A "Life of Wine" (Looking Back 40 Years)

1977: Randy & Heather Caparoso

2017 marks my seventh year living in Lodi wine country. Although I am originally from the Hawaiian Islands, Lodi has become my adopted home; and in many ways, this residency represents a culmination of a career as a full-time wine professional spanning 40 years.

Even I wonder where the time goes. When I first landed a position as a working sommelier back in 1978 – transitioning from waiting tables while working through college – I truly did so with a simple thought: “What a cool job – tasting wines and writing wine lists, opening bottles and talking wine all night with thirsty customers... and getting paid for it!”

Shirley, I jest – partly. Yes, working as a restaurant sommelier was very cool; especially for a 21-year-old. But I also took the job seriously because I had just gotten married to a fellow University of Hawaii student (who loved cooking for me, just as long as I brought the bottles!). In 1978 we were expecting the first of (eventually) four fantastic children. I needed a real paying job – preferably doing something I loved – especially since I had spent the previous four years pursuing a less than useful degree (philosophy).

1979: The young tastevined sommelier (Cavalier French Restaurant, Honolulu)

Yet wine, to me, was more than a living. It was an obsession. From the moment I first fell into it (after attending a restaurant staff tasting at the age of 18) I began planning trips to wineries and vineyards in California, then the Northwest, later to Europe. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the wine industry around the world was just a fraction of the size of what it is now, and not nearly as many Americans even touched the stuff.

Therefore, in those days, even the greatest wines were not in huge demand. We could buy the Château Lafites and Moutons, Pétrus and d’Yquems, and all the grand crus of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for under $40 or $50 – tasting, evaluating, and consuming these wines to our hearts’ content. I remember buying all-time classics like ’68 and ’70 Beaulieu Private Reserve for $12 each, and ’70 and ’74 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard for (gasp) $30.

Being part of the burgeoning industry in the 1970s and ‘80s also meant being privileged to personally meet and befriend many of the California pioneers – André Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Justin Meyer, Paul Draper, Myron Nightingale, Dick Arrowood, and so many more – on a first-name basis. People like Schramsberg’s Jack and Jamie Davies, Kermit Lynch or Jess Jackson himself would call at your door or sit down at a table with you; and at least once a year I would fly over and call on them. You could ask questions, and they would take all the time needed to help you understand what they do, and how they do it. You could talk to the industry giants, when they walked the earth.

1982: With my wine competition tasting "buddy," (the immortal) Andre Tchelistcheff 

Mind you, in this day and age, there are still advantages to being young and gifted with opportunities. Today’s sommeliers, frankly, are required to be significantly more knowledgeable than we were, 30 or 40 years ago. But hey, there are advantages to reaching the far side of the mountain, especially if you still carry a burning desire to hone your craft.

In fact, a lot of people forget that being a young wine professional in Hawaii was, and still is, a big deal in itself. The first two American Master Sommeliers, for instance, lived and worked in Hawaii. The first combination Master Sommelier/Master of Wine also lived in the Islands during the ‘70s and ‘80s. This is the caliber of wine professionals with whom I worked, socialized, and often tasted with.

When the U.K.’s Court of Master Sommeliers decided, in 1988, to hold their first examinations on American soil, I applied to be among the 20 American sommeliers to undertake that challenge. Only one of us passed on that occasion, but more than half of that first group went back to eventually achieve their MS titles. In 1992 the Institute of Masters of Wine also held their first, invitation-only examinations on American soil – which I actually passed, although it was just to qualify for final exams held (in those days) only in London.

1989: Mes amis Kermit Lynch and Gail Skopf 

I never got the opportunity to actually sit for final MS or MW exams. Why? I was busy being a husband and father – attending the games, playing in the park, enjoying the family meals, the things parents are supposed to do with their kids – while working 60, 70 hours a week managing wine retail stores by day and walking restaurant floors at night. At the same time, bolstering my ability to do my job (and, frankly, my value and pay) by plotting never-ending swings through the vineyards all along the West Coast, favorite parts of Europe, and occasionally Down Under and in South America.

Do I ever regret not taking the time to attain ultimate “Master” credentials? Not one second. Today, my kids are all amazing adults, accumulating their own life-experiences; and I am a grandfather of four (and counting!).

In 1988 I was still working as a full-time sommelier when I met a nationally acclaimed, James Beard Award winning chef named Roy Yamaguchi, who had moved to the Islands to escape the craziness of West Hollywood. Chef Yamaguchi said he planned to open a “few” restaurants, and invited me onboard as a founding partner, manager and wine director for what promised to be another crazy ride. It was.

1994: With Roy Yamaguchi (front-left), alongside Bradley Ogden and moi

By 2001 I had helped open no less than 28 of these “Roy’s” restaurants, specializing in cutting-edge French-Asian cuisine and equally innovative wines, which I traveled the globe to find. In doing so, I got the opportunity to spend tons of time in markets from coast to coast – in multiple cities in California and Florida, from Washington to Georgia, Chicago to Austin, Denver and Scottsdale to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and more – while working out of home offices in Honolulu and Newport Beach, California.

Because Roy’s was such a high profile group – and working for an amazing chef was also a huge motivator – I earned my own personal accolades; highlighted by awards such as Santé Magazine’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998), and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1989). At one point, in the early ‘90s, our original Roy’s Restaurant in Eastern Honolulu was rated among the country’s Top 40 (by Gault Millau and Forbes); which, no matter how you slice it, is another big deal.

Make no mistake, our restaurant success grew out of plain ol’ elbow grease, not hype. Sometimes I would pack a bag and not get back home for a month (so much for decent fathering); especially when there were West or East Coast wine festivals to attend, and the need to personally attend to bottlings (at least a dozen at a time) grown and custom-produced for our cuisine by some of the best and brightest winemakers in California, Oregon, Central Italy, Southern France, Germany’s Pfalz and Baden regions, and even South Australia. Naturally, I qualified as a United 100K member. I could pack a carry-on with the best of ‘em.

1998: At a Bacchanalia with Robert and Margrit Mondavi

Eventually our cozy, little “family” of Roy’s restaurants grew to become a cold, calculating multi-unit corporation. My enthusiastic, and admittedly uncompromising, approach to wine programming was no longer appreciated. Something had to give. 9/11 (our New York restaurant, where I had been just two days earlier, was located just one block south of Ground Zero) left a bad taste in everyone's mouth; and I parted ways with the company I helped found, and shape, shortly thereafter.

In the early 2000s I found ways of working for myself in ways that could also keep me moving from coast to coast (having developed a taste for that) – first as the proprietor of my own Caparoso Wines label (terrific wines, and an even better way to lose money!), and then as a restaurant consultant (spending extended time in cities like Denver, Memphis, St. Simons Island in Georgia, and Winter Park, Florida). I was also able to spend more time on the professional wine judging circuit (something I did only occasionally during the ‘80s and ‘90s), and to speak at more wine festivals and symposiums (including Lodi’s ZinFest!).

Ten years ago, while living on Colorado’s Front Range, I met an entrepreneur who had successfully published medical journals. He had it in mind to start the first-ever professional journal (at least in the U.S.) written and published exclusively for the sommelier trade. It just so happened that, while working in restaurants, I had also accumulated over 20 years’ experience in the discipline of writing biweekly newspaper wine columns (starting in 1981 for my hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser), as well as numerous freelance articles for restaurant and wine industry publications.

2001: Leading an "aloha" at a Carneros Alliance luau with Rob Sinskey

This Colorado connection led to the founding of Sommelier Journal (in 2007); which eventually morphed into The SOMM Journal, for which I am currently the West Coast Editor-at-Large – covering wine regions as a journalist, while leading sommeliers on frequent 3-day, on-site studies from British Columbia all the way down to Santa Barbara. I think of these sommelier “Camps” as a way of making it possible for today’s on-premise professionals to learn the trade in the same ways I was fortunate to experience in my 20s and 30s – in the field, not just through books or surrounded by four walls. The SOMM Journal has over 50,000 subscribers (mostly restaurant/hotel wine buyers), in every state of the union.

The funny thing (at least to me!) is that for years I told people that I worked as a restaurant wine professional, and wrote wine columns on the side for fun. Today I earn my keep by writing wine columns (and blogs, particularly for lodiwine.com), and I do a little restaurant consulting on the side for fun (I still retain one multi-unit chef-client in Denver).

When I started in the business, wine lovers and wine producers from all around the world used to come to us, in the Hawaiian Islands, and that’s how we learned what people loved, and how wine producers thought. Later in my career I was given the means to get out into the world; meeting wine lovers in their own hometowns across the country; while increasing my time up close and personal among vines; tasting wines from barrels and bottles while picking the brains of many of our greatest vintners.

2000: Cover of Sante Magazine with my "big Pinot"

But here’s another funny (or not) thing: No matter where you go – and I’ve been most everywhere – you find that all consumers crave real, genuine wines, at their finest (no matter what the price point) when they are expressive of the places they are grown; while growers and producers of the world’s finest wines are cognizant of pretty much the same things. It’s like the old Paul Simon song about “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints”: There’s no doubt about it... I’ve seen them all and man they’re all same.

In any case, I have been contented ever since the Lodi Winegrape Commission first invited me to pitch my tent in Lodi in 2010. I am no longer obsessed with going everywhere; not even places I haven’t set foot (like Austria or Argentina, New Zealand or South Africa). I know a lot of this is something of a late Boomer’s rocking-chair laziness, but I could give a hoot. Hideously long plane rides no longer enchant me; although I will drive two days just to watch my grandson play the piano, or hear my youngest granddaughter laugh.

I am grateful that, in Lodi, I have found a community to whom I can devote my nearly four full decades of hard wrought skills and insights. It is precisely because of my previous experiences that I know Lodi – its vineyards and terroirs, wines and people – is the real deal.

2000: With Oregon's "Gang of Six" (standing with Harry Peterson-Nedry and Ken Wright; and seated, Mike Etzel, Steve Doerner, Rob Stuart, Laurent Montalieu and Lynn Penner-Ash)

It is also precisely because of my experiences that I know that wine consumers in general are no idiots. They always thirst for “more,” and have as much capacity to appreciate wines as professionals in the industry and trade. If they didn’t, most of them would still be drinking wine coolers, Lancer’s Vin Rosé, or Riunite-on-ice. The stupidest thing anyone can ever do is underestimate the consumers.

We can also clearly see that some parts of the media and trade still underestimate Lodi. Yet consumers are catching on to Lodi anyway. They don’t need “experts” to know what’s real.

All I know is that from the centralized location of my recently adopted wine country home, I can now do what I have always loved the most: revel in the endlessly fascinating beauty of wine regions: their topography, vines and history; the resourcefulness of growers; the artistry and science of winemakers; and above all, the sheer joy and warmth of everyone associated with the life of grapes and good, honest, decently made wine.

2008: In-the-business-for-the-fun-of-it (with two favorite characters, Greg La Follette and Luke Porter-Bass)


Popular Posts

Back burners

My photo
Randy Caparoso:
"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.