Submitted by Lawrence Lohr
A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about sommeliers, the history of their fascinating profession, and a few tips for getting the most enjoyment out of your interactions with these knowledgeable wine pros. I also mentioned that here at J. Lohr, we are fortunate to have two talented individuals with extensive sommelier experience on our team: Shaune Zeleny, our VP of international sales, and Jodie Hellman, our Nevada area manager.
Shaune and Jodie bring an elevated level of understanding and insight to their roles, which helps them communicate with experienced wine professionals as they act as ambassadors for J. Lohr. We asked both women to share a little about themselves, and to offer some insights about sommeliers.
Shaune Zeleny, VP international sales and Jodie Hellman, Nevada area manager
Jodie Hellman: Before becoming a part of the J. Lohr family, I had the privilege of working as a sommelier on the Las Vegas strip for some of the finest restaurants and chefs in the city. Las Vegas is unique in so many ways, and for access to the world’s greatest wines, there is no place better. During this time, I passed my Level II Certified Sommelier exam, which is a mini version of the next two levels and includes theory, service and blind tasting portions. (You must pass all three sections at the same seating to become certified.)
My first mentor as a sommelier taught me the thing that has stuck with me most: “Your job,” he said, “is not to judge what people are drinking; it is to assist them in finding a wine that will enhance their total experience. You may not want to drink a bottle of White Zinfandel, but if that is what makes their evening memorable, you did your job and earned their trust. The next time they visit, they will be comfortable asking you what you would suggest and you have now opened the door for them on the world of wine.”
There are so many glamorous things about Las Vegas, and it was a bit of a thrill to open wines that were actually a part of history—think 1945 Rothschild’s Victory label, or Madeira from 1865, the end of the Civil War. My favorite moments, however, were watching the expression on someone’s face when I helped them find something new, or just the right thing to make their evening special, even if it was the least expensive wine on our list.
Shaune Zeleny: I first fell in love with wine while working at Windows on the World in New York many years back. This formative experience, and the fascination with wine that it instilled in me, ultimately led me to achieve my sommelier certification through the Sommelier Society of America. I later became a founding member and board member for the American Sommelier Association. In 1998, I started at J. Lohr as the New York area manager, and today, as the VP of international sales, I am proud to be an ambassador for J. Lohr in over 45 markets around the globe.
When Lawrence asked me to share a few thoughts about sommeliers, the first thing I did was check Merriam-Webster dictionary. The definition of “sommelier” is simply: a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service: a wine steward. Interestingly, in exploring the origin of the word from Middle French – it was an “official charged with transportation of supplies.” And working back to Old French – it was a “pack animal driver.” (Hmmm – makes one wonder!)
In today’s world, the job description of a sommelier can mean so very much more! Not only does the sommelier service the guests of a restaurant to help them select the perfect wines to fit their meal and occasion, but the sommelier also works closely with the executive chef to design a wine program that will best enhance the restaurant’s cuisine. Additionally, a sommelier is often charged with educating the service staff in wine knowledge and the wine list so that they might help guests make wine selections in the absence of the sommelier (or perhaps when the guest may not feel comfortable engaging a sommelier).
For those of us on the producer side of the equation, sommeliers are often the decision makers in choosing the wines that will be served at their establishments, both by-the-glass and by-the-bottle. It is helpful, then, when they forge close relationships with their local distributors and winery representatives. These relationships can be invaluable in creating trusted business partnerships, lasting friendships, and a more comprehensive and deeper understanding of the industry as a whole.
For me, wine is all about balance. It encompasses the careful management of the vines in the vineyard, to the winemaker’s gentle, nuanced touch, to well-thought-out wine lists where any guest can find something that will be appropriate for the occasion—something that offers comfort, such as an old favorite or stand-by, or a bolder, more ambitious experimental taste of something new and different.
And then, of course, there’s the balance of the wine in the glass!