We recently had a conversation with Christopher Sawyer – Sommelier at Gravenstein Grill in Sonoma County, wine educator, journalist, critic, and more. We chatted with Chris about why wine continues to excite him despite years in the industry, making wine pairings for movies, and his favorite wines.
When did you first know you wanted to have a career in the wine industry and how did you get your start?
Although I grew up in Russian River Valley, my calling to the wine industry really started when I was writing articles for the college newspaper about the Viticulture & Enology Department at the University of California Davis in early 1990s. Inspired by the interviews I did with the gifted professors, rising star winemakers, and other wine pros along the way, I ended up taking ten wine classes and started working at Wine X Magazine in 1995. Around that same time, I also started taking classes from my three Master Sommelier mentors: Fred Dame, Evan Goldstein, and Bob Bath. At that point, there was no looking back!
After building such an incredible career and reputation, you must have tasted countless wines. Does it ever start to feel routine, or does wine still find ways to surprise you?
To me, wine is always exciting, especially when the winemakers are able to capture the three Vs—true varietal character, the vineyard and the vintage—inside the bottle.
Have any regions or varietals been punching above their weight in recent years? What wines are being overlooked right now?
Over the past decade, there have also been plenty of tasty trends to follow, including: the new world-class styles of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir now being made on the West Coast; the emergence of a plethora of dry pink wines that go extremely well with fine cuisine; and the expressive styles of Zinfandel with dynamic flavors that are more focused on fruit, site, and fresh acidity instead of being porty and alcoholic. To me, the next big grape variety is Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, that has recently become popular in Languedoc, China, India, and Uruguay. Love the naturally smooth, elegant, and refined flavors of wines made with this grape that was first bred by Paul Truel near the French town of Marseillan in 1961.
Do you have an all-time favorite wine?
While I tend to pick my favorites based around the unique characteristics of the flavor profile, food pairings, where I’m at and who I’m with. But if I had to choose, two of the most amazing wines I’ve tasted over the past 15 years were the Penfolds 1976 Grange and the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon—both of which are so complex that they still taste young after all these years.
You are known for your pop culture wine pairings. Is it more fun to make pairings for movies or for music? What is your process for creating these cultural pairings?
While music can create a great background for wine experiences and deep conversation, pairing great wines and films allows you plenty of time to let the flavors of the wine open up in the glass as the plot and characters develop on the screen. While some of the wine pairings are based varietals or blends that match the main characters, other times I’ll pick the wine based around the time period or the country where the film is set.
If you were to give any advice to an aspiring SOMM, what would you tell them?
Learn as much from the chefs you work with as possible. Just as they need us to complement their food with wine, we need them to continue to keep our palates sharp on flavors, texture, and other gastronomical delights.