As one of the leading sommeliers in Orange County, Paul Coker, who is wine director with Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Monarch Beach, has an impressive background. He also was a sommelier at the famed Mr. Stox in Anaheim and at Studio at Montage in Laguna Beach. Coker holds the Advanced Sommelier credential from the Court of Master Sommeliers, and is studying for the Masters exam. Recently, he sat down with me to answer a few questions about his work.
When and why did you decide on becoming a sommelier?
It really fell into my lap. I was working as a cook at the Bacara resort in the evenings and as an apprentice during the days while attending UCSB. The movie “Sideways” hadn’t come out yet, so it was still mostly horse country. There were a few people making wine in the area and they often gave us bottles when we worked on their horses. I started playing with the bottles and designing dishes around them. After college, I spent a few years working at a desk job and realized it wasn’t for me. As I was getting back into restaurants, some friends of my mom had just opened Amazing Grapes in Rancho Santa Margarita and it seemed like a fun way to moonlight. Then I just kept going with it.
What daily challenges do you face while studying for the Master Sommelier title?
Just staying committed to the path is always a challenge and choosing to look toward the end goal. I like studying in the mornings before work. The other is just the pressure of having a spotlight on you. As we do a fairly unusual job, the requests for favors, reservations, and advice is unending. Just turning my phone off or taking a day away from emails becomes a necessity.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions about being a sommelier?
That we’re in it for the wine. My favorite part is the service on the floor and the learning of new things. You are constantly surrounded by alcohol and if that’s your reason for choosing this path, you’ll end up in a gutter before too long.
What do you think makes a great wine list?
Taking the time to do it right. For me, the most important thing is remembering what is important, and putting the time into that. Rather than take every tasting appointment or doing a favor for a supplier, it is critical to establish what you need and where you can be better. Start with a clear vision of what you want to accomplish with the list and don’t forget to look at the forest rather than all the trees.
How do you think the sommelier community will change in the next decade?
I’m excited about it. The pendulum continues to swing back and forth and I hope that we make better efforts to put ourselves in the guests’ shoes. The spotlight should always be on the guest. I’m still young in this career, but I see so many great people coming through the ranks. I also see more and more collaboration between different markets and points of view. I actively study with people in L.A., San Diego, Seattle, Baltimore, all over the U.S. Getting their take is critical so that we don’t end up with blinders on.