Sommelier Gillian Ballance
3127 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
An Interview with Featured Sommelier
Gillian Ballance, Plumpjack Group, California
By 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
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!