By Jennifer Cossey
Savanna Ray has followed her love for wine and thirst for knowledge to a career as a respected wine steward and an integral part of Oregon’s International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC), scheduled for July 26–28 at Linfield College in McMinnville.
Affectionately dubbed “Boss Somm” by the event’s management, Ray leads an all-star team of sommeliers through several days of exhausting yet rewarding guest interaction, as well as the unofficial tradition of celebrating the event’s conclusion with Champagne and lots of laughs.
When she isn’t helping drive the internationally recognized event, she runs the wine program at Wildwood, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Portland. I took some time before this year’s event to talk with her about wine, food and the fun that goes along with IPNC.
First, how did you get started in the wine industry?
SR: It was a natural evolution from working in restaurants. I had a few good mentors that encouraged me to pursue wine because they saw something in me. I was very lucky to have them around. I figured if I was going to continue in the restaurant business, I needed to do something career-worthy.
How did you start working for IPNC?
SR: I think it was 2005 or 2004. My sister had been working with Westrey Winery that year; and Amy Wesselman, co-owner of Westrey and executive director of IPNC, had asked her to work in the IPNC office for the summer. I had been buying wine for a couple of years by then, and they needed more help pouring. I had no idea what I was really getting myself into.
What is your official role now?
SR: I represent wine service on the board of directors, and I am the lead captain of the Maîtres d’Hôtel (lovingly shortened to “Ds”). Between myself and five other captains (“Über Ds”), we organize the wine service and the Ds for the entire event. There is also a lot of guest service involved as well. We are the ambassadors of a good time, bon vivants, if you will.
What’s your favorite part of the event?
SR: IPNC is honestly my favorite weekend of the year, and I really love all of the events. But my favorite part has to be the down time. Often, this is the one time of the year when we (the Ds, the chefs, the winemakers) see each other. The afternoons in the grass chatting about life, making fun of ourselves, sharing ridiculously amazing wines and geeking out on the thing we all love the most: wine. It’s an amazing experience to be surrounded by a large group of people who are as obsessed with something as you are.
Why do you love Pinot Noir?
SR: Pinot Noir is a seductress. It has mysterious layers. It is the grape variety that expresses terroir more clearly than any other. It’s an extremely versatile food wine, which gives me a lot to work with at the restaurant. When it is done well, it is hauntingly beautiful. It doesn’t just give itself up right away; it forces you to think and feel.
What are some of the current items on the Wildwood menu that pair particularly well with Pinot?
SR: The running joke in my restaurant is that Dustin Clark, our chef, continually challenges my skills on a daily basis by creating dishes that are particularly difficult to pair wines with. He loves to use spice, vinegars, pickles … Oy! But it keeps me on my toes. Our menu changes daily, depending on what is available from local farmers — we source from about 40 of them — and so it’s really fun to try the food and the wines together. It also gives the staff an opportunity to hone their food and wine pairing skills with me. The lucky thing about Pinot Noir is that it is one of those red wines that is chameleon-like and goes extremely well with food, no matter what the weight of the dish.
IPNC’s salmon bake has become a culinary custom. While Pinot Noir is a perfect match for salmon, what other wine do you like to pair with the fish?
SR: I think rosé goes with everything. Try it. It works. But because salmon is so oily and luscious, I also like to pair it with fuller-bodied whites like a Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc or a toasty Champagne. I always like to take the sauce into consideration as well because that will really dictate the weight of the dish.
A general food question: What is one of the biggest mistake you see people do when trying to pair wine with food?
SR: Pairing with the meat or main item on the plate without taking the accompaniments into consideration. I think it’s much more important to pair with the sauce and the way in which it is prepared than the meat itself in order to make it a harmonious match.
For Ray — like many in the business — wine is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle fostered by sensory and visceral experiences fueled by friendships.
“The best and most memorable times for me have always been Sundays after the sparkling brunch. We are all so incredibly tired. We’ve worked our tails off for three straight days, existing on minimal sleep and fueled by Stumptown cold brew, and we are completely delirious. Service has finally finished for the weekend, and we lay under the trees, drink Champagne and laugh hysterically for a couple of hours. We laugh and laugh and laugh and just release all the tension. It’s amazing.”