opening of Michael's (Santa Monica) in 1979 ushered in
the era of world class dining in Southern California. Restaurateur
Michael McCarty, fresh with knowledge and enthusiasm acquired
in '70's France, created a restaurant that not only translated
nouvelle cuisine into the California idiom but also helped
engender a cultural change that came to embrace food and
wine as essential components of the (now infamous) Southern
California lifestyle. The success of Michael's was as immediate
as it was profound, and the famous alumni of its kitchen
have periodically dispersed to create their own impressive
careers. Jonathan Waxman, Ken Frank, Nancy Silverton, Mark
Peel, and Zach Bruell are among the illustrious graduates
of Michael's kitchen. One of the most singular features
of Michael's has been its continued vibrancy. In an industry
known for shooting stars, Michael's has not only lasted
but even spawned the thoroughly successful Michael's in
Manhattan. And both Michael's - East and West - continue,
like the peripatetic Michael McCarty, to impress and to
At the helm for the past five years in Santa Monica, David Rosoff serves both
as general manager and chef sommelier. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as one
of the region's top sommeliers, David has created one of the most innovative
wine lists in California. In our conversation below, David passionately expresses
opinions that, coming as they do from a sanctum sanctorum of California Cuisine,
may surprise at the same time they edify.
is rightfully celebrated as the restaurant that first brought
nouvelle cuisine to Southern California, and concurrently,
a new appreciation of many previously unheralded wines.
Phil Reich, who was really on the cutting edge twenty years
ago. Names like Chalon, Mayacamas, and Diamond Creek were
unheard of at that time and Phil built a pretty compelling
however, you often no longer even offer the big names that
you once helped publicize. Why is this?
R: Well, the hardest thing in this business is to stay
vibrant. We are absolutely convinced that unless we stay on the
cutting edge, we will be history. Accordingly, in our latest
incarnation at Michael's (say during the last five years), we
redefined the restaurant and its wine program. Among the first
things we did, and perhaps the most radical, we removed all the
big names from the wine list. We dropped Grgich, Far Niente,
Duckhorn, Jordan, and not because there's anything wrong with
those wines. In fact, quite the contrary. The challenge, rather,
is that we have an affinity for small producers, boutique names
that remain unfamiliar to most people. Since we maintain a relatively
large list, if we were also to carry those big names, they would
be the only ones we would sell. We cannot practically rush to
every table and twist everybody's arm to try a new producer unknown
to them. By limiting our list only to the small growers, we are
effectively steering our clientele toward making admittedly unusual
choices; but ones that we're convinced they will appreciate even
more than the tried-and-true names they would have picked in
the first instance. You have to make a decision: if you want
to sell these new wines, quite simply, you've got to take the
marquee names off the list. We are fortunate enough to have two
sommeliers on the floor, so we can cover the floor pretty well.
Even so, if we offered Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay on our list,
it would be our number one selling wine.
like a true believer. Was wine always your calling?
R: No, not at all. In fact, I didn't
even grow up with wine at the dinner table. Back when
I was still in the music business, I started living with
a woman who brought me to wine. Her father was an avid
wine collector, and an enthusiastic wine drinker. So
she was used to having a bottle of wine with dinner.
Being in the music business, I had a little bit of money,
as well as a little bit of time on my hands. While my
girlfriend was cooking in the afternoon, I would go out
in search of wine for dinner. Since I was spending $15-$20
a night on wine, I figured I'd better learn something
about it. I began to read and research a little bit.
Pretty soon I was enrolled in a lot of classes, and attending
tastings. I got as involved as I could. Before I knew
it I was working in retail shops and just hanging around
The Wine House and everywhere I could to taste and to
really got the bug! You quit your day job?
R: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I got out of
the music industry to get into the wine industry. When
I left retail, I started working for Pearson Hawkins,
when they were still around, before they were absorbed
into The Henry Wine Group. All in all, I worked wholesale
for about two and a half years before working as a
already established that Chardonnay, at least in its New
World incarnation, is not your preferred grape. What is?
R: Well, if I had to choose just one I'd say
World or French?
R: I did a blind tasting last week with seven
1995 Pinots and Burgundies and it takes all of one-eighth
of a second to know whether the wine is New World or
Old World. Even granting that good wine can still be
made in California and Oregon, it beggars description
to see a grape as noble as Pinot Noir toyed with as much
as some winemakers do here. Perhaps this can be blamed
at least partially on the commercial demand for high
scores that effectively require that a wine be juicy
and succulent and jump out of the glass upon release
(or even before in barrel). But I question whether people
really like that kind of wine. When I put a mouthful
of sappy, overripe Sonoma Pinot Noir in my mouth, it
simply does not taste good. It's bothersome and painful
because the grape can be so wonderful. For example, our
blind tasting included a 1995 Kistler, Hirsch Vineyard
Pinot Noir. I'd say it's probably the best domestic Pinot
I've tasted in term of structure: good beginning, middle
and end, defined firmness, solid integrity, with no obvious
weak points. It was not overoaked; the grapes weren't
picked too ripe; it was not unbalanced; it was not over-extracted.
There was no steminess, no herbaceousness. It finished
with a snap. It even had that sort of black cherry kick
to it that you get with a good Burgundy. But, even given
all that, the 1995 Joblot, Givry, Clos de la Servoisine
that we had with it was a better wine ten times over,
because the Givry had integrity, it had earth, it had
that elusive term, terroir.
of terroir in this context reminds me of the spectacular
tasting you had at Michael's last year for the Volnays
and Pommards of Hubert de Montille. As I recall, Étienne
de Montille spoke most eloquently that night about his
family's commitment to terroir.
R: The de Montilles are determined and articulate
proponents of non-intervention. They disdain manipulating their
wines, preferring to let the wines speak for themselves. Perhaps
this aesthetic - this taste, even - is too alien to California
wine drinkers. De Montille wines are as fine examples of Pinot
Noir as any, most certainly better than anything produced domestically,
and yet customers here would look at a glass of de Montille Volnay,
conclude it's too light, then taste it and dismiss it as too
shallow. I have always said that true appreciation of wine has
more to do with how you drink the wine than what you drink. People
often approach drinking wine in the same manner they learned
to drink beer: gulping it, turning it in their mouths, and swallowing
it. Once they begin to spend time with wine, to sit with a bottle
and watch it develop, they can begin to drink wine differently.
They put it in their mouths differently, let it spend more time
there, move it around deliberately, and appreciate the wine with
all their senses. Only then will they begin to understand Pinot
Noir. And this is why so many novice wine drinkers, when it comes
to Pinot Noir, demand those over-extracted monsters. When gulping
it down like beer, that's the only way they can taste it. If
you throw a de Montille wine to the back of your throat, and
swallow it, you'll miss the nuances of, for example, the Rugiens
vineyard but if you let it spend some time and you move it around
and you ruminate on it, then you understand why this wine is
so great. I don't know at what point in the learning curve you
begin to appreciate a wine like de Montille. But I truly do know
it's worth the effort.
assume, for a moment, that American consumers magically
acquired the requisite sophistication to appreciate Burgundy.
Can American vintners supply that level of wine from our
R: Well, at least as far as Pinot Noir is concerned,
I honestly don't know if we have the right material here to make
great wine. An easy response, of course, is that better wine
can be made than that now produced. The real hurdle might turn
out to be the quality/price ratio. One of the best domestic Pinot
Noirs is Kistler's Hirsch Vineyard. Even if I could find some,
a bottle would cost me fifty or sixty dollars wholesale. At that
price, I can fill a list with offerings from Burgundy that are
vastly superior. It may be possible to perfect a Burgundy-quality
Pinot Noir on American soil, but it will not matter if it's priced
above better wines from France. For the present, I have yet to
taste any domestic Pinot Noir or Chardonnay that I think even
comes close to middle-of-the-road Burgundy.
you sure there's no French blood in your veins?
R: Well, I'm most definitely not indicting
California wine in general. Great things are being done
here with Syrah and Zinfandel, after all. I don't want
to provoke any riots, just get people to drink good wine.