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The Himalayan Sherpa Behind This Wine Label

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The Himalayan Mountains and the Sonoma County wine country couldn't be further apart. But not to one sommelier, so inspired by a man who leads expeditions up and down Mt. Everest that she put his name on a wine label.

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Meet Ngima Sherpa. Nepalese by birth, with family in Tibet, he now has a wine named for him, Ngima's Cuvee. Last night Ngima (pronounced knee-ma) was at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in San Francisco for the launch of this wine. "I am happy; it's a great honor," he says. Tasting it for the first time tonight, a 2009 Hirsch Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, he likes it. "It's great, very nice finish; I'm very happy."

Nicole Kosta is the Wine Director at the Mandarin. When Hirsch Vineyards asked her if she'd want to create a custom blend, "I was like, are you kidding me? of course!" The 50 cases of the 2008 Pinot went to the Mandarin Hotel and were sold only in the hotel's bar and restaurant.

Sommeliers at other Mandarin Oriental properties in the US "caught wind of this wine and wanted to be a part of it." Nicole invited them to join her in blending the 2009 vintage. The night before going to Hirsch, the somms had dinner at Meritage Restaurant in Sonoma, where they met Ngima for the first time. They had no idea he'd been up Everest more than a dozen times. "He was just taking care of us, and he just gave us this amazing, gracious service. He's very humble but spot on and pristine, which is how we approach service at the Mandarin Oriental. We also saw Ngima's passion for wine."

They did get around to talking about his expeditions on Mt. Everest. He's never reached the Everest summit, but has come close, at 28,000 feet (Mt. Everest is just over 29,000 feet). "Ngima told us about the time he took a bottle of Hanzell Vineyards wine up the mountain, and he took a photo of it there. I wanted an experience like that," says Nicole. "He was very inspiring."

Ngima grew up in the hospitality business, organizing, guiding and cooking on treks up the world's tallest mountain. He came to the United States in 1994, and friends in Sonoma talked him into staying. He started working at Meritage, and that's where he met Jean Arnold Sessions, president of Hanzell Vineyards. "She has a dream of trekking in Nepal, with me as her guide," says Ngima. Until that happens, they created a Himalayan experience at Hanzell, where Ngima leads groups up the steep hilly vineyards to the "summit." So his taking a bottle of Hanzell on an Everest climb makes total sense.

As the somms were at Hirsch blending the '09 Pinot, they needed a name for it. "We can call it this or call it that," says Nicole, "but I was just like, why don't we name it after Ngima, he is such an amazing person." In a call to Ngima to ask if it was okay to use his name, he said, "no problem."

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"I love the label," Ngima says. "It has mountains in the background, with the trees and the vines; they got the right spirit." Jasmine Hirsch, whose family owns the winery, says her mother-in-law Marie Hirsch painted the watercolor scene specifically for Ngima's wine (100 cases were made). "I was witness to the excitement of all the sommeliers when they arrived at Hirsch, having met Ngima on the way up to the winery. With Ngima's Cuvee they've created a story that's very personal."

Ngima travels back and forth to Nepal at least once a year, to guide treks to the Mt. Everest base camp, at about 18,000 feet. He urged all of us to join him on that journey. We're game; he says, "no problem, you can do it." And, maybe next year, Ngima can be a part of the blending session for his namesake wine.

Putting my name on the label honors me, my family and Sherpas. It shows how even I, coming from the Himalayan background, to come to stay here, and live here, can have the chance to work in wine on a personal level. I am not a winemaker but I know how wine connects people together.

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