by Elizabeth Kye
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?
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
EK: What formal training have
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
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
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
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
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