Like many in the restaurant business, Sarah Valor began working as a server to pay her way through school. While studying rhetoric at UC Berkeley, she became intrigued by the communication systems of restaurants. But it was the craft of wine and the history of the people making it that grabbed her interest for the long term.
Such innate wine curiosity led Valor to land a job at Oliveto in Oakland. Working for a chef who understands the interaction between wine and food was important to Valor, and she found that in Oliveto’s renowned Chef Paul Bertolli. While working at Oliveto and over the years, Valor met top Barolo and Barbaresco producers, had drinks with one of the most eccentric producers from Friuli, and much more. Experiences like these became Valor’s classroom.
Hungry for a practical look at the business of wine, Valor also enrolled in a course at Berkeley’s Haas Business School. It was there that she met important figures in the wine business, such as Bartholomew Broadbent, Leslie Sbrocko, and Andy Peay, who have also broadened Valor’s wine know-how.
When 2007 Rising Star Chef James Syhabout hired Valor to work at Commis, he introduced her to Jeff Bareilles, the wine director at Manresa, who helped with the opening efforts. His guidance, advice, consultations, and friendship have been invaluable for her formation as a sommelier. Recently, Valor also began studying under the guidance of The Court of Master Sommeliers.
Interview with Rising Star Sommelier Sarah Valor of Commis – Oakland, CA
Katherine Martinelli: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Sarah Valor: It was intentional and by accident. I went to UC Berkeley to study rhetoric and was absolutely certain that I wanted to be in that department, but just to learn—not for any professional reason. While going to school, I needed a job to pay the bills. My first job was in a café in Barcelona when I was studying abroad. Café and bar people drank from morning to night. I fell in love with the social aspect there, not so much a passion of flavor and place, as it was the interaction with people and the hospitality. I came back and got a restaurant job at a place called Fonda in Albany (in the East Bay). They had an extensive cocktail list; it was at the start of tapas-small plates craze. I fell in love with the food and wine. But more wine than cocktails and food because of what it incorporates.
KM: How did you incorporate this newfound love of wine into your college career?
SV: I found wine to be this place where I could learn about people’s family histories, stories, political histories of countries, and art—the art of taking something from grapes and soil and turning it into something so integrated, with a balanced palate of flavors. I was hooked, and when you add travel to that—another passion of mine—there was no other option.
KM: Describe your fondest wine memory.
SV: I don't have a fondest wine memory per se, but when I tasted Chateau Rayas; seeing such perfect balance, it just was amazing. The finish, what’s on the palate, the nose, that it can have such a presence and can contribute so much to a meal, a conversation, a memory…. I still have all the flavors in my mind’s eye 12 years later. It was early on in my career that I tasted it and it was a privilege and an honor. That this wine could come from all those things I mentioned before—such a rich family history and an amazing political climate that supports the regulations for people to follow and break. This winery is known for being able to break the rules, but it’s with respecting the rules that they break them. The two go hand in hand. That was certainly a turning point and an eye-opening moment.
KM: What courses have you taken? Certifications?
SV: I'm doing them now. Through the Court of Master Sommeliers. But, really, it’s all about tasting and learning and exploring. Jeff (my mentor) is an amazing teacher for me. We talk all the time and go back and forth. It’s a really wonderful dialogue that is absolutely helped mold how I think about wine.
Going out to eat—there’s nothing better than going out to eat, tasting other peoples’ understandings of pairings, creating pairings on my own. And tasting groups, I do different tastings groups. Travel has been a huge thing. Walking from vineyard to vineyard, walking the roads of Alsace, hitchhiking from winery to winery. You can take it out of that pretentious, exclusive, untouchable place and make it a story for guests.
KM: Do you tend to personally favor Old or New World wines?
SV: Philosophically, I would love to find more Californian wine that work with the food at Commis. It’s been a challenge to find lower tannin, lower alcohol, softer wines that would be appropriate for this cuisine. That said, my preference is for Old World. I like subtlety, nuance, and balance. If more Californian wine makers would do that, I would rather not have the carbon footprint involved in importing wine. We're doing it with the food; I wish we could do it with the wine. I like the tradition of the Old World too, the history.
KM: Tell me about a perfect food and wine pairing that you have discovered.
SV: I loved Carlos's chocolate tile with the Lustau East Indian Solera sherry. Said sherry is only made by Lustau. It came about like Madeira, almost by accident. The English had their sherry and could not leave it behind when traveling to the colonial countries. It changed dramatically over the journey because the temperature rose and fell; it oxidized and absorbed the flavor of the barrel. It’s wonderful with the chocolate, it’s like they glide together in perfect harmony; you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins.
KM: How do you compile the wine list?
SV: Tasting. Lots of appointments, just going through them with as many representatives as I can book into the day. I give them parameters to come to me with; I tell them about my philosophy and then I either go through books and say I want to taste these wines, or I tell them exactly what I'm looking for for said dish or place on the menu. Sometimes I buy one, sometimes I buy none, sometimes I have three or four appointments before we even find one possibility. So, we’re also clearly communicating what we're looking for.
If something doesn’t work for us, it doesn’t. So as we build our relationships they know my palate and the food here, so it’s getting easier. There’s no real focus in terms of place on the list. The focus is for every bottle of wine to be ready for the food. You need some fuller bottles, so there’s a wine that would not go with the tartare, but some people are not interested in food and wine pairings and want their full-bodied wine no matter what. We keep our clientele in mind, but keep it as friendly as possible to all the dishes that come out of the kitchen.
KM: What regions are you interested in at the moment?
SV: I love the Jura, but it’s totally nerdy, not everyone loves it. I think they're phenomenal food wines. The Vin du Paille are extraordinary. They're sweet wines that blow some Sauternes out of the water.
KM: If you weren’t a sommelier what would you be doing?
SV: What you're doing now. I want to be on one side or the other.
KM: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
SV: Probably with my own restaurant. I see myself working with James until I go off on my own. He's an inspiration to work for and a pleasure to work with. Not sure if five years is the time frame I'm working with. I’m not looking for a cookie-cutter restaurant; I've got some ideas but they’re not ready for paper. I don’t necessarily have to stick to California. Europe is calling. But my husband and I have family so there's that reality. We'll see where that road takes us.