The 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 innovate.

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.

Veritas: Michael's is rightfully celebrated as the restaurant that first brought nouvelle cuisine to Southern California, and concurrently, a new appreciation of many previously unheralded wines.

Rosoff: Credit 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 cellar.

V: Interestingly, 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.

V: Spoken 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 learn.

V: You 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 sommelier.

V: We've 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 Pinot Noir.

V: New 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.

V: Speaking 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.

V: Let's 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 soil?

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.

V: Are 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.

© Veritas Imports, LLC. 2001