Josiah Baldivino is one of the more delightful somms out there. Even in the rarified atmosphere of Michael Mina, where he was—until yesterday—lead sommelier (more on that in a moment), he’s an unpretentious guy. Josiah, 32, and his wife, Stevie, live across the street from me. We had coffee yesterday morning in our Oakland neighborhood at Room 389.
SH: So what does the lead sommelier at Michael Mina do?
JB: The way the whole [Michael Mina] group is set up is, Rajat Parr is the wine director over all the restaurants, so he’s kind of like the big brother in a way. Each individual restaurant, though, has its own lead sommelier, who runs the wine program and does all the purchasing. So what I like about it is that each lead sommelier has the ability to do whatever they want, so it’s almost as though they’re the wine director.
So you chose the wines?
You didn’t get a memo from HQ, “Here’s what we’re buying.”
No. I mean, we would definitely get allocations and stuff, which I would say works in our favor as a group, when we can commit to a lot more than just one restaurant could. So things I got sent were mostly allocations, and I’m totally fine with getting allocations of things like Coche-Dury and stuff like that.
Speaking of Raj, he’s known for, among other things, In Pursuit of Balance. Their thing seems to be low alcohol, however you define it. So at Michael Mina, do you have California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the wine list?
And do you have wines that would not be balanced, from an In Pursuit of Balance perspective?
[laughs] I would say there’s definitely some wines on the list that do have a bit of higher alcohol, and maybe to some are not balanced. But in my mind, if somebody’s into something that isn’t considered balanced, then whatever, just go with it and order it. My main goal as the buyer is to make sure there’s something for everybody on the list. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re not normal, or they’re not in the know. If they want something that some people think isn’t correct, then I’m going to give it to them.
What is your background? How did you get to be a somm?
Started in college at Cal State Northridge. Had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I took business management. In order to get your degree, you had to do an internship. So I did my internship at Silverlake Wine, down in L.A., and just got hooked. Started buying books, signed up for the Court of Master Sommelier program, moved to New York to cut my gums and get some real floor time experience, and then starting working in the Oak Room and ended up at Bar Boulud.
Did you get your M.S.?
No. I passed everything, got all the way to Advanced, and now just putting the whole thing on hold so I can open my business.
Why did you want an M.S.?
I don’t know if I really wanted the actual M.S. I really got into the program just to get my foot in the door and get some experience. I mean, I had that goal in mind at one point in my life, to get an M.S., but right now I’m happy with the way things are going. It’s like the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Michael Mina is arguably one of the most glamorous names in restaurants. You ended up as Lead Somm at his namesake San Francisco restaurant. How did that happen?
[laughs] I don’t really know, to be honest! I came out here from New York, and had a lot of fire. So I ended up working [at Michael Mina] under someone else, and once they left, they basically needed a lead sommelier to run the ship. And I, being a young kid, told them, “Hey, I want to do this, let me try it.” And they were a little hesitant at first, but after I told them, “Look, give me a couple months, pay me the same amount, I don’t want any promotion, just let me do what I can do, and if you’re happy with the results, then you can give me the keys to the Ferrari, and if you’re not, then I’ll happily step back down.” So…
Were you on straight salary, or did you get a percentage of your sales?
It’s basically like a server-type thing, like all restaurants. You get paid the same amount. You get a certain amount of points on the floor, and blah blah blah.
Do you make more money if you sell more expensive wine?
No. Not necessarily.
But sometimes? Because people wonder if the somm is pushing that $100 bottle instead of the $75 bottle because they make a little more.
I’ve definitely heard of some restaurants that encourage that kind of behavior, but I would say, at Mina, they’re pretty cool. Sure, you want to hit your sales and make your costs, which is very important. At the end of the day, you just want to make sure that people are happy, so when they come in, you’ve done everything you can to get them what they want and make those numbers. Sure, it would be great just to sell $30 bottles all the time, and that’s what I would do when I go out. But at the end of the day, sometimes people want to go a little bigger, especially when they come to a prestigious place like Michael Mina; they’re ready to celebrate, and you’ve got to have wines for those types of people, as well as wines for people who are just going out to eat on a Tuesday.
We are now on the very block where your new shop, Bay Grape, is set to open in August! What is Bay Grape?
Bay Grape is a wine shop that my wife, Stevie, and I are opening; she currently works for the Guild of Sommeliers. It’s a shop we want everybody to come to and feel comfortable with. The whole idea started because, as wine professionals on our day off, we always wanted somewhere we could go, like a cool wine shop, and just find a cool bottle and talk to someone who works there. But for whatever reason, it’s kind of hard to find that these days. So we decided to open this, and just be basically a really cool place where people can come, whether you’re really into wine, or just getting into wine. They can come, they can learn, they can find hard-to-find bottles, everyday bottles, and they can taste everyday in the store. We just make sure that all the bottles we have have some kind of story, are of good value, and most of them are bottles that are often overlooked in restaurants and wine shops. So we’re doing the hard work for people by taking our years of experience and tasting and finding the best bottles for the buck. And we’ll also have classes two or three times a week, which also involve tastings. We’re so close to wine country, we want to have people come down and pour their wines. So we’re striving to be a neighborhood corner spot where people just come and hang out and learn about wine and share wine with their friends and neighbors.
Will there be food?
Yeah: cheese, charcuterie, bread, pickles, and we’re doing a C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) pickup every Thursday.
This is downtown Oakland, although people are now calling it Uptown. This is my neighborhood; Old Crow Tattoo is on the same block. Explain the thinking behind opening this kind of establishment in downtown Oakland that really hasn’t seen anything like this, and has had a troubled past–although the buzz now is that it’s coming back with restaurants and so on.
For us, we’re basically neighbors too, so the thing I love about this area is that, although it is busy and, according to our neighborhood meeting group, it’s the most densely-populated neighborhood in Alameda County, it has that sense of neighborhood. People walk by and say “Good morning.” People are very cool; there’s a lot of young professionals, and old professionals,* all kinds of walks of life. But at the end of the day, there’s that sense of community, and that’s where we wanted to do this concept, because that’s what we’re all about.
And you quit your job to do this thing!
[laughs] Yeah! All in. After 3-1/2 years, today is my very last day at Michael Mina.
I mean, you had—I think it’s fair to say—one of the most desirable—
–jobs that a sommelier could have, and yet, you left it. So my last question is, Was it a tough decision?
Very tough. Very, very tough. The only way I would have left Michael Mina is if I were doing my own thing. And this opportunity came up, and my wife and I don’t have any kids yet, so we figured we might as well give it a shot. The last thing I would want to do is regret not doing this. So we’re going to do it and make it happen, and it’s going to be awesome!
[Bay Grape will open in August. The address is 376 Grand Avenue, in Oakland.]
* I think Josiah added that for my benefit.
GUS! Is probably the best known wine critic dog in California. Wherever I go, people ask me about him. So I figured it’s time to Spotlight Gus here on the blog, so his many fans can learn a little more about him.
Gus is about 4-1/2 years old. We met at the East Bay SPCA, here in Oakland. There was an immediate attraction on both sides, so we decided to live together. Although Gus is naturally shy, he agreed to this interview, which took place last Friday.
Steve: So Gus, do you like wine?
Gus: Yes, I do. I didn’t used to, but it’s pretty hard to live with you and not get into wine!
S: What are some of your favorite wines?
G: I like Chateauneuf-du-Pup, Chateau Pup-Clement and Puppynet Sauvignon.
S: What was your favorite wine-and-food pairing ever?
G: Remember that time when you gave me kibble mixed with chicken gizzards? I had an Italian Dogcetto that brought out all the smoky, meaty notes.
S: Do you read wine blogs?
G: I don’t know how to read, but if I did, I would read yours, of course. And I hear good things about 1WineDog.
S: Do you like visiting wineries?
G: That is my favorite thing! Usually there’s a nice doggie or two for me to play with. My favorite winery to visit is Frenchie, where they always make me feel special! But I had a very nice time visiting Martinelli and running around that Redwood forest.
S: What do you think of the 100-point system your Daddy uses?
G: I can’t count, but if Daddy likes it, then so do I!
S: Do you help your Daddy review wine?
G: Well, of course, that’s his job, not mine. However, I do like to sit in his lap while he’s tasting. Sometimes a drop of wine will spill on me and I like to lick it off.
S: Do you ever get drunk?
G: I don’t think so. What does that mean?
S: Like, you slobber and fall asleep on the floor. And sometimes you pee inappropriately.
G: Well, I do all those things anyway, so I guess I get drunk.
S: What do you think of social media?
G: It’s very nice, but you can’t eat it, so that limits its usefulness, as far as I’m concerned. And if the social media crowd doesn’t like my answer, they can rub my tummy!
S: What’s the best part of living with a wine critic?
G: Being with him 24/7!
S: And what’s the downside?
G: I don’t like it when he’s recycling those bottles. So noisy!
S: Besides your Daddy, who’s your favorite wine critic?
G: Jancis Doginson. Only I can’t afford her purple pages because my Daddy doesn’t give me any money.
S: What do you think of Parker?
G: Does he make bacon?
S: No, he’s from Monckton.
G: I never had any Monckton. I like bacon.
S: What’s the best wine to drink with bacon?
S: Gus, do you ever feel like you’re losing your mind?
G: Sometimes, but then I look at my Daddy and I feel pretty normal.
S: Do you help your Daddy come up with ideas for his blog?
G: I want him to change it from a BLOG to a DLOG. That’s much nicer, don’t you think?
S: Who’s the cook in the Heimoff household, you or your Daddy?
G: Well, Daddy prepares most of the food himself, but I help him keep the kitchen tidy by eating any little tidbits that fall to the floor.
S: Do you like the Riedel “O” or do you prefer a glass with a stem?
G: Actually, scientific research has proven that wine tastes best when it’s lapped up from a plastic bowl.
S: I did not know that.
G: Now you do.
S: How does it feel to be such a famous dog in wine circles?
G: I like it. I get lots of belly rubs. But don’t ask for my autograph, because I don’t know how to write!
S: Finally, Gus, if you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
G: That’s an easy one. Dogwood!
I don’t exactly remember the first time I ever met Jean-Charles Boisset, but I do have a memory of seeing him across the parking lot of his Boisset America offices, which then were in Sausalito. I had driven there to interview him. It was a windy day, and as I got out of my car, I saw a youngish man, slender and terribly good looking, with his hair and scarf flapping in the breeze.
The scion of one of Burgundy’s most important families, Jean-Charles then was in the process of launching his California operation, which now includes Lyeth, De Loach, Lockwood, Raymond, Buena Vista, Frenchie, JCB, California Rabbit and Amberhill. (Those are only the California properties.) The company now is known as Boisset Family Estates.
The three flagship wineries are, of course, De Loach, Raymond and Buena Vista, which was Jean-Charles’ most recent (2011) acquisition.
The Boisset family is one of the few players able to buy California wineries these last few years, since the Great Recession. As a longtime observor of watching wineries pass hands (Buena Vista, for example, has gone through more owners than I can even remember), I’ve developed a single litmus test for whether these transations are good or bad–for the consumer, that is: Does the new owner trade on the good name of the winery by driving quality downward, or does he raise quality?
It’s an important question, because these wineries that are bought generally have names that are well-known to the general public, and even if quality gradually goes south, the wines continue to sell well for years, because the public doesn’t really understand that quality has been compromised. By the time it does–if it ever does–the owner then can resell the winery to someone else, and walk off with his profit.
I am not going to name names, obviously, but this kind of thing does happen in California. It’s always sad to see a winery that once had a great name run into the ground by new ownership anxious to squeeze out every cent of profit they possibly can. The opposite of that kind of sad transaction, of course, is when a new owner buys a winery that–while good–has been troubled, for one reason or another, and then, instead of running it into the ground, has the vision, taste and means to resurrect the winery. When you see these kinds of renaissances, it cheers your heart, and lets you believe that unbridled capitalism can have positive effects.
There are two gentlemen these last few years who have been buying wineries and, as best as I can tell, are intent on elevating them. One is Charles Banks, who recently acquired (wholly or in part) Qupe and Mayacamas. Those familiar with both wineries and with Charles Banks have to be thrilled, particularly with Mayacamas. How exciting it will be to experience future vintages, which I have no doubt will restore the great name of Mayacamas.
The other gentleman is, obviously, Jean-Charles Boisset. De Loach wasn’t exactly a slouch when Boisset bought it, but the wines have either maintained their quality in the years since, or actually improved, especially the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Zinfandels. Raymond’s progress has been spectacular (thanks, in part, to Philippe Melka’s role as consulting winemaker and the talented Stephanie Putnam). The style of its reds (Cabernets especially) is softly approachable and utterly delicious, wines of such immediate appeal that there’s no reason to cellar them–but they will mellow, too, with ten years in the bottle, if that’s how you roll. Concerning Buena Vista, it’s a little too early to tell. I’m not certain I’ve tasted any Buena Vistas produced since the Boisset takeover. I can say that, while I liked many of its wines in the 2000s, they were good rather than outstanding. Boisset did not acquire the winery’s sprawling Ramal Road vineyard, in the Carneros, which was the source of most of its top wines. I’m not entirely sure how Jean-Charles plans to replace those grapes, but I know that he will, and will do so with diligent intelligence. So, again, it’s very exciting to look forward to future releases from this legendary winery, California’s oldest (1857).
Beyond the quality of the wines, Jean-Charles certainly is one of the most colorful personalities in California. Few exceed him in the sheer, sunny force of his personality. It’s one thing to have an overwhelming personality; it’s quite another for that personality to be so affectionate, even lovable. Combine that with a passion to make great wine, and you have something that’s world class–that can, in fact, symbolize California’s own sunny, optimistic nature. Jean-Charles may have been born in Burgundy, but he has turned into the quintessential Californian.
With Jean-Charles at Raymond
Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, also known collectively as The World Wine Guys, have enjoyed unprecedented success over the last few years as wine, food, travel and entertainment personalities and authorities. They’ve been on T.V. and radio and in newspapers and magazines, and their two books (The Fire Island Cookbook and Wines of the Southern Hemisphere) have done extraordinarily well. Mike and Jeff also are the Entertainment and Lifestyle editors of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, as well as good friends of mine. I thought it would be interesting to explore how their career went “from zero to sixty” (as Jeff puts it). Their advice to novice writers, as well as those who already have a little experience, is valuable. We chatted in New York, at Wine Enthusiast’s recent summer editorial conference.
How did you happen to become the World Wine Guys?
Jeff: We call ourselves that because we travel around the world drinking wine, experiencing the lifestyle around wine, food, cuisine, trends and travel opportunities.
Mike: We have been traveling the world the last 15 years. But I’d say for the last 5 years, we were looking for a way to differentiate ourselves from the other people who do the same thing, and there are two of us, so we came up with the name World Wine Guys. And it’s funny, when we travel, even people who don’t know much English know the words “World wine guys.”
What are the sources of revenue for the business?
Jeff: Our books, which just came out last year.
Mike: And writing for magazines, including Wine Enthusiast. And we do public speaking and host wine tastings and dinners for corporate groups and private clubs.
Jeff: That’s our main source of income.
A lot of people who read this will want to know how to make a living at something in the wine, food and lifestyle field. What advice can you give them?
Jeff: We’re lucky that we went from zero to 60 in a very short period of time. I was a sommelier, back when we called ourselves wine waiters. Mike comes from a journalism and marketing background, so we put those two things together and created this brand. For people who are just starting, I want to tell you it’s not an easy world, but it’s completely do-able. You have to be honest and truthful about what you want, set your goals and then set action steps to achieve those goals. We’ve taken Tony Robbins classes, personal self-help classes, and we truly believe whatever you set your mind on, you can achieve.
Mike: And go to as many events as you can, where you can network. Just get out there and do it. I remember we were invited to an event in Easthampton and I did not want to go. I said, “Why don’t we stay in the city this weekend?” And Jeff said, “What do we always say about going out and meeting people?” So we went, and met the person who is now our literary agent at a party! If I had decided to stay home and not take the 120 mile drive out there, we never would have met that person. So we firmly believe you have to put yourself out there, not aggressively, but organically find out how you can work together.
What is the role of social media?
Mike: We’ve found it works more on a personal level than a professional level. We look to Twitter to find out what’s going on, things that are trending, but we’ve also found out that a winemaker took a job at a different winery on Twitter, so we get a lot of wine news from reading it. And we’ve found that Facebook is a great way to connect with people. But we connect much more on a personal level.
So it sounds like social media isn’t the most important factor in your success.
Mike: We’re blessed because we live in New York, the media capital of the world, and so have the opportunity to meet a lot of people. And we find that actually being social is a lot more valuable than social media! I think if we lived outside a major city, we might be looking to connect with people in different ways.
Jeff: In the absence of having the opportunity to meet people socially in the world of wine, social media is a good thing. But what I want to impress on people is that being social is better than just relying on social media. If it truly is your only outlet, then do it and enjoy it and respect it for what it is. But nothing really takes the place of sitting down with a winemaker or chef face to face, and talking about the wine and food.
What is the role of personality? You guys are famous for your energy and charm.
Jeff: Personality is important, but let me talk to budding wine writers with their foot on the first or second rung of the ladder. Keep moving up. And the way to do that is to put yourself out there, going to events, and hopefully meeting people you can network with. You have to realize your first stories won’t land in magazines like Wine Enthusiast. But you should write for local newspapers.
Finally, do you blog?
Jeff: No. I respect bloggers, and I think it’s great, but we find ourselves kind of busy, and we wouldn’t want to do a blog if we couldn’t keep up with it everyday. For people like yourself, who do it everyday, it’s a great commitment.
Jeff and Mike, the World Wine Guys
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Paul Gregutt is my friend, the wine columnist for the Seattle Times, author of Washington Wines & Wineries, the Pacific Northwest Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, owner of the excellent blog, Paul Gregutt: Unfined & Unfiltered, and, as of this month–a wine producer!
It’s unusual for a wine writer to go over to–what can we call it–the Dark Side? No, that’s what it’s called when a wine writer does P.R. The only California wine writer I ever knew who made that transition to production was Jeff Morgan, whose brands include Covenant.
Anyhow, Paul and I had a little chat yesterday and we covered a lot of bases. Here’s a Q&A.
So how did Waitsburg Cellars come about?
The project began as a breakfast meeting conversation with Andrew Browne [CEO of Precept]. I’d done some educational work for their sales people and distributors. Andrew popped the question, Would you like to make wine? My first reaction was, Absolutely not!
I know too much! It’s very difficult to do it well. It’s highly competitive, and I know there’s a lot of real talent out there. There were two things I didn’t want to do under any circumstances: Buy a bunch of juice and throw a label on it, or get mired down in some expensive project that would eat me alive. But what Andrew proposed was, I come up with a concept and take advantage of their facilities and resources to realize that vision.
Do you have your own money in it?
I haven’t invested any funds. Precept is the financial backer.
So what is the concept?
Well, I was intrigued, and started giving it some thought. Okay, what can I do that I’ve never seen done that takes advantage of Washington’s strengths? Things that have been overlooked, or not done for whatever reason. So I started to develop the idea. I didn’t want to do just another red blend, so on paper I designed one I’d never heard of, but that made conceptual sense. Over many blending trials and barrel tastings, I made that blend. We call it “Three.” It’s 67% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 13% Mourvedre. [The 2011 retails for $21.]
That is a weird blend.
Thank you. I’m also making a line of aromatic whites to showcase Chenin Blanc in two different styles: a dry Savennieres style, called Cheniniere, and an off-dry Vouvray style we call Chevray.
So what’s it like for a writer to become a producer?
I didn’t want to do just a cameo, like a 30-second walkthrough on a movie, I wanted to be fully involved. I mean, I’m not picking the grapes and stomping them, but I am designing the wine, so it’s another extension of my love for all things wine. And it’s putting my ass on the line.
Because I’m the big wine critic, and now I have wines out there people will take shots at. Just this morning we got the list for who will be sent samples: All the major wine publications and a couple bloggers in Washington State.
So the worm has turned! The reviewer is about to get reviewed.
Yeah. But it’s okay. I’m very pleased with these wines. I know what I set out to do, and I know how close I came to achieving it. So the reviews should be entertaining!