Whether or not you’re a big wine drinker, chances are you’re at least a little wine curious. But would you ever dive into a career in wine? That’s exactly what Sarah Jones did. Born and raised in West Virginia, Sarah moved to the Big Apple to attend college and ultimately ended up falling in love with wine.
Since then, she’s worked in the restaurant industry around the country including a stretch at the famed steakhouse CUT by Wolfgang Puck in Beverly Hills. Today, she is a sommelier at Los Balcones in Studio City.
Sarah chatted with Homegirl Talk to dish about wine, what it takes to become a sommelier, and some of her top tips for making the right pour decisions. (See what we did there?) Cheers!
Hi Sarah! Tell us about yourself and how you first became interested in being a sommelier.
I was introduced to wine while working at a little Portuguese restaurant, Luzia’s, in NYC. I fell in love with European wines then and there. I went on to work at Lentini, Italian fine dining on the Upper East Side, and Merchants Cigar Bar where I gained some knowledge of cognac, scotch, and cigars at a young age.
Once I moved out to California 11 years ago, I had a strong desire to learn more about wine, particularly domestic and beyond. I mentored under Dana Farner at CUT by Wolfgang Puck at The Beverly Wilshire and was exposed to some of the best and most sought-after wines in the world. I became Level 2 certified with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2011.
You’re now sommelier at Los Balcones in Studio City, which serves delectable Peruvian cuisine. What’s different about the wine you’re serving there?
I am thrilled to be working at Los Balcones. It has always been a great desire of mine to help create a wine list that features wine that may not be typically seen on other lists around town. [Fellow sommelier] Obren Milanovic and I are all about taking some risks and exposing customers to unique juice!
I try to taste and educate the staff on the wines frequently, because some of the wines on the list would get overlooked simply because people may not recognize the grape varietal and look for something more familiar to them.
Everything that we are currently pouring by the glass is organic and a great deal of our wine list comes from female vintners. We are also looking to add even more female-vintner wine to our list. We want to support women in winemaking. I dream of making my own label one day. To get in the vineyard and get dirty!
I love that you serve organic wines at Los Balcones. Why is this important?
Yes. Everything we currently pour by the glass at Los Balcones Studio City and a lot of our bottles are organic. To put it simply, it’s better for the environment and in turn better for you.
What would you recommend to someone who isn’t sure they like wine? Is there a “gateway” wine?
I don’t personally have one pull. Every person’s palate is different. I will usually find an intro wine for someone by asking what types of food flavors or other beverages they enjoy. That way I can tell what may speak to their taste buds. If they’ve tried wine before, I will ask what they did or didn’t like about it to gear my choice in a certain direction.
Give us an overview on the process of becoming a sommelier.
The first step is wanting to study about wine, and not just drink it! Meaning, you need to have a passion for where it’s coming from and how it’s made first. I recommend picking up some great wine books like The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine, The Wine Bible, The New France, and Vino Italiano.
It is also quite important to get into a tasting group that meets weekly at least. Then you want to start looking for courses offered by The Court of Master Sommeliers, where I received my certification. There are other programs that offer sommelier courses, but I believe theirs to be the best.
You would then work your way through the courses while studying and taking exams. If you pass level 2, you are now considered a Certified Sommelier. There are a total of 4 levels, ending with the award of Master Sommelier, an incredibly difficult level to achieve.
What’s your favorite kind of wine?
This is a question I often get and it hasn’t gotten easier to answer. My taste buds change and fluctuate based on seasons, vibe, etc. But I suppose the wines I am never not in the mood for are Northern Rhone Syrah, Cabernet Franc (often a blended grape that I enjoy solely), and White Burgundy.
Even people who don’t know wine still seem to know that France, Italy, and California produce some great wines. What are some lesser known regions that are exciting?
I am very excited about Portuguese wines. My introduction to wine was at an authentic mom-and-pop Portuguese restaurant in NYC where they had a great, mainly Portuguese and Spanish wine-filled list. I have since sought them out, but they are harder to find. Exporting to the US from Portugal has increased though, which is exciting.
I am also into South African wines. If you think about it, South Africa’s soils and vines have been around for longer than you can imagine and survived almost anything thrown their way. There is such a diverse topography, geology, and variation in altitude to begin with. There is a greater handle on controlling wine yields and production in the last few decades, so a lot of the wines coming out of there now are spectacular!
Does being a sommelier mean you could be blindfolded and still know exactly which kind of wine you are sipping, its vintage, its origins, and all those details?
Not necessarily. I would say you should have a pretty good idea of the grape varietal and its origin in a blind-tasting as a sommelier. However, like anything else, practice makes perfect. The more you are tasting regularly, the more you will be able to nail more details blindly.
I’m guessing you’ve seen the 2004 movie “Sideways,” which maligned Merlot for many years afterwards. Why has Merlot received such a bad rap? Is it over now?
I absolutely believe that the movie did some major damage to Merlot’s reputation. As a society, we are very influenced by what we see on TV and in movies—and we’re talking about an Academy Award-winning movie with major buzz.
Merlot may have been on a decline already because it was so popular in the late 90s, that I am sure there was a lot of over-production of bad Merlot creating its own bad rap. However, I do believe that typecast is slowly shedding and people can appreciate a great glass of Merlot again without feeling shame.
I will say though, it did help flush out a lot of the bad Merlot production. I am seeing some high-end Merlot plugged more into the mainstream.
What do you think about rosé? There’s this perception that it’s a girly wine. Maybe because of all the “rosé all day” posts on social media.
I love rosé. Not all rosé is created equal, but there are incredible rosés to enjoy. Again, I think people are highly influenced by what they see. But, I will say, if you are not trying rosé because it’s “girly” then you are missing out.
What’s your advice to young women out there who are interested in wine?
I would say dive in! It’s quite sexy in my opinion when a woman can speak intelligently and confidently about wine. Knowledge is power. And let’s be honest, to get paid to taste and discover wine is a win-win scenario.
Men have long dominated the wine industry. What’s been your experience as a female sommelier? Have you felt like you had to work harder than your male counterparts?
I have to say, I have been embraced for the most part by the wine community and my male counterparts. I do however feel I’ve had to work harder at times with customers to gain their trust.
I think that unfortunately women still have a bit further to go to be fully accepted as a person in power or of a certain level of intelligence. I see it as a challenge to turn a skeptic into a believer by the end of the dining experience.
Keep in mind, I am not performing surgery. I am here to help you have a great time and memorable wine experience. None of it should be taken too seriously.
Who are the women who have inspired you most in your personal and professional life?
I am deeply inspired by my early mentor, Dana Farner. She is a powerhouse of knowledge, experience, and talent. I am also truly inspired by ANY woman who is getting her hands dirty in the vineyards. It is a strong desire of mine to have a chance to participate in a full harvest at some point. Eat, sleep, work, and live at the vineyard. I am also in awe of women raising children, whether solo or with a partner, in tandem with crushing it in their careers. Hats off to all the moms out there working double duty!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received that you would like to share with other women?
My Dad always instilled in me and my sister the importance of being able to take care of ourselves financially and to not depend on anyone else for money. I believe it jump started this desire to work for what I have. It’s empowering.
I also think a newer piece of advice that I am trying to remember everyday is that “You should only compete with one person: yourself.” This is easier said than done, but it’s so true. You should be trying to beat YOUR best, not anyone else’s.
We’ll raise a glass to that! For more on Los Balcones and Sarah’s sipping picks, check out their Instagram page.
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