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Thomas Perez is wine director for Aubergine and Cantinetta Luca
At night the war always crept back into his head, and he would awake in sweat-soaked sheets, trying to shake those familiar images of death.
Yet suddenly, not long ago, the nightmares stopped, with his own wine aging in the bottle and a child on the way. Only then did Thomas Perez sleep through the night. The man, now content and successful in his adopted country, finally outran his childhood.
To truly understand Perez, wine director for Aubergine and Cantinetta Luca in Carmel, and winemaker for his own Kristi-Lynn label, one needs to look beyond the Italian suits, the Latin locks and the Carmel charm. Go back to 1984, when two humble farmers in El Salvador sent their 13-year-old son Tom s to America to escape the civil war that was tearing apart their country.
Since the age of 9, Perez had lived in fear as the military-led government fought a bloody, 12-year battle against the left-wing guerrillas, a brutality that would ultimately claim 75,000 lives.
"The war started so fast and intensely that there was no time for training," said Perez, now 39, recalling his formative years growing up in La Union, in southern El Salvador. "They gave you a gun to shoot and you were ready. The most recurrent dreams were of either myself or my parents being kidnapped — or my family being murdered or disappearing."
In those days, people often disappeared. If they ever returned, they came home in pieces, a grisly reminder of war and intimidation. Human heads adorned fence
posts, and death became routine. In the countryside, security forces tortured and killed campesinos, shooting up their houses and burning their crops.
Simple, honest people like the Perezes, unsure of which side to live for, or die for, found themselves attending rallies for both. Confusion and fear paralyzed the populace.
So they sent their son away, with a 14-day visa and a scrap of paper scribbled with an address in Mexicali, Mexico, where he met a woman, a coyote, who drove the boy all the way to Pacific Grove to live with his much-older brother, who had already fled the war.
Tomas was now Thomas, and his new life had begun.
A privileged world
"What do you think, Tommy?" asked a dapper man in a dark suit, who had carefully poured 10 reds from Bordeaux before asking his young charge to taste and deliver his assessment.
It was 1989, and Thomas Perez, a young busser at the prestigious Pacific's Edge restaurant at Highland's Inn in Carmel, had stepped into a whole new world.
"I was captivated," he said. "But I didn't know much about wine, and I didn't know how to describe it. I was overwhelmed."
He froze, but pointed to his four favorites (four grand cru labels, and the four most expensive and noteworthy).
He was 18, brown-skinned, and spoke little English — and he dared to step out from the back of the kitchen into a world of rich, white folk who sipped and swirled and spoke in an eloquent, poetic manner about wine.
But he had developed a thirst, and on that day it became his life's quest to quench it.
Altogether, Perez worked 10 years at Highlands Inn, as a busser, a breakfast waiter and finally, unbelievably, as sommelier. He worked at 10 of the annual Masters of Food & Wine events, an extravaganza featuring the world's top chefs and vintners. "The influence and opportunity to learn was unbelievable," he said.
The dapper man in the suit was Mark Jensen, then the wine director at Highlands Inn.
"Tommy always had big infectious smile, and I loved his work ethic," said Jensen, now the wine director at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley. "He learned to trust himself and let the wine speak to him. He has a tremendous palate."
Encouraged by Jensen and David Fink, then the general manager at Highlands, in 1998 Perez abruptly decided to empty his meager savings account and leave for Europe to complete his wine education.
The call to his parents didn't go well.
"'You're going to quit working?' my mom asked (which I did)," said Perez. "'You're going to spend your life savings?' (which I did), 'and drink wine for a month?' (which I did).
"She didn't understand that I was following my dream."
Fink understood. "I always saw this passion and drive in him," he said. "He's got this beautiful heart that is meant to be around people. It's the heart of a servant."
Of course, a servant means something else entirely to his mother. Señora Perez does not understand the tailored suits, the $100 bottles of wine, that insatiable American desire to claim the best of everything.
"It is extremely difficult for them to grasp the life I lead today," Perez said of his parents, who still make their home in La Union. "These are two completely different worlds we are living in. The hard part is, that world will always be a part of me, but they have no piece of the world I live in and have created."
Determined to succeed
It was never easy, creating this world. He lived with his brother, 15 years his senior, but really he raised himself. Somehow he got himself up every morning, attended school and learned English.
"Life gives you choices," he said. "I could have gotten into trouble, but I was determined to succeed."
After his tour through Europe, he joined Jensen at Bernardus, then a new, upscale resort determined to make a culinary impact with its restaurant, Marinus, and local winery. Perez started as head waiter before quickly becoming a sommelier.
And, finally, after 16 years working in this country, he became an American citizen.
But again he grew impatient, and in 2001 abruptly quit his job, sold his growing wine collection and left for Spain to attend the Escuela Superior de Enologia del Pais Vasco, where he received his masters in oenology and viticulture. "I wanted to go to school in a European country because of the history of winemaking there," he said. "I wanted to learn it all."
While attending school, he made time to work the harvest in 2002 with Jean Francois at Domaine Coche-Dury in Meursault, France, and in 2003 with Fidel Fernandez at Bodegas Luis Cañas Villanueva de Alava, Spain.
In 2004 he returned to the Peninsula, where Fink was waiting with a job offer to run the wine program at his newly opened L'Auberge Carmel.
Fink knew he had something special in Perez, now a worldly wine scholar with an impeccable palate.
Two dreams remained — starting a family and making his own wine. He fell in love with Kristi Markwalker, a server at Fink's third Carmel restaurant, Cantinetta Luca, and they married in 2007. Two sons followed.
Fink's brother Jeff makes wine in Santa Barbara County under the Tantara label, and David Fink directed Perez there. Perez took the science of winemaking to heart, tasting berries from single vineyards throughout the Central Coast, finding just the right blend for his signature Pinot Noir, the most elegant and temperamental of Burgundian grapes.
His first vintage was 2006. Today, Pacific's Edge, among other restaurants, carries Kristi-Lynn's two labels — Sebastian and Phoenix, named after his two sons.
"It's so rare in our world that you have a sommelier who completes the circle of wine," said Fink. "There are hardly any sommeliers in the world who are also winemakers, enologists."
A contented life
The nightmares have stopped, and now Perez can almost look upon his violently shattered youth as a blessing.
"At that time I had no future. Not knowing if I would make it on my own as a 13-year-old traveling through a civil war and across a border, my parents gathered their strength and courage and said goodbye."
He's now content. "I love serving people, and I love teaching people. I'm satisfied where I am in life."
He owes his parents everything, yet longs for them to share his contentment.
"I would love for them to see and understand where the road they faithfully allowed me take has led me," he said. "I hope they know it was all worth it."
Thomas Perez ·Age: 39 ·Born: La Union, El Salvador ·Married to: Kristi Perez; two sons, Sebastian and Phoenix ·Occupation: Wine director for Mirabel Hotel and Restaurant Group, responsible for all wine and spirits service at each property, including Aubergine and Cantinetta Luca in Carmel and Cantinetta Piero in Yountville; winemaker under the Kristi-Lynn label. ·Winemaking philosophy: Classic winemaking techniques and aging in finest French oak barrels concentrate the fruit's flavors and intensity, producing a wine of elegance and power. ·Wine-drinking philosophy: "I think wine is a gift from Mother Nature made naturally by the actions of yeast and bacterias. Yes, it is an alcholic bevearge, but in my mind wine is more like food, and is also good for your health if consumed in moderation (and don't forget to share with friends!)" ·Personal favorite food-wine pairing: "Scottish wild grouse terrine with Pink Moscato. It might seem silly, but the terrine being thick and rich, needs something light, fresh and vibrant to cleanse your palette. It's delicious." ·Contact: www.kristilynnwine.com.