Arizona’s Quixotic Quest

With just a few quiet words, Pavle Milic of FnB, purveyor of Arizona food and wine, twice launched my life onto a completely new trajectory.

The first time was in late 2009 when I visited his brand new restaurant in Scottsdale’s Old Town, along with friends AJ Reynolds, Jessica Catlin, and her father, Steve Catlin. On the menu, Pavle and his partner, Charleen Badman, created an artful pairing of locally grown Arizona food and…wine? Charleen’s dishes were absolutely joyous. But, who knew people living in the rocky and arid Grand Canyon State could grow grapes and make wine. 

A little more than eight years later, in January 2018, I talked with Pavle about my progress towards becoming a sommelier – one of several outcomes launched from that first trajectory. He shared with me the story of his own early career. Pavle worked for Tom Kauffman and Chrysa Robertson at the original Rancho Pinot Grill in Phoenix in the early ‘90s. It was at Rancho Pinot that Pavle first experienced the “third plane,” as described by Peter Kasperski of Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale.

Pavle explains, “Peter always said you’ve reached the third plane when you taste food and wine at the same time. That’s where the pairing lies. While you are chewing, introduce a little wine into the mouth. That’s the third plane. This experience captured my attention. It allowed me to experience a suspension of reality. Thinking about wine and food at the same time together allows you to hone in on the moment. And that’s what happened to me that day.”

The dreamy far-off look in Pavle’s eyes when he spoke these words inspired me to immediately go home, cook a meal of fresh ingredients purchased from McClendon Farms and enjoy it with one of my favorite wines: Monastrell from Zarpara Vineyard in the newly formed Willcox AVA.

My experience? Just as Pavle had described, tasting an Arizona wine with food grown in Arizona enraptured me.

My already well-entrenched journey took another sharp turn all the way back around toward my prior life serving fine food and wine in restaurants in Wyoming, Colorado, Michigan, and Arizona. Although I can’t apologize for the journey I’ve followed since – I wouldn’t be sitting at my desk today writing about Arizona wine if I hadn’t worked in marketing for the past 20 years – a part of me regrets ever having left my former life in food and wine. And, we’ll just have to wait and see where this journey takes me next.

In the meantime, let’s dig deeper into the story of Pavle Milic. Unlike most people in the industry, food and wine chose Pavle, not the other way around. “It’s just what you did in my family,” said Pavle. But, how did this complicated man with a Slavic name and a Spanish accent end up serving fine wine in Arizona?

Pavle Milic’s Rebellious Journey into the World of Wine

Pavle’s father, Rade Milic, defected from communist Yugoslavia in 1962 landing in Colombia where he met Pavle’s mother, Nora Lopez. Pavle was born in 1972 and grew up with his then-teenage mother not knowing his father.

Later, Nora met a restaurateur who would become Pavle’s stepfather, Guillermo Rivera, while she was living in New York City having left Pavle behind to attend military school and be raised by his grandmother. Guillermo married Nora, followed her back to Colombia and the new family returned to the U.S. arriving first in Queens, New York, when Pavle was 11, then settling in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1987. Guillermo had become partners with Franco Fazzouli and helped open Franco’s Trattoria then located near Mountain View and Hayden in Scottsdale. Pavle worked five nights a week for his stepfather throughout high school.

After graduating from high school, Pavle next followed what he thought was his first love into the world of television earning a technical degree from the Academy of Broadcasting. When he graduated, he was offered a position in Kansas for $28,000 a year. But, by this time, he was making $65,000 a year working as a server in restaurants.

Instead, Pavle continued on his journey into the food and wine industry. And, a picture worth telling, he fully embraced 1990s culture, wearing sleeveless plaid shirts and Dr. Martens, sporting pierced ears and platinum-white bleached hair, riding a pearl white Honda CBR 600, and drinking Red Stripe beer from Jamaica.

It was in the early 1990s that Pavle first learned about the Serbian side of his family just as then-Yugoslavia began breaking up. While Pavle was enjoying his Arizona swimming pool, his aunt dodged bombs and his cousins stole bread off of government trucks in Belgrade.

Michael Lacey, co-founder of Phoenix New Times, got to know Pavle at Rancho Pinot. Fascinated by this colorful young waiter, Lacey wrote an extensive story about Pavle and his father in 1999:

“Pavle was beside himself after meeting his father.

“‘He is the part of me that I never knew,’ exclaims Pavle. ‘He is my only link to my Slavic heritage. You cannot imagine . . .’

“Pavle and his dad wistfully dreamed of a trip to Yugoslavia. In the early Nineties, they made fruitless plans to visit Belgrade, a scheme undercut by the murderous fighting in Bosnia.

“For some years now, Pavle has told me of his people as I lingered over Nona’s chicken at Rancho Pinot. With the latest violence in the Balkans, we have hashed out his family and the war with morning espresso.

“In Pavle’s recollections, no one is sweeter than his dad, no legend more vivid than the grandfather’s reign over the Albanians in a small town in Kosovo, no backbone stiffer than his aunt’s.

“But what Pavle knows of his Slavic roots, he knows from his father. So Pavle’s conversation is distilled, strong like alcoholic spirits but stripped of impurities in the retelling.

“When I talk to his dad, Rade, his account of his time in Kosovo jolts me like a snort of raw moonshine.

“And his Aunt Maritza in Belgrade gives human voice to the unthinkable.”

Pavle’s aunt, Maritza Yosimlevic, a writer with an indomitable spirit based in Belgrade, yearned for a place where her short stories could give pleasure. Lacey interviewed Maritza while bombs were dropping, literally, all around her. Unfortunately, she had to leave their first conversation behind once the air-raid sirens began. Before she hung up the phone, she asked Lacey, “But first, tell me, do you like my work?”

Does all of this give you a glimpse into the complexity of Pavle Milic’s story?

Pavle next moved to Napa Valley in the early 2000s where he was surrounded by the camaraderie and pioneering spirit of its winemakers. Much like his early experience tasting wine and food together at Rancho Pinot, his experience in Napa Valley was transformative.

Pavle said, “At first, I wasn’t emotionally immersed in the restaurant industry. But then I moved to Napa and experienced the wine industry and the camaraderie and I fell in love for the first time with the restaurant business after being in it for over 15 years. You start meeting winemakers. You live in Napa and you are 45 minutes from Stinson Beach. An hour and a half from San Francisco. The pervasive culture of food and wine and provenance and seasonality and where things come from and eating something freshly extricated from the earth. This is the modus operandi of Napa Valley. It’s like going back to the way things used to be done, but it’s in the present.”

Pavle returned to Arizona with a mission to open Digestif. He wanted only a top chef and brought Peyton Curry from Napa Valley who, in Pavle’s estimation would be above the local talent. With a self-effacing frown, Pavle dropped his eyes and shook his head at his own arrogance as he said, “Very pompous.”

Opening with an armful of accolades, Pavle and Peyton put Digestif on the map. Pavle was next coached to take on a new position for Montelucia where Claudio Urciuoli was the chef. At Montelucia, Pavle first experienced corporate life. You know. That world most of us live in.

“After working there and for the first time being in a managerial role in corporate America, I realized that wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a big fan of the culture of emails. There was so much red tape,” said Pavle

The First Restaurant Focused on Both Arizona Food and Arizona Wine

For his next move, Pavle partnered with Charleen Badman, who Pavle had known for almost 30 years. She had just returned to Arizona from New York City to take a break and recharge her batteries, as Pavle describes it.

Pavle explains their partnership, “If I made one right decision in my life, it was telling Charleen not to work for me, that we would go 50/50. She’s one of the most hard-working ladies that I know.”

But he doesn’t stop with just this thoughtful comment, further explaining his impression of Charleen and the many other women he works with, “I found that when women are go-getters, they are called ‘bitches.’ When men are the same, they are called ‘visionaries.’ That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned working with women. I’ve been very humbled. They work harder than men. It’s less ego and more hard work.”

With a laser focus on the Bonnie Raitt philosophy, “Let’s give them something to talk about,” Pavle and Charleen set their eyes together on a restaurant that featured only food and wine grown and produced in Arizona – a restaurant that was the first of its kind in the state. Opening in November 2009, FnB began as a tiny café in Scottsdale’s Old Town – just a small bar with about a half dozen tables.

FnB has since moved to a larger Old Town location, opened the FnBar featuring wine from around the world, grew into national recognition with numerous prestigious awards, and now fills its restaurant each evening serving the original creations of Charleen Badman. In 2017, Pavle received his first nod for outstanding wine program by the James Beard Foundation, one of just 20 restaurants in the nation nominated for this award.

Constantly changing gears at a mile-a-minute pace, Pavle also returned to his first love: broadcast. In his tiny sound-insulated studio above FnB, Pavle produces a semi-regular podcast called Stay True Radio, where he interviews top winemakers, influential wine aficionados, and artists from Arizona and around the U.S.

Los Milics

This brings us to Pavle’s quixotic quest as Phoenix New Times described Pavle’s entrée into wine in the headline on Pavle’s story. For the past six years, Pavle traveled to Sonoita where he learns how to wash bins and dump grapes into the destemmer, how to prune vines, what to pick and what to leave behind during harvest, and how to make thoughtful choices when blending wines.

Pavle’s stylistic focus has always been on grape varieties and not terroir. Working with Todd and Kelly Bostock, of Dos Cabezas and Garage-East, Pavle’s label, Los Milics, produces several wines made from Arizona grapes, each one carefully modeled and named after his family.

Ita, made for his wife Carla, is a Rosé of Grenache lightened by adding 10% Picpoul Blanc. For his oldest son, the personality-generous Oliver, he makes a big bold blend based on Syrah. Named for his younger son, Lorenzo is a blend of 50% Monastrell (a grape that is also called Mourvèdre or Mataró), 25% Grenache, and 25% Tempranillo. And his beautiful oldest daughter, Hannah, inspired him to make a crisp white wine that is 90% Picpoul Blanc and 10% Viognier. All of the grapes for these wines come from the Bostock’s Cimarron Vineyard in Willcox (pictured here).

The decisions regarding what goes into each of his wines are all Pavle’s to make, but, Pavle explains that he is not the winemaker for Los Milics. All of the daily care and hard work that goes into making wine? Renowned winemakers, Todd and Kelly Bostock, are the thoughtful caretakers who make these decisions for Los Milics.

Los Milics currently produces between 300-450 cases of wine each year, all of which are sold through FnB in Scottsdale, and Pizzeria Bianco and St. Francis in Phoenix, as well as retail outlets, including Whole Foods in Chandler and ODV Wines in Tempe.

What’s next for Pavle? Be sure to stay tuned to Pavle’s career because more is to come of which we have had only a glimpse so far. Most certainly his next steps will be a joy for all of us.

Our Story Circles Back to Arizona’s Quixotic Quest

We think of Quixote’s Quest as the quest of a loner with perhaps a trusty sidekick, much like the original Don Quixote. While this might seem a fitting description for Pavle, he has hardly been alone in his quest.

More than 100 wineries are now growing grapes and making wine amidst the rocky canyons and desert plains of Arizona, while another 20+ wineries are purchasing these grapes to make and sell Arizona wine. And now a fledgling viticulture and enology program at Yavapai College in Clarkdale is sprouting even more growers and winemakers, as evidenced by the upcoming Emerging Winemakers Competition.

Inspired by the pioneering spirit we’ve grown to love in Arizona wine, photographer Jenelle Bonifield and I are creating Arizona’s first-ever guide, titled: Arizona Wine: The vineyards, winemakers, and wineries of the Grand Canyon State.

Much like the story of Arizona wine, this book involves countless people. It will feature Jenelle’s award-winning photography, guide maps designed by Jeff Hendricks, multi-talented mapmaker, vineyard manager, and co-owner at Chateau Tumbleweed, and stories about Arizona’s indomitable growers and winemakers which you’ll be able to preview on this site.

In this book, you’ll learn about sommeliers Katie and T. Scott Stephens of Southern Rail and Beckett’s Table, partners with Justin and Michelle Beckett, who launched Arizona wine portfolios in both of their restaurants starting in 2011; Scott is writing the foreword to our book. Pavle, along with writer, wine aficionado, and fledgling winemaker, Cody Chasen Burkett, will each write introductions to sections of our book, joined by Nikki Bagley, owner of Arizona Vineyard Consulting LLC, who will introduce us to cold weather growers on the Colorado Plateau, the newest region to enter the world of Arizona wine.

Most importantly, you’ll learn about Arizona’s wine story, especially the stories of these key figures:

  • The founder of Arizona wine, Gordon Dutt of Sonoita Vineyards, without whom not a single soul could legally make commercial wine in Arizona
  • Kent Callaghan, Callaghan Vineyard, whose focus on making quality wine in Arizona for the past 30 years helped bring this state into the national spotlight
  • Sam Pillsbury, Pillsbury Vineyard a successful filmmaker and one of Arizona’s earliest winemakers
  • Maynard Keenan, winemaker and owner of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, and founder of Four Eight Wineworks whose fame as a musician brought youthful popularity to the industry
  • Eric Glomski, Page Springs Cellars and Arizona Stronghold, whose wineries now employ more than 40 people in what can best be described as a cooperative venture in Arizona winemaking

And let’s not forget the quiet and understated world of Arizona’s amazing lady winemakers and vineyard owners – part of both the old and new generations of Arizona wine – including:

Photographs and stories of these and many more vineyard owners and winemakers will color our book celebrating the grapes and wines of Arizona. We have been happily meeting and researching and interviewing and photographing and drinking Arizona wine together for the past year, and we look forward to publishing in 2018.

Register right here to receive updates from this blog and more stories about Arizona’s winemakers as you wait for publication. Most importantly, you’ll receive emails once we’ve launched our website where you’ll be able to purchase our book.

Come back and visit us!

Be sure to visit us every week for more about wine from Arizona and around the world. Join Grape Exploration on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Stay tuned to the Arizona Wine Guide on Facebook and Instagram.

Resources (forgive this lengthy list, but Pavle is both a prolific writer and has been prolifically written about – each of these stories is well-worth reading)

Michael Lacey. (1999, June 3). To Serb with Love. Phoenix New Times.

Nikki Buchanan. (2012, September 10). AZ Wine Merchants Included in Food & Wine’s “25 Places to Drink Wine Now.” Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic. (2012, May 11). Pavle Milic’s Quest to Make Wine: A Quixotic Exploit? Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic. (2012, May 25). Pavle Prunes the Vines — and Keeps an Eye out for Rattlesnakes. Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic. (2012, August 8). Pavle Prepares to Harvest the Grapes and Reveals the Blend. Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic. (2012, September 26). Pavle Milic Harvests the Grapes for His Still Unnamed Wine. Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic. (2012, October 9). Maynard Keenan, Sam Pillsbury, Todd Bostock and other Wine Experts Give Pavle Milic Advice on Designing Wine Labels – and Pavle Finally Names His Wine. Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic. (2013, March 13). Arizona Wine at Devoured 2013. Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic. (2013, June 21). “Los Milics” Blended Last Week and Scheduled for Bottling in July. Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic. (2013, September 14). Arizona Wine Gets a Shout Out from SF Chronicle. Phoenix New Times.

Listing of stories written by Pavle Milic. (n.d.). Phoenix New Times.

Shirley Moore. (2017, March 17). FnB Bar Debuts Loire Valley Menu, Talks Wine-Inspired Cocktails. Phoenix New Times.

Pavle Milic’s Websites

FnB.

Stay True Radio.

Never miss a story about wine!

Subscribe to get the latest news and views by email.


Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply