Initially, you’re from the Bay Area. Did you have a passion for wine growing up?
I was born in Napa at Queen of the Valley, which is very funny because that’s the hospital closest to my house where I live now. I’m one of those people that live less than five miles from the place they were born. When I was about three, we moved to Sacramento. My parents weren’t really into wine at the time; they moved here because my dad got a job offer in Napa. We were never in Napa because of wine.
And here you are.
And here I am. I’m back in Napa. I first moved back to Napa in 2008 to work for Thomas Keller as a Sommelier. I always like to think of Napa as home, but for all intents and purposes, I’m not really from Napa; I’m from Sacramento.
Do you feel like you’ll stay here for a while?
I think we’ll be here for a while. We like it here; it is beautiful, and being a wine person, we’re in the middle of wine country. I don’t see us ever fully leaving Napa; I think we’ll always have a home here. My wife’s born and raised in Chicago, and we lived there for about six years. I lived in New York while I was working at Per Se for Thomas Keller as a Sommelier, as well; I’ve been all over the country. But Napa, California, has a place in my heart, and it does feel like home here. I think in one way or another, we’ll be here probably forever.
Where you at Per Se when Paul Roberts was there?
No, I started at Bouchon in 2008, and Paul Roberts left about a month before I got there, so I never actually worked for Paul. I know Paul well, and he was a great mentor to me as well. Even after he left, he came back and helped the Somms, and he took me out to lunch a couple of times and just sort of was like, “Hey, how’s it going? How can I help you? What’s it like? What’s your experience?” He was really, really great.
I learned a lot from him that was an invaluable experience. After I started, Jimmy Hayes came on as the Beverage Director for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and moved out to Napa from Per Se. I worked under Jimmy at Bouchon and the French laundry. Jimmy is fantastic! The group of people who have come through the Thomas Keller restaurant group as Sommeliers, everybody, the kitchen staff, the service staff, and some great people. Still, specifically to the wine staff, there have been just some fantastic people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with and stay friends with. And it’s a great little sort of like Ex TKRG community that we have.
A lot of talent, especially here in Napa has come from those restaurants. Would you agree?
It’s a pretty important restaurant group in the sense that there are some great restaurants and some great chefs and some fantastic things that have come from and through there. And there, many great people have walked through those doors, and many people weren’t as great when they walked in, and they were better when they left. And so, and I count myself included in that. I spent five and a half years working for Thomas, and I learned a lot from Chef and from everyone else who worked there.
Let’s change directions. Were you an aspiring poet?
At one point, I was an “aspiring” poet, and I had a lot of aspirations before I found a career in wine. I have two degrees from college. I have a degree in philosophy with a concentration in Logic and Ethics. I also have a degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing/Poetry. For a very long time, I was going to school and reading poetry and writing poetry and won a few awards in college and had a few poems published.
I still write poetry sometimes. It’s a creative outlet for me. And so, it’s kind of an exciting thing where sometimes you’ll sit down and, and one sentence or one line or one something will be in your head. It will, you’ll write that down, and it’ll just turn into something that you didn’t see coming, which is usually the way it goes for me, where I’ll write the beginning, and at the end, I go back and read it and go, I wasn’t thinking that’s where that was going. And so, that’s an enjoyable creative process for me.
So tell me what a day in the life of a US Ambassador for Krug is like?
I spent three full years at Krug without an apartment. I traveled. I was on the road so much that I didn’t have an address or pay rent from December 1st, 2013, to December 1st, 2016. I lived on the road out of my suitcase. I’d spend the holidays at my parents’ house in Sacramento, but I was on the road working for the entirety of that time, and people always say, well, what did you do at Krug? I always feel like my answer is a bit cheeky, but I always say every time there’s a bottle of Krug opened, I was there, and that was my goal. To be opening bottles of Champagne and tasting it with consumers and trade members and Krug lovers and people who have never had it before. And I spent a lot of my time crisscrossing the country; I covered 44 states. I had a lot of fun for five years.
And now- The Alchemists Imports. tell me about the Alchemists. How did it happen? How did you select these producers?
You “traditionally” start finding producers to import when you go to the region. You talk to people, and you go into their cellars, and you taste wine with them, maybe you’ll meet a grower, and he’ll say, oh, I’ve got a friend right down the road- you should talk to him. Or you’re sitting at the bar at The Gluepot on a Saturday afternoon, and you’re sitting next to someone, and you strike up a conversation, and they’re like, “oh, I grow. I make some wine. Why don’t you come by tomorrow afternoon and we’ll taste? “And then you taste, and the Champagnes are tremendous, and you say, “I want to import these,” they say, excellent, and you shake hands right there, and it’s over.
Chris started this project during COVID. The Alchemists signed their first producer in June of 2020. Everything was done over zoom. They would send samples in the mail, you air freight them to us. Chris and I were in separate cities, I was in Chicago, and Chris was in California, and the producers would send two sets of samples, and we’d taste them ‘together.’ Chris and I have known each other for a long time, we’ve tasted together for a long time, and our palates are very similar in many ways; we sort of had similar notes on the wines.
That’s basically what we did; we would taste the Champagnes. We would make our notes, Chris and I would cross-reference them. And then we’d get on a Zoom call with a producer, and we would talk, we’d spend hours talking to them about their philosophies and their ideas, and what’s important to them.
Right now, The Alchemists represents six families, and they’re all great people. They are all generational winemakers, and they’re all people whom we adore. We’ll be going soon to France to meet our producers in person. But, still, we’ve been able to build a fascinating relationship with our growers in the sense that we’ve talked, and we’ve emailed, and we texted and we WhatsApp’d, and we’ve done all of these things, but we’ve never shaken hands. And it’s fascinating to sort of have this profound working relationship before we get an opportunity to stand in the cellars.
We look forward to that, and it’s interesting too because none of us has ever had to deal with this before; samples airfreighted and not be able to sit across from someone and explain the wines as they’re tasting them and have a conversation about it. It’s been this distant process that’s usually far more intimate.
We’ve learned things that maybe we wouldn’t have learned, and we still have a lot to realize that perhaps we would know already. We’re here to represent these brands and these producers and these wines in the market and make sure that they get in the glasses of people because there are many great champions out there, but I think there are many Champagnes still available.
What is your advice to someone trying to dive deep into a region?
I try and read about Champagne every day because I think too many times people get information from one source, and they take it as reality. I can find you a book from Champagne that has things that are wrong or things that are changed, or something that, if you talk to 10 producers in Champagne and ask them the same question, you’ll get ten different answers, and none of them are wrong.
And when you’re gathering information, and you want to go deep into a category, as you have to understand it from all different angles, and you can’t just say, this is the one way it’s done, and everyone does it that way, you have to go even more profound. And to read books by Charles Curtis, MW, Peter Liem, Brad Baker, Serena Sutcliffe, and everyone who’s ever written about Champagne and everyone who will write about Champagne, is to gather the full picture and then obviously to go and ask questions and try and fill in the blanks for yourself.
I studied for the Master Sommelier examination. I took it five times. Unfortunately, I never passed all three parts. I’ve stopped studying for the MS examination, and instead, I’ve picked one subject, and I’ve gone as deep as I possibly can into it. You ask me what the sub-regions of this area are in Italy or what is the sugar ripeness levels in Germany; I used to be able to quote all of that stuff. I could tell you all of those things. It’s an “If you don’t use it, you lose it” sort of thing, I haven’t thought about or read those things in a long time, but I have gone as deep as I can, I believe, in Champagne.
I try to understand the region the best I possibly can. I think that’s in service as to what we do at the Alchemists is, is knowing as much as we can and understanding as much as we can and giving thoughtful answers when people ask questions and giving, really thoughtful sort of care to picking the producers that we choose and, and not some being many times people think Champagne is like this monolithic thing, right? I think that I’m a big believer that the personality of the winemakers infused into the wine, and that’s not science. Go and taste with someone and they’re fun and lively and exuberant; those people don’t make boring wines.
So when you aren’t drinking Champagne, what are you drinking?
I hate to sound cliche, but if it’s not Champagne these days, it’s Burgundy or Italian. You can often catch me with a Negroni in my hand, but it’s almost always Champagne these days. I’ve long said that if Champagne became something I couldn’t drink, I’d be very sad. You say, “you can no longer drink this or that” I might be okay. But if you say you can’t drink Champagne anymore, I’d have a really hard time with that.
Want to learn more? Garth Hodgdon will be featured throughout the month of June 2021. Check out this week’s recommendations here!
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