WWC23 – Paul Zink, by Sean Magruder

Paul Zink

This entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, by wine writer and educator Sean Magruder, is about wine and hospitality professional Paul Zink. See our WWC23 guide for more fantastic wine writing.

Sean Magruder writes Sean Magruder is a WSET-3 certified wine writer, educator and 2023 fellow of The Wine Writers’ Symposium. His work has been featured in The Santa Barbara Independent and Vintec Club. Since 2020 he has penned and edited press releases, long-form pieces and social media content for wineries on the California Central Coast and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Sean also contributes a monthly feature to natural wine bar and restaurant Satellite Santa Barbara and instructs WSET courses sponsored by Satellite with LA’s The Wine House.

Admittedly this exercise was pretty head-scratching. For days it bothered me. Considering the breadth of previous prompts – sustainability, old vines and regeneration – writing about one person should be simple. It’s so limiting and helpful in the same way that deadlines push great writing and time signatures shape great songs. Concepts are tricky, interminable. But humans? There’s a finite number of them. Their existence is a given, they have a beginning and an end, and – with the exception of Proust – their behavior requires much less voluminous unspooling on the part of the writer. 

Then I figured it out. My partner and many of my friends work in wine. My parents drink it, now more than ever as wine infiltrates their world via my career and they feel beholden to get it. My two brothers find wine opaque, though I’ve won one over with carbonic, sans-soufre Syrah, while the other says he appreciates it as an object of culture, something him and Aubert de Villaine have in common. Two of my employers, Graham Tatomer and Sashi Moorman, make in my mind some of the best wines this side of the pond. (No, I’m not on either cellar team.) For me, it turns out most every person is a wine person. Who is my favorite person? 

Answering that question shredded my fingernails and dominated my thoughts this week. Now I realize it’s no use. My favorite wine person isn’t my wonderful mother, a skilled writer who shares my love for Albariño, or even Julia, my better half. My favorite wine person, whose literacy, passion and poise have inspired dozens he’s taught, served and worked with in 26 short years, is my dear friend Paul.

Tall, capped with dark curls that gently prod the sky as if the balled-up spikes of a crown, Paul moves efficiently yet calmly whether (working) on the restaurant floor or in his kitchen for a night of blind tasting with mushroom-themed cuisine. His clear baritone shows the years of choral training, and it rises in pitch as he gesticulates and explains a Provençal rosé to a guest in the way only a cusper – someone between a Millennial and Gen Zer, as he calls it – can, with clarity, intelligence, wide eyes and irreverence all at once. 

I met Paul on Tuesday, February 9th, 2021. The day is lodged in my head because it also coincided with not only a fateful job interview but a blind tasting – via Zoom of course – where I first saw Julia. Since I’d learned of the tasting at my interview, I couldn’t procure the wines in time. Not that I could’ve paid full attention to them anyway. But that’s another story. 

All of this taking place the same day was pure serendipity – the guy, the job, the wine and the girl would define that spring, summer and most of my life since – and as it turns out the carrot on the stick for my nascent wine writing career. Without Paul, I would not be sitting here today or any day writing about wine or its people, and for this reason alone he is my favorite wine person. Before any of that took shape, however, he introduced a WSET-trained but inexperienced server and drinker to restaurant service, natural wines of all persuasions – the mousey, the ropey and the undeniably pretty – and the love of my life. Those facts don’t hurt his case. Not even the most-faulted offenders.

For over a year we worked the same modest, concrete restaurant/wine bar floor, extolling the virtues of skin-contact Grüner Veltliner and plying guests with house-made herb focaccia to soak up their Aperol spritzes, but in the man’s orbit I was not just a coworker or friend but a guest at the ebullient resort that is his life. At that time, everything he did served others. Every moment you could learn something from him. If there was a selfish motive, well that was just a happy and fair coincidence. And no wonder it came naturally. Paul studied Hospitality Management at the University of Denver, learning the ins and outs while singing in choirs and diving into the wine world shortly after his 21st birthday. At least that’s the official timetable.

Speaking of which, I often forget Paul is the same age now that I was entering the wine industry. He’s just so well-composed and experienced. Hate to break it to you buddy… you’re more a millennial that way. With sagacity he also wised up to the demands of consistent, top-notch service, sales and education, re-prioritized himself, and after a nearly year-long hiatus from performing joined a new choir and shared his mellifluous voice again. After so much time behind a cash register, what a treat to hear it blend a cappella with two dozen singers from the steps of a 19th century Spanish Colonial seminary. 

It’s humbling to think what this cusper taught me when I was approaching 30 and he was too wet behind the ears to rent a car. We were servers at a casual, al fresco wine bar bleached by Santa Barbara sun. As if on cue, Paul radiated high-touch service, erudition and inclusivity that brought the recondite world of natural wine up from its hazy, sediment-deposited depths and showed it to his guests without polish or apology. While our COVID-conscious window bar meant that yes, we were literally talking down to guests, he deftly navigated (hordes of) plaid-shirted purists in search of “funk”, moms whose thirst they claimed could only be slaked by Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, and everyone in between with equal agility and warmth.

He also endured homophobic slurs ad nauseam – not as shocking in our liberal, coastal city as we’d liked to believe – and more subtle discrimination from not only strangers but some with similar DNA. As a cisgender white man who hasn’t once been targeted, much less attacked, for his identity, I renounce any say in what one who has should or shouldn’t feel. Whatever Paul felt in those moments and in any since, he continues to rise above the vitriol. 

That determination has followed him everywhere – to WSET instruction, the Wachau for Weingut Alzinger’s 2021 harvest, private wine tours, a podcast interview, and two successful wine rep jobs, the most recent selling internationally-coveted bottles like Scar of the Sea and Hiyu for Revel Wine here on California’s Central Coast. It goes without saying he has one of the sharpest palates around, a mystifying grasp of geography, and he always giddily points out the centenarian mortared stone walls and Dudleya succulents on a walk through his Eastside Santa Barbara neighborhood. 

When we met, I had more or less fallen out of love with wine. Social distancing was my middle name in 2020. Writing music dominated my days and wine had become the fallback. The latent, face-masked energy in an adolescent wine bar that could afford to retain just six employees (including co-owners and GM) changed that. Paul’s sheer hustle and wonder reminded me why wine is important – because it’s about people and places colliding through the eons – and the wines we tasted there, like Refosk from Slovenia (purple and peppery and in agreement with our palates) and Txakolina Rosé (begetting pop quizzes on the colors of Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza) are experiences I’ll never forget.

He not only reinvigorated my passion for wine but the need to share it through the written word. Which is funny, because in his short but dense career I’m not sure he’s written one. He doesn’t need to. Paul’s performances in our field and that guest book to his resort will fill a tome of wine history, service and appreciation. And that larger-than-life resort which is his presence boasts a guest book I’m proud to sign. I just ask that he return the favor at my wedding, the wedding of the woman he led into my life and me. Yes, last but surely not least, Paul also played matchmaker with my sweetheart Julia, herself a brilliant wine mind whose diligence and support have propped up the pen in my hand since we first met. 

I was fortunate to recently taste – gratis at that – the jade-hued label of Weingut Alzinger’s 2021 Mühlpoint, grapes which Paul’s hands picked some 20 months ago. It’s certainly the greatest expression of Grüner Veltliner I’ve ever had. Cheers, my friend. Your spirit is never far. 

A side note: Today is May 31, which means tomorrow marks the beginning of Pride Month. Happy Pride to all in our international wine community and beyond.

The photograph is the author's own.