David Roby’s passion for wine has roots in, of all places, the In-N-Out Burger just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, California. That’s where he met Gianpaolo Paterlini, now the wine director of acclaimed San Francisco restaurant Acquerello, winner of Wine Spectator’s prestigious Grand Award. During a summer job flipping burgers, Paterlini took notice of Roby’s work ethic and while on break from an especially busy shift looked over to his teenage colleague and said, “When I open my own restaurant, I’m going to call you.”
Paterlini more than kept his promise. Years later, as Acquerello’s wine director, he would introduce Roby to the world of wine and set him on a path to becoming a celebrated sommelier at Acquerello, then at its sister restaurant, 1760, and now at Tyler Florence’s high-profile San Francisco steak house, Miller & Lux.
With his mentor’s encouragement, Roby set off on a quest to see past the jargon and pretense that can make wine so intimidating. He read everything he could, met with vintners around the world, and tried as much wine as possible to learn the major regions and the most influential producers, and to build a library in his head. “I still believe in that philosophy,” Roby says. “On average, I probably try at least 100 wines a month. There have even been weeks where I tasted hundreds.”
A successful sommelier doesn’t only know about wine, of course. It’s critical to complement the right glass or bottle with a particular meal and, even more important, to match it with a diner’s palate and budget. On that last front, Roby encountered an unexpected barrier, especially during the first few years on the job. “People who ask for a sommelier’s advice tend to be the people who need it the least,” he says. “They already have the language. They’ve done their own exploring, and they often have a lot of money to spend. It’s much harder to reach the diner who has a budget or feels uneasy or even a bit embarrassed about their lack of wine knowledge.”
This key insight served as the spark for Somm Demand. Roby and his team are stripping away the mystery around wine, making it more approachable and fun, and democratizing access to hidden gems. “When you’re trying to grow an appreciation for wine, the language and marketing and even the structure of the industry can all be pretty frustrating. There are so many bottles that cost way too much for the quality they deliver,” Roby says. “And, of course, there are great values, but how do you find them? And whose recommendations do you trust? The whole idea is to give our customers access to our team and to me, so that we can provide tailored advice on wines that match their palates. That’s the fast-track to wine appreciation. Because with a bit of guidance, wine exploration can be an incredibly gratifying quest for knowledge – one that can enhance your life in so many ways.”