Larry Stone first traveled to Europe as a teenager to stay with his uncle Dolli (for Adolf—“not a name he wanted to keep,” says Stone). That’s where he tasted the first wine that turned his head, a 1967 Jaboulet Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which, he learned later, contained fruit from Rayas and Beaucastel. “So, I guess my palate wasn’t so bad,” he says. In fact, he’d learned about flavor at an early age. His father was a produce buyer at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle; his mother put him to work in their home kitchen, making sauces and dressings. And from the time he was seven, his uncle Victor, who imported Swedish crystal, would decant one of his usual wines on Friday nights and ask Stone to identify it by its smell.
Stone had already developed a reputation in Seattle wine circles when he left for Chicago to oversee the wine program at Charlie Trotter’s. He built one of the country’s most comprehensive cellars, and recalls tweaking the tasting menu on the fly with Trotter to accommodate guests’ choices in wine. “Charlie Trotter pushed me to mentor people,” says Stone. “This was unusual back then; there used to be this attitude about it. You didn’t train people too much because they would take their knowledge and leave. But Charlie told me to train everybody.”
He pursued an identical policy at Rubicon, the San Francisco restaurant founded by Drew Nieporent with Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro and Stone as partners. Rubicon soon became a wine destination, and Stone developed a legend for his Saturday afternoon tasting sessions. That’s where he trained a small army of sommeliers that would disperse into the city’s restaurants, making San Francisco one of the great wine destinations in the United States.
Perhaps his most famous protégé is Rajat Parr, now a winemaker in Santa Barbara County and Oregon. When Parr graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1996, Daniel Johnnes advised him to apply to Rubicon. “I bought a one-way ticket to interview. I went straight to the restaurant, and Larry wasn’t even there, but a manager offered me a food-runner job, which I took because I had no money for a return trip.” Parr soon became a barback, then a bartender, then a waiter, all the while attending Saturday afternoon classes along with another staff member, Rob Renteria, who ended up as the restaurant’s cellarmaster. Parr became Stone’s assistant. “He was very demanding,” says Parr. “Often during service he’d come upstairs with a tiny taste of something and say, ‘What is this?’ I’d say ’89 Lynch Bages, and he’d say ‘No! it’s the ’90,’ and tell me all the ways I’d gotten it wrong.”
Renteria, too, climbed the ladder at Rubicon, starting as day bartender, “the lowest of the low,” he says laughing. “But I had to put away wine orders, forty cases a day sometimes, and it all had to be written down exactly how it would appear on the list. I had to decipher the label, the pricing, and our cost. When I finally ran my own wine program, I carried this over. ‘It seems redundant now,’ Larry said, ‘but you’ll thank me in the end.’”
Parr says he never met a sommelier as dedicated to service as Stone. “Whether it was food, water, tea, wine, anything,” he says “His love for teaching is unparalleled. That’s part of what is missing now; people are devoted to education toward a topic, but not of a culture. And Larry was always interested in the culture first. He taught us how wine brought people together.”
This story appears in the print issue of October 2021.
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