Master sommelier Larry Stone scans the wine list of a restaurant in Yountville, Calif., and lifts his eyebrows in surprise.
As someone who estimates that he’s tasted nearly a million wines over three decades, he spots one that he doesn’t like on the list. He frowns and instead orders his companion a glass of a 2009 French white wine from the Macon region to accompany a filet of sole. He explains that in wines such as these from the southern end of Burgundy, a combination of rose quartz and pink limestone in the soil imparts a complex mineral taste.
Mr. Stone, 61, is a wine teacher and the estates director for Huneeus Vintners. The heart of what he has done over his long career as one of the country’s best-known wine stewards—he formerly worked for Chicago’s Charlie Trotter and as a partner in San Francisco’s Rubicon restaurant—is to use his encyclopedic wine knowledge to determine what diners might like to drink to accompany their food. His goal: to delight and sometimes surprise them.
“You’re there to listen,” he says. “You have to listen well, otherwise you may totally misunderstand what they need and want.”
From an early age, Mr. Stone, who grew up in Seattle, was an avid reader with a prodigious memory. At age 16, he enrolled in a university program, studying chemistry. On the side he made bootleg whiskey by distilling alcohol, marinating oak chips and adding caramel coloring. Within a few years, he had mastered Alexis Lichine’s 713-page “Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits.”
In 1981, after more than a decade working slowly toward a Ph.D. in comparative literature, he interviewed for a job as an assistant sommelier at a Seattle restaurant. The owner tested him with some questions taken from Mr. Lichine’s book, such as what is the variety of grapes used in the Hungarian red wine Egri Bikaver and what is Gumpoldskirchen (a small village in Austria that produces white wines). Mr. Stone knew the answers and got the job—despite having no experience as a wine steward.
Although he never did get his Ph.D., in 1988 he passed the famously difficult Master Sommelier exam after only a few months of study. (It often takes candidates four to six years of repeated attempts to pass the rigorous testing.) That same year, he won a contest as the world’s Best Sommelier in French Wines, held in Paris.
“He’s a brilliant sommelier. One of the finest I’ve ever examined,” says Fred Dame, who founded the Court of Master Sommeliers’ U.S. branch. Passing the test takes not only an ability to identify the vintages, vineyards and vintners of wines during blind tastings, but also broader skills in educating clients about wine and acquiring and managing large wine collections.
The following year, he was recruited to join the Four Seasons, then moved to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and finally joined Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Robin Williams and restaurateur Drew Nieporent as a partner in the restaurant Rubicon in San Francisco. (He left Rubicon in 2008 to manage Mr. Coppola’s wine estate until 2010, and Charlie Trotter’s closed in August.)
A Matter of Taste
Larry StoneHe takes detailed tasting notes by hand, such as these from a recent trip to Burgundy, assigning two and three stars to wines he might eventually want to buy. For rare-wine tastings, he transfers his notes onto his computer.
In the book “Secrets of the Sommeliers,” co-author Rajat Parr recalls the Saturday afternoon tasting tutorials that Mr. Stone long hosted for his staff at Rubicon. Each attendee was required to bring a bottle of wine wrapped in a paper bag to share with the group. Mr. Stone believes that blind tastings are one of the best ways to learn about wine.
Being a sommelier has some similarities to being a therapist: Good listening skills are a must. Early in his career, a guest complained that the bottle of white wine he’d ordered tasted salty. The waiter was stumped and skeptical. Mr. Stone brought the customer another bottle, and then a third—until finally, he found one to the guest’s liking (a Heitz Cellar Chardonnay). Mr. Stone recalls the guest, who soon became a regular at the restaurant, told him, “No one’s ever listened to me before. People dismissed me as a crackpot.”
Over the years, he helped to persuade some die-hard Bordeaux fans to branch out and drink wines from the Rhône, particularly Viognier, a white wine varietal grown in the Condrieu region. He was likewise an advocate for the Austrian white known as Grüner Veltliner, which Charlie Trotter and other chefs found paired well with food.
The job requires stamina. Mr. Stone estimates that between the early 1980s and 2008, he tasted up to 100 bottles of wine a day, five days a week, and typically worked more than 300 days (and, often, nights) a year.
Because that work was so physically demanding, he’s now focused on bringing up the next generation of sommeliers. He was recently named a dean of wine studies at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, Calif., and just became estates manager for Agustin Huneeus’s wine properties, which include Napa’s Quintessa, Sonoma’s Flowers and Chile’s Neyen wineries—helping to develop the style of the wines, among other duties.
Still, he says, some of his favorite moments have been finding the perfect wine for someone, even when the guest has trouble finding the right words. “I enjoy improvising,” he says.
Write to Julia Flynn Siler at [email protected]