Larry Stone: Wine Taster Extraordinaire

Don't let the wine list scare you. Master sommelier Larry Stone can help you find the perfect match for any dish.

Larry Stone in bow tie, examining a bottle in a wine cellar

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One night a few years ago, Rajat Parr, then an assistant sommelier at Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco, was tasting wine with a guest when his boss, the legendary Larry Stone, turned up. Parr handed him a glass of unidentified port. Stone sniffed, sipped, and said, "Ah, 1927." It was.

Alan Murray, now the wine director at Masa's restaurant, remembers a similar incident, but with a 1900 Madeira. There is no shortage of stories about the palate of master sommelier Larry Stone and his 100-gigabyte memory for rare old vintages and obscure winemakers. How about the time he figured out that the sangiovese was not only from California, but a 1997? Or the evening he took one sip of a 1971 German riesling and nailed the region and the year, and came very close to guessing the producer?

Enough. Stone knows more about wine than most people will ever need or want to know. He has won every major wine award, has passed every exam, and is on a first-name basis with the owners of ancient châteaux in Bordeaux. His tasting ability is often compared with that of the phenomenally influential wine writer Robert Parker. He has the type of wine expertise that many Americans find intimidating, even suspect. Except that Stone, while one of the most honored and revered figures in the world of wine, holds a job that brings him into constant contact with the public. At 51, an age when many in his profession have retreated to cushy consulting or importing jobs, Stone is a working sommelier (pronounced suh-muhl-YAY). Most nights, Stone can be found on the floor of Rubicon, a handsome brick-walled restaurant in the Financial District, talking to guests about wine: tasting, smelling, pouring, decanting. And he is not just attentive to the customers prepared to pay $1,800 for a bottle of 1942 La Tache. "If you buy a $20 wine or a $2,000 wine, he'll still spend 45 minutes with you," says Jenn Knowles, a server at Rubicon. "He's without a doubt the best customer-service professional I've ever worked with."

Recently, on a slow night at Rubicon, Stone, in a dark suit and signature bow tie, sat stirring a cup of cappuccino, waiting for it to cool so it wouldn't burn the roof of his mouth and impair his ability to taste. Unlike many sommeliers, he always tastes the wine he recommends, to be sure he has represented it fairly; wine can turn, and guests are often too unsure of themselves to object.

As he stirred and waited to be called to the floor, he was talking about the ramifications of the fact that it took 14 million bushels of wheat a year to feed the population of ancient Rome. Stone is famous for the eccentric range of his interests and his ability to hold forth on any number of topics—jam making (with or without pectin), opera, the merits of European vacuum cleaners. "Before there was Google, there was Larry," says Rob Renteria, the sommelier at San Francisco's Bacar.

A waiter approached him and said, "Upstairs, they'd like to speak to you," and Stone, who is small, dapper, and rosy-cheeked, jumped to his feet, visibly eager to go do his thing. He returned 15 minutes later flushed and a little breathless. "I just sold $2,000 of wine," he said, resuming the stirring of the cappuccino. "That was fun. That was great. It was a big group, and they said, 'What do you think we should have?' So they're having one of my favorite white wines, a 1985 Laville Haut-Brion, one of the oldest estates in Bordeaux. And 1985 was superb—there's a beautiful freshness, a lemon custard flavor. And they're having a 1995 Ornellaia, which is a super Tuscan, and a Pisoni pinot noir 2000 from the Central Coast. And I recommended a Bollinger 1990, and when a woman tasted it, she said, 'Wow, that's good!' " He made it sound exciting; he made it sound like it was worth two grand.

There is a huge amount of silliness in the world of wine. But to dismiss true expertise as mere pretentiousness is a terrible mistake. There are people whose knowledge and understanding of the subject are profound and breathtaking. And that expertise can be measured.

The precocious only child of Eastern European immigrants, Stone was always attracted to food and wine. His father was a produce buyer for Seattle's Pike Place Market; his uncle imported Swed-ish crystal decanters and used to fill them with wines, which Stone requested they let him blind taste. Stone began making wine at home while he was in high school. (Today, he makes 1,000 cases of wine a year under the Sirita label.) It wasn't about the alcohol—Stone loved the chemistry of it and the miraculous complexity of flavors.

It was not until he was 30, a graduate student at the Univer-sity of Washington writing his dissertation on the role of Friedrich Nietzsche in contemporary French literary criticism, that Stone took his first sommelier job, a moonlighting gig at a Seattle restaurant called the Red Cabbage. He soon found himself selling wine to a diverse group of working-class folks seven nights a week. "I thought, this is impossible, I've got to write my dissertation," Stone says. "I'll do this for six months and quit."

But Stone found that he preferred talking to people about wine over toiling alone on an arcane treatise. Wine fascinated him. "It's infinitely varying, all the time," Stone says. "You can see the changes in nature, global warming, techniques, fashions. There's always something to reflect upon. It's never dull." And Stone is a generous, gregarious, and surprisingly earnest man; wine called on more than just his intellectual gifts. He dropped the dissertation.

There are countless competitions, certificates, and awards handed out to wine professionals every year. But the ultimate accomplishment is to pass the master sommelier's exam administered by the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers. Founded in 1977, the court is an international body dedicated to upholding standards for wine service. It is notoriously strict: The pass rate for the California bar exam is close to 60 percent; for the master sommelier's exam, it is 3 percent. The test, which costs $795, is by invitation only; there are currently only 106 master sommeliers in the world.

In late 1987, Stone, a 35-year-old wine steward from the Northwest, decided to give the test a try, for practice while he trained for other tests. The test is broken into three segments. To measure their palates, candidates sample six unidentified wines in 25 minutes and must name the grape, year, country, region, and appellation, and explain in detail how they arrived at their conclusions. There is also an exam, about 45 minutes long, during which the candidates are asked questions about anything from great Bordeaux years to vine diseases to wine laws in Bulgaria.

But it is the service portion of the test that is the most dreaded. The examiners stage a nasty little drama in which they pretend to be cantankerous guests to whom the candidate must, with perfect form, explain, present, and serve wine. What the testers do to destroy the composure of candidates is a well-kept secret—to reveal it would compromise the test—but, says Stone, "Suffice it to say that if you aren't by nature or training gracious and dedicated to your profession, there's no way you'll pass. If they think that, as a sommelier, you're going to get angry or flustered, you've got to go back and try again."

Stone passed on the first try, one of only seven people ever to do so. Three months later, he became the first American to win the Best Sommelier in the World competition in Paris. As the Oxford Companion to Wine puts it, "to win the title Meilleur Sommelier du Monde is henceforth to inhabit another world."

Stone was no longer obscure; in the universe of wine, he was a titan.

In 1989, Stone began working at a promising new restaurant in Chicago called Charlie Trotter's. Even though it had earned friendly reviews, it was not the exalted gastronomic temple that it is today. "He was the guy who came in and said, 'We've got an OK wine list but we need to make it great,' " says Trotter, who refers to Stone as "one of the geniuses of our time." Stone took Trotter's list from 300 to 1,500 wines and brought his own inimitable touch to the service—a blend of erudition, warmth, and modesty. He is the antithesis of the sneering wine steward with a French accent, and people noticed. "It's not always easy to drop your ego, listen to customers, and really respond to them," says Chris Meeske, who worked at Trotter's with Stone and is now a sommelier at Patina in Los Angeles. "Larry's unbelievable at that." At Trotter's, Stone won the coveted James Beard Foundation Award for outstanding wine service in 1993. "He is without a doubt the best sommelier in the United States," Trotter says. "And probably one of the two or three best in the world."

In late 1993, Stone, who is married and has one daughter, moved west. He teamed up with Drew Nieporent, whose other properties include Montrachet and Nobu in New York, to open Rubicon.

The restaurant was positioned as a wine destination, with Traci Des Jardins at the stove and Stone a marquee attraction. It was a smash hit. In 1996, critic Michael Bauer wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that Rubicon "captures the spirit of the 1990s better than just about any restaurant in San Francisco."

Rubicon has a 60-page list of carefully chosen wines that Stone is constantly tinkering with. He doesn't avoid trendy bottles if he thinks they merit the hype, but he is uncommonly dedicated to seeking out lovely wines people haven't heard of, like an affordable, delicious sauvignon blanc from India that he recently discovered. "He doesn't do lazy things with wine service," says Sara Floyd, who worked with Stone in the '90s and is now a sales manager for a wine importer. "Larry gives people at all levels of sales the time of day to introduce him to new things. He supports people who make 200 cases of wine a year, wines that other people might think, no, those are too hard to sell—I'd have to explain it to everyone. That's what Larry enjoys." In 2000, Stone again landed the James Beard Foundation Award for outstanding wine service—the only sommelier to win twice. Stone's influence has spread with the dispersal of his protégés into top restaurants: Masa's and Bacar in San Francisco, Patina in Los Angeles, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. "Rubicon is the Harvard of wine," says Knowles, who signed on as a server in 2002. "Pretty much because of him I do what I do and love what I love," says Parr, who worked for Stone in the late '90s and is now wine director for the Mina Restaurant Group in Las Vegas. "He's tough; the expectations are very high, but he's the greatest teacher."

His classroom is the restaurant, and most Saturdays the Rubicon staff—sommeliers, food runners (the people who bring food from kitchen to table), receptionists, waiters—are invited to a blind tasting orchestrated by Stone. The staffers bring in bottles wrapped in paper bags and sit at the bar while Stone pours everyone samples. "The wine is what you describe it," Stone says. "If seven sommeliers say it's beaujolais, it's beaujolais. They just put the wrong label on it."

The importance of blind tasting can't be overemphasized: Once you clear your mind of expectations, you pay closer attention to what your senses tell you. And this is where real learning begins. Stone still blind tastes constantly, like an athlete doing push-ups to stay in shape.

On a foggy Saturday, a dozen Rubicon employees are assembled, and Stone, who is suffering from a cold, maintains a steady stream of self-deprecating remarks about the state of his tasting ability. (Staffers roll their eyes.) Knowles is holding her glass of mystery wine by the stem, swirling it. "We have a white wine, looks like light straw, clean," she says. "No real green on it." She takes a sip. "Ripe apples, golden pear, a little bit of honey. I smell the presence of malolactic. A little vanilla brûlée. On the palate, it confirms the nose. And a nice finish. Shows some youth. I think it's classifiable as a chardonnay. Alcohol is 12.5 percent. The finish is very buttered popcorn. Not an overuse of oak, but it's definitely apparent. It reminds me of Littorai [a California winemaker]." (Close. It was Spring Mountain chardonnay from Napa.)

Don't laugh: She's speaking wine. It does mean something, and she learned the language since she came to Rubicon. "One year ago, if someone had told me I would identify a 1998 riesling spätlese from the Rheingau, I would have asked, 'What's spätlese?' " says Knowles.

One of the most touching tributes to Stone isn't found in the glossy pages of the Wine Spectator or at the glitzy James Beard Foundation Awards. Across town from Rubicon, in the Mission District, is a vibrant, popular little cube of a restaurant called Limón. It has sunny yellow walls and gray tile floors and serves fabulous Peruvian fare. Founded by a family whose members were food runners and waiters from Rubicon, the Slanted Door, and Aqua, Limón has a wine list that is strikingly sophisticated for a small ethnic restaurant. The list bears the following introduction: "We included in our modest selection wines of many different varietals and from various regions of the world. Limón's wine program is inspired by the omniscient master sommelier Larry Stone, under whose patronage the creators of this wine list trained at Rubicon restaurant. It's our pleasure to share our knowledge and to help you with your selections. The marriage of wine and food is one of the most rewarding pairings nature has to offer."

Larry Stone couldn't have said it better himself.

Test Your Wine Expertise

Here are the kind of questions you might face on a master sommelier exam. (Answers are below.)

Questions:

1. What are the subdistricts of the Valtellina Superiore?

2. In which anbaugebeit are the following:

a) Leiwen b) Bad Dürkheim c) Oestrich

3. What is arrope?

4. In which states are the following:

a) Langhorne Creek b) Tamar Valley c) Bendigo

5. Where is the Bellet AOC situated?

Answers:

1) Sassella, Valgella, inferno, Grumello

2) a) Mosel-saar-Ruwer b) Pfalz c) Rheingau

3) Sweeting agent used in sherry production

4) a) South Australia b) Tasmania c) Victoria

5) Provence

One Diner's Night Out at Rubicon

Master sommelier Larry Stone was absent the night we visited Rubicon—it was his wedding anniversary—but there was no shortage of wine experts in the house. We asked general manager Todd Caine, one of five Stone-trained sommeliers on staff, to help us select wine. For our appetizers, a seared foie gras and a half-dozen oysters, Caine suggested both a classic pairing—a glass of 1998 Château Raymond-Lafon Sauterne to accompany the foie gras—and a surprise. Explaining that white wine often gives oysters a metallic taste, he selected a delicate Watatake ginjo sake from a tiny village in southern Japan. A bigger challenge was our request for one bottle of wine to go with two diverse entrées: halibut and a New York strip steak with a foie gras and truffle sauce. And it had to be under $50. Caine was honest: There wasn't any wine on the 60-page menu (or anywhere else) that could perfectly bridge that gustatory gap. When I said I was willing to go with a more full-bodied red wine than would normally accompany halibut, he flipped to the menu's two-page "Forty under $45" section and pointed to a Provençal red, a $43 Cosse-Maisonneuve Cahors 1999, made mostly of malbec grapes. It was a bit heavy for the fish, but it was great with the steak, and it was perfect for a toast to a well-educated staff.

Overcoming Wine List Anxiety

You know the scene. A gorgeous restaurant with a dazzling menu. Then the leather-bound wine list lands on the table. An uneasy silence falls as you forge through the tome. Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 1978. Fiano di Avellino Radici di Lapio. King Estate Pinot Gris Reserve 1997. The waiter pauses at your table and asks, "What would you like?" You reply, "I'll have a glass of chardonnay." So you didn't understand the wine list? Actually, no one expected you to. Here are some tips for worrying about it less and enjoying it more:

Start a conversation. "Sommeliers and servers like to be asked questions," Larry Stone says. Be up-front about what you like: If you really enjoy New Zealand sauvignon blanc, say so, and the server will then be able to suggest something in that style.

You don't want to take out a second mortgage? Don't be timid about signaling what you want to pay. Servers and sommeliers expect it—and appreciate it. Old and expensive wines are on the list for anyone who gets a thrill out of drinking something rare.

Think beyond cabernet. Big-name popular wines and varietals—merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay—are usually more expensive, but not necessarily better. For the best deals, branch out. Try a Spanish rioja or albarino, an Indian sauvignon blanc, or a California pinot blanc.

Making matches. The old rule that white goes with fish, red with meat is a good one. But a pork dish might go well with a gewürztraminer, and a robust fish stew is sometimes best accompanied by a red, such as a mourvèdre. As for Asian food, Stone thinks that crisp rieslings are a good pairing, particularly with the hot dishes in Thai cuisine.

Making sense of markups. Fancy restaurants with white tablecloths and a sommelier charge about three times wholesale for a bottle of wine. Casual places have a smaller markup. Also, it's hard to sell a pricey wine, so a restaurant's markup on wines that retail for $30 is less than the markup on $7 wines.

What to do with that cork. Smelling it isn't a completely pointless gesture. Stone says that you really can detect a tainted wine by sniffing the cork—you may catch a faint scent of mildew. So sniff or not, as you prefer.

Don't worry about breathing. It used to be thought that red wine needed to be uncorked an hour or so before you started drinking. Not so. The amount of air that enters the mouth of a bottle is small, and the wine will open up pretty quickly in your glass. (In fact, there are oenophiles who believe that wine begins to deteriorate the moment it hits the air and should breathe as little as possible.)

If it tastes rank, send it back. About 5 percent of wines bottled with natural corks are tainted with a bacteria that makes them taste mildewed. It's impossible to tell if a wine is corky unless you taste it.

Photography by Terrence McCarthy

This article was first published in November 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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