Jackson Rohrbaugh discovered his passion for wine while he was a student at the University of Washington. In 2012, he passed the Advanced Exam in the Court of Master Sommeliers and earned the highest score of the year. He serves as the Assistant Wine Director at Seattle, Washington’s Canlis Restaurant, which boasts one of the best wine lists in the world. Jackson spends much of his time writing for Seven Fifty Daily and mentoring the next young sommeliers to reach the Master Sommelier level.
How did you become interested in wine?
I first became interested in wine when I traveled to Italy during college. What is amazing about strong wine cultures is that they have beverage interwoven into their daily rituals. You have wine with both lunch and dinner, and there is a universal understanding of the place it occupies in life.
Can you describe your pathway to becoming a Sommelier?
When I got back from Italy, I was living in Seattle and working at various restaurants. I had a friend who was working at Canlis at the time and she convinced me to come in and check it out. I was amazed at the knowledge level of the sommeliers there, and after I had been there a couple of years, I started having opportunities to take classes and get into that world, so it happened organically. But once I started studying wine, I was “bit by the bug” and I couldn’t really stop. I took my Intro, Certified, and Advanced with the CMS [Court of Master Sommeliers] in the span of three years.
What do you think is the most versatile wine?
Most sommeliers will give this same answer, but: Champagne. It has great acidity and there’s hardly ever a time when it is not delicious. I’ve had it with steak, I’ve had it with dessert, I’ve had it with pretty much everything in between and it pretty much always pairs well. Plus, it’s bubbly and palate-cleansing and lively. One of my favorites that is widely available is the NV Pierre Péters Cuvée de Reserve Blanc de Blancs.
What is the most expensive or exclusive wine you’ve ever had?
I am particularly fond of a bottle of 1959 Domaine Leroy Corton Bressandes. Grand Cru red Burgundy from a meticulously-kept cellar. It was lights out.
What are a few good tips for selecting a great wine from an extensive list?
Usually, an extensive list has a qualified sommelier attached to it or someone at the restaurant who is passionate about wine. I think it is best to start a conversation with them and get to know them a little bit. They usually can point out some fun, off-the-beaten-path wines that offer great value. If a list has done their homework, the great wines are almost always extra pricey, but there should be some hidden gems sprinkled throughout.
Can you describe your process for recommending a wine to customers?
I listen, first and foremost. It is really important to take into consideration what that person typically drinks. I don’t want to introduce them to something new unless they are open to it. Usually, food is a consideration so I’ll listen to what they are having and then try to match something up. A lot of people name a category and a price and then let me pick, which makes it easier.
What is your favorite food and wine combination?
Champagne and Camembert is one of my favorites. Also, a Vietnamese lemongrass beef vermicelli bowl served with Mosel Kabinett Riesling is super tasty.
Can you pick a wine for under $100 for a dinner party serving lamb?
I am super partial to northern Rhône Syrah. Maxime Graillot makes a great value Crozes-Hermitage bottling through his Domaine des Lises label-awesome price to quality ratio.
What do you love most about your job?
Well since I left the restaurant I’ve been doing a lot of writing and consulting. I love the research, tasting, and learning aspect of both my time at Canlis and the work I’ve done outside of it.
What do you wish to accomplish as a sommelier?
I want to continue to get new people into wine and show them new flavors. A lot of people drink wine, but they just grab something off a store shelf or drink the mass-market bottles other people bring to parties. This is why so many people hate Chardonnay-they’ve only ever been handed a glass of something gross and oaky that is made to fit an imaginary consumer taste profile. I’d love to change the way people buy wine. The big box stores do what they’re told when the big distributors put product on the shelf. You could go to five different Krogers or Safeways and see the same ten insipid California Sauvignon Blancs made in bulk quality. There is so much more nuance and discovery in the wine world; I’d love to help people see what is out there.
What kinds of misconceptions do you encounter when you say you’re a sommelier?
That we are snooty. Most sommeliers started working in a restaurant kitchen or washing dishes. We got to where we are through passion, dedication, and hard work. No one says, “That’s not my job” in a successful restaurant. Most sommeliers I know would get back in the dish pit and start scrubbing if a dishwasher walked out. People think we descend from some obscure butler finishing school in the sky.
What’s your take on global warming’s impact on the wine world?
Traditionally cold regions like Champagne and Burgundy haven’t had a deeply cold vintage in a while. They’ve had weird weather, frost, early harvest, but nothing that suggests things are trending colder. That’s the evidence I hear when I talk to farmers and the people who actually work the vines. I’m not a climatologist but I do have the privilege of talking to people smarter than me and there is real concern that ten to twenty years from now, some of the classic regions in France might have to plant different grape varieties to keep their wines in balance.