I recently sat down with sommelier Xavi Torres to learn more about his experiences and wine insight.
Torres was born and raised in Rochester. He left for college in 1990. During his student years, he learned that he liked working in a restaurant more than being in a library.
With only one class between him and an undergraduate degree, Torres changed directions to attend culinary school in Barcelona. He worked in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, for three years, then returned to college for that final course, then on to grad school at Cornell, studying restaurant management. He returned to work in Barcelona, followed by time in San Francisco, Costa Rica, Las Vegas and finally back to Rochester.
His wine journey didn’t truly start until 2008, when his boss in Las Vegas “gently” admonished him for his lack of wine knowledge. Deciding to be proactive, Torres dove in “head-first,” as he put it, to study wine.
In 2009, he took an introductory sommelier course and passed the final examination. His studies stalled with the birth of his first (and only) child. In 2012, he resumed coursework, passing his Certified Sommelier Examination the next year while he was general manager at Pescara.
In late 2014, the owners approached Torres with the idea of going to their new Italian restaurant, Terza, to work as a full-time sommelier and maitre d’. He jumped at the opportunity.
Torres remains a “student of wine” and plans to take the Advanced Sommelier Course this summer, with an exam in 2017. He is both excited and nervous embarking on this third level, as only about 30 percent of the people who take the exam pass it.
I asked Torres how he approaches making a wine recommendation to guests. The first thing he asks is what they usually drink. Once he gets an idea of what they like, his next step is to get an idea of “what they want, at this point in time,” he said, whether they are looking to try something new or if they want a wine in their comfort zone.
Torres says his underlying goal is to help the guest pick a wine, not pick it for them. His personal measure of success is when a guest leaves happy with the wine that they picked.
He finds that Terza’s menu is very easy to pair with wine, noting that “Italian food is meant to go with wine!” The only exception is the Penne Arabiata, a spicy dish in a red sauce. People usually want a dry red with a red pasta sauce, and a dry red is the last thing you should have with a spicy dish, he said. “Doing so is a good way to abuse your palate,” he said. Still, it’s a challenge to convince a guest to go with an off-dry or semi-sweet white for this dish.
One of Xavi’s favorite pairings, and that of patrons, is Terza’s lamb shank with an older Barolo.
Another great pairing, currently available, is the Stolpman Vineyards L’Avion from Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara with the five-cheese ravioli. This wine is made from 100 percent Roussane then aged in 100 percent new oak. It has aromas and flavors of lemon zest, over-ripe or baked pineapple and brioche. This makes a great compliment to the ravioli, which is in a lemon butter sauce, as it would for many of the fresh-fish dishes at Pescara.
Torres notes that Pescara’s menu is “very wine friendly” as well, though asparagus is a challenge (the Gruner Veltliner is a good choice) as is the Ahi Tuna Tartar (a light, crisp sauvignon blanc from France or New Zealand or a sweeter German riesling are the best choices here).
The enjoyment of learning about and drinking a good wine is doubled when experienced with “just the right” great food, Torres said. For him, the most rewarding part of his job is being able to share what he has learned with others, as well as learning from others.