Enjoying wine taught Jane Lopes, AB’07, to slow down, but as a sommelier, she’s rising fast.
When Jane Lopes, a Wine and Spirits 2014 Best New Sommelier, talks about wine, she talks about balance. “On the palate, balance is key,” she says, listing elements that must complement each other: sweetness, acidity, tannins, alcohol.
In her own glass, she prefers dry Riesling—for the balance. “What’s considered a dry wine in white Burgundy is below two grams of residual sugar; what’s considered dry in Riesling is below 10 grams of residual sugar,” she says. “You get these wines that are really dynamic just because they have a little more sugar balanced against the acidity.”
Lopes, AB’07, talks about wine a lot. At the three-Michelin-star Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan—the finest restaurant in America, if you believe the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—she guides her guests through a 176-page wine list to find just the right match for their dinner and their tastes. On Esquire TV’s 2015 reality program Uncorked, she decanted and blind tasted her way through a series of competitions with five other wine professionals in preparation for the notoriously difficult master sommelier exam.
Her ascent to the top of the wine world began at UChicago, although she didn’t know it at the time. Transferring from the University of Southern California her second year, she immersed herself, maybe too deeply, in her studies. “I was killing myself,” she says. “I had a full schedule, I also had an internship in downtown Chicago, and I was running seven miles a day.”
But while studying in Rome her third year, Lopes “learned to slow down and enjoy some of the moments”—and the local cuisine. She began to drink wine, almost by default. “In Rome wine is part of dinner,” she says. “It was just a food.”
Back in Hyde Park as a fourth-year, Lopes took up writing restaurant reviews for the Maroon while finishing her BA thesis on Titus Andronicus. Thinking she would take a year off and apply to PhD programs, she leveraged an alumni connection to get a retail job at the Chicago wine shop Lush, where she used the time between helping customers and tidying up to study wine.
Lopes worked her way up to managing Lush’s Roscoe Village location and started picking up shifts at the Violet Hour, a James Beard Award–winning cocktail bar in Wicker Park. It was exhilarating. “We made people happy,” she says. She started developing cocktails for the menu, learning to make tiny adjustments to bring a drink’s disparate flavors into harmony.
After a few years, Lopes was tapped to head the beverage program at a new Nashville, Tennessee, restaurant, the Catbird Seat, where her creative wine pairings drew press attention—including cocktail-esque mixtures like Tokaji (a sweet Hungarian wine) in a bourbon-rinsed glass. Her creativity was born of constraint: Lopes would taste a new dish, think of a wine to match, then discover the wine couldn’t be had in Nashville, too small a market for some distributors. “I realized that if I wanted to pursue wine and wanted to pursue certifications, that would be much easier if I was in a larger market,” she says.
So she moved to New York. A friend introduced her to a tasting group of local sommeliers, and the connections she made helped her land at Eleven Madison Park. The restaurant demanded the same technical precision and emotional investment that had inspired her at the Violet Hour. “People come into Eleven Madison Park to celebrate weddings and anniversaries and birthdays and all these kinds of major moments in life,” she says. “You have to understand the gravity of that, and that it’s important to give yourself to every table and help them have the best experience possible.”
Meanwhile she pursued certifications at top speed. She came in second at the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs’s 2014 International Best Young Sommelier Competition in Copenhagen, becoming the first American woman to place so highly, and earned her advanced sommelier certification: the final prerequisite to taking the master exam.
Administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers (and chronicled in the 2012 documentary Somm), the master sommelier exam is unforgiving, with pass rates in the single digits. Since the test was introduced in 1969, about 230 people have received diplomas. At the 2013 exam in Dallas, only one of 70 applicants succeeded; Shayn Bjornholm, examination director for the court’s American chapter, remarked, “We are happy with the level of difficulty we have established.”
The test has three sections. Theory covers the history, agriculture, chemistry, and legal concerns of grape growth and wine production and similar information about spirits, liqueurs, beer, cider, and cigars. Service stages a mock dinner where the sommelier must discuss, recommend, and properly serve drinks to a table of master sommeliers. Finally, in tasting, she is given six glasses of wine to describe and identify. The theory section is held separately and must be passed before service and tasting are attempted. A student may retake sections as often as she likes (each is offered annually) but must pass all three within a three-year period to receive the diploma.
Lopes applies a study method she developed at UChicago: triage. Instead of trying to learn every fact about every region, she picks out key features—this region is known primarily for this vineyard; this region has greater fluctuation between vintages—and creates her own study materials. (The first episode of Uncorked shows her personal library of color-coded binders: “I kind of like to create my own textbook,” she tells the camera.) She stood for the theory portion in spring of 2015 but didn’t pass. The result was disappointing, though not unusual for a first-time candidate.
What she needs, Lopes decided, is more balance. She took the rest of 2015 off from studying, then began a measured campaign this January to prepare for the 2017 exam, more slowly this time. “Which has been always an appeal of mine with wine,” she says. “No matter how fast you’re moving, it’s something that really encourages you to slow down.”
Lopes named one of the cocktails she created at Chicago’s Violet Hour after “The Aleph,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. “The Aleph, in the story, is the point at which all things in the universe converge,” she says. “It seemed appropriate for a drink that contained spirits from Mexico, liqueurs from Italy, and salt from middle America.”
- 1.5 oz. El Tesoro Blanco
- .5 oz. Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal
- .75 oz. Punt e Mes
- .25 oz. Luxardo Maraschino
- Dash of Angostura Bitters
- Dash of Regan’s Orange Bitters
- Pinch of salt
Pour all ingredients over ice and stir until chilled and diluted to taste. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with a flamed orange disc.
Updated 03.08.2016: The graphic in print showed bottle of Luxardo Maraschino Cherries rather than Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur.