An insatiable thirst: the story of Jane Lopes, Australia’s leading sommelier

Giulia Sgarbi - 16/01/2020

The Attica wine director was one of less than 300 people worldwide to achieve the title of Master Sommelier, the highest qualification in the wine industry, before it was unceremoniously stripped from her soon after. Lopes tells a story of dedication and disappointment on her journey to the top of her profession from the University of Chicago to Melbourne, via Eleven Madison Park along the way

A twenty-something English Literature graduate in Chicago, Jane Lopes did what students in the same situation have done many times – look for a job in the hospitality industry while working on grad school applications. Now one of the world’s leading sommeliers, Lopes may not have fallen in love with wine had it not been for this fleeting encounter at the beginning of her career.

What started as a part-time way to pay the bills soon became her life project. It was a passion that would see her make several moves across the States, undertake thousands of hours of study, join innumerable wine tastings, write a book, meet her now-husband and, most of all, drive an insatiable thirst to improve and earn the prestigious title of Master Sommelier – an honour she was allowed to keep for only a few weeks, through no fault of her own.

“I just needed a job for a year, but within a few months, I didn’t really want to turn in my grad school applications any more,” says Lopes. “I found wine compelling on many levels – academically, intellectually and because of the connection between reading and experiencing. When it came down to envisioning if I wanted to spend my twenties working in wine or being in a library, I thought that wine sounded a bit more fun. So I stuck with it and took opportunities where they arose.”

And arise they did. Lopes’ CV is a testament to her commitment to constant improvement, where every move represents a step forward in her career, education and experience. After humble beginnings in a wine shop, she went on to work at The Violet Hour in Chicago – one of the pioneers of the craft cocktail movement in the US – a change that marked a turning point in her life.

“It was my first real service job. It was a different kind of satisfaction to be able to create something, mix it, put it down in front of someone and see how they responded to it. It was so satisfying, and it made me want to work more in service and in restaurants,” she says.
Attica restaurant, with Lopes' cellar at the back

Cocktails and dreams

As her passion for restaurants took hold, she gained experience at The Catbird Seat in Nashville before moving to New York, where she was eventually picked by restaurateur Will Guidara, wine director Dustin Wilson and chef Daniel Humm to work at Eleven Madison Park, now a Best of the Best hall of famer. Lopes was part of the restaurant’s wine team in the lead up to April 2017, when Eleven Madison Park was named No.1 after seven years of steady rise within The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

“EMP was a hugely influential restaurant on me, my career and my development as a sommelier,” reflects Lopes. “To be able to work with their wine list and be part of a team that was constantly seeking out more knowledge, sharing information and pushing each other to do better was amazing. It taught me how to be a well-rounded service professional at a very high level.”

By 2017, Lopes had also been eyeing a different prize. In the wine industry, there isn’t a formalised educational path – wannabe-sommeliers often have to figure out for themselves how to gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject. On the other hand, qualifications and competitions are rife, with the most prestigious being the Master Sommelier Diploma, known in the industry as MS. Since the Court of Master Sommeliers was founded in 1969, 274 professionals worldwide have earned the highest qualification, of which only 34 – about 12% – are women. Driven by her passion for wine, Lopes wanted to be one of them.

To earn the Master Sommelier qualification, applicants have to pass four separate stages: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. Lopes achieved the first qualification in 2009, the second in 2012 and the third in 2015. Each stage requires hundreds of hours of preparation, as the exams for the highest levels involve theory, blind tastings and a practical service test. In 2015, she failed to pass the theory test for the Master level, and she was planning to go back to studying in 2017 before a new opportunity brought a change of plans.

Attica is a restaurant in Melbourne led by Chef Ben Shewry and widely recognised as one of the best in Australia. It appeared in six editions of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list between 2013 and 2018, winning the title of The Best Restaurant in Australasia every time. In 2017, Lopes packed her bags to leave the US and take on the role of wine director at the world-leading restaurant.

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As part of her new job, the US-born sommelier dove deep into Australian wines, becoming a champion of their quality and a believer that they should appear “on every wine list in the world”. When putting together the wine list for Attica, Lopes embraced Shewry’s ethos of promoting overlooked Australian ingredients and embarked on a journey of discovery into Victoria’s grapes and labels.

“There is just so much good wine being made right now in this country,” she says. “If I have a handful of Australian Rieslings on my list, I want to put them side by side with Alsatian and German Rieslings, to give some context to those wines and also to make the point that they really should be talked about in the same breath,” she explains. Some of the greatest Chardonnays she’s ever had – “period” – have come from Giaconda Vineyard and Winery in Beechworth, Victoria.

But Attica was also a challenge. “So many ingredients that Ben [Shewry] uses I had never seen before, so it was a totally new beast,” she says. What would you pair, for example, with a dish of saltwater crocodile ribs? Lopes responded by engaging her creativity.

At first, she accompanied the course with a glass of saké (Japanese rice wine), but “it was a bit too round and heavy, and we wanted more acidity and brightness”. So, she came up with a way to bring in that missing touch of freshness. “Now, we put a splash of saké on the table and tell our diners that we recommend combining it with a dry Riesling,” she explains.

While unconventional, Lopes believes that the resulting concoction is a better pairing for the dish – although it also does more than that. “You get people who aren't too engaged with the wine pairing and this is the moment when they stop and go 'wow, this is interactive, this is cool, this is different'. It really engages people in a way that nothing else does,” she says.

Having taken the time to settle in Melbourne and fully understand Attica’s philosophy, Lopes returned to her goal of becoming a Master Sommelier. In mid-2017, she put together a year-long plan that involved 20 to 30 hours’ study per week, plus tasting and service practice.

Twelve months on, she passed the theory test and in September 2018, she nailed both the service and tasting exams, clinching her dream in a matter of months. Nearly 10 years after she started working towards this goal, she was now Jane Lopes, MS – becoming the first woman in Australia to do so and entering an extremely small club who can claim to have reached the highest level of proficiency and knowledge in wine. But what seemed like the end of a cycle soon took on a different form.
Attica's dish of whipped emu egg with quandong (image: Colin Page)

Cheats in the exam hall
“Five weeks after the exam, I awoke to an email – a press release – that said that due to evidence that there had been a breach of confidentiality of the identity of two wines on the exam, they decided to void everyone's results,” she says with incredulity. “Everyone would have to take the test over, and everyone who had become a Master Sommelier based on that exam would no longer be a Master Sommelier.”

Lopes recalls being shocked at the news, but what upset her the most was that there was no precedent for such an issue occurring in the whole history of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and much less for the matter being handled in the manner it was. Her opinion – and you can see where she is coming from – is that the Court should have performed a thorough investigation rather than voiding the whole group’s results. As such, she resolved not to retake the Master Sommelier exam.

“Ultimately, the exam takes so much sacrifice and focus. I had always done it for myself, so if I was only going back there to get the letters after my name, then I couldn't justify the sacrifice that it would take,” she says. “It's sad, as with anything that you put on a pedestal and expect to be one way and it turns out to be another. Ultimately, I got out of the process what I wanted – my own personal achievement, the ability to position myself as an educator and to build around me the community that comes with that.”

Rather than mourn the loss of the ultimate accolade in her trade, Lopes refocused her energy. Now, she doesn’t remember 2018 as the year when she earned and was stripped of the title of Master Sommelier, but rather as the year when she worked hard as Attica’s wine director, planned her wedding and even managed to write a book.

“I don't think that would have been possible at many fine dining restaurants in other parts of the world,” says Lopes, highlighting how work-life balance is an important focus at Attica. When Shewry became the restaurant’s owner in 2015, he put in place a series of measures to ensure that his employees could “have lives outside of the restaurant, take care of themselves and be healthy and happy,” as she puts it.

“What I really respect about Ben [Shewry] is that the solution wasn't just to hire more staff, charge more money and make it work that way,” she says. “He sat down and looked at the things we were doing that were taking the most time, and cut those out. I have a lot of respect for that mentality because it’s rare to find in fine dining. There is often a 'whatever it takes' mentality, which isn’t very healthy.”
Lopes' book Vignette

Her magnum opus
Shewry’s forward-thinking approach is part of what allowed Lopes to become a published author in September 2019, when her book Vignette: Stories of Life and Wine in 100 Bottles was published. She describes it as “an educational and emotional guide to wine”.

“Each chapter is dedicated to a different style of wine, with a story from my life about a personal experience and my relationship with that style of wine, plus a little bit of education. For example, Barolo was very important to me and my now-husband when we met – it was something we drank together and I always associate it with him. The Barolo chapter is the story of us meeting, and the educational content at the end is this really beautiful chart that maps a few different factors that influence the style of a Barolo,” she explains.

You could say that Lopes has come full circle – from University of Chicago Literature student and wine shop assistant to Master Sommelier and published author. Over the course of her career, she has had time to reflect on her learnings and has a few tips for those starting out in the wine industry.

“I always say ‘work hard and be kind’, and pretty much everything else can be forgiven,” she says. “You don't need to run yourself into the ground in this industry, but you do need to work hard and you need to know that the work isn't all going to be glamorous.

“Being a sommelier can get competitive, and we forget that it's really all about how we treat others – colleagues, winemakers and particularly guests. Someone could have just one glass of wine, but I want them to feel just as special as someone who drank a super expensive bottle. Wine has always had this air of pretention about it. It can be a scary and intimidating thing, so our job as sommeliers is to make people feel comfortable.”

Despite the low percentage of women at the top of the wine industry, Lopes is hopeful for the future. “Even when you try very hard to be inclusive, there is a very narrow vision of what a sommelier looks like, and for most people that's a man,” she reflects.

“But I do think that it's getting better. Women need to invest in each other and build each other up, which happened infrequently in my career. When women did mentor me, it made an immeasurable difference in my life, because I could learn from a successful role model in the industry. We need much more of that – it's the only way that things will start to move toward equality.”

50/50 is the new 50’ is a content series created by 50 Best and supported by S.Pellegrino with the shared aim of promoting equality, inclusivity and balance in the hospitality sector and beyond.

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