Christine Ballard holds the WSET Diploma and French Wine Scholar credential and is a Level 3 Sommelier with FISAR. Christine stepped into the wine world by chance with E. & J. Gallo before taking a leave of absence to consider pursuing a PhD in Renaissance studies or a career in wine. However, a 4-month full immersion into the gamut of Italian food and wine in Florence, Italy and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train in fresco restoration led her to put down roots in the Tuscan countryside for the next 15 years. The itch to return to the wine world and her native California eventually came calling, and in 2015 she joined Wine & Spirits magazine in their San Francisco office. A quest to expand her knowledge brought her to the fine wine auction business as a wine specialist for Bonhams, pounding the pavement as a wine sales representative for a small Italian portfolio, and a marketing position with Bay Area wine retailer K&L Wine Merchants, all the while working towards advanced credentials in wine education. She joined the San Francisco Wine School as an instructor in 2021 and currently manages our wine buying and cellar.
What is your favorite wine region to visit?
One of my favorites in recent years has to be Walla Walla in Washington. Aside from the picturesque rolling green hills, particularly in May, it was really the hospitality that struck me the most. We visited quite a few small producers, and it was the winemaker welcoming you at the front door, pouring the wine, and just taking the time to share about what goes into the bottle.
What is your favorite class to teach?
I’m new to teaching wine, every class is my favorite! The wine world is constantly evolving, and I spend a little time every day catching up on the latest developments, so every class is an opportunity to find a way to share that. The Wine Grapes of the World Series and the Intro classes are a great place for storytelling too.
What's your most memorable wine experience?
I have a very short bucket list in terms of wine-related experiences, but not long ago I both added and crossed one off at the same time. I had the opportunity to visit and taste with the winemaker at Screaming Eagle in Napa during my time as a wine specialist for an auction house, with my boss at the time who is an MW. I’m not a fan of big Napa reds, but the moment I tasted their flagship Cabernet Sauvignon I felt transported to the middle of vineyard—soaking in the smell of the soil, the Napa air, biting into a fresh blueberry… I don’t anticipate crossing paths with this wine again soon, nor would I seek it out ($3000 a bottle!), but it was an eye opening experience I’ll never forget. Bordeaux En Primeur 2019 easily takes second place: I toured all the top growths and then some with a great team of wine professionals and learned so much.
Why did you decide to become an instructor?
I spent many years teaching business English in Italy and always knew that teaching was where I envisioned myself in the future. After jumping around the wine industry in the Bay Area and several years of wine study under my belt, I finally felt confident to take the leap and jump back into teaching. It’s also a great way to continue my studies in wine education—I just passed my WSET Diploma and am applying for the Master of Wine program - teaching is a great way to fine-tune your communication and comprehension skills.
What's your most memorable food and wine pairing?
My most memorable food and wine pairing goes back to my first real experience with wine. I did not grow up with wine on the table, in fact I don’t recall ever seeing a bottle of wine at home growing up. While attending UC Santa Barbara, I was a volunteer usher at a poetry reading for Maya Angelou organized by a good friend of mine. At a brunch afterwards, my good friend opened a bottle of Dom Perignon to toast the volunteers, and I was mesmerized. It was racy, velvety, powerful, and attacked the senses. I had no idea what it was, where it came from, how it was made, but it was a match made in heaven with my French toast. It’s been a favorite pairing ever since.
What's the biggest challenge in your job?
Probably keeping it simple—I tend to want to dig in too deep on the facts and figures instead of looking at the bigger picture.
What other passions beside wine do you have?
I’m a volunteer tour guide for San Francisco City Guides. And I love to explore…museums, locales, new recipes…
Name some recent wine discoveries that you find exciting.
I recently tried a few German Pinot Noirs for the first time and really loved their subtle earthy, fruity personality. Unfortunately, climate change has resulted in Germany now being ranked as #3 after France and the US for Pinot Noir production when it was long considered too cold. Fortunately, though, you can find some great producers for a fraction of the price of Burgundy or Sonoma Coast Pinot.
What do you think is the most unappreciated wine or region in the world?
Cahors in Southwest France? Ghemme in northern Piemonte? Swartland in South Africa? Who knows, I appreciate them all!
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