Synchronicity - Wine & Spirits Magazine


Dominick Purnomo

Growing up in a restaurant family, I was always drawn to the “action” in the industry. My parents, Chef Yono and Donna Purnomo, ran Yono’s, in Albany, New York, and our home was where friends and family gathered for the holidays, because people were too intimidated to cook for a chef and restaurateur. They would compensate by bringing the best bottles of wine they had in their cellars.

For many years, my godmother worked in sales for Robert Mondavi, and she would bring special bottles—from a birth year, or things only available at the winery. And one of the regular guests at the restaurant, Dr. Joel Spiro, became a good friend of my parents. He was an avid wine collector—he had Pétrus going back to 19th century and more DRC than he knew what to do with. He would bring special bottles when he came to our house and, in high school, I got to taste some pretty great wine.

In our home, there was always something simmering on the stove. Whether it was the intoxicating smells of the spices and sambals of my father’s native Indonesian cuisine, my mother making a chicken curry or shepherd’s pie, from recipes she had learned from her work during college as a nanny for a Brit expat, or her Italian-American father cooking sauce to make his pizza on Sundays, the house was always filled with wonderful aromas.

But wine wasn’t always a normal part of our family life, with the exception of my grandfather’s three-liter jug on the counter—he’d have a glass or two of it nightly before bed.

“Dr. Joel Spiro would bring special bottles when he came to our house and, in high school, I got to taste some pretty great wine.”

That changed in 1999. I was in hotel school and my parents were moving Yono’s to a new space. My father and I were in the Windy City for a culinary conference and we visited Charlie Trotter’s for dinner. The experience was absolutely mind-blowing for me. Charlie gave us a personalized tour, including the wine cellar, and the team served us the 15-course kitchen-table menu. There were a staggering number of cooks for such a compact kitchen. The food was beautiful to look at, the flavors clean and bright. What struck me was the synchronicity of it all: The food, the wine, the service, the ambiance, all in equal measure. The wine service was a spectacle in itself. The sommelier brought over Riedel Sommelier stems for a half-bottle of Staglin that they had sent to us.

The staff made it all seem so effortless while at the same time making us feel incredibly well taken care of. That’s when I decided that I wanted to create a world-class dining experience at my family’s restaurant and that part of that would be bringing a world-class wine program. At the time, the servers wore tuxedos, there wasn’t a sommelier and the captains served the wine—my father had worked on a cruise ship, so the training was from Holland America. I wanted the service to feel different—not to be robotic, or one-size-fits-all—I wanted to give the staff more wiggle room to tailor the experience to each guest.

Meanwhile, I began feverishly studying wine: reading every book and magazine I could get my hands on. Our wine list had a few selections from France, but, like most lists at the time, it was primarily California. I was still under 21, and my knowledge was pretty pedestrian. I would search the wine lists at the best wine programs in the country and then research the wines that were most frequently placed on these lists—learning the labels, the varieties and appellations, the laws, history and politics. The intricacies of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Loire, then Jura and then Germany, where the wine labels might as well have been in Greek. Studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers, the terroir, the stemware—I wanted to learn all of it.

The author (right) and his father, Chef Yono Purnomo, cooking at the James Beard House.

Being a sommelier wasn’t just about pairing and selling wine to our guests. It wasn’t about the tasting, the unicorn wines, the tailored suit, the $500 decanter or the Laguiole corkscrew. Okay, maybe it was a little bit about the tailored suit. It was about taking something I was so passionate about and proselytizing to our staff and guests. About gifting them the knowledge that was gifted to me by my parents’ friends at home. It was about being a medium, a storyteller, a raconteur.

It was about giving the service staff the knowledge and confidence they needed to be able to sell this tome of a wine list I had just written. It was about being a conduit between the land, the winegrowers and the winemakers and our guests.

Guests would come in and I would pour them flights of wine to help them grow their exposure and reference points. And they would return from trips with indigenous varieties and super-small-production wines and share them with me and we would talk. About the wine. About what food we would pair with it. About love. About family. About life. And that’s what it all boils down to.

This story appears in the print issue of Winter 2023.
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