying to break the wall between myself and the guests. I think some people are intimidated by sommeliers, so at Pace we try to create an environment where guests feel that I am approachable. It’s simple: “Raoul” is there to help the guests out if they have a question about wine. I love wine and I want people to feel the same excitement I have for it. Breaking down the wall between myself and the guest is a challenge that I face. If I can project a warm and friendly feeling with my guests, that’s a good start.

EK: What is a typical day’s work?

RS: Well, it gets busy pretty quickly. It’s a constant juggling between being busy and not looking frantic. However aside from working on the floor there is also physical aspect involved stocking and receiving the wine, and doing general inventory. If I see something is running low I notify the beverage director.

EK: What is the strangest description you’ve heard regarding a wine?

RS: “Windswept” was one, but one of my favorite descriptions was regarding the color of a particular wine specifically, Lagrein. It was said, “it’s so dark you can write a love letter with it.”

EK: What do you do if a customer does not like your recommendation?

RS: Fortunately I’ve been really lucky with people being receptive to the wines we have. I try to give guests several options. I listen to what they are trying to describe and a specific wine will usually come to my mind. So when recommending a wine it is a mutual collaboration. A lot of times if people tell me “I love the wine you picked,” I tell them “well, you picked it.”

EK: Have you had a customer send a wine back claiming that it has turned, when nothing is wrong with it? What do you do when this happens?

RS: Yes we take the wine away and recommend something different. Ultimately we want to make people happy. We had one table that turned away a 34 year old Barbaresco that costs $315. They never tasted it. They turned it away because of the color. Through time wine changes color, it looks different, it tastes different and it behaves differently. The table sent the wine back because it was a reddish brown color but it was delicious.

EK: Do you have any words of wisdom for others who aspire to be a sommelier?

RS: To be patient because it definitely takes time. Try not to get caught up in your own interpretation of what your job is about and the pretension associated with it

 
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