Sommelier Claire Paparazzo
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Sommelier Claire Paparazzo

Blue Hill | New York


A childhood obsession with a friend’s perfume blending kit was the first indication that Claire Paparazzo had a future in wine. But Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t part of her daily vocabulary just yet. As a young adult, Paparazzo pursued acting initially and worked in the restaurant business as a struggling actor waiting tables.

She discovered her aptitude for picking up on subtle flavor nuances in wine during weekly staff wine tastings when she worked at Larry Forgione’s An American Place. Her manager took her aside and encouraged her to further develop her palate. It wasn’t until she began working at Vong and then under Susan LaRossa and Annie Turso that Paparazzo’s wine career really took off.

LaRossa arranged for Paparazzo to visit some wineries in Sonoma, and Turso then turned her on to studying with the American Sommelier Association. During the 20-week course she moved on to help open Tom Valenti’s ‘Cesca as Assistant Sommelier to Patrick Bickford, which gave her the chance to explore Italian wine intensively.

Paparazzo stepped back from the wine side to work in events for Dan Barber and General Manager Philippe Gouze while they opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns. While not directly involved, she kept her eye on the wine program, and when the wine director position opened at the original Blue Hill location in Greenwich Village, she jumped at it. Four years later, Paparazzo has made herself at home. When not searching for a new wine to round out her wine list, she finds time to be an active member of the Vino Vixens, a weekly tasting group dedicated to fostering the careers of female wine professionals. Paparazzo was just named the 2009 New York Rising Star Sommelier.

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Amanda McDougall: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Claire Paparazzo: I think it goes back to when I was a child and I wanted to blend perfume. My friend had a perfume kit and I was obsessed with it. Later I was working in a restaurant and was forced to drink wines; I started developing a palate back then. My boss took me aside and said that I have a really good palate. When I was in wine tastings I was not overanalyzing. Other seasoned staff were using classic wine terminology but I was saying [things like] “caramel on a toasted bagel.” Maybe it didn’t make sense, but it was more accurate.

AM: Describe your fondest wine memory.
CP: I will say two years ago in France when I met Anselme Selosse. I went up to his table and took a sip of his Brut Initial. Taking his glass was the most profound sensory moment. I had to savor it. I was blown away by the complexity. Then he came to visit me at Blue Hill in New York. He hadn’t been to New York in a long time. Doing a wine pairing for him was surreal.

AM: What are the most important restaurants where you staged or worked? 
CP: Definitely Vong because it’s where I met Annie Turso and Susan LaRossa. They were passionate about wine and they spurred me to further my career. I left to be the assistant to Patrick [Bickford] to open ‘Cesca and that was where my love for Italian wines blossomed.

AM: Who are your mentors? What have you learned from them?
CP: Susan LaRossa, Annie Turso, Andrew Bell, and Patrick Bickford. Susan taught me that the possibilities for wine are out there. Annie taught me that strength is knowledge and being a female never came into the equation. Andrew Baum taught me to go with my instinct. He somehow always understood how I got regions. Patrick taught me to taste everything. He challenged me and made me want to seek it out myself. My ex-husband and I started [attending] the American Sommelier Association. He really pushed me to great heights and constantly challenged me, with constant blind tastings at home.

AM: What courses have you taken? Certifications?
CP: I’ve done the American Sommelier Association. I did the Viti course years ago. Everything else is my own vacation time. From the moment I started working at Blue Hill I’ve been around wine and winemakers, whether through Blue Hill or on my own. I haven’t actually had a vacation, but I’ll get there some day.

AM: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
CP: One is incomplete without the other. My philosophy changes seasonally. Just when I think I’ve understood a connection between food and wine, being exposed to a new flavor and pairing, it changes my mind. Keeping an open mind is part of it. I feel like I work with the best chef in the world. I feel I can zero in on pairings because [Chef Dan Barber] makes it so easy. I don’t have to use big name wines. You have to know your flavors and balances.

AM: What is your favorite up-and-coming wine region?
CP: That is such a loaded question. Right now I’m obsessed with Loire, but it changes based on season. I’m also obsessed with the Languedoc region.

AM: What is one of your favorite pairings and why?
CP: Currently Sylvaner and asparagus. I was in Germany recently and found a poetic relationship between the two. I put a Grand Cru on the menu with asparagus. I’m not doing this to make money, but because it’s profound. They thought I was crazy!

AM: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you discovered.
CP: I go back to Rioja with lamb. No expense. I pair Barolo or Barbaresco with pork. With egg it fluctuates between Riesling or, more recently, Burgundy [that is] 5 to 8 years old.

AM: What is your favorite wine?
CP: For a while now it’s been the Jacques Selosse Brut Initial. If I had to choose one, no expense spared, it would be that. On my list it’s $400. I can get it retail at Chambers for $140 or something like that. It’s an expensive habit.

AM: What wines do you favor for your cellar at home?
CP:I usually don’t purchase a lot of wines. Except for Jacques Selosse. They are usually gifts from winemakers or friends. And they usually sit there until a special occasion and then I invite friends over and we crack open a bunch and taste.

AM: To what extent do you control the wine list? How much existed before you arrived?
CP: I’ve been at Blue Hill for four years. I’ve been with the company for five and a half years. I do it all. I‘ve changed everything on the list since I’ve been there. It preoccupies my mind all the time.

AM: How do you compile the wine list?
CP: It’s broken into categories of weight. I try to have a flow and fill it up in a way that is very visceral. At certain times of the year I focus on lighter categories and other times on the heavier [categories], but I always have a flow. Some things are more recognizable and some things are more obscure. It has to do with price point as well. I taste with people about three times a week, which gives me a good index for ideas of what I need to get.

AM: Did the tasting reflect Old World or New World wines or a mix? How do you choose?
CP: I think it was a coincidence that it was all Old World; I usually mix it up. I’ve been exposed to wines from Oregon that are amazing. I also do local wine pairings. And from California I do multi-vintage and multi-varietal blind tastings. I try to seek out New World producers who are Old World in profile. There’s a real connection between how you blend and how you use oak. I blended a wine—it's the Hirsch Vineyard Blue Hill Special Cuvee 2007.  I tasted from 16 different barrels, from new oak and from neutral. It came out just how I wanted and it was so crazy. If you try the wine it tastes really Burgundian. 

AM: What is the most exciting trend in wine right now?
CP: People are open to trying wines that they don’t know. People are finding it refreshing to find new ideas in wine. Like carbonic maceration in Languedoc.

AM: What organizations do you belong to?
CP: Vino Vixens is the one I’m currently involved with. It’s something I go back and forth on. I feel like my job, wine director, wouldn’t allow the time for more.

AM: What languages do you speak?
CP: Conversational Spanish and at one point conversational Italian but I think it’s gone.

AM: Which person in history would you most like to share a bottle of wine? What would you pour?
CP: I guess Rumi. A lot of his poetry is about the perils of life, love, and passion. And I think it would make for a really unforgettable time. I would probably serve a really old burgundy. I just think it would be poetic in the opening and the breathing during the conversation. We’d have lots to cover.

AM: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
CP: That’s a good question. I actually consider myself an artist. I love to paint and draw. I also fantasize about being a rock star. I’ve written songs over the years and I haven’t been singing recently, so probably I’d be a broke artist.

AM: What's your next project?
CP: London to research wines for Blue Hill, staff seminars at the restaurant, and I will probably try to do more tastings with the Vino Vixens and do more events with them. I want to try to break out more with women in wine and the strength we have.

AM: What are your ultimate career goals?  Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
CP: I actually I would love to be able to include more of my creativity in my own way and do experiments with people and have it published in a magazine. I’d love to do wine travel and wine documentaries. I think that would be great. I feel like I would a good person to introduce wine to people who are too scared of it because they feel it’s pretentious. I don’t start out with technical terms. I’d just ask them to take an adventure with me. The idea of being a sommelier is not about being pretentious. I feel like I am more empty than full so I can keep learning and growing.


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   Published: September 2009