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My dinner with Larry


Plum is a new restaurant that opened in what people are calling the Uptown district of Oakland, which is just a few blocks from where I live. Plum was started by Daniel Patterson, of San Francisco’s Coi restaurant, and critics have referred to Plum as Coi’s little sister. It’s very Oakland-y. The interior is stark and austere, and I joked to the general manager, a genial woman named Cassandra Brown, that I understood why: the real art was on the arms of the heavily-tattooed line cooks!

Anyway, when Larry Stone invited me to dinner, I chose Plum. Larry of course was long with Francis Ford Coppola, as both his Master Sommelier at the old Rubicon restaurant, now Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern, and later at Rubicon the winery, which is now or shortly will be Inglenook. A while back, Larry left Coppola to work at Evening Land Vineyards, whose 2007 Occidental Pinot Noir, from the Sonoma Coast, was sent to me two years ago. I knew absolutely nothing about it, but dutifully stuck it into a blind tasting of Pinots. It blew my mind; I rated it 98 points, my highest Pinot score of the year. I just had to learn more about it, so good old Google showed me that the winemaker was Sashi Moorman, who makes the wines at Stolpman Vineyards, and that Evening Land’s GM was none other than Larry Stone. Moreover, Occidental Vineyard had been the source for a highly rated Kistler Pinot Noir. So there were perfectly good reasons why that ‘07 was as good as it was. These things don’t happen by accident.

Anyway, Larry wanted to taste me through a range of Evening Land’s new Pinots and Chardonnays, including from their new Santa Rita Hills vineyard and their property in Oregon. Very exciting wines they were. I told Larry I’m looking forward to reviewing them formally at home–not the Oregon wines, of course; those are for Paul Gregutt.

Cassandra, it turned out, is studying to be a Master Sommelier, so she was thrilled that the famous Larry Stone was dining in her establishment; she’d even come in on her night off to meet him. She joined us at the end of a very long meal (nearly six hours! a record) and I’m sure she’ll get those precious M.S. letters and not too long from now. It was inspiring to see the depth of her ambitions and hopes. She aims to be the first African-American female Master Sommelier, she said. When I asked Larry if there are any black male Master Sommeliers, he said he didn’t think there were. So Cassandra’s elevation would be historic.

Larry and I talked a lot about a lot of things over those long hours. One subject that came up–he broached it–was that people dislike sommeliers; they think they’re pompous snobs. I suppose some are, but it’s because they’re really turned on by wine. They love discovering new things, and they do tend to get bored with the same old “names.” Maybe that’s why some people think they’re snobs. Mr. So and So comes in and orders a bottle of [name a cult wine]. The somm says, “I could bring you that, but we have a wonderful [whatever from wherever] I think you’d enjoy, and it would actually complement chef’s food better.” What’s  snobby about that?

After our long meal, I saw Larry to his car, made sure he knew how to get out of downtown Oakland at midnight, and walked home in the chill night air, feeling just fine about my neighborhood, and that with restaurant wine service in the hands of people like Cassandra Brown, it’s all good.

  1. Larry is one of the most generous spirits I’ve ever met in any industry. He is always encouraging, patient and enthusiastic. A king among men. I can only imagine what a nice evening it must have been, given the knowledge and intellect of the two of you.

  2. Another great story by you, Steve. I adore Larry, too, for precisely the same reasons that you’ve mentioned. He’s one of the most dear, sincere, and down to earth people in the wine business.

    Like all things in life, there are some really wonderfully approachable sommeliers, and Larry’s definitely one of them. I just sat though one of Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein’s classes on Portuguese wines. Everything I had learned by traveling to Portugal, he easily had on the tip of his tongue, and so much more it made my head spin. Being with sommeliers is a blast.

    Sounds like you and Larry has a lot of catching up to do, and got into so much more. I great short story, as I wrote, Steve. Now you’ve got me really curious about Larry’s new chapter.

  3. Small world…I was on a BART train in San Francisco a few months ago when a genial woman noticed my “Vermeil Wines” shirt and asked me if I worked for the winery. I advised her that I am the GM, and she gave me her card, it was Casandra Brown!

    I’ll be sure to put PLUM on my short-list next time in the city.

  4. Tom Ward, that’s Cassandra with two s’s. She is a very talented young somm.

  5. Will Brazil says:

    I found this post via google by searching “are there any black sommeliers”. As a young African american male, it is refreshing to see an African american woman striving for the same perstigious title. Thank you for sharing this. Do you know if she ever achieved Master Sommelier?

  6. Will, I do not. Thanks.

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