Paul Roberts, Master Sommelier &
Colgin Cellars’ Chief Operating Officer
Paul is a wine god. Really though, if they existed, he would be the Zeus of the wine world. This seventh generation Texan and native Houstonian, was the youngest to ever achieve the Master Sommelier title at the age of 29. He was the first Texan to earn the honor and the 6th person to win the Krug Cup, a feat that is beyond difficult and is almost unheard of. Since gaining his title, he’s been blazing a steady path including earning seven Michelin Stars as the wine director of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. After he lit up the culinary world, he moved on to becoming the Estate Director for Bond Estates and is currently the Chief Operating Officer at Colgin Cellars, one of the world’s most sought after wines.
Bryan met Paul when he was the Sommelier at Cafe Annie’s but didn’t really get to know him until spending a little time together during the Chesapeake Bay Wine Classic. Dag Zapatero, the man behind Big Mustache Productions, brought them together that weekend for a wine dinner at Senator McWaters home. It was the first but certainly not the last event they would do together. If I remember correctly, there’s a highly anticipated Napa trip in the near future where they are teaming up again. Last summer ,we bumped into Paul at the Auction Napa Valley event but It wasn’t until the Southern Foodways Alliance annual Colgin/Pappy weekend that I actually got to know anything about him. I was thrilled when he accepted our invitation to be a part of our Oui Chef series here on SWTC. Had he not I would have never learned what a Vanhattan is or how to make one, something Julian Van Winkle demonstrated later behind the bar at Reef (pictures and recipe coming soon). Intrigued yet? Read on to find out more…
Alright, not only are you a Master Sommelier but you were actually the youngest person to ever achieve the title, right?
Yes, I passed the MS exam when I was 29. I was the youngest person to pass everything on the first try. But now I’ve kinda retired from the Sommelier world and I run a winery.
That’s quite the achievement. Based on you being so successful at such a young age, what is the best piece of advice you would pass on?
That’s a good question. Man, I need a shot now! Hmmm… Listen to your wife! I learned that early on. I particularly learned it through the lens as I was studying for my MS exam and Katie and I were engaged and then we got married and then I took the exam. I realized that I needed to take care of her. So, listen to your loved one. They are the one that can see the real you. Because really you are usually full of yourself. You know – You’re married to a chef!
I am married to a chef… Tell me how you met Katie?!
I hired her. I was working for wines of America in Houston over on Woodway. Her mom had become a regular customer and she came in one day and said, “I have this daughter that is between her junior and senior year in college. She’s been studying in Italy and she needs a summer job and I thought it would be you or starbucks…” I think it was June 5, 1997 and in walked Katie Miller… a cute girl in tight black pants who had just come back from Italy and so I hired her on the spot.
I love that story. Is she still in the wine business too?
No, actually she was a practicing artist for a number of years… color field studies. But she’s kinda askewed the art world for a little while. Recently, she’s become a Reiki master.
Oh, yeah, I just read something about Reiki a few days ago. Being that you are both creatives, does it help any in your professional life?
Absolutely! We touched on that a little earlier. You throw ideas by each other, but you also have a person who is, more than anything, going to tell you the truth. Sometime the truth is not always a pretty thing and sometimes the truth hurts, but at least you have a person who is of a like mind who can tell you when you are on base or off base with stuff.
More than that though, sometimes the best thing with our relationship is even just how we deal with other individual people. At least a dish or a glass of wine just sits there, it doesn’t exactly talk back. So sometimes working though dealing with other people is the best thing that we do together.
Speaking of other people, with Colgin, you have a massive cult following. People found out that you were going to be here and they were freaking out. Some even asked me if we could get them your wine for their charity auction. Do you find that you have a lot of people begging you for your wine?
We are very fortunate and next year we will celebrate our 25 year of Colgin being in business. Knock on wood, hopefully we’ll have another 25 glorious years plus some after that. Because of the success we’ve achieved people definitely want it. The hard part is sometimes having to say no. Whether or not it’s a person that wants to buy it or even great charities. We are always trying to be charitable and support the community. The difficulty is when you get an ask, and we get asked all the time.
I know that you do say yes sometimes, as that’s why you’re here this weekend fundraising for the Southern Foodways Alliance. What other charities do y’all support?
We try to support a lot of Napa Valley Charities and we try to support our community and then because of Ann Colgin’s background in the art world, we do certain things for the arts.
Oh, I had no idea she had a background in the arts!
Yeah, before she was in the wine business, she was actually in the art business and she traded art. She’s from Waco. Then went to Vanderbilt and eventually ended up in London working for Christie’s and then Sotheby’s in the art department. When she was there, she developed a love of wine. Which eventually led to her coming back and in 1992 she found her first little vineyard and made her first vintage of Colgin.
What would you say is the most challenging part of what you do?
Saying no to people. We only make a handful of cases that have to go all the way around the world. At the end of the day people don’t realize that this extraordinary bottle of wine came from grapes and that they are an agricultural product. Getting people to understand that wine, even at it’s finest, is a naturally grown product and it comes from the ground. People forget that. We have to deal with Mother Nature.
The day before I left, all the sudden this big thunderstorm rolled through Napa and we all start to wonder, do we have hail? And knock on wood… no hail. But last year, for example, everything was looking great and then may came along and it was cold and rainy and the grape vine didn’t like that. All the sudden our production was down 40%.
That has to be so stressful. What do you do to combat those moments of stress other than drink all the wine?
There you go, that’s what it is! Then I drink Pappy Van Winkle.
Drink all the Pappy…
Exactly. You go in my office and I have many, many, bottles of various Van Winkle products. So we’ll say, ok it was a stressful day… so we’ll have a shot of Rye.
Well… what’s your favorite cocktail?
What’s a Vanhatten?
You’ve never had a Van Hatten?!
*perfect timing… in walked Julian Van Winkle*
Paul – This lady’s never had a Vanhatten!!
Julian – a Vanhattan is damn good and it goes down damn fast.
Paul – So, instead of the traditional Manhattan, you go half and half… half 10 yr old Van Winkle and half of the Rye.
Jennifer – But you can’t get the Rye anywhere! It’s impossible!
Paul – She knows…
Julian – Yeah, she knows… Then you add bitters, vermouth, a little orange twist and a good Luxardo cherry with a little bit of the juice in there too. We’ll have one tonight.
Jennifer – Yes! We will!!!
*just as quickly as he popped in, Julian left*
Ok, let’s get back to it… What is your biggest pet peeve?
People who pontificate too much about wine. I get tired of hearing people, “blah, blah, blah” about wine. It’s supposed to be about enjoyment and sharing and not telling what all you know. And it’s usually the people that talk a lot that don’t always know a lot.
Yes! I find that to be very true. Then, what would you say is the most satisfying and rewarding part of what you do?
Sharing what we create with people. Sometimes when you’re in the process of creating something and you have this extraordinary piece of land and an extraordinary team working on it and then all of the sudden you get to produce it and it goes into glass. Because of the rarity and expense of the wine, people covet it so much that they don’t open it. I say, look… the reason we made it, was for you to drink it. We think our wines will age gracefully for many many years. And tonight at the dinner we’ll drink an 18 year.. So you’ll see it’s definitely going to improve but try it even when it’s young. All the sudden people are like, wow that’s amazing how do yall do that? And then we get to relay the story… here was the land, here was the vision, here were the people and how we kinda came up with it.
Ahhh… telling your story through your wine
Thank you so much for taking the time during an awesomely fun and chaotic weekend filled with great wine, bourbon, food and friends. We are counting down the days until our upcoming trip to Napa. Next week, I’ll start to feature some of the talented chefs from our trip to Atlanta Food and Wine Festival including chefs like James Beard winner’s Alon Shaya, John Currance and Houston’s very own Richard Knight plus lots more! You won’t want to miss it…