The Mayor of Wine Town

Christopher SawyerWriters and booze — it’s a cliche as well-worn as the elbow patches on the late-Hunter S. Thompson’s coat. Local critic and sommelier Christopher Sawyer, however, has both the talent and the temperance to thrive in what is for him a professional admixture of wine and ink.

With his signature long sideburns, his vintage suits and spectator shoes, Sawyer cuts a dapper figure as he crosses the floor of the Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar at the Lodge in Sonoma where he recently became sommelier (equal parts wine steward and educator). It’s a role he has played before for such clients as philanthropist Gordon Getty and Pixar Vice President of “Creative” and Sonoma resident John Lassiter. Now Sawyer is sharing his expert palate with locals.

“There are really good places in Sonoma, of course, but they’re all down on the square. This is like a whole community out here,” Sawyer says of the Broadway street location of his new roost, then muses, “It’s all about being as close to Carneros as you can get without being in a vineyard.”

As a reporter on the wine beat, Sawyer has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Business Monthly, Vineyard and Winery Management, Wines and Vines, California Wine and Food as well as WineX Magazine where he is also the publication’s tasting coordinator. Sawyer graduated from the University of California at Davis where he took wine classes, but found his initial calling writing about music. That gave way to wine when he returned to his native Sonoma County.

“If I’m going to live here and make some money it’s going to be in what actually makes money in this area and wine is A-number-one. I think cows are second, I’m not sure,” he says with a grin.

Sawyer boned up on wine through the Santa Rosa Junior College’s viniculture and oenology programs, then later studied with master sommeliers. His writing assignments have taken him all over the world where he sampled wines from locales as disparate as Italy and Chile. Indeed, if tasting wine were finishing school for aspiring oenofiles, Sawyer would graduate with honors.

“I have a deep perspective of the wine industry because I’ve had so much wine sent to me,” he muses. Indeed, on one occasion, when this reporter was present at Sawyer’s sprawling ranch home on the Sonoma-Marin border, a bulky shipment of wines arrived by parcel post. Sawyer did everything he could not to roll his eyes as he trundled the delivery to his cellar. There, the staggering amount of wine is rivaled only by the number of vinyl LPs Sawyer spins while corking rarities for friends (Sawyer is probably the only sommelier that can effectively pair wine and punk rock — a skill he has honed through countless hours of practice surrounded by a cadre of pals in what has become something of an ersatz salon).

For all his wine worldliness, Sawyer prefers to offer only wines from Sonoma County at the award-winning brasserie where he works several days a week.

People often assume that sticking only to Sonoma County wines is limiting. It’s not,” he says flatly. “There are over 200 wineries in Sonoma County that make so many different kinds of wine. I’m able to select by what I’m trying to fill into this little hole here as far as cabernet goes, or syrah or sauvignon blanc or something as crazy as pinot blanc.”
Sawyer’s approach is something akin to being a travel agent, whisking diners on a tour of the region without having to leave the table. “Taking you all over this fine county that we live in,” as he says. “‘Where do you want to go?’ is what I ask.”

Moreover, as a critic with a professional reputation to maintain, Sawyer is not susceptible to marketers offering discounts for inferior product (Sawyer even uses a reporter’s notebook when tasting wines with distributors). He works closely with fellow wine steward Brian Nicholson — but it’s his name, if not his byline, that is subject to scrutiny with every list created for the restaurant.

“I stake everything on it. That’s why when I’m out there on the floor talking to the people, I have a story for each one of these wines. They’re not just wines that I looked up in the Wine Spectator. I don’t even want my distributors coming in here and talking about Wine Spectator numbers or anyone’s numbers,” says Sawyer of the popular ratings system. “I have to taste those wines and know if they can go with the food because I take that responsibility on my shoulders. It’s about knowing the styles and wineries and tasting the wines on a regular basis to know what can work with this food and what can’t.”

Sawyer has beefed up the restaurant’s wines-by-the-glass program which now features up to 24 different wines at any given time. He is also proud of the eight tasting flights he has devised and the fact that he has brought down the overall outlay for winesat the bistro.

“The biggest change is lowering the prices on the list. I like great chardonnays but I’m super-picky. Am I going to buy a $140 bottle of Kissler Chardonnay? No way, it’s just not going to happen. I needed to really adjust prices and find a way to sell the wines and buy new ones that would reduce the price. One of the ways I did that was starting a really in-depth wines by-the-glass program. We have the most wines by-the-glass of any of the restaurants here in Sonoma County.”

The wine list and the myriad programs Sawyer has instituted at the restaurant have received approbations from his colleagues in the wine trade.

“The executive directors of the Carneros Quality Alliance, the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association — these guys all know me and they’ve been in here and have looked at this list. It’s what I stand for, it’s what we all stand for here. I want people who come to this restaurant to feel that they’re in Sonoma County. That’s why we do this kind of wine list,” Sawyer explains. “There’s no reason for me to be pouring Napa Valley cab for them. They can go over there if they want and occasionally they do, unfortunately. The fact is, I’m trying to convince people that we have much more diverse a terrain — these wine regions aren’t near each other.”

Sawyer has also put his spin on the wine-related events that occur at local restaurants.

“Most restaurants do ‘winemaker dinners’ where there’s a winemaker and five wines that he made and every a time a new course is served he’s got to stand up and everyone has to be quiet. There’s just something that’s missing there. It’s a forum that’s not user-friendly. In this case, we’re honoring the vineyard. These are vineyards either in the Carneros or Sonoma Valley where this fruit is sourced from.”

A dinner in honor of Sangiacamo Vineyards hosted by Sawyer last week was a success. The dining room was packed with area wine luminaries (including members of the Sangiacamo family) that had Sawyer buzzing around the room, meeting, greeting and making introductions. His ease and polished manner accounts for why some of his friends have taken to calling him the unofficial “Mayor of Wine Town.” Pithy nicknames aside, Sawyer takes his work very seriously not to mention his dedication to the region.

“This is Sonoma, man, this is the Bear Republic — let’s not forget our alma mater here — you have to dare to be different and that’s something we’re doing with our wine, food and parties,” says Sawyer. “I’ll never know enough about wine — that’s the greatest pursuit — to continue getting knowledge. Styles change, fads change. I don’t have a favorite wine. The question is, what’s the setting, the food, the music, the people? Once I know that, then I start pairing.”

And hopefully pouring.

Every Thursday Christopher Sawyer hosts the complimentary seminar “Grapes to Glass — Wine Education in the Herb Garden” where he introduces new and interesting wines from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on the Carneros Bistro’s Herb Garden Patio.

The Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar at the Lodge in Sonoma is located at 1325 Broadway in Sonoma. For more information about upcoming wine events call (707) 935-6600 or go to www.thelodgeatsonoma.com.

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