Roger Dagorn is Master Sommelier
at Chanterelle and is widely regarded as one of the leading authorities on
wine in America. One of about 72 people who currently holds the title of
Master Sommelier in the entire U.S., he was born in France and after his
family came to New York in 1959, his father became sommelier in their family-run
restaurant, and eventually opened his own. Dagorn took professional wine
courses and continued in his chosen field even after the family business
closed, working at the Maurice Restaurant in the Parker-Meridien Hotel for
eight years. He is involved with mentoring and teaching, and travels the world
often to keep his knowledge of new wine products up to date. He has been at
Chanterelle for 13 years.
Tell us about the certification process one has to go through as a Master
Sommelier. You have to pass a grueling series of exams, including written
and oral tests.
Roger:Yes, as well as a practical exam. There are three levels. There
is a basic level, which is a two-day or a three-day course, followed by a
written theoretical exam - very basic. The lecture series is basically a
refresher for what the candidates should already know. Therefore, they should
be really ready to take the exam, and it should be pretty easy. If anybody
finds the exam difficult, I think they should consider taking the exam again
at a later date after they’re more prepared. The second level is the advanced exam,
and there you have three days of seminars again. Then there is the written
theory, wine-tasting and the practical service exam. All three are really
a big step up from the first basic level. A small percentage of the candidates
pass that part. It’s really starting to get grueling at that level.
The candidates are required to pass all three exams in one sitting to be able
to be eligible to sit for the masters.
How many times did you personally have to take this test before you became
Roger:I passed the theory and practical and failed the blind tasting the
first time. So I had to sit for that another time. Then, at that level, I
passed all three at the same time. At the masters’ level I had three
chances to pass all three exams, the oral, theory, blind tasting and the practical.
At the masters’ level, I passed the blind tasting and the oral theory;
but I failed the practical. But I did go to London six months later, and all
I had to do was pass the practical, and that’s when I did pass it, on
the second time.
So that’s why there are only 70 or so Master Sommeliers, it’s
a very difficult test.
Roger:And yet, I had been on the restaurant floor for so many years that
you’d think the practical would be the easiest part, but it wasn’t!
But there’s no shame in not passing it on the first try!
What makes New York such a special wine market when compared to the other
parts of the world?
Roger:Everything comes to New York at one time or another,
eventually. New York isn’t necessarily geared to just California wines,
or just French wines, or just Italian wines. We have all of the markets here.
And even though Chanterelle is a small French restaurant, my wine list spans
the globe. And that’s typical for New York more than other parts. In
France, you go to a restaurant, and mostly they will concentrate on French
wines. In California, the restaurants will concentrate on California wines.
That’s what makes
New York a little bit different, a little more unique.
So you’ve worked
here at Chanterelle for 13 years as the Beverage Director and the Wine
Director. What are your responsibilities?
Roger:Well, as sommelier, I’m responsible for the wine list itself.
Therefore, I go to tastings constantly, or I have tastings here. I sort through
what wines will work well with David’s food. After all, it is a restaurant,
and the food comes first. So I choose wines based on David’s cooking.
So that is the first responsibility. Then I receive the wines. They get put
away in the cellar, properly binned. And the third responsibility I have is
to basically sell the wine to the customers and make sure that the service
is as it should be. I have other responsibilities beyond that. I have to make
sure that the wine list is updated on a regular basis, and I also often act
as maitre d`.
You spend a lot of time traveling in your position?
Roger:Yes, Karen and David allow me some time for travel, because it does
improve my knowledge base. Its one thing to be able to read about and taste
the wines, but when you’re actually on location, meeting the people
who make it, you see a whole different perspective. It’s not graphic;
it’s real. And you realize all the work that goes into making a fine
wine. You see it and you understand it so much better. You see the ground;
you can actually feel the soil. You see the slopes of the vineyards and the
angle to the sun and the valleys, the direction of the wind and all these
Tell us about your role as a teacher and mentor to other sommeliers.
Roger:Well, I have lectured as a mentor. I have lectured for the American
Sommelier Association. So those are professional sommeliers. That, I’ve
done in the past. But what I do on a regular basis, I am an Adjunct Professor
at City University of New York, New York City Tech in Brooklyn in their Hospitality
Management program. I teach the wine course there. It is a required course
for the students. I do teach them one day a week on Wednesdays, and these
are young students that are culinary students, but they are keen on learning
about wine. Many of them have no clue about wine.
How would a new vineyard get the attention of someone like you to notice
Roger:I go to tastings all the time, but every once in a while, a representative
will drop off a bottle for me to sample, and call me back for my feedback.
And I have found some interesting wines that way. Even if they’re interesting
wines that I can’t fit in, they’re interesting in their own right;
so sometimes there are occasions when I can sell to other restaurants where
it does suit that type of cuisine.
I’ve heard that you taste up to 30 wines a day?
Roger:Sometimes 10, sometimes 50 (laughing). It depends. It depends on the
I know you’re very impressed with New Zealand’s
Roger:I love New Zealand wines. I think they’ve made a name for themselves
for their Sauvignon Blanc. But I think their hidden treasures are their Pinot
What’s your philosophy on pairing wine with food?
Roger:When I’m asked to pair a wine with food, whatever it is, I go
on the basis of, “Does the wine stand up to the food?” and “Does
it compare favorably to the food” or “Does it contrast with it?” Sometimes,
opposites attract - that’s another factor. But the third factor is that, “Is
the wine suitable or made for that type of food?” For instance, if David
mentioned Oxtail ravioli, what do I think of? Well, I naturally think of a
red wine from Italy. It makes sense. And you can almost taste the wine and
the food in conjunction with each other. That ethnic pairing is something
I consider seriously.
When did you decide to pair food with sake instead of wine?
Roger:This started about eight years ago. I was invited to a sake-tasting
at a freelance writer’s apartment, and he had invited this small importer
of quality sakes. So I was curious. I had tasted sake before, and I have
always been curious about them, but I had never thought much of them, because
they were just kind of ordinary. But when I tasted these sakes, they were
at another level. There was a uniqueness to them, a refined character to
them. Aromatics that were more distinct, some floral, some fruity, some very
dry, others have sweetness to them. But there was variety. None of these
had any of that petrol character to it that is common in everyday sakes.
Any words of advice to sommeliers on attaining the next level in their profession?
Roger:Traveling is very good. Go to tastings as often as possible. Read
all the publications: Wine Spectator, Decanter, Wine and Spirits, they’re
all very good. This will keep them current. The biggest thing with sommeliers
right now, for some reason, is that it’s become very, very popular.
So it’s become a little competitive. But there’s something that
has to be remembered, too. It’s a service profession; therefore, it’s
important to understand the reasoning behind being a sommelier. It’s
to help the customer.
Is it lucrative, being a sommelier?
Roger:I have no complaints. I don’t know of any other profession I
could ever enjoy. Almost everybody has to work for a living, and I don’t
think there is anything more fun than being a sommelier.
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