We sat down with Jake Assaf, certified master sommelier and owner of Rioja! A Wine Bar:
You have achieved what few in the restaurant-hospitality industry achieve: membership in the Court of Master Sommeliers. Why did you seek the certification and do you aspire for a Level III Advanced Sommelier certificate?
After working in a wine bar for years and traveling to places like Stellenbosch and Montalcino, the certification was certainly within my grasp. Watching the documentary “Somm” like half a dozen times stoked me, too. Ultimately, it was Lauren (my girlfriend at the time, now my wife) that inspired me to buckle down and apply myself.
The CMS Certified exam has three components that must each be conquered individually in one morning. Theory, service, blind tasting. Preparation is intense and requires months if not years of dedication.
Progressively, the Advanced then Master Certifications require more intense preparation. That’s definitely a long term goal for me. As the world of wine continues to grow and more regions are found to express unique terroir, I want to know more. I want to go there. I like to learn by experience. You can never know it all, or taste every wine, but you can try.
Tell us about your wine tours.
For years, customers have asked me for advice when traveling to wine country. “Where should I go, where do we stay?” Ultimately, I would spend a lot of time curating their trip.
Once again, Lauren helped put things in focus and suggested that I could get paid to do this.
In 2014 we developed Terroir Tours, a boutique travel company specializing in gourmet food and wine adventures, both in the U.S. and abroad. We just led two groups of 10 throughout Napa Valley, each on a five-day tour. We travel by private coach to visit small family wineries as well as world-class restaurants, surrounded by some of the most scenic property in the country.
In addition to California, we lead gourmet tours throughout northern Italy and we plan to expand further. Together, Lauren and I host a nine-day, eight-night tour of northern Italy. By private coach, we visit three historic cities and immerse you in their unique culture. We make arrangements for luxury accommodations, Michelin-rated dining, winery appointments and more.
Our goal is to make these tours convenient and high quality. I’m happy to announce that our 2020 Italian tour is sold out.
How have the recent wildfires in California and the wildfires there last year affected the wine industry?
The wildfires can be absolutely devastating. But, it’s not just the fires. If your fruit hasn’t been picked, smoke can also ruin an entire crop. Each situation is different and first responders are so critical.
One winery we always visit on tour is Signorello. Their entire structure burned in the 2017 fires in Napa. The blaze was on the cover of Time magazine.
However, thanks to the hard work of their staff and the support of the wine community, they’re on their way back, better than ever.
What direction have you taken Rioja since taking over the wine bar three years ago?
I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to help mold Rioja from the beginning. I started working at Rioja in 2007. I quickly began to make improvements.
It’s always a work in progress and we want to anticipate our customers’ needs and preferences.
One key addition has been our monthly wine club. Each month, members receive two wines in addition to tons of free tastings. Each Thursday, we offer tastings and there’s always a theme, region, producer or particular concept to explore.
Another key addition has been our monthly “Grape Nuts” series. These are seated tastings that go more in depth. Finally, we hope to open a second location in the Triad in 2020.
What do you recommend for the holiday table this year?
Now that we’re all drinking Rose and have finally, as a culture, overcome the misunderstanding that Rose must be sweet, it’s time that Riesling see the same renaissance.
Dry Riesling (most good ones are) from the Mosel region of Germany have exotic and enticingly fruity and floral aromatics and dance refreshingly on the palate and have a clean zippy finish.
Pinot Noir is always a favorite but has become increasingly expensive. Two solutions, look to the Cru’s of Beaujolais for incredible value and food friendly reds with tons of personality.
Alternatively, get out of France and California. Look to Piemonte, Italy, or the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Pro tip: Champagne goes with everything!
— As told to Carl Wilson, 336-373-7145 or carl.wilson @greensboro.com.