All About Emmanuel KemijiThursday, 21 March 2019 00:00
Tonight is the night! Emmanuel Kemiji, Master Sommelier, WineMaker and Winery Owner, hosts a sold out wine pairing dinner at the acclaimed Vivian in Asheville! Emmanuel, on a very busy day, stopped by the shop a few hours ago to say hello to the staff. We shamelessly cornered him for a few minutes.
In our casual conversation with a very excited and a bit star struck staff (including me!), we asked to learn about this very accomplished person in the wine world. What we uncovered in nothing compared to what the dinner revealed about Emmanuel's travels down a long and vinous road to becoming a highly regarded winemaker.
But here it is: Turns out Emmanuel lives in Puerto Rico. He says the island was devastated in a way but it is coming back, slowly but surely. His own home was damaged but not demolished. While Emmanuel lives in Puerto Rico, his work and we do mean WORK takes place in Spain and California.
In conversation, Emmanuel made mention about "working the harvest." What? You work the harvest? I admitted that I thought he probably stirred the pot a bit, maybe sternly said the batch needs a touch more Carignan, maybe signed off on the final brew, but work the harvest? Oh yeah. He does. Emmanuel is a hands on winemaker. He is involved throughout the entire process. These are most definitely HIS wines.
In Spain, Emmanuel and partners own the vineyards and winery where Clos Pissara is made in Priorat. The California operation is very different. Emmanuel is a road warrior sourcing the grapes from around the state and makes wine in a facility he leases. A lot more mileage and legwork, but these are also totally HIS wines.
From what we hear, everywhere Emmanuel went in Asheville during the day he was asked where he was having dinner. When he told them he was scheduled for a wine pairing dinner in the RAD at Vivian, everyone was suitably impressed and jealous! And those who attended tell me the jealousy was more than justified!
On to the dinner...
Packed house. I am told you could feel the electricity in room. Guests were MetroWines customers, Vivian customers and some Asheville culinary notables including Liz Button! Yes, that Button.
Born in New Jersey of Greek and Spanish heritage, at 2 years of age, his parents packed up Emmanuel and moved to London. Spending his, shall we say, formative years, in London and Europe, the roots of the finer things in life, even if subliminally, were surely sown.
Emmanuel says his parents had friends everywhere, even California. A trip to Sacramento to visit friends there coincided with his search for a college. Emmanuel took an instant liking to the area. But what about college? In what turned out to be a "what should be, will be moment," Emmanuel was advised that UC Davis was just up the road.
So OK. Off to UC Davis. He started off studying Economics and Spanish Literature. And while Emmanuel was not particularly interested in wine, he started to take notice of enology. He began taking electives in enology and learning about wine making. Finding enology interesting, the pursuit of the subject was still more an interest than a career direction.
But then he met Brian Kosage (https://www.bkosugewines.com/
). (Skipping ahead, Brian becomes ultimately Emmanuel's winemaker in future episodes!) The friendship and association with Brian channeled Emmanuel's casual interest in enology into more of an unstructured passion.
After graduation, Emmanuel became sommelier at Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. Nice job. But he and Brian wanted to get their hands dirty and work a harvest. Hard work (and there is always the possibility of snakes! I added that part.)
Moving forward on a path from which Emmanuel may not yet have realized he would not turn back, after working several harvests, he and Brian decided to try making wine. As luck, or fate for those who subscribe to it, would have it, one of the Roederer owners in Alexander Valley said he would give Emmanuel a ton of grapes, the beginnings of about 200 cases, to test drive his winemaking skills.
Emmanuel and Brian did indeed make 200 cases of wine with those Roederer grapes. Great! Now what? Emmanuel has his share, about 120 cases, in his San Francisco apartment. Time to call friends to help him drink it. If you pour it, they will come! And they did.
And, of more importance, they like it. A LOT. As luck would again have it, or well you know, fate, some of the friends owned restaurants. They want to buy it for their eateries. By this time in the wine world, the 3 tier distribution system was firmly in place. The system requires the winery or importer to sell to a distributor who sells to the a restaurant or shop.
That said, it was and is illegal for a winery to sell directly to a restaurant, even one owned by friends. So, Emmanuel, became, in his words, "a bootlegger." The wine took off. Emmanuel had to get right, real and legal. In 1998, he "became an honest man" and sold his wines, and a LOT of wines, legally.
And the rest is, as they say, history. Now, as a giant in the wine world, does Emmanuel have words of wisdom for aspiring winemakers? He says: "the secret to making great wine is to get best grapes you can and then don't screw it up!"
Toward that goal, Emmanuel has locked in some of the best vineyards in California including what are considered the 5 best vineyards for Chardonnay in the state. As proof of the success of his philosophy, Emmanuel has a interest in the vineyards in Russian River put Russian River on the wine map. Same in SoCal. Used by Pissoni, the most famous producer of Pinot Noir in SoCal.
How did he do it? "Persistence and proved ability."
Oh, and BTW, Somewhere ablong the line, Emmanuel became a Master Sommelier. That's a BIG deal. While Emmanuel was a little to humble to mention this accredidation, you should know: Kemiji became the twelfth American to pass the Master Sommelier exam in London, England and one of only nine to date to pass on his first attempt. He then went on to become the first sommelier to establish a commercial winery, Miura Vineyards.
Restaurant recommendation from this international, palate competent citizen? Emmanuel says, while he loves it here in Asheville, his culinary heart lies elsewhere: "My favorite place is San Sebastian in Spain."
For more about the history, philosophy and the WINES! go here.