When Robert Calash uncorks a bottle of wine, he is also uncorking a story. Sometimes it’s a tale of a European vineyard. Other times it’s a description of how the grapes are grown, how the wine is aged, what the wine tastes like, which flavor notes accent each drop, or a biographical account of the winemaker.
For more than three years, Calash has made it his life’s work to regale the guests at Plateia, the Mediterranean-inspired, California-fresh restaurant in the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center, with tales infused with precision and shared with passion.
“My business is my guests, that’s my gig,” said Calash, a dining room server who, unbeknownst to his colleagues and managers, quietly earned his introductory sommelier certificate and then the distinction of certified sommelier shortly after being hired at Plateia. Becoming a certified sommelier takes dedication and involves rigorous testing, substantial practice of wine service and a proven ability to identify wine blends. Calash is one of the University of California’s only certified sommeliers (one of Plateia’s managers is also a certified sommelier).
“This, for me, is just to enhance my service,” Calash said. “I’ll always be in the dining room for the rest of my career in hospitality. I’ll always have a direct connection with the guests.”
Originally from New York, Calash earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Florida in Gainesville before making his way to California at the age of 22. He found work in the hospitality industry early on and made a career of it, working at the historic Century Plaza Hotel for more than 21 years.
From the beginning, he was interested in learning every facet of service and how to best serve guests.
“I told myself since I am in this game, why don’t I try to be the best and really focus on studying hospitality,” he said, adding that he immersed himself in books, and online videos that featured speakers who were leaders and educators in the field.
In recognition of National Drink Wine Day, which is Feb. 18, Calash shared what it’s like working at Plateia, some current trends in wine-making, the impact climate change is having on the wine industry and the role of a sommelier.
What makes a good sommelier?
Just like any other server, you’re enthusiastic about what you’re talking about, you’re an expert in what you’re talking about, you’re sharp, you’re a good storyteller and you’re communicating in regular language. You’re not necessarily pulling out words like diacetyl and malolactic fermentation. Your presentation is not wooden, because that breaks rapport. People can just tell by your intention and your heart. When you're authentic, the conversation naturally flows and you make the person feel comfortable and at home. You’re ultimately a storyteller.
Tell me a little about Plateia.
This is an amazing place because it’s really a diamond in the rough. A lot of people don’t even know we’re here. It’s got great ambiance and the architecture is beautiful. It’s also LEED Platinum-certified and demonstrates a commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship. And if you look at our menu, these ingredients are amazing. We’ve got mozzarella from Southern Italy. We have peppers from Spain. We have the best mushrooms you can think of, and all these special vinegars. It’s the closest to farm-to-table you can get. Our chefs have a tremendous vision and great service is my way of supporting that vision.
What does proper wine service entail?
It stems from history and tradition. You show the host the label to confirm that it is the correct bottle that was ordered. You always keep the label toward the guest. I typically verbally repeat the label to the host when possible: producer, region, varietal, if applicable, and vintage.
You use the corkscrew to open it and then lay the cork on the coaster. You pour the host about an ounce of wine for his or her approval. You then serve the guests clockwise around the table; starting with all the ladies, then all the gentlemen, and concluding with the host, which is the person who selected the wine. You then place the bottle to the host’s right side, with the label facing toward him or her. You then ask the host for permission to remove the cork from the table. It’s similar with champagne service.
I left out a lot of important details, but these are some of the simple fundamentals you need to know and practice over and over so you can get really good Once you establish yourself as an expert, that builds rapport with the guests and they defer to you for your expertise.
In addition to bottled wine, Plateia carries wine in kegs. What is that all about?
We have some of our wine in steel kegs. We give our guests a nice pour and it’s kind of a novelty. It’s cool. That’s what so fun about kegs is that guests are curious about it. Some people ask if it’s fresh, if it’s as good as the other wine, and I tell them “of course.” It’s just coming in a different vessel. Air is the enemy of wine and these vessels are air-tight. This wine is going to stay fresh for a long time. In addition to guaranteeing freshness and avoiding wasted wine, wine on tap systems enhance the speed of service behind the bar. And since the steel kegs are reusable, they are eco friendly. This remains one of the hot trends in the food and beverage industry.
Are there any current trends in wine-making that interest you?
That’s what’s so cool about wine. It’s always changing and that’s why you have to keep learning about it. There is a trend, especially in California, towards more balanced wines: more restrained, fresher, less extracted, more savory, lower in alcohol, higher in acid. A more minimal intervention approach to winemaking and viticulture that reveals a more transparent expression of “terroir” or sense of place. This naturally leads into the discussion of organic, sustainable, and biodynamic farming.
What kind of impact is climate change having on the wine-making industry?
Climate change is affecting it in a major way. Just look at a historically marginal climate like Champagne, France. On average, three years in every ten is deemed warm enough to declare a vintage. Now, with the increasingly temperate weather, the potential is there to declare a vintage every year. The grapes are getting riper and the threat of frosts is decreasing. Great success is being found producing sparkling wine even further north in southern England. So, the colder weather is actually helping these areas. But what about the places that are all ready relatively warm? The grapes as we all ready know them in Bordeaux — the classic grapes — might start disappearing. They're all ready declaring new Bordeaux varieties there.
[Editor’s note: Click here for a more detailed explanation of vintages]
Are there common misconceptions about sommeliers?
If you go to a formal restaurant with your boss or your date and you go in and you have a big wine list and you have the somm come over, there’s a misconception that you’ll feel silly. Like the somm is going to make you look like you don’t know anything. I’m not saying there are not somms like that, but a sommelier is not about knowledge, a sommelier is about service, so my job is to go over there and make you look good. I’m not there to overwhelm you and make you feel comfortable.
Is a sommelier strictly knowledgeable in wine?
No, you need other alcohol-related knowledge. You have to know about spirits, you have to know about cocktails, you have to know about sake, you have to know about coffees and teas, and, back in the day, cigars. You have to know how they distill liquor, how beer is made. Lot of different things. Wine is at the heart of it, but you have to be able to expand to other beverages too.
Advice for up and coming sommeliers?
Just get started. Pick up a book, pick up a couple of bottles of wine, taste some wine, watch a wine video and begin to educate yourself. And share your experiences and knowledge with others. Just enjoy it!