Sommelier Turned Plant Aficionado: Q&A with Laurel and Shannon

I have been working at Laurel Skin for over a year now, and I am continually learning something new every day, whether it is about sourcing, ingredients, plant properties, or essential oils. One afternoon, Laurel and I were discussing her past career as a sommelier, and we began to notice many similarities between wine and plants. It became clear that her knowledge and training as a sommelier had directly affected her skills as a formulator. Now, I wanted to know more! I asked Laurel if she wouldn’t mind sharing a bit more about her time as a sommelier and how it plays a role in her life today. I learned so much that I wanted to share our conversation with all of you! It really is fascinating how Laurel’s sommelier training provided her with an arena in which to develop her senses, and our line may not be what it is today without her background and experience. I hope you all enjoy learning from Laurel as much as I do!  –  Shannon

S: What drew you to become a sommelier?
L: I have always loved wine. Growing up, my parents collected wine from other countries and I always found it exciting! I was living in LA at the time, and it just seemed like something fun to learn more about.

S: What were some of your favorite aspects of sommelier training?
L: I loved getting to learn about the attributes of each individual wine – anything unique about how they were farmed, different soil types they may have originated from, wine-making styles – all these things directly translate into the taste and smell of the wine, which was really fascinating to me. But honestly, my favorite days were spent visiting biodynamic grape farms. That was a very eye-opening experience and the catalyst that prompted me to realize that a career shift was necessary. I learned quickly that as much as I enjoyed wine, my true passion was with all plants, and not limited to grapes alone.

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S: So would you say that wine triggered your interest in studying plants?
L: In a way, yes. I had already started to become interested in a greener lifestyle and healthy living as I was just starting to study wine. But as my wine studies progressed, I  learned more about organic and biodynamic farming and that truly stole my heart.  During my wine studies, I traveled to Northern California, and I loved walking amongst the vineyards and learning about farming practices. All of that happened while I was becoming more and more aware of what I was putting in and on my body, and my love of spas and resorts was ever present as well. I knew I needed to study either farming practices or herbal medicine as my next path in life. The school where I wanted to study herbal medicine just happened to be an hour from my new job opportunity – so that sealed that decision! By the time I started school, I was confident that I would use my knowledge to create a highly effective and purer than pure skincare line.

 S: When did you first start to formulate products?
 L: I began formulating while I was still in school. While I studied plants all day, I worked as a sommelier in the evenings, so I kept pretty busy! But any free time I did have was spent working on formulas until they felt exactly right and resonated with their purpose. As my knowledge of plants and their abilities began to grow, I was able to create more products so I could build a full spa line! After I graduated, the line really started to come to life and become what it is today.

S: How do you think that your sommelier skills have impacted you as a formulator and in sourcing the best ingredients for the line?
L: The skill set that I refined while working with wine helped me to develop my ‘super palate,’ which could not be more valuable today in my formulating and ingredient sourcing. When I first started working with ingredients, I always bought what I thought was the best, but often things didn’t smell or look how I expected they should. It took years of sampling ingredients before I started to understand what ingredients are really supposed to look and smell like. Farming techniques can often be detected from the plant itself: over-watering versus dry farming, organic versus conventional – these are all easily distinguishable from the appearance, color, and scent. My sommelier training really allowed me to expand upon the skills needed to recognize all of these differences in ingredient quality.

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S: I had no idea that sourcing was such a big part of creating a line. Can you explain a little bit more about why sourcing ingredients is so important?
L: All ingredients in the cosmetics industry are not created equal. Unfortunately, ingredients are sold in bulk and are often old and out of date, rancid or turned, watered down, chemically altered or manipulated, farmed improperly, or just plain poor quality. Just like any other business, the ingredient business is all about marketing, so ingredients can be labeled as the best. It’s up to a skilled hand to determine if that statement is true or not, and unfortunately not all formulators have that skill, no matter how educated and brilliant they may be at formulating.

S: Are there some specific ingredients that are more dependent on your super palate skill, or that are more difficult to source?
L: Carrier oils (such as Rosehip, Cranberry, Olive, Sesame, etc.) are incredibly delicate ingredients where this skill matters the most. They can oxidize quickly if exposed to heat, light, or air exposure and they also oxidize over time. Unfortunately, large ingredient distributors realize that the consumer really has no clue what these ingredients are supposed to smell and look like, and they are often sold to the consumer already oxidized. Once oxidized, these ingredients become far less effective for treating skin conditions, and the antioxidants actually become harmful free radicals! This is obviously the opposite of what most formulators are trying to achieve, but again it is a specific skill set that many of them do not have. I sometimes will go through 10 different sources of a carrier oil before I find one that I feel comfortable using in our formulas. It’s not just about being organic or sustainably farmed; it’s also about how it was processed after the fact, how it was handled and stored, and how old it is. I can tell all of that just from smelling an ingredient.

S: That is so fascinating! I wish I had this super palate! Are there any other ingredients that are as sensitive to sourcing and to this skill?
L: Yes – essential oils are another ingredient that make this skill so valuable. Essential oils also are often manipulated with synthetic chemicals to lengthen their shelf life, alter their scent, or to stretch them further. This is all too common, and many distributors say that they are already testing their essential oils for chemical manipulation. The unfortunate thing is that even big companies who claim they test for essential oil manipulation have still been found to sell oils that have been synthetically altered. It really is quite a dishonest world, and to be able to smell an essential oil and know right away that it is exactly what someone is claiming it to be is a true gift.

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S: So you really have to continually refine and develop your skills in order to continue to discern and find the best ingredients, based on the look and smell alone, and not on what the distributor claims the ingredients are?
L: Exactly. An ingredient distributor can be using all the right words, the popular, catchy marketing statements: cold-pressed, freshly harvested, unrefined, raw, or organic, but even with all those terms, an ingredient can still be poor quality. So it is up to me to evaluate whether those ingredients are passed on to Laurel Skin customers or not. Continually developing the skills I gained as a sommelier, I am always upgrading ingredient sources and changing farmers if an ingredient no longer meets my standards.


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