Alex J. Parton · Pagu
Merrick Gilroy · Tasting Counter
Alyssa DiPasquale · Hojoko
Curious about restaurant wine lists? Each month, Boston Globe wine columnist Ellen Bhang chats with a sommelier about a couple of terrific bottles and recommends food pairings—you come away a savvier sipper.
While some wine professionals live to regale you with tales of far-flung destinations, Alex J. Parton travels with a different goal in mind.
“I don’t really vacation,” explains the beverage director of Pagu in Cambridge. “I go to understand and see the way people live. I try to blend in and do long periods of travel.” That has meant stints of restaurant work on the East and West Coasts—in New York, Seattle, and Oakland—then traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Latin America for several months at a time. If you ask whether he chose a restaurant career in anticipation of a peripatetic lifestyle, he responds with characteristic modesty. “I don’t want to give myself that much credit,” he says. “But it’s a job I could do anywhere.”
Boston-area diners are fortunate that Parton, a native of Thousand Oaks, California, landed in the Bay State in 2018. He came to work as beverage director at Somerville’s Tasting Counter. Earlier this year, he took over the beverage program at Pagu, chef Tracy Chang’s restaurant situated between Central and Kendall Squares. Menu items showcase a confluence of Japanese and Iberian sensibilities, drawn in part from Chang’s time cooking in San Sebastian, Spain. Parton and Chang were on the same page from the get-go.
“It’s a return to all that I’m familiar with,” says the beverage director, who revels in crafting a martini as much as recommending a flight of sherry or sake. Since starting at the restaurant in January, he has expanded the range of drink offerings. That includes Spanish wines, from the classically styled to the more off-the-beaten-path.
A 2018 bottle called “Correcaminos,” which translates to roadrunner, is crafted from old-vine verdejo grapes by natural winemaker Ismael Gozalo of MicroBio Wines, located northwest of Segovia, Spain. The white wine’s herbaceous oregano notes and lively acidity bring your palate to attention. The dish to eat with it is Cedar Campfire Black Cod, accompanied by seaweed salad. A miso-sake marinated fillet is roasted on a cedar sheet as thin as parchment. Immediately before the fatty fish arrives to the table, a corner of that sheet is set ablaze. It crackles briefly on the plate, releasing a warm and woodsy fragrance.
A lovely style of dry sherry, called amontillado, is crafted by El Maestro Sierra, a female-owned sherry producer situated in Jerez de la Frontera in southwestern Spain. “It’s incredible because it combines both biological and oxidative aging,” enthuses Parton, describing how the wine develops under flor, a naturally occurring layer of yeast, then finishes aging while exposed to air. “There’s nuttiness and richness, but it maintains depth and minerality,” he says.
Sherry, he loves to emphasize, is excellent with food. A dish called Ramenara combines ramen noodles, Manchego cheese, jamón Ibérico, and a 62-degree egg. The pasta is drizzled with umami oil—think of the shiitake- and tamari-infused condiment as the restaurant’s secret sauce. “It’s like carbonara with Spanish ingredients,” explains the beverage director. “There’s nothing more comforting than a warm bowl of noodles.”
The amontillado’s dry acidity cuts through the richness of the cheese and satisfying starchiness of the ramen, while the wine’s oxidized notes echo the savory cured ham. Parton never tires of recommending this pairing.
“They are both unique,” he says, “so having them together is awesome.”