Sommelier Jonathan Looney Continues Another Year of Wild Wines for the Little Rock Zoo

Jonathan Looney’s connection to the Little Rock Zoo goes back decades.

As a grade school student in The Heights, he fondly remembers walking there on field trips with his class and spending the day with the animals. “It was one of the highlights of the school year,” he says.

In the years since, it’s hard to tell who’s given more to whom. Jonathan and his wife Hillary have passed their love for the zoo on to their two young children, making it a perennial weekend destination. Meanwhile, they’ve been contributing to the zoo’s critical fundraiser Wild Wines for so long Jonathan says he’s lost count.

Continuing the tradition, this year the couple’s O’Looney’s Wine & Liquor is donating 100 percent of the event’s hand-selected wine, and Jonathan is bringing his exceptional knowledge of the selections along with.

Formerly Wild Wines of the World, the zoo’s largest fundraiser has in the past raised funds for popular zoo additions including the Laura P. Nichols Penguin Pointe exhibit, the Cheetah Outpost and the Diamond Express Train.

This year’s ninth iteration aims to raise supplementary funds for a new interactive Arkansas Heritage Farm exhibit, a planned overhaul to the zoo’s Children’s Farm that will allow young visitors to pet, feed and groom farm animals while educating them on Arkansas’ agricultural heritage. Proceeds from the event go to the Arkansas Zoological Foundation — the zoo’s fundraising arm — for add-ons including an interactive groundhog exhibit and an ADA-accessible tractor play area.

As you might expect, Jonathan’s journey into the world of wine began first and foremost with a love of drinking it. “I was taking my weekly wine budget to Dave at Heights Fine Wines,” Jonathan says. “He always asked, ‘Quality or quantity, Jonathan?’ Luckily for me he always shared quality, even if it was in quantity!”

He took his love for wine a step further in the summer of 2000, opening O’Looney’s Wine & Liquor in the soon-to-be booming Chenal Valley area of west Little Rock.

“We’re your friendly neighborhood wine shop,” he says. “We focus on the service component, and we only carry things we believe in and things we love.”

What really sets the store apart, though, is the expertise of its owner. Over the years, Jonathan has amassed an impressive list of titles and accomplishments.

“Early on, I realized I was in dire need of some formal education about wine,” Looney says. He heard about the International Sommelier Guild’s certificate programs through a friend and began driving to Dallas to attend classes. After six months of instruction and a two-day exam, he became a certified sommelier.

Within a year, he had added certified International Sommelier Guild instructor to his qualifications. He holds intermediate and advanced certificates from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust of London and graduated Certified Specialist of Wine from the Society of Wine Educators. Most recently, he completed his Diploma of Wine and Spirits.

Of all these, Jonathan says being a sommelier means the most to him. “The title of certified sommelier means service to others,” he says. “It’s my goal, my job, and my calling to be of service to our guests at O’Looney’s and to the community at large.”

That service attitude has clearly paid off. O’Looney’s has become a west Little Rock mainstay in its 15 years of operation — and the couple has shared its success from the beginning.

“Jonathan is one of the most generous individuals I know and has been a tremendous partner for the Wild Wines event,” says the zoo’s Susan Altrui. “His knowledge of wine is incredible. I think he’s what really separates this wine event from other events. We know that every single bottle is going to be a good bottle.”

Wild Wines guests can expect a laid-back atmosphere with no fewer than 50 local restaurants contributing dishes tied together with a farm fresh theme, along with five live entertainment areas, live DJs and animal meet-and-greets led by zoo docents. Besides Jonathan’s wine selections, a beer garden and mixed drinks will also be on tap.

The sommelier’s advice for enjoying this year’s Wild Wines? “Enjoy the venues, enjoy the bands, enjoy the company of the friends you bring along, and then share it with somebody,” he says. “That’s the sense of community that the zoo and Little Rock bring to the table. I think that’s really cool and it’s my goal to deliver something delicious to the guests.”

Q&A: Another Glass

Soirée: Favorite part of the Little Rock Zoo?
Jonathan Looney: I think my son James gets to answer this question: “Daddy, I love the train!”

If you could only drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Vilmart & Cie champagne. That’s my desert island wine. It’s perfection in a bottle.

Favorite wines for spring?
Rosé or Grüner Veltliner

Describe one of your favorite pairings.
Any wine that’s complementary to the food. What I like may not be what someone else likes — you’ve got to trust your palate. If you like red wine and fish, by golly, drink red wine with fish.

Why is wine important?
For me, it’s the beverage that elevates discourse, enhances conversation and invites pleasure. Oh, and with a meal or without, it tastes really good.

Wild Wines
When: 6 p.m. Reserve Room admission 7-10 p.m. general admission, Saturday, May 2
Attire: Safari Casual     Where: Café Africa, Little Rock Zoo    
Tickets: $75 general admission;  $150 admission to Reserve Wine Room

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