Sommelier Theresa Paopao
Oleana | Boston, MA
Theresa Paopao’s initial career pursuits were far from wine and even further from Boston. She’s from Hawaii and has a degree in Technical Design for the Theater from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Graduate school brought her to the East Coast, but the decision to leave her studies at the Yale School of Drama changed Paopao’s career goals, so she departed for Boston and got a job as a server.
What was simply a way to make ends meet turned into a career for Paopao. She took it upon herself to learn about wines initially, and then blossomed under the more structured wine lessons at the Sweet Life Café in Martha’s Vineyard.
Paopao returned to Boston and joined the front of the house team at The Federalist, a restaurant known for its extensive wine list. Other stints in Boston included retail sales at Best Cellars and manager at the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro. In 2004, she joined the staff at Ana Sortun’s Oleana to expand the wine program and manage service.
Paopao’s natural curiosity and independent study bolster her professional wine knowledge. She received her BarSmarts Advanced certification from the Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR) in May 2009 and became a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers in January of 2009.
Paopao consulted with Ana Sortun on the wine pairings for Oleana’s cookbook, Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. She has participated as a wine panelist for the Nantucket Wine Festival, Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Conference, and the New England Food Service and Lodging Expo.
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Antoinette Bruno: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Theresa Paopao: I was at the Yale School of Drama and after 2 years, found it wasn’t for me. A boyfriend at the time was living in Boston so I came here and got a job waiting tables. The restaurant took an interest in making sure we knew about the food, but not necessarily the wine so I took it upon myself to research what I was serving. The Sweet Life Café in Martha’s Vineyard was next for me where the wine program was much more structured. That's when I knew I could do it. I could smell something and understand it. I got it. I didn't know that I would pursue that as a career, but I moved back to Boston and worked at The Federalist as a server. I'm very curious by nature so I would always ask questions. I moved over to the Beacon Hill Hotel and Bistro and became a manager. Wine was always something I maintained interested in on the side until I got hired at Oleana 5 years ago. Gary and Ana were very supportive of my wine interest from the start and when I decided to enroll in the Court of Master Sommeliers they said “Go for it”. I like travel as much as possible. I've since then taken and passed the second Court of Master Sommeliers exam. I have to wait another year to take the next one. I've taken the Bar Smarts certification and although we don't serve spirits and cocktails here, it’s good to have that knowledge.
AB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
TP: With wine it’s not just about the wine, it’s about everything that happens with it. Valentine’s Day: 1969 Meursault Charmes, pajamas, lobster, and Arrested Development. It couldn’t have been a better combination.
AB: What is your philosophy on wine and food?
TP: It's about the total experience, the package. I always try to make the guest feel as comfortable as possible. People have different levels of knowledge and wine can be intimidating. So my philosophy is to make people feel comfortable. Once people trust me, I ask questions of my guest and see what they like, then introduce them to something new. Making people comfortable is number one in this business.
AB: Did the tasting reflect old world or new world wines or a mix? Why did you choose?
TP: Old world all the way. It's just what I like; the subtleties, the tradition and sense of place all appeal to me. Of course there are great new world wines that deserve attention, but for the most part Old World wines pair best with the earthy spices found in the cuisine at Oleana.
AB: Tell me about a perfect wine and food match that you discovered.
TP: Last night one of the courses served at Sommelier Smackdown was duck liver mousse with a salad of arugula and peaches. A classic pairing with liver would a rich, sweet wine like Sauternes, but because this dish was the first course and because I don’t like to start the beverage pairings with something so rich and sweet, I chose a 2007 Kabinett Riesling from the Mosel. It had just enough sweetness to hint at the traditional pairing, lots of stone fruit flavors that matched right up with the peaches and vibrant acidity that made sense with peppery quality of the arugula and zip of the vinaigrette.
AB: How does the “Sommelier Smackdown” event work?
TP: Chef Louis of Sel de la Terre came together with Gordon's Wines & Liquors. They have a kitchen stadium, with flat screen TVs and demo kitchens; it holds about 40 people. This is one of the many events they do. They pit two sommeliers against each other and anyone can come and buy tickets. The chef cooks the first course and the two sommeliers taste it then have 4 minutes to go through the wine store and pick the wine. Then the audience tastes each dish and each pairing, and they have a secret ballot. If you win you get to play again the following month. We have a budget of $20 per bottle then a bank of an extra $20.
AB: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing?
TP: I'd probably be a pilot. I'm really fascinated with that. The one thing I hate about getting into a plane is that I'm not in control of it. I think I'd be a great florist because I love aromas. Or I would be a teacher. I have a great time putting together information.
AB: What are your ultimate career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Ten years?
TP: I think about this all the time. It's definitely wine-related. I would love to have my own place. I've often thought whether I should have a wine store or stay in the restaurant business. One of my favorite things is the interaction with the guest; I love getting someone to open up and tell me what they like and then making the match.
AB: How do you compile a wine list?
TP: It's always evolving. It's not like I can start from scratch. You can't wipe out your whole collection. I pay attention to what the client is telling us to drink. I took myself to London in April and everyone around me was drinking sherry; it was their aperitif. When I came home and did some research on the different styles of sherry and the southern part of Spain, I learned that at the end of the work day, everyone in that area goes to their local bodega and has a snack with sherry. Our summer crowd at Oleana is different than the rest of the year. Lots of first time dinners that want to try as much as possible. We have section on the menu call prêt a manger which are small bites, similar to tapas, that are served with bread. To me, if there was anything on the menu I would pair with sherry, it would be those small bites. That was one way I drew inspiration. Sherry hasn't really caught on in the States, but I’ve priced it accordingly so you can’t say no. Rosé is also great right in the warmer months. There are three rosés by the glass, three sherries by the glass, and I always lighten up the reds in the summer.
AB: What regions are you interested in at the moment?
TP: Greece. I think it's overlooked and underrated and we often associate Greek wine with Retsina, which is aged with pine resin, a flavor is off putting to a lot of people. I’m really into the whites from Santorini. The soil is all chalk and limestone and it’s notoriously windy, so the grapes are actually trained into little baskets so they don't blow away. It’s visually stunning. The two white grapes, Assyrtiko and Athiri are sometimes blended together are so bright and crisp and I've turned drinkers onto that right away. It's really fun to be able to take a customer 2 steps into the next level, not too far from what they know but getting them to try something different.
AB: What wine trends are you seeing in your city?
TP: That’s a tough one to answer. In terms of wine programs, I think that a lot more people are embracing organic and biodynamic wine. We’re now a culture that is paying much more attention to how our food is being grown and where it’s coming from. It totally makes sense that we should look at wine under the same microscope. There is also a really great camaraderie amongst the wine professionals in Boston and Cambridge. Most of us belong to several overlapping tasting groups and it’s great see that we are working together to learn and share the knowledge. We’re not really a competitive with one another at all.
AB: What wine education topics/workshops/seminars would you find most helpful?
TP: Staff training is a big one. There's no right way or wrong way to do staff training. I think learning what works and doesn’t is really key. I'm doing this on my own and I don't have a model for staff training, so it would be great to bounce ideas off my peers. We don't talk about that, we talk about glassware and deals on cases of wine, but staff training is really important. If you're the only person doing the wine program and it’s your night off you need to have a knowledgeable staff.
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