Q&A With Nopa's Wine Director Lulu McAllister

Lulu McAllister's curiosity has led her to establish her own ice cream food cart in San Diego, work on a farm in Hawaii, and cover the music scene as a journalist in Austin. She eventually directed her inquiring mind towards wine, which resulted in a path that led to a position as Nopa's wine director.

“I'm very curious. I take little adventures through my curiosity for wines,” the 28-year-old says over pork hash and strawberry waffles at Blue Jay Cafe. “It's not really about what's out there, it's about what's good out there. I think my curiosity and my desire for exploration comes through in some of the more unusual choices on the list.”

Her adventurous approach has resulted in some playful introductions to the wine list at Nopa. Shortly after becoming wine director last February, McAllister introduced Magnum Mondays. The large bottles floating around the room on Monday nights draw the attention of diners, and give the servers and bartenders who frequent Nopa on their off-nights the chance to try something different. Many of the bottles are only available as magnums, and the weekly fixture is starting to gain popularity. Occasionally some of the winemakers will stick around and explain what the season was like to customers or regale them with funny stories about harvest.

“We've always had great magnums at the restaurant but a lot of them sit around because they're waiting for people with the occasion for them, or for a large group at least,” she says. “I figured, we'd knock out the circumstances and all buy into it by pouring by the glass. Then we can all try these really fun, interesting magnums.”

Her other additions to the wine list have included a vertical tasting of mead made out of different varietals of honey (her mom, among other things, is a beekeeper) and a focus on California chardonnays and pinots that are made with a hands-off approach. She's currently playing around with Greek wines.

“Greek wine has a great blend of fruit and savory,” she says. “What was once mostly just exotic at one point to U.S. wine drinkers is now also incredibly food friendly and balanced with examples to compete with other top wines in Europe and at home.”

McAllister's days swing between administrative work to staff education to service on the floor. She's committed to educating her staff and plans a sort of curriculum, “if you could call it that,” around the differences between Napa and Sonoma. She hopes to cover the different American Vinticultural Areas before the year is over, and plans regular field trips with the staff to visit wineries. They recently visited Unti Vineyards and Banshee Wines in Healdsburg.

She also constructs the wine list for Nopalito. For the spice-laden dishes, she goes for “wines with a little residual sugar on them help soften the sting. Otherwise, you want some low tannic wines. Spicy food with high-tannin wines can be a bit of a train wreck,” she says.

A little over a year on the job, McAllister is getting more comfortable in her role. Her bump up to wine director came as a bit of a surprise — she didn't know former wine director Chris Deegan was leaving until she was asked if she wanted to take over the wine list.

“I've learned a lot over the course of the year. I didn't sleep very well the first three months. Eventually it leveled out and the creative, fun, social part of the wine experience took over,” she says. “I had always hoped to go into something like this, I just didn't expect it to happen as quickly. I was completely grateful.”

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