In Conversation with Sommelier Jane Lopes
Words by Sarah Gory
Sommelier Jane Lopes is known for her creative approach to wine pairings. For Jane, it’s about more than simply flavour — wine is an experience, and she is here to help you have the best one possible.
Jane Lopes’ introduction to the world of wine was one of serendipity. After completing a degree in Renaissance Literature, she needed a job while taking the time to apply for graduate programs. Books and booze have a long and storied history together, and so she started working at her local wine shop. As Jane told me, she never did get around to turning in those graduate school applications, and ‘I never looked back.’
But Jane didn’t entirely leave the studies behind. Last year Jane became the first woman in Australia to ever pass the notoriously difficult Master Sommelier exam. ‘It was a sh*t load of studying … I probably spent 1000 hours studying over the course of the year before it (and many, many more in the years before that). You have to commit yourself to really understanding every aspect of the world of wine.’
And there’s no doubt that Jane is committed. After stints in Chicago and Nashville, in 2017 Jane was a sommelier at Eleven Madison Park, the same year that it was named The Best Restaurant in the World. Soon after, she left the bright lights of New York City, recruited to come halfway across the world and take up the post of Wine Director at one of Melbourne’s most celebrated restaurants, Attica, also a regular placeholder on ‘The World’s Fifty Best Restaurants’ list.
Despite the glamour that I imagine is the life of a sommelier — fine food! expensive wines! rubbing shoulders with the glitterati! — Jane assures me that her routines aren’t all that different from most peoples. ‘I wake up in the morning, have a little tea and most days go to yoga.’ Jane and her husband love Melbourne, she tells me, and they’re making the most of having a bit more of a home life here than they could in fast-paced Manhattan. ‘We have a balcony off our apartment that we hang out on and, my personal favourite, a bath tub.’
It is this laid-back warmth that Jane exudes in person, and that she brings to her role with Attica — the stereotype of the snooty sommelier is nowhere to be found. Indeed, Jane’s understanding of her role is a holistic one, hospitality in its sincerest form; ‘a sommelier is there to help you have a good experience.’ When I asked Jane if she has any funny customer stories to share, she tells me about a family ‘who ordered Krug Grande Cuvée and then put Splenda in it.’ True to style though, as long as her guests are comfortable, Jane doesn’t judge. ‘But hey! Whatever makes them happy.’
Of course, being a wine director at an internationally-awarded restaurant does come with a bit of glitz; it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. For Jane, the excitement is in the interaction: ‘I love looking around the dining room, buzzing with guests having a great time, the team hustling hard and having fun, and lots of cool wine on tables.’ Over the years, Jane has developed a reputation for experimentation and creativity in her approach to pairing and serving wine. It isn’t out of the ordinary for her to mix different wines in the one glass, or to decant champagne ahead of time.
‘To me, a pairing is about much more than flavour. It's about texture and temperature and colour and glassware and engagement and progression; the whole experience. I think that engagement piece is key; doing some wild things sometimes that makes the guest dig in a bit more to the experience.’
During the course of our conversation I’m honest with Jane — I’ve never been to Attica before, nor have I ever had the pleasure of being served by a sommelier. In fact, I’m a little daunted by the prospect. Of course, Jane reassures me that if a sommelier is being snooty or pressuring you to spend up, then they’re not actually doing their job. Her recommendation for a novice’s first sommelier experience is simply to be clear and direct. Let them know what you like and whether you’d like to experiment. Be honest about your price range. If the sommelier is passionate about wine and good at what they do, they’ll help you find the drink that works for the food, for the restaurant and, most importantly, for their guests.
As is the way of things, life has come full circle for Jane. Putting that early literature degree to good use, later this year she has her first book coming out with Hardie Grant Publishing. In 2015 a literary agent approached her about writing a book and, having ‘always been somewhat literary leaning’ she was thrilled to take up the challenge. Vignette: Stories of Life and Wine in 100 Bottles is ‘sort of a cross between a memoir (if one can write a memoir at thirty-three) and a wine book, but a lot more fun than either genre implies.’ It took a while to find the right home for the kind of book that Jane wanted to write, but ‘it finally happened in Melbourne.’