What made you want to transition out of the music industry and pursue a career in wine?
That is not such a straightforward story- in fact, it is a long story. I had just gotten picked up on a new rap label with Columbia Records with many other artists until they had decided not to proceed with their rap label because they didn’t think that rap was going to go anywhere. They canceled all of our contracts, and I had to get a lawyer to get my money back for my recording fees. During that process, I became interested in law and decided to go to law school. While in law school, I needed money, so I started working for E & J Gallo Winery as a sales representative. I also worked at Nordstrom selling ladies’ shoes and drove limousines- all at the same time! Essentially, Gallo was my entryway into the wine industry, and it was by no means glamorous. I worked as a sales rep taking orders at convenience stores in rough neighborhoods in San Jose and Oakland, selling Night Train, Thunderbird, Carlo Rossi jugs, E & J Brandy, wine coolers, etc. That was my official entry into wine, and from there to wine distributors, and Michelin restaurants- and now as Master Sommelier with Vine Hill Ranch in Oakville Napa Valley.
What is your favorite varietal, and why?
I would say that Syrah is the one I get excited about the most- specifically, Crozes-Hermitage and the Northern Rhone (or anywhere really). The producer Alain Graillot, is one of my go-to favorites for Crozes and Grenache would probably be a close second from Spain and France. These varietals are not only enjoyable to drink and with so much personality, but they are also remarkably versatile and great to pair with a variety of foods.
Do you have any particularly favorite food and wine pairings?
Oh gosh, there are so many! If we are staying with Syrah, then yes. I usually pair it with a leg of lamb- I make about 20 different knife holes in the leg of lamb and stick a piece of garlic and half of an anchovy in each of those holes, smother it in both fresh olive oil, salt and pepper, and let it cook with some roasted potatoes that hang out in all of the fat- it goes perfectly with an excellent bottle of Syrah.
Locally speaking, I am a big Chardonnay lover- and I am not embarrassed to admit it! I am a fan of many California Chardonnays, but I like them from pretty much everywhere, especially from Chablis and Chassagne and love to pair it with Dungeness Crab; hopefully, those start coming out soon!
What inspired you to launch your fried chicken business? And what is your favorite fried chicken pairing?
I was inspired to start my business by going to a restaurant in New Orleans called Dookey Chase. The chef and owner, Miss Leah Chase, happened to be there on the day that I was there, and we came in and had her Friday lunch special, it had collard greens and her fried chicken- it was the most soulful moment I had ever had while tasting food. You could taste the love and the soul that went into her cooking; with each bite, you could taste history. Leah Chase cooked for my wife and I at our wedding rehearsal dinner, and she told my son some of her secret tricks to make the best biscuits. My grandmother Opal also had a fried chicken recipe, so I took her recipe and altered it a bit. My experience with Dookey Chase and especially the kindness of Miss Leah Chase was really my inspiration for it all.
The best pairing for fried chicken, wine wise, would be Champagne- it is always great. This pairing works best with a Blanc de Blanc or a heavier Chardonnay-based Champagne with structure. Of course, a good Belgian style beer is always good with fried chicken as well and I love a tasty bourbon with a tiny splash of coke.
If you weren’t in the wine industry, do you think you would have continued your career in the music industry?
No, I don’t think so. I was really disappointed with how cutthroat people are, and I wasn’t interested in playing that game. It is nothing like wine; in wine, there are at least people there who are willing to help you; people are competitive, but they still offer you help or connections with people. In the music industry, people are so ruthless, there are so many people, and everybody wants to do the same thing- it tends to be a bad business, and I am just not that type of guy. I was not going to be ruthless and F everybody over to get where I want to go; that’s boring to me.
I probably would have gone into the restaurant industry or cooking, or even perfume or cheese; I really like perfume and cheese. It is way harder to be a perfumer than it is to be a sommelier, there are so many more notes, and you have to be so much better at it; you’ve got to have a pretty serious nose. I love smells! I try to teach my kids to smell stuff all the time- with my one-and-a-half-year-old, we are always taking out spices and citrus and flowers and smelling them. It is a great skill to work on and develop, plus it’s fun!
You have been a driving force in the establishment of the United Sommeliers Foundation. Can you tell us more about that?
It is an interesting story, I was supposed to do an event down at Spago in LA with the winery that I work with, Vine Hill Ranch, and it was all set up and ready to go until Cristie Norman called me and said that the event was canceled because all of the restaurants in LA were shut down. The next night, I started getting calls from friends from all over the country- this one guy, in particular, had two kids and had gotten laid off from his job a week prior. He had no idea what to do or where to go because all of the restaurants were closed; it was a panic situation to feed kids and pay rent. I called Cristie back and suggested that we do something to help; she encouraged me to set up the original GoFundMe page.
After that night, we were able to gather some of the best sommeliers and wine people in the industry and establish our team. We began talking to distributors, wineries, and others that we knew in the business to help donate so that we could send some money to help out our community. We quickly developed a name, a logo, a board of directors, filed for 501c3 status, and started this foundation. Now, at this point in time, we’re almost at one million dollars raised! We have sent financial grants out totalling more than $750,000 to our candidates since March 17th, and it has been pretty amazing. The comments that we have received have been both tear-jerking and life-saving; we are paying rent, hospital bills, day care, car payments, and other crucial things needed for sommeliers to stay afloat. In the restaurant industry, there is no help. We’re here to keep roofs over heads and food on the tables of people in our industry. Our board is very diverse so that we can be sure to represent and inspire people all over the country, which includes everyone in our community by awarding grants anonymously, doesn’t matter if you are in the MS or MW program, or what your race or sex or affiliation might be, as long as you work with wine and you’ve been affected by shutdowns in the restaurant industry, everyone is encouraged to join our organization and get funding!
Are there any plans in the far-fetched future, beyond COVID-19, and how you plan to help out?
Of course, there is always something that ends up affecting our industry. We’ve had terrible, tragic events like 9-11, hurricanes, floodings, earthquakes, fires, etc. As these tragedies unfold, we’ll provide funds and get help to those affected by the situations that prevent them from working. There will always be funds to go around, and we plan on keeping constant access to support with available resources as time goes on. We are very dynamic, and there are many future plans for The United Sommeliers Foundation!
Want to learn more? Chris Blanchard will be featured throughout the month of January 2020. Check it out here!
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