Sommelier Teaches Vino Love

Posted November 4, 2009 at 5:02pm

Ramon Narvaez loves wine. Despite having grown up in Venezuela with parents who don’t drink, the wine director at Alain Ducasse’s downtown restaurant, Adour, is obsessed with vino. Not only does Narvaez spend his career tasting it, but he also married a wine distributor and says his house is crowded with bottles and cases of his favorite vintages.

“I’m addicted to flavors,— he says. “The moment I put something in my mouth, things start registering.—

Narvaez recently began sharing this knowledge of wine with Washingtonians in a monthly wine class hosted at Adour. On the third Thursday of each month, he plans to lead a group of up to 14 people through a tasting in the private dining room at the restaurant. The inaugural class took place in October and focused on wines from Burgundy. Each month, students will be invited to sit around a table hidden from the restaurant by a wall of wine and nibble on gougères while sniffing, swirling and drinking a selection of reds and whites.

“It’s all about sharing,— Narvaez told the class as they sipped a pinot noir. “If you don’t share, it’s very sad; the wine goes selfishly down your throat.—

When Narvaez isn’t teaching the class, he can be seen working the swanky dining room during dinner service. He hops from table to table recommending bottles, pairing wines by the glass and checking in on customers. The dining room is bookended by two large glass cases of wine, each of which contains more than 1,000 bottles. Throughout the night, Narvaez can be seen popping in and out of these rooms, bottle in hand. The wine program at Adour is unique in that Narvaez is willing to pour any bottle by the glass rather than adhering to the usual list of a dozen or so options.

Adour prides itself on serving “cuisine designed with wine in mind,— meaning that when Narvaez is not on the floor, he’s often in the kitchen tasting dishes with executive chef Julien Jouhannaud. Typically, a sommelier is given a dish and told to pair a wine with it in 30 seconds, Narvaez says, but not at Adour.

“Being able to sit with the chef and give your feedback is amazing,— he says. “It’s very validating to work for a chef that will not just appreciate you, but he’ll seek you out.—

Narvaez’s love of wine and food has always been intertwined. The self-proclaimed “black sheep— from a teetotaling family says his interest in wine was sparked by a trip he took to Europe in his early 20s during which he spent a month traveling through Spain and Portugal.

I was enraptured by “the whole mystique of food, wine and relaxing,— he says. “The thing that drew me to it originally was not wine by itself, but food and wine together.—

This love led him to an early career in hotels. When Narvaez arrived in D.C. in the mid-1990s he began working in the beverage program at the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, where he was taught about different grapes, vintages and wines.

“I really started developing a palate for it,— he says.

Narvaez eventually made his way to downtown power spot Teatro Goldoni where he worked as manager and wine buyer, before being hired in 2002 by chef Robert Wiedmaier to work at Marcel’s.

“He said, ‘You’re going to be the sommelier.’ And I told him he was crazy,— Narvaez says with a laugh.

Wiedmaier sent him to train under chef Doug McNeil of the Four Seasons Hotel in D.C., who Narvaez describes as the “Donald Trump of food and wine.— McNeil took Narvaez to France for several weeks where the two tasted wine and learned about all that goes into making a great bottle.

“I was very much an apprentice in the old-fashioned style of ‘yes chef, no chef,’— he says.

Upon his return, Narvaez settled into his role at the restaurant and began studying for the Court of Master Sommeliers, a program that certifies wine experts internationally. After receiving his certification, Narvaez spent more than seven years as sommelier at Marcel’s before coming to Adour in 2008.

These days, Narvaez’s main focus is maintaining the wine list at Adour, teaching Washingtonians and spreading the word that wine is an everyday drink that should be shared.

“Drink it today! What are you waiting for?—

The next wine class at Adour is scheduled for Nov. 19 and will cost $25.