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An interview with Master Sommelier Roger Dagorn of Chanterelle restaurant

By Diana DeLucia

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 a Master?
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 things.

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 their wine?
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 tasting.

I know you’re very impressed with New Zealand’s wines.
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 Noir.

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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