Faces of Sonoma - Fall 2012
Chris Sawyer - The spectacular palate
Chris Sawyer is a walking encyclopedia. He knows wine like Picasso knows paint. He’s something of an enophilic savant, keeping all that changing data between his ears with what looks like ease.
Scanning the racks of the Bean and Bottle retail shop in the lobby of the Sonoma Lodge, where his 250 hand-picked winners hunker in skinny rows and behind the doors of a gleaming steel and glass cooler, he recognizes each bottle as an old friend.
This one here? Made from a single acre of grapes planted by a winemaker who won the property from her culinary ex in a rough divorce. Delicious.
That one? Produced by a pro skater who couldn’t quite cut the kickflips anymore. Dude hung up his Hurleys and embraced wine. Fantastic.
Chris can tell you precisely what kind of wine to drink for every occasion, and he can tell you the nuanced history of every bottle he stocks. Preparing to pop the question? What does one order when going all in? “A dry rosé,” Sawyer says without hesitation. “Something romantic and probably aphrodisiac. You go the extra mile and find that winery that produces that dry style you like. She loves it, and you know she loves it.”
He shoots the cuffs on his expensive collared shirt, and shifts imperceptibly in his crisply pressed jeans. He’s had a long night playing sommelier to the deep-pocketed superstars of the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, the annual glamfest that draws wealthy wine lovers from all over. But this kind of game is Sawyers’s favorite, and he sits up a bit straighter for the next round. The right wine for a wake? What do you serve on the darkest of days? “Something with a lot of feeling and texture. A dark red wine that makes you think,” Sawyer says, warming to his task. “You can’t even really hear anything around you, tasting this wine. You shut out the world because you’re having a moment in your mouth. A caressing red, gentle on the palate.”
Sawyer didn’t set out to be a superstar sommelier. He never really planned to be the guy fielding calls from Esquire and Redbook, the one pairing wines with Oscar-winning films for Hollywood bigshots. He couldn’t have predicted the seven-year stint stocking the Getty’s wine cellar, filling priceless stemware clutched by Sharon Stone or Mikail Gorbachev. He never imagined he’d find work as a professional wine judge, jurying contests requiring that he taste 6,500 wines in a week. Sawyer was going to be a journalist instead.
Grinding out his prerequisites at UC Davis in the late ’80s, young Chris Sawyer stumbled into a wine education class. It was interesting, to be sure, and so Sawyer took another. Eight classes later and he’d crossed the rubicon: UC Davis is host to what may be the best viticulture program in the world, and Chris Sawyer was endowed with a spectacular palate. His Woodward and Bernstein fantasy was DOA.
In the 20 years since, he has drunk an ocean of wine, though in actual fact, Sawyer drinks differently from most. “I’m a professional spitter,” he says, waving merrily to a passing band of hung-over revelers lurching past on their way to the Lodge pool. “You have to be, in this line of work.” Somehow he keeps every wine he’s ever tasted neatly filed in some kind of special mental compartment. “You think you have a microchip inside your head, but you really don’t,” Sawyer explains. “It’s actually the palate. When I taste a great wine, I remember it on my tongue. I can taste Amapola Creek Cabernet on my tongue right now. Right now.” He closes his eyes and savors his invisible wine. “I can taste a 1968 Hanzel Chardonnay that I tasted one time for their retrospective—I can taste it on my tongue right now.” He looks like a regular guy in his loafers and good watch, but Chris Sawyer has a superpower hiding behind his grin.
Three years ago, Sawyer and his wife had a son. Already, little Rupert is learning the family business. “I’d say he’s got a fairly developed palate for a 3-year old,” Sawyer says. “He is so used to looking at bottles, dipping his little finger into my glass. Our whole kitchen is filled with wine.” What does one serve when a child is born? “Gloria Ferrer Carneros Cuvée,” Sawyer says with certitude. “Something beyond celebration. A wine that takes you to the next level.” Sawyer seems already to be at the apex of Sonoma’s wine world, but keep your eyes open: If there’s a next level, he’ll find it.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA