Sommelier Says: Collin-Peter Casey on Jonathan Waters

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Collin-Peter Casey (having a good time on Bastille Day).

Collin-Peter Casey has worked in the wine business for 16 years. The last 10 years, he has worked as a sommelier. He has worked for many of the Bay Area’s best restaurants and currently resides at Namu Gaji in the Mission. Full disclosure: Collin helps sell the Valley View import/wholesale book, part time. In any instance that the subjects of this column are clients of Collin’s, he will specify it.

This column is CPC’s opportunity to say nice things about winemakers, sommeliers, wine directors, and importers who get the admiration of the (jaded) professional wine community.

Who: Jonathan Waters

What he does: Wine Director of Chez Panisse, where he has worked since 1984.

Where he learned his craft: Waters, who is no relation to Alice Waters, spent his youth as most of us hospitality pros do: working in various restaurants and bars. Eventually, he earned a spot serving (in full tuxedo) at the prestigious Savoy Hotel, in London, which he characterizes as having “Silver/Russian service, deboning full fish at the table, layers of underplates, solid silver spoons, and soup made from powder.” He eventually found his way to Chez Panisse, and the rest is history.

Why I like him: Being the wine director of what is arguably the most famous restaurant in the country could be a remarkably easy job. With a constant string of out-of-town diners and everlasting demand for tables, Waters could quite easily “phone in” a list of the most user-friendly, well-known bottles on the market, and still regularly win accolades for it. Instead, he combs the wine world for new and exciting bottles that suit his menu.

While offering numerous wines for the less initiated, his wine list also has scads of the sort of bottles that challenge and excite the adventurous diner and please the professional palate. And even at the more conventional end of his list, the wines still belong there. He’s not simply buying plonk for those who want big, juicy, low-acid zinfandel, for example. He’s buying real wines. The highest praise that I could offer any list is that there is balance, and this is one of the most perfectly balanced lists in the country. I would actually say it’s my favorite wine list, largely on account of this. Of course, it also helps that the list exists at my favorite restaurant. For my dollar, the Café at Chez Panisse is the most soulful, easy, and satisfying restaurant in the country at which to waste an afternoon.

Also, it should be mentioned that Waters is one of the best sommeliers in the country. If you are at Chez when he’s there, he will find you right bottle, send you off with all the information that you wish to know, and more or less charm the pants off you, if you choose to engage him. Not all wine directors are good sommeliers. Waters is.

What to order: Even though I’ve been at this awhile, I always talk to the sommeliers in restaurants. They know the food, they know their inventory, and often have off-menu suggestions. It is a good way to occasionally learn about new wines, and moreover, it’s a good gauge of the house. A bad sommelier means that other corners are almost certainly being cut elsewhere. So my first recommendation is that you ask Waters for a suggestion. He has not once steered me wrong.

If he is not around, however, look for gems like the impossible-to-find Clos Roche Blanche rosé of pineau d’aunis ($42), Arnot-Roberts Watson Ranch chardonnay ($64), Dashe Heart Arrow Ranch zinfandel ($44), Pierre Gonon chasselas ($62), and Domaine Rollin’s Pernand-Vergelesses rouge ($68). Or you could close your eyes and point to something—you’re more or less bound to hit something good.