All Roads Lead Back to San Francisco
Lulu McAllister’s journey to becoming wine director for the critically acclaimed San Francisco restaurant Nopa took her from northern California to Texas Hill Country and back again.
Lulu grew up in a family where food was very important. “My mom went to the Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, and I grew up eating great food,” she says. “And on special occasions, we would have little cups of watered-down wine.” Lulu first attended school for baking and pastry, staying with an uncle in Tiburon, CA. “We had alternating schedules, so we rarely saw each other. I would leave my uncle a pastry or chocolate and he would leave me an open bottle of wine, usually a French white Burgundy. It was during that time that I started to develop my palate.”
Continuing her education at the University of San Francisco, Lulu pursued a degree in media studies and began writing restaurant reviews for the school paper. “As arts editor, I then started writing about other topics, mainly music, which brought me to Austin, TX by way of the South by Southwest music festival,” she says. “I loved the city, the vibe, and the great food, so I moved there on a lark without a job.”
An ad for a position at Bending Branch Winery near Comfort, TX caught her eye. “It’s a family-run vineyard experimenting with organic techniques and grapes new to the region,” explains Lulu. “I was really drawn to their warmth and creativity. I realized I loved the wine culture, talking to customers, and being surrounded by grapevines. And I love the changeability. It’s impossible to know a wine bottle to bottle. It’s always different, depending on the time of day, the setting, the food, or the company.”
Seeking to expand her knowledge about the world of wine, Lulu applied to the CIA Accelerated Wine and Beverage Certificate Program. “Based on my research, the program seemed to be the most well-organized one in the field,” she says. “And given the CIA’s location in the middle of Napa, I assumed it would be a great opportunity to move past the classroom into the vineyard to see how it all worked—and to be able to live and study in the middle of the vines.”
“Our group was small and we had a close relationship with our instructors,” Lulu continues. “They knew our palates and styles and were very pointed with their criticisms. They wanted us to do well knowing we are going to represent the industry.”
It was an AWBP class assignment that confirmed Lulu’s interest in Nopa. “We were asked to write a critical analysis of a wine list. As a college student living nearby, I had gone to Nopa since it first opened and really loved the restaurant,” she says. “They have a great list with so many wines—some from quirky regions—and I found the list to be flawless.” When Lulu graduated with her CIA certificate, she went back to Nopa to apply. “I gave them my essay along with my résumé,” she laughs. “I certainly think it helped!”
Named the 2015 Best New Sommelier by Wine & Spirits magazine, Lulu is busy scheduling tasting appointments, visiting wineries, placing orders, maintaining an active inventory, and educating the bartenders and servers. She looks forward to slowly influencing and creating a wine list using her own creativity, as well as exploring different wine areas and finding the next up-and-coming small producers. And she’s very happy to be back in San Francisco.