11.26.2015 | Issue #5
We asked Nopa's wine director (and curator of one of San Francisco's most appealing beverage lists—no small feat!) to tell us
about the stops she's made in her search for her true calling.
California wine country, San Francisco, Austin, Maui, and a pit-stop in Peru made the cut.
"People always ask me how I got into wine, and it's hard to say exactly. I didn't have one trigger wine or a single, meaningful wine moment. I didn't head into college knowing I would work in wine, or even hospitality. If you had asked me four years ago if I thought I would be the wine director for one of San Francisco's best restaurants, I would have thought you were crazy. I would have been excited, but I would have definitely been surprised. Sometimes I still am.
At the time I was asked to take over for Chris Deegan as the Wine Director for Nopa, I was working as a hostess a few nights a week at the restaurant. I had lead a few staff wine lessons, at the encouragement of some of the management team, and joined up with a fairly casual tasting group of servers. Hostessing was not my life's ambition, but I did it gratefully for several months because I hoped I would eventually get to work with the wine list and that wonderful food, and I did.
Earlier that year, I attended the Culinary Institute of America's Accelerated Wine & Beverage Program, up in Napa Valley. I lived in Saint Helena, which has to be one of the most charming, wine-centric small towns out there. I spent the school year tasting some of the best wines from California on my own time, and some of the best wines from around the world from two amazing wine professionals, Christie Dufault and Bob Bath, MS, in a state of the art classroom. I ate grapes off the vines and watched the vineyards change colors in the fall. I was there in the spring when the mustard came out in large neon yellow swatches between the vine rows. Although I did quite well in school, I still wasn't sure where I wanted to go with my wine education when I graduated, so I moved back to San Francisco and couchsurfed, stayed in motels, and subleased apartments while I sought a meaningful job and a place to call home. Having loved Nopa while I was a college student at the University of San Francisco some years earlier, and having found the restaurant's wine list flawless upon later review, I applied there first."
"I would have never made it to wine school in Napa were it not for the good graces of a small family and their winery in Comfort, Texas. Two years prior to becoming a student in Napa Valley, I had moved to Austin, TX on a whim as a music journalist. I couldn't have been the first. I had visited only once on a writing assignment for a few San Francisco magazines to cover the SXSW festival, but I fell in love with the vibe almost immediately. Austinites are intelligent, funny, down-to-Earth people who love good food, good music, a good time. I had saved up a little money during and following college, and finally found a magical place where that sort of thing goes a long way. I moved into a loft apartment downtown and made friends by joining experimental art meet-ups, dipping into honky tonk gay bars, volunteering at events, and looking for some form of steady work round out my time in paradise as a struggling journalist. With a new group of friends, I began throwing elaborate dinner parties and collaborating on projects with other artist types. I had a shag carpet and bunk beds that I painted blue. I set up a raised bed garden and grew veggies in a friend's back yard. I nannied small children in the summer time and became a stage manager for SXSW. Most of my clothing and furniture came from second-hand and thrift stores. I ended up working as an event planner of sorts for an art galley and multi-use space. I sought a wine-related side job to complement my knowledge of food and music for my event-planning work, and found a Craigslist ad for tasting room position at a new winery in hill country.
Unlike many of the old wineries in Texas that were stuck on ubiquitous grapes like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the folks at Bending Branch Winery weren't afraid to experiment with grapes that the hot, dry land could actually support: Tannat, Picpoul, Tempranillo... John and Bob, the winemakers, did produce a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Texas Plains, but the focused most of their attention on their experimental home vineyards. Every weekend, I would drive two hours down from Austin to work in the tasting room or help in whatever way was necessary. I loved the southern characters that strolled through the door and tasted our wines. During these weekends, I would stay nearby with a couple of California expats who rented a small ranch house owned by a neon artist (who also lived and worked in the barn). When I came home to them at night after work, I would have to open and close a few gates so that the cows wouldn't escape. As I took on more responsibility at the winery, I realized I wanted to learn more about wine beyond Texas and sought an educational program that could take me there. With Bending Branch's blessings, I enrolled in the CIA for the following school year.
Before I moved from to Austin from San Francisco, I made a few important stops. In fact, almost a year passed between the time I first came to Austin and when I actually moved there. During the time in between I operated my own ice cream sandwich cart with a friend from high school for the summer, and then we moved to Maui to work on an organic farm for the summer and fall. That winter I traveled around Peru, eating as many new fruits as possible, with a different friend from high school.
That summer a friend and I bought an old hot dog cart from some warehouse up in Orange County. and tricked it out with a cute purple and pink umbrella, a retro logo, and a lot of dry ice. We were the Cream Queenz. We made a few different types of ice cream sandwiches: vanilla with chocolate chip cookie—the "Cream-a-Donna"—chocolate ice cream with peanut butter cookie, and what we hoped would be a rotating cast of seasonally inspired ice cream and cookie combos. We ended up making a cherry-cheesecake and sugar cookie option that we ran with for the summer. I think we were a little ahead of our time.
The farm in Hawaii was on the Hana Highway and we grew whatever the land could support. This was a surprising amount of produce given that it was a rain forest. I was responsible for my own garden and maintained a grove of banana plants. Every time a bunch of bananas began to show a little yellow, I would take a giant machete and chop the thing down. I was tan and as ripped as I'll ever be working on that farm. I hitchhiked around and island hopped on the weekend. I did yoga and ate passion fruit off the vine on my way to the garden every morning. I swam under waterfalls and did watercolors. I hiked with my German boyfriend. Why did I leave?!"