“In the mid-1980s, the sommelier competition was still with Sopexa,” Roger Dagorn recalls, “organized by the Wines of France. It was the first wine competition in the US and the world. I became interested in that and realized that I was competitive, not with other people but with myself. I loved studying about wine. It was my passion at the time, and I started learning how to taste wines professionally. And also, of course, the aspect of the service. That was the most interesting part.”
Dagorn, in competition with himself, managed to earn his Master Sommelier credentials in 1990, more than two decades after starting as a dishwasher at Le Pont Neuf, the New York restaurant his father and cousin had opened in 1966. He stayed on as waiter there during college—“while others went out and played on Fridays and Saturdays, I worked at the restaurant and learned my trade.”
Brian Keyser, who was a server at NYC’s Chanterelle, where Dagorn was the general manager and ran the wine program, recalls that “Roger was usually there to talk to people about wine but wanted to make sure we knew what we were talking about. I think he just loved sharing his knowledge with people. My wine knowledge went from beginner to intermediate in the six months I spent with him. He shared his enthusiasm, and I try to do that when I’m presenting wines now.
“He was humble and kind and wonderful to work with, and that made it really easy to feel totally free to ask questions and to be open to learning from someone who’s really open to teaching. I’ve worked for some tyrannical managers and I’ve worked for some kind managers; Roger was one of the kind ones and I try to emulate that.”
For more than ten years at Chanterelle, Dagorn’s joy in his role was contagious. As a guest at Chanterelle, Francis Schott, co-owner and wine director at Stage Left in New Brunswick, New Jersey, recalls Dagorn as “brilliant tableside. He rolled a board to our table with a dozen cheeses on it—I had never seen a cheese board like that in the US, and frankly I didn’t think it could be done.” What impressed Schott wasn’t the show, but the style of Dagorn’s presentation. “It was, ‘Here, look at this wonderful thing I have for you.’ You got the feeling that it was all about you and the wine and never about him.”
Kyungmoon Kim MS became the wine director of Jungsik, the restaurant that took over the space after Chanterelle closed in 2008. “It was a heartfelt moment for me,” he recalls, “to walk into the same place Roger worked and the same wine cellar.” Just before opening, Jungsik hosted a winemaker’s lunch. “Opus One invited two somms for the lunch, including Roger. A lot of somms might just come to listen to the winemaker and have a good time, but Roger had his old notebooks and was taking meticulous tasting notes on each wine. He continued to learn every single day. It really changed my view of what a true sommelier was all about.”
Dagorn’s curiosity has led him to categories well beyond the mainstream. When it came to sake, Keyser recalls, “His enthusiasm was contagious.” Dagorn included the rice wines in his pairing menus, and eventually traveled to Japan, where he was inducted as a Sake Samurai at a Shinto shrine outside of Kyoto. During a trip to explore the wines in the Republic of Georgia, one of his traveling companions was Christopher Struck, now the beverage director of Ilili. Dagorn later invited Struck to speak about Georgian wines to his students at CUNY’s City Tech, where Dagorn had been teaching for 22 years. “It was a bonus class—a region or place that wasn’t part of the curriculum, that the students wouldn’t be tested on. Time moves faster here in New York than anywhere else in the world. Roger is an anchor who commands respect for his generosity.”
Now helping with the list at Brooklyn’s River Café, Dagorn recently retired from City Tech but is still active as a guest lecturer, still sharing the breadth of his knowledge and his humble demeanor. As Keyser puts it, “He knows everything that anyone could know about wine, and he knows what matters most is listening—not to show off your knowledge but to understand what a guest wants and to find the right wine for them. Listening is more important than what you know.”
This story appears in the print issue of October 2021.
Like what you read? Subscribe today.