Jim Clarke: How did you first become interested in wine, and how did that interest evolve into a career?
Gillian Ballance: I worked at the Rainbow Room in NYC during the time that the Baum-Emil Corp. took over the operations of Windows on the World. Dale Degroff, who was well aware of my love for wine, introduced me to Andrea Robinson (then Immer) and she offered me a part-time cellar rat position which, over time, evolved in to the Cellar Master position.
JC: Some studies recently have suggested that cheese and wine are not the natural bosom-buddies we take them for; having worked at Terrance Brennan’s Picholine, with its impressive cheese program, what do you think brings the two together?
GB: What I learned from Max was that choosing the right wine to go with cheese is just as important as any other part of the meal. In most cases, people will opt for cheese to finish the wine that they had with dinner; that was always the challenge. Max was an expert in matching the flavors and textures of cheeses with the texture, body, flavor, and acidity of wines; needless to say, we did a lot of experimenting!
JC: After working at several restaurants in New York City, what drew you to the West Coast?
GB: A lifestyle change. Things are not as exciting as NYC, but the pace is slower, and in general people have more free personal time.
JC: What differences do you find in what New York and Californian diners expect from a sommelier?
GB: I think the diners in California have a little less faith in the sommeliers, and they are also very “local” centric in terms of their wine consumption; NYC is more “euro” centric...and diners know that if they are in a great restaurant, that the sommelier should be just as good!
It is a challenge for me to earn the trust of our guests – but it’s also half the fun! It is even more fun when they e-mail you the very next day to find out where to get the wine they had the night before.
JC: You’re pursuing the Masters of Wine program; what led you to choose the MW over other the credentials out there?
GB: I have actually put the MW program on hold this year, due to the opening of two restaurants within the PlumpJack group. I recently passed the Advanced Sommelier exam and may decide to go that route; it’s actually less expensive. My interest in the MW program has always been about the educational process – the guidance which you receive, and the resources you are provided with.
JC: What’s the key to developing staff who are well-trained to sell and serve wine?
GB: FUN! This is a lifestyle company with wine as its focus. I do my best to make the sales and service of wine fun for all levels, by consistently going to each business to conduct tastings which involve food and wine pairing, comparing old world styles to new world styles, etc. I also sit with the staff members and go through the wine list page by page to describe wines and their styles. I could write and post wine descriptions all day long with no guarantees that anyone is paying attention; having one-on-one discussions is more effective.
JC: The list at Jack Falstaff focuses on biodynamic and organic wines; what excites you about biodynamic and organic winegrowing?
GB: The passion of the growers/winemakers – their pursuit to make wines that are “natural,” wines that taste like the place from which they come – that is exciting.
JC: Wine-pricing at the PlumpJack restaurants avoids some of the high markups common at restaurants with similar size lists; how do you put it together so you can still “make your numbers?”
GB: We have flexible budgets that allow up to a 55% monthly wine cost in all of our restaurants. Most people in the biz get yelled at if their wine costs are too high; I get yelled at if they are too low.
We just hope to sell more rather than less!