Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

A bit on Sarah Valor of Oakland’s Commis restaurant

By Jessica Yadegaran
Friday, November 20th, 2009 at 2:23 pm in Corkheads.

For my story on female sommeliers this week, I gleaned much from Sarah Valor, the maitre’d, sommelier and front-of-the-house manager at Oakland’s Commis. Unfortunately, my notes didn’t make it into the story, so I’m devoting this blog post to that interview.

Commis recently received its first Michelin star – they were in during the restaurant’s first week of business, I’m told – and after talking with Valor, 28, it’s easy to see how quickly Commis has garnered the reputation it has. They opened in June.

A little on Valor: She started her food business career during school at UC Berkeley, where she studied rhetoric.  In 2001, she picked up jobs to help pay the bills and fell in love with wine and how it related to her interests in art, history, and languages. She was in. 

She worked at Lalime and Albany’s Fonda, where she learned the ropes in spirits and wine and their relationship with foood.  Like the rest of us, she became a sponge. As assistant to the wine buyer at Oliveto in 2004. she tasted as much as she could and picked wine brains galore. She had and still has no formal education in wine, but rather absorbed everything she could, reading and listening and tasting.

She says she sees wine as a shadow to Commis chef James Syhabout’s food. Her wine program is about finding wines that dance around the food but not interrupt it. 

For her, being a good sommelier is “about how much confidence you come to the table with.” Since she wears so many hats, there’s been more than one time where someone thought she was “a wonderful receptionist.” But the customer’s mistake isn’t worth Valor asserting her role to the customer, she says. 

“Ultimately it’s about the whole experience. You read every table. Some have an interest in being adventurous. But no matter what, we’re guiding, not selling.”

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  • Rosanne LaVoy

    As a female Certified Sommelier and restauranteur I especially appreciate your closing statement in the article. A true wine professional on the floor is not about ‘selling’, we are there to gently guide in order to enhance the experience of the customer. My wine mentor/teacher (a Master) instills in his students the importance of removing the fear and intimidation customers experience when ordering wine at a restaurant. In my experience, women sommeliers excell in this arena.

  • jyadegaran

    Rosanne – thank you very much for your comment!

  • ~Steele

    Dear Jessica,

    I look forward to your next series on Gay, Albino, one-legged sommeliers as I suppose that would be the next feature for someone who likes to gender-fy wine issues!

    ~Steele

  • jyadegaran

    The next one will be on African Americans in the wine industry.

  • ~Steele

    So, why the subsets? Will you do a subset on white men in the wine industry? My guess is “no.”

  • jyadegaran

    Because it’s newsworthy. The number of female applicants for the wine exams has quadrupled in the past 10 years. It’s newsworthy and timely to ask why. When we used to think about ethnic and racially diverse leaders in the wine industry, particularly in California, the image of an Italian guy coming over to make cheap Zin was what most people imagined. Those days are over. People from different backgrounds bring different food experiences and palates to the scene, which keeps it interesting.

  • ~Steele

    O.K. so HOW is it newsworthy? If female applicants are up, that means that the industry isn’t discriminating against women en masse – my point. So, you choose to focus on a group that has broken through a proverbial “glass ceiling” that really wasn’t there in the American wine industry after the early 80′s anyways. So, to do a story on women sommeliers is just as relevant as doing a story on male sommeliers – both non-issues as to “gender-fy” wine industry participants is irrelevant. Further to the point, wine is worldwide and ethnically diverse already. So, again, segmenting in this manner (gender, race) is moot.

  • jyadegaran

    Let me ask you this. How many African American wine industry people do you know?

  • ~Steele

    Dear Jessica,

    I know many AND since African Americans and Blacks account for 13.5% (+/-) of the population mainly concentrated in the South and South East, it’s no surprise that here in the West there aren’t a plethora of African Americans and Blacks in the local wine industry.
    Again, my point to you is that by focusing your articles on racial or gender lines is to perpetuate a division between people. Wine is one subject matter that is almost universal and is a great uniter of people. I have been intimately involved with wine for 23 years and have never seen anyone who wanted to learn pushed away because of thier race or gender and I take issue with people re-hashing the sins of our grandfathers.

  • jyadegaran

    If we don’t highlight the differences in gender lines in the work force, then when will women make the same salary as men for performing the same job?