Anani Lawson is one of a rare breed. He may not be the only native of Togo working as a sommelier in the United States but he’s certainly one of very few in that line of work.
While he traces his early wine knowledge to his parents, it was not on his resume when he came to California as a student nearly two decades ago. A certified tennis pro, Lawson was a tennis instructor for a few years at the Sonoma Mission Inn and the old Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa when he had a student work permit, he said prior to service in Lucy at Yountville’s Bardessono Hotel. “That was when I first started to work in restaurants. One of my first (hospitality) jobs was working with (former French Laundry general manager) Laura Cunningham at Stars Oakville.”
Lawson enjoyed his taste of the hospitality industry, he recalls. So, relocating to Portland, Oregon, he continued to teach tennis but also worked in a popular restaurant in the City of Roses. Eventually, the tennis lessons were sidelined in favor of food and wine.
His subsequent return to the Napa Valley saw him take on more than a job at St. Helena’s Terra. He also took a bride. Jobs in both Marin County and San Francisco dining spots followed, but his love for wine country prompted Lawson to fax his resume to the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. “Laura Cunningham remembered me, and invited me to hook up with chef Keller’s group,” he said. “During a follow-up interview we discussed the possibility of my working as a sommelier when a position opened up.”
Lawson worked his way into a dining room captain’s position at the French Laundry, paying close attention to and taking cues from respected sommelier Bobby Stuckey. That paid off, for in 2003 Lawson became a certified sommelier for Keller’s acclaimed Yountville restaurant.
“Thomas was getting ready to open Per Se in New York, so I was sent to New York as part of the opening team,” he recalls. “If there was one thing I learned from Bobby Stuckey, it was his ability to bring an air of informality to what could be perceived as a formal dining room. And of course, I respected his knowledge of wines of the world. I was inspired to (follow a career path into) wine and becoming a sommelier when I was general manager at the Meeting House in San Francisco because I was also buying the wine for the restaurant. That was just prior to joining the Keller restaurant group.”
Today, Lawson is in charge of a restaurant cellar that lists some 400 wines. “My goal has been to put on wines that people can find (in the marketplace) and afford. We have great cabernets and chardonnays at lower markups. We’re not just a hotel and restaurant but a wine destination as well.”
He wants to impress on area vintners the importance of offering their wines in half bottles (375 ml). “They’re a good way to enjoy wine without making the commitment to drinking a full bottle,” he maintains. “I’ve been trying to get vintners to bottle half bottles for us. So far, El Molino and Tor Kenward have done so and I’m trying to get others to follow suit.”
With executive chef Victor Scargle in charge of the kitchen, Lucy at Bardessono serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Lawson is on premise for most dinners.
Window on the world
Growing up in Togo — a country where 50 different languages are spoken — made for a most interesting childhood, says Anani Lawson. “By the age of three, I was speaking several languages ... French is the official language of Togo.” But its residents also speak English, Arabic and Spanish and two of the most spoken indigenous languages are Ewé and Kabiyé.
Lawson went to high school “and hung out” in Val d’Oise, a Paris suburb populated with African immigrants that reminds him of the Queens borough in New York City. He went to college and law school back in Togo where he focused on international relations. He thought he’d wind up working for the United Nations or the World Bank. As an undergrad, he took on the tasks of accommodations and language training for Peace Corps volunteers coming to Africa.
“I like people,” says the affable sommelier. “I like to make people happy ... in festive environments. Restaurants and hotels are places that allow this. I’m not only the sommelier who suggests wine for the meal but someone who can provide advice to our visitors — recommending places to go wine tasting ... I even conduct tastings for them. I guess I usually overdeliver in trying to provide what they want.”
He thanks his mother for opening the entrepreneurial window. “My mom had a bakery, some restaurants, jewelry stores and even a small transportation company.”
So Lawson has been working to develop apps that will enhance one’s wine experience. “There is nothing more satisfying than finding the perfect wine to go with your meal, except for being able to share the experience with your friends,” he points out on his new app available at the iPhone app store. “Tipsi helps you do both. The bartender is busy, the sommelier is talking to other customers. My app helps them get some good advice. Drink better, log onto www.gettipsi.com. I’m just trying to democratize wine.”
Lawson is also assisting people who are looking for investment-grade wines. He’s helping develop “a hedge fund that leverages the value of wine to make profits for investors.”
Labels: Anani Lawson Togo Sommelier