If there is one thing the life of a sommelier is filled with, it is passion. Passion pours from them in every smile, cork, sip, and savor they experience, and it shows in the wonderful insight they have to offer.
But this passion must have a spark. Where does it come from? We asked Rodolfo Tristao where his passion for wine comes from. Rodolfo’s answer gives us a glimpse at the spark that lights the fire under many sommeliers. Rodolfo spent his early childhood working in both his grandmother’s cafe and grandfather’s vineyard. Their love and depth of understanding surrounding food and wine left him with a fond curiosity that would only expand over time.
Born in the area of Cartaxo Azambuja, Portugal, Rodolfo also took a liking to football at an early age. He played in Azambuja; then later in the Cartaxo and in the Sports Union of Santarém. His feet were as sharp as his mind, and Rodolfo was a district champion and also played nationally. When he went to college, he moved to the Quinta dos Lobos club in Carcavelos.
It was one of Rodolfo’s teachers, Mario Louro, who taught him more about gastronomy and wine. With scenes of days spent in the field with his grandfather flashing through his mind, Rodolfo dove right into his studies, and opened his eyes to the real world of food and wine. Rodolfos’s mentor, Joao Pires, was the only master sommelier of Portugal. Rodolfo softly recalls going to the vineyards with his uncle after his grandfather passed away; pruning vines and driving the tractor; walking the lagares to crush grapes. The connection of the human spirit to the earth itself is indescribable, it is the foundation on which our entire industry is built.
Rodolfo graduated in 2002 from the Hospitality and Tourism College of Estoril, where he currently teaches Enogastronomy classes. After graduation, Rodolfo’s first job was at Casa Dizima Paço de Arcos, where he helped expand their wine list. Even then, it still wasn't usual to have sommeliers working directly in restaurants, and Rodolfo spent as much time educating guests as he did expanding his own palate.
After five years working on the vast menu that had become his labor of love, Rodolfo set his sights on the new heights. He soon became head sommelier to one of the top 100 restaurants in the entire world, Belcanto. The restaurant speaks through the vision of chef Jose Avillez. His modern take on Portuguese classics has earned Belcanto two Michelin stars. To match his ingenuity in the kitchen, Belcanto brought on Rodolfo Tristao. The wine list Rodolfo helped shape features a strong showing of Portuguese wines, yet there is also a wide selection of wines from all over the globe.
For those wondering what it takes to be a Wine Director for Belcanto, Rodolfo’s responsibilities include coordinating and training teams, managing orders and purchases, and a keen sense of budget management. This is in addition to directing the functions of the wine and drinks on the floor, of course. It is no walk in the park, but when you are passionate about what you do, even the greatest responsibility is met with ease.
In Rodolfo’s eyes, a good sommelier knows timing. Three things are key to a restaurant’s success: the service, the score, and the kitchen. That’s truly what it takes to be in a 2 star Michelin restaurant. Rodolfo sees his personal success as a product of his deep thirst for wine knowledge. He continuously seeks and discovers new vineyards and producers. "There is a whole world to explore still here in Portugal alone,” he says. And after Portugal? The world, no doubt.
When asked who the most important person in the wine business is, Rodolfo was quick to retort.
“There is no one person. It is a team effort. It’s a group effort. The producer, the winemaker, the sommelier … it’s an entire symphony that brings a bottle to your table…Just like a soccer team.”
Ah, the sign of a true Portuguese patriot, always finding a way to bring it back to the football pitch.
Rodolpho Tristao is also a partner in the consulting startup Wime. The company curates small production wine selections; bringing them to consumers based on a multi-faceted grid system. The consumer designates their preferences based on various factors such as flavor notes, acidity, tannins, fruitiness, and much more. Wime sees this as a chance to break down the barriers between consumers and outstanding wines they may otherwise never hear about.
If Rodolfo had to personally choose a place to taste in Portugal it would be Colares, in the municipality of Sintra. The entire area has this mystic sense about it, and his favorite hidden gem is the varietal Ramisco, of which you can find both red or white wines as far back as 1934.
The biggest challenge in Portugal right now is to communicate that the region is not just port wine and rose. Sometimes people get images in their head of what to expect from a region, and are scared to go for anything else. Sommeliers like Rodolfo are out to change that. Take sparkling wines for instance. Portugal has been creating sparking wines for many years, with some of the most dry and easy to drink wines coming from along the coast. Rodolfo attributes this to the sea breeze along the entire coast of Portugal.
Portugal also has great fortified wines, coming from regions like Azores and Alentejo. A great one to mention is Loirinha, which is an aue de vie; a clear fruit brandy that is fermented and double distilled, resulting in a very light fruity flavor. It is also called Lorinhac, and is served like cognac in many places. Rodolfo hopes that projects like Wime help expand the public awareness about different regional and varietal possibilities.
With food pairing, Rodolfo’s go-to is to use the terroir pairing question.
“Think about how Portugal shares a very big coast with the Atlantic. This plays in heavily. I tend to offer wines that are also in the same region as the fish the guest is eating is from. Red mullet from Setubal wines, for instance is unbeatable. Normally to match with fish, we go with white wines from that region. Codfish for instance (the most well known treasure we have), I think white wines with freshness and minerality are always going to be in higher demand.”
This is a brilliant system, as both grape and fish tasted the same minerals, felt the same sunlight, and were even exposed to similar microbes. The pairing just happens naturally.
When asked about the New World vs Old World debate, Rodolfo tends to favor old world wines, saying, “The main difference is its history. We drink history really.”
“The Old World has been doing the same process for a long time, and you sense the history behind it. Much more intense, more expanded range. New World has great regions but they are more developed to be easy to drink…not so strong, not so moody perhaps.”
When asked why people seem to favor reds over whites, Rodolfo easily cast this aside.
”I think white wines in the last 15 to 20 years have been Portugal's best so far.
Areas like Bairrada, Portugal. People are scared of the tannins; they are not easy to drink but with the right pairing, they are unique. [It’s true] people drink more red than white for the most part. But for me white wine is better because it has this acidity, and as a sommelier white wines make pairing a simpler process.”
Rodolfo’s passion for his region shines through at all times, even in his recommendations for beginners and people new to the industry. He says that it is crucial to read as much as possible about the regions you are drinking. Visit the regions if at all possible.
“And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask why the wine is made a certain way, ask why one has a different flavor than the other. Go to wine tasting workshops and ask knowledgeable sommeliers to explain the story of a certain wine. It is their passion, and you will probably see their eyes light up when you do. Ask questions, and don’t stop asking them. The more you ask, the more you will know.”
Strong advice from an industry leader… jot that one down.
And if he could describe wine in one word, it would be “Family”. From his origins working in his grandfather’s field to his own close family today, it is family that gives Rodolfo Tristao the focus to be one of the top sommeliers in the industry.