Gillian Ballance, 38, is wine director of the San Francisco—based PlumpJack Group, which operates seven restaurants, including PlumpJack Café and Jack Falstaff in San Francisco, and PlumpJack Café Squaw Valley Inn. She grew up in Tulsa, Okla., and first worked in restaurants while attending the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Her first sommelier job was at Windows on the World and she later worked in New York's Cello and Picholine restaurants.
Ballance arrived in California in 2000 to launch the wine program for the newly opened Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara and moved to the Bay Area to take over the wine program at PlumpJack in 2004.
Wine Spectator: Did you grow up around wine?
Gillian Ballance: No, not at all. My dad liked to drink the bottled sangria with the plastic bull around the neck. That was the extent of wine consumption in my house.
WS: How did you get interested in wine?
GB: I was working as a waitress at the Rainbow Room, at the top of Rockefeller Center, in 1992, and met Dale DeGroff, the head bartender and mixologist. Dale always saw me sitting in linen closets reading wine books during my breaks, and he introduced me to Andrea Immer, who was the beverage director there. When Andrea took over as beverage director at Windows on the World (when it reopened after the 1993 bombing) she offered me a position as assistant cellar master.
WS: That must have been a terrific introduction.
GB: I was exposed to an enormous range of wines. It was the best possible education, being submerged in a huge cellar of over 100,000 bottles, many that had been acquired by Kevin Zraly in the 1970s.
WS: What was there, and what was your job?
GB: Part of my job when I was promoted (after a year) to cellar master was figuring out what was drinkable. There was a lot of miserable retsina, but there were also TBAs from the 1950s. It was a great experience, and it was also quite a big operation from the standpoint of running a wine program. I had 1,500 selections and a staff of four.
WS: When did you first build a cellar from the ground up?
GB: I left Windows in 1997 to open Cello, with Laurent Tourondel [now of the BLT restaurant group], on the Upper East Side. I had a limited budget, but needed something high-end, so I learned to balance it with a lot of modestly priced wines from southern France and Bordeaux. We only had about 250 wines.
WS: How many wine selections do you have at PlumpJack and what do the lists emphasize?
GB: Well, I think of all the restaurants as one big list. We have about 400 at PlumpJack San Francisco, 500 at Squaw Valley Inn, and probably 1,500 all told. I think our menus speak to Pinot Noir, with dishes that have lighter flavors. Pinot is our top seller at all our restaurants. You'd think it would be Cabernet, with pages of Harlan verticals and such, but it's Pinot. Twelve years ago you had to hand sell a great bottle of California Pinot Noir, but not now.
WS: What are your current favorite food-and-wine pairings?
GB: We do a braised duck breast with salsify and torpedo onions that's fantastic. We've got so many great Pinot Noirs now, but if I were drinking it I'd probably go with one of the Tantara Pinots. I love their 2005 Brosseau Vineyard (from the Chalone AVA). There's also a pan-roasted turbot with a potato puree that's great with Chardonnay. I like it with the Freeman [Russian River], a Chardonnay that's moderately oaked, has bright acidity and is complex.
WS: What do you tell people about pairing food and wine?
GB: My first rule is like with like: Pairing lighter wines with lighter fare, like German Riesling with shellfish, and heavier meats with bigger reds. When I'm training staff I try to get the point across of matching the food with the wines of the region. I don't think it was an accident that people created the particular wines to go with their cuisine. The last thing is when you're getting braver, try to contrast and juxtapose flavors and textures, say by pairing a sweeter wine with gamier foods.
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