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Published:  23 July, 2008

Larry Stone, Wine director, Rubicon, San Francisco. Interview: Anastasia Edwards

Rubicon 558 Sacramento Street San Francisco, California 94111, USA Tel: ++1 415 434 4100

Larry Stone is one of the most celebrated sommeliers and wine educators in the US. The recipient of numerous awards, he is the only American to have won the title of French Matre Sommelier from the Union de la Sommelerie Franaise. He studied chemistry and comparative literature at the University of Washington in Seattle and began a teaching career, when a part-time job as a sommelier exposed him to the world of wine. A recipient of a Fullbright Scholarship, Stone is also a published poet, has sung in operas and choirs, and studied the violin for 20 years. He is on the board of directors of the Coppola Companies and the Kronos Quartet. In 1997, he started making wine and Sirita, named after his daughter Siri, has sold out of every vintage. Rubicon has received many accolades, including, in July 2002, being featured as one of the top wine-destination restaurants in the Bay Area by Wine Spectator.

You are a Renaissance man who had the choice of several careers. Why wine? When I taught at university in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I realised that students had changed dramatically from people who were socially and intellectually active to people who were interested in getting a professional degree and going out to work. It was discouraging to teach subjects that I thought were stimulating and beautiful and have them yawn throughout the whole thing. When I got a part-time job as a sommelier to support my PhD studies, all of a sudden people wanted to know what I knew; all of a sudden I was eating and drinking very well. I said to myself, I can't afford these things on a teacher's salary I might as well do this for a little longer.' It was just too much fun, too exciting, too invigorating, so I stuck with it and never went back to teaching.

Do you find the same intellectual stimulus in wine as in your other pursuits? There is a huge pool of intellect among winemakers and sommeliers as well as consumers of fine wine. You have to be pretty sharp and knowledgeable and well read, so there is definitely a lot of intellectual stimulation. Often people who appreciate one form of art appreciate another form; it is just an extension of their interest in beauty.

Why did you decide to make wine? I started making wine in my parents' bathroom when I was 14 years old. When I moved near vineyards, I thought perhaps I could make wine too. It wasn't intended as a huge project but it got bigger and bigger. I wanted to do it for the love of making and enjoying wine. It was all part and parcel of what I do as a sommelier.

What have been your most memorable moments as a sommelier? Almost every customer I meet is interesting in some way. Often on a day-to-day basis you are simply trying to get a good bottle of wine for a customer at a price they are comfortable with, but when they come back the next time you might be talking about wine, politics, volunteering for their favourite charities. I have clients who are collectors who expose you to wines that you can only dream about. They give you such a great perspective on the history of winemaking because they have cellars that go back 200 years. One of the most interesting people I met was a collector who lives in the San Francisco area. I had read about him, but first met him while we were on jury duty for some sort of misdemeanour trial. We were sitting around waiting and I introduced myself. He said, Oh, I read about you in Wine Spectator.' And I said, Well who are you?' And he said, I'm Ben Ichinose.' And I said, Ben Ichinose! I read about YOU in Wine Spectator I've been wanting to meet you for 10 years!' A few months later it was his 70th birthday and he invited me to taste a number of JJ Prm Rieslings: he had wine from almost every single barrel that was made in 1959. He liked my comments, so he said, I have something for you to try.' He pours about an ounce of something into a glass and says, Tell me what it is!' This is what's so fun: blind tasting - the moment of truth. I guessed it was Madeira and then it dawned on me that this was really ancient Madeira, older than the oldest one I'd had, which was 1795. I guessed that it was 50 years older, and it was 1745 Terrantez! So this is the kind of thing that good customers can expose you to.

What is the difference between the profession in the US and Europe? I think what American sommeliers have learnt from French sommeliers especially is the discipline of being a sommelier, the formal aspects of service and the formal appreciation of wine. In America, sommeliers don't really have the same kind of clear-cut social hierarchy. They are pretty much free agents, and most of them, to be successful, have to be open and friendly and not at all condescending. Most of our customers know just as much about wine as we do and if they are wealthy they have access to many better wines. So we have to be a little more humble: we have no elevated role to hide behind.

How has the role of sommelier evolved in the US? When I started off, being a sommelier was no better than being a dishwasher or a used-car salesman. Today it has totally changed, fortunately, due to the efforts of the Court of Master Sommeliers, who are trained sommeliers but are also educated in the art of being humble and helpful and fun to be with. What is interesting is that the French government created the profession in the US by sponsoring a series of competitions that were known as the Best sommelier in the world in French wine'. After about five years, the restaurant trade saw that the public was really interested in knowing who the best sommelier was and realised that it was actually financially feasible to maintain a sommelier in their service.

What is your advice to aspiring sommeliers? Try everything, and remember that it also has to be fun. If it is pompous, or if there is any kind of pretence or fraud, that is the quickest way to lose your customers and become disillusioned with the profession yourself.