Jim Rollston of Los Gatos’s Manresa on Classic Pairings - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Jim Rollston of Los Gatos’s Manresa on Classic Pairings

At Manresa, chef David Kinch presents a single menu each night—a few small bites to start, seven or eight savory dishes, multiple desserts, no substitutions. Wine director Jim Rollston, MS, pours a different wine with every dish—again, no substitutions—and about 70 percent of his wine sales come from pairings. Luke Sykora asked him about some of his most successful wines at this Michelin 3-Star dining room in Silicon Valley.

Many sommeliers use tasting menu pairings to introduce guests to obscure wines they might not otherwise order, but it seems like you lean toward more “classical” wines for pairings.

I think part of it has to do with being an older sommelier. While I had my time finding every new wine possible under each rock of the world’s wine growing areas, in the end what has drawn my deeper interest is: What makes certain wines rise to the top of the quality pyramid in the greater historic and aesthetic community of the world of wine lovers? What is it about these wines that has, historically, led them to be so significant? There’s something about these benchmark wines that brings so much to matching with food, and there’s probably a reason why they have stood the test of time and the comings and goings of fashion.

Given the upward spiral on pricing in the last decade for wines in the pantheon, there’s definitely a limit on what I can do. If I really want to put something on the pairing that is more expensive than normal, I will try to keep the costs a bit lower on some courses in order to feature it. But that can lead to a pairing that’s a bit uneven, if there are several nice wines, and then one or two “name” wines—so the quality of the match becomes really important.

While we don’t get to DRC or First Growth levels, we’re able to push the quality of wines to the point where we can feature wines that guests might find in stores for $150-$200 retail, though not for every wine on the flight: Dönnhöff Grosses Gewächs, Rostaing Côte-Rôtie, 2000 Dunn Howell Mountain, ’96 Produttori del Barbaresco Montestefano Riserva…

Four of your ten top-selling bottles were Champagne. Why is that?

For us, the big thing is: People know it’s a pairing restaurant. Jeff Bareilles, our previous wine director, had a great reputation for his wine pairings, and people seem to enjoy mine as well. But pairings don’t start until the savory courses—we have a few amuse-bouche first, and for wine people, what are they going to do? They’re going to start with a bottle of Champagne.

What questions do guests ask most often about the Champagne selections?

I’m usually asking them the questions: Do you like something fresher, or more vinous? Do you like aged wines? I don’t get too many people asking: Does this taste like Veuve Clicquot? But people are brand-aware. We do sell a lot of Krug, because that is a brand that people are loyal to. But no one is so hung up on a brand that if we don’t have it, they can’t get around it and find something else on our list.

Sometimes I do get people asking about Champagnes made exclusively from red grapes, and I do get people asking about mono-varietal Champagnes. Because the small growers have been pushing that: single-parcel, single-vintage, single-cépage bottlings.

The Immich Batterieberg 2012 Einkircher Ellergrub Riesling from the Mosel was one of your top pairing wines. Why did guests respond so well to that wine? 

The Immich Batterieberg has a bit of RS [residual sugar], but it drinks dry. I don’t reach for riesling with each menu, but there’s a lot of utility with riesling for David’s food. We used that for a long time for a dish that had a very thin layer of lardo—with that meaty smokiness—over a vegetable presentation. So it wasn’t a lot of lime juice or spice or Asian flavors, but something about the smokiness of the dish and the smoky slatiness of the dry riesling—people just freaked out!

And how did the La Rioja Alta 2005 Gran Reserva 904 end up as your top pairing wine?

That’s another wine that had a really great affinity for a dish on the menu. La Rioja Alta is well known, but it’s not like their wines are in the marketplace to an extent that matches how good they are, and so I was able to keep getting that wine. It was a lamb course, a spring lamb dish, using Don Watson’s lamb from Napa Valley, with a slight green, herbal character to the dish that really sang with American oak. Even people who weren’t normally into that style or that wine loved it with that dish, and were asking me where they could get that wine. Also, being able to pour something with a vintage date that’s a little older—a wine with some sense of maturity—is just fantastic. When you can bring that as part of a pairing, people love it.

Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.