Nicole Campbell & Krysta Oben
Aka "The Grape Witches"
Wine Director, Blue Blood Steakhouse
Nicole Campbell & Krysta Oben
Aka "The Grape Witches"
Wine Director, Blue Blood Steakhouse
Name: Caitlin MacIvor
Nickname: Cait & Dooey from my little brother
Child 'hood': Straight outta Scarborough ;)
How did you end up here: After working two ‘day jobs’ and finishing a post graduate diploma I wasn’t happy and found myself back in restaurants. Re-entering the field, the experience I began to gain was so much more sophisticated and professionally driven then the restaurant experience I had when I was younger. I became hooked.
When did you first fall in love [with wine]: I can’t remember never not loving it so it’s hard to say. Maybe I was born with it?
Inspiring people: So many..one in particular would be my friend Nat Pope. We met at a restaurant years ago and she was already so ahead of me in her wine knowledge. Being around her and witnessing the passion and dedication she had for wine was so amazing and inspiring. We did all of our education together through WSET and Court of Masters. Without her I don’t know if I would have followed this path on my own.
Outside of individuals my greatest inspiration is meeting the winemakers themselves. Their commitment, passion and love for their craft is unparalleled.
Your position: Jacobs has a pretty intense wine program with a list that is 65 pages deep with extensive offerings of dessert wine, port and sherry as well. During what we label ‘somm’ shifts I am responsible for assisting any guest in their wine requirements. This ranges from simply taking an order to walking a guest through the list, finding out what they are in the mood for in terms of style and price. This can be extremely challenging and the most rewarding as some are straight to the point and others have no idea.
At Drake, on the floor I operate as the go-to person for all questions wine. I host bi-weekly wine trainings with the staff that ranges from blind tastings, detailed lessons on a region or grape, sales tactics and fun games like trivia. This is my favourite part--seeing how far many of the staff have come with their wine knowledge from these sessions is incredibly fulfilling.
Regional obsession: I like most things and never stick to one region or style specifically, but I have found myself back in the Rhone lately. Maybe it’s the cold, brooding weather but there’s something about that rich, savoury style of the North that is hard to put down right now.
As a Sommelier - do you follow wine trends: I think it’s important to follow the trends but I don’t dictate my job by them. The definition of a trend is that it will change or pass quickly so while it is good to keep a abreast of them it’s a very small part of my knowledge base.
On trends: The Natural wine movement has been amazing to watch, drink and enjoy. I’m not the biggest fan of the verbiage of ‘hipster wine’ which dominates the orange/biodynamic/natural category. I hate pigeonholing styles of wine for a group of people. No you don’t need a curly mustache, plaid shirt and suspenders to enjoy a glass of pet nat. I love hipsters don’t get me wrong but a lot of this wine is serious, interesting and demands more respect then a label associated with one group of people.
What’s the best part about being a Sommelier in Toronto: The network in this city is enormous which is such a benefit. There’s always something to attend whether it is a tasting, seminar or event. My absolute favourite part within the restaurant is getting people outside of their comfort zones to try something new. It makes me so happy when they put their trust in you to expand their wine horizons.
Best resources, courses and books: My network of people has been the biggest source of support for me. I have taken WSET 2 & 3 and Court of Masters Introduction and Certified levels. I find WSET is great for providing a solid base of knowledge and Court seals it.
I subscribe to Decanter magazine which is great for having a grasp on the industry at an international level. I flip through old course books occasionally. The Wine Bible is a must in your house. I loved reading Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route. It touches on the modernization of the new generation of wine makers in the South of France as told by Lynch himself who is a huge importer. It was nice to read his travels in story form while still learning.
Where do you go for good juice: My friends houses! Not only are the offerings usually out of this world we all want to share the good juice with people who will enjoy it which makes it so fun. I can’t imagine there is a more generous industry in terms of what we colleagues do for one another.
Outside of this, Archive is probably my favourite wine bar. I like experimenting different bars and restaurants. For example, I was at Allen’s on the Danforth a few weeks ago and they carry only Canadian wine and to be able to drink some older vintages was such a treat. Not many bars and restaurants have a lot of vintage wine out of Canada so it was a nice change.
Wine myth: The more expensive the better. I’m referring to the average consumer here. People put such an emphasis on price and it’s so not true. Value can be found anywhere and at the end of the day it’s about what you like to drink not how much it costs.
Killer food & wine combo: Classic and simple Foie and Sauternes. Come on is there a better one? I have a crazy sweet tooth which I don’t get to indulge in a lot with wine. This pairing gets me every time, even if it’s a lower end expression say of Barsac and a chicken liver mousse? The working woman’s combo works just as well for me. This pairing is an indulgence, an experience and such a wonderful treat that I’m smiling writing this answer.
Obstacles: It’s a tough industry and there’s a lot of competition. I have doubted whether I’ve been good enough or know enough to carry the title of Sommelier.
The gender issue: I have been fortunate to have employers that have been incredibly supportive of me throughout my career. However my gender has definitely been an issue at different stages. When younger the mandated short skirt to work in the cocktail lounge and now being taken seriously in certain circumstances can be the biggest challenge.
On trust and credibility: I think some guest don’t trust me the same as they would a man approaching the table. It becomes a small battle of who knows more in regards to wine where professionally I have to fall back on my heels and concede. Sometimes I don’t know if this is because I am female or if it’s the role in general. Some people out there do not like people imparting information on them especially when they are dining with clients or old friends.
Are male peers more respected: This one is tricky. I’ve been so fortunate to have a lot of strong woman in the field around which I am grateful for. However based on interactions with guests that I have witnessed (working as well as dining) I believe that males do earn more respect not based on level of education, pose or professionalism, but simply for the fact that they are male. As a woman I feel I do need to work harder to gain the respect and prove that I know what I’m doing. I have had tables thrilled to have a female assisting them as a somm, which at the time felt awesome, but now in hindsight this is definitely part of the problem. They seemed almost surprised by it, like it was such a rarity they felt the need to mention it.
Best mentor: My dad. He is no way affiliated with the wine industry but he is my voice of reason. When I decided to quit my full time, stable job complete with benefits, a pension and weekends off to go back to working in a restaurant with its sporadic hours, instability of business and benefit free life he was the one I asked and he supported me immediately. I had been so academically focused stemming from my dad I was unsure and a little scared to leave that life... When I passed my somm exam a few years ago he was the first one I called.
Best advice: ‘We’re here for a good time, not a long time’. The first time I read/heard these words I believe was on a park bench. I love it. It reminds me to relax, enjoy my life and career, have fun with it.
Restaurant life can be extremely stressful so I also like the advise of ‘it’s burgers and fries, we’re not saving lives.’ I don’t know why I went for slogan inspired advice but these two lines are such a foundation for the way I think and work... at the end of the day it is food and drink which is such a necessary part of life for people to relax, indulge and enjoy, but it needs to be kept in perspective. This helps my from not getting too overwhelmed.
Your younger self: For starters I would advise myself to be ok with the fact that I love the industry. I battled it a long time thinking I needed to do something academic or what I deemed the time ‘professional’. I would probably tell myself to broaden my horizons as well taking a chef class, beer, liquor, etc.
6 people for dinner and the wine:
My Opa (mom’s dad, he died young and I never met him)
Qin Shi Huangdi (first proclaimed emperor of China 221 B.C.)
Oprah (pre Golden Globe speech she was on the list, haha)
Vintage Champagne all night long.
Name: Toni Weber
Nickname: Can I plead the fifth?
Current gig: Beverage director for Giulietta
Child 'hood': Right here in Toronto actually, in East York.
Finding your way: I definitely did not grow up dreaming of this career path, but found my way here through a series of different opportunities and inspirational encounters. I started in restaurants at age 18, serving in a pub and planning my life to a maximum of 3 days in advance. I floated through the industry, went to university to pursue a vague degree in the arts, quit restaurants for a year and half to just to so I could be certain that I would hate a desk job as much as I thought I would (crossed that off the list), returned to the restaurant industry knowing that I was unlikely to ever love anything as much as I loved this.
I served and then spent a few years working as a cocktail bartender. I loved the creativity and the alchemy involved in that world, and I particularly loved the kind of interaction and engagement you have with your guests when they sit at your bar. You’re hosting them in a way that differs pretty significantly from the dining room, in that it is almost intimate and decidedly more personal. When I dine out, to this day, my preference is to sit at the bar.
Eventually I found my way into bar management, but I was beginning to steer away from cocktailing because the lifestyle was something I enjoyed less and less. I was studying wine and reading almost every day, but I was intimidated and had no idea how I would ever make the full transition. I was always in awe of people who had been able to make this their life’s work, and I didn’t think I would ever be able to do that.
Alo & Canoe: Serendipitously, I was offered the opportunity to leave management and work as an Assistant Sommelier at Alo, which at the time seemed like quite a risk, and certainly a departure from what I had been doing. However, I was excited to have the opportunity to commit myself fully to wine, so I went for it. I spent a year and a half in the role and it was a massive, watershed moment for me professionally. I learned so, so much.
I left in March of 2017 to work at Canoe as a Sommelier/Manager and again, had this incredible learning experience. The program at Canoe is run by Billy Woon, but he was incredibly cool and let me make my mark on the list. I ended up having a good deal of influence on the direction of the program. For me though, Canoe was my restaurant operations boot camp, so to speak. I absorbed so much, and learned how to be an effective restaurant manager (or at least how to attempt to be an effective restaurant manger). I learned that I didn’t need to control every aspect of every service in order to be successful, and that it’s much more important for your team to love you than to fear you.
After about 8 months at Canoe, I received an interesting email regarding the role at Giulietta. After many conversations with the owners, I realized that I would be an idiot to turn this job down. And, here we are.
Falling in love with wine: I don’t think I had that experience with one wine, THE wine, that completely changed the direction of my life. I think I was inspired to start my journey with wine for a very pragmatic reason, because I thought I could work in better restaurants and with better people if I had a solid base of wine knowledge. But it wasn’t long after I started my studies that the floodgates opened and I became obsessed.
Wine appealed to my restlessness, as there were so many different perspectives from which to approach your studies: the historical, the geographical, the geological, the environmental, the sociological implications of making, buying and selling wine, and the hedonism of gastronomy and food and wine pairings.
I also found something very reassuring in the infinite nature of the subject-despite whatever titles or professional designations you may achieve, you will never know everything about wine. It is impossible to master, and I’ve found that acknowledging and accepting that has granted me peace and the permission to just be curious and to learn from my peers. To find joy in the pursuit of more knowledge and to be sincerely excited by that, as opposed to feeling pressure or inadequacy. So I was immediately drawn to it, and to the somm community we have established here, which is from my perspective one of the best aspects of my job.
Model Somms: I’ve always thought Anne Martin was really cool, based on the scope of her role and the size of her team, but also the path she forged for the rest of us. She was one of the first female sommeliers in Toronto, and based on the number of times per night I have to dispel the notion of the old white male as the protoype of a sommelier for my guests, I can only imagine the amount of grace it would have required to work the floor back when being a woman in this role was still an anomaly.
Jen Huether, obvi.
Zinta Steprans is someone I have long admired; her knowledge, her passion for the wines that she loves, and her integrity. She’s incredibly kind, a very fun and easy person to discuss wine with. I could go on but i don’t want to embarrass her 😊 Certainly when I was getting started, meeting people like her was instrumental in making me want to engage further with wine, and she has graciously been very supportive of me throughout my career.
Currently: I’m designing the beverage program for a new Italian resturant that will be opening (soon!) at 972 College Street called Giulietta. I’m running the wine program as well as managing our bar program, which is built around classic Italian cocktails. I’ve been on board since before we started construction, so I‘ve been able to contribute to almost every aspect of the space and concept, from menu design and branding, to bar design and glassware selections, to staffing, to sound design and music. It’s been very cool, another great learning experience and I really love our team.
Regional Obsession: Northern Rhone is something that I can’t seem to get away from.
And despite all it’s pratfalls and expensive disappointments, I will always love white burgundy. Does that make me sound boring? Should I I have said Irouleguy?
Trending: I think we’re in a very interesting era in wine. It’s a challenging time to start your studies because the wine world continues to expand at an exponential rate and it’s hard to know where to focus your energy sometimes. I’m open to trying pretty much everything, and I try not to get too hung up on whether something is trendy, but I tend to gravitate towards wines that have energy and character. I do keep up with industry publications, not because I feel like I have to but because I have a sincere interest in wine and the evolution of wine world.
Natural wine: for me to say that I don’t like natural wines or that I do, it presupposes that I believe that my personal preferences supercede someone elses. And while I get most excited discussing wine with people who share my tastes, that doesn’t mean if you don’t agree with me that I think you don’t know what you’re talking about, or that you have bad taste. I try to be an equal opportunist when it comes to wine and I truly believe that, with very few exceptions, there are no empirically good or bad wines (as long as we aren’t talking about straight up faults). Wine is open to interpretation and very much subject to relative taste and preference. I'm curious about everything and just want to keep learning.
Working in Toronto: The best part about being a somm in Toronto is people and the community, hands down (very supportive + geeky in ways that excite rather than nauseate). There are a lot of really committed people who work really hard, and I think being a part of a community like that really inspires you to raise your game and to be better.
Challenges: Hm, the hardest part of our job is to make sure that we build our beverage programs for our guests, not for ourselves. Ultimately, you need to consider the menu and the general concept, the neighbourhood and the clientele, before factoring in your own personal preferences in wine.
Value is a concept that we seem to struggle with in Toronto, and when I say value I don’t necessarily mean cheap menu items. Very few restaurants seem to grasp how important it is to make the guest feel like, whatever the price tag, they received great value for their money. It’s a difficult thing to achieve because our margins are already so tight, but I try to keep it in mind and make it a top priority.
Wine resources: My first wine book was the Wine Bible, and that tends to be where I tell people to start. I found it really important to control and limit the scope of the information I was taking in when I first started studying. I remember someone telling me to buy a copy of Jancis Robinson’s Wine Atlas. I was really just starting to get into wine, and I opened it up and it might as well have been written in Cantonese. It was a frustrating and intimidating read when I didn’t yet have the basic terminology to make sense of what I was reading. I’m always telling people to start with the macro stuff, try to understand how wine is made first, before trying to memorize the DOCG’s in Tuscany. Overtime, you can narrow the focus of your studies and gradually start to hone in on the micro.
Best juice in the city: Barbarians, Mad crush, Archive
LCBO fail-safe: I always tell guests or family members that ask me that Cave Spring, particularly the riesling, is the best buy at the LCBO, because it will be available at every location it is under 15 bucks and it is very crushable, balanced and well made wine. It’s tough because the best buy’s really depend on which store you’re in.
Grinds your gears: When working the floor and dealing with guests who think that by aligning themselves with one style of wine and completely disparaging another, that they have achieved some level of indisputable cultural sophistication. I.E, the guy that ONLY drinks Napa Cab, and thinks that all local wines are shit and we should just light Niagara on fire. Or the lady who HATES sweet wines, don’t even come near her with a sweet wine, because sweet wines are cheap and for teenagers, when in fact they can be some of the finest and most expensive wines in the world. The myth at work here is that there is such a thing as good and bad wine, that there is some global consensus and you have to be on the right side of that or your opinion is invalid. It’s V annoying.
Hedonism: Champagne and salty, slightly greasy food. It cannot be topped.
Obstacles: I have a lot of support I would say, both professionally and from my amazing partner. But I am also a pretty relentless person, once I have a goal in mind, I am single-minded and totally determined to achieve it (often to the annoyance of those in my orbit). That being said, I have also worked with and under people that I felt were very disinterested in developing me and that was a deeply frustrating experience. Just because someone is your superior does not mean that you are entitled to their support, but it really does suck when you don’t have it.
As a female somm: My gender is an issue every single day in this profession, in almost every encounter I have, be it with my bosses, my colleagues, my suppliers, my guests. Sometimes it’s not necessarily negative and rarely does it hurt me personally, but it is a part of the narrative of my life in this industry in a very indelible way.
Changing the narrative: In my mind the strongest somm’s working in restaurants and running programs in Toronto are, for the most part, women. I think by strength in numbers we have moved the needle a little bit in that respect, in our little ecosystem.
If the question is: are women in wine overlooked in general, I think answer has to be yes. There are a lot of challenges that face women in this profession, that impede their progression and their success. This could be a very long response, as this is massive topic, but...
Wine has notoriously and historically always been a boys club, and until fairly recently women were excluded from the conversation. Capable and talented winemakers who happened to be women were overlooked, daughters were not allowed to inherit their families wineries (this continues to be an issue in some cultures where the patriarchy is particularly resilient (ahem, Italy). Game changing female wine writers had to use pen names in order to be published. When you look at the number of women who have passed their MS or their MW, it is shameful and shocking how few of them are women.
There has been a surge of visible female representation in our industry in the last ten years, but I feel it would be very naive to think that our work here is done. I will not even begin to discuss the challenges of having a family in this industry, and the lack of support for women who choose to step back for a bit to have a baby. It’s criminally unfair.
The problems: We have to address the organizations and institutions that shape and regulate our industry. So far, it seems no one on an institutional level is attempting to address the disproportionate representation of women, No one is saying, wait a second, this is fucked up, we need to fix this. There’s no way that the ratio of men to women with their MS pins, for example, represents a lack of talent or skill on behalf of female sommeliers. We know this is not the case. Clearly there are boundaries that make it much more difficult for women to write the exam, and the institutions themselves need to care that that is the case, and they need to invest in solutions.
Similarly, in our own restaurants, change has to occur on a cellular level. It needs to be built into the culture and the policy that drives our restaurants. We need to collectively commit to disrupting the status quo, and when I say we, I’m referring to human beings, not just women. Any one in a management role needs to educate themselves, get woke so to speak.
Culture is cultivated by ownership and by management and we need to recognize how poisonous and insidious certain behaviours can be; we need to care deeply about eliminating those elements, about protecting our staff and leading by example. If you take good care of your staff, they will take good care of your guests. A lot of classic restaurant problems are suddenly non-issues when management sincerely cares about and respects their team.
Best advice: See the table from the guests perspective, be humble, don’t talk about veraison table side.
As far as wine study, the best advice was to study for the next test you want to write, not the one that you’re about to write.
Your younger self: Blind taste more, don’t underestimate how helpful that can be. Don’t worry so much, you don’t have to know everything all the time.
6 people for dinner:
I would make some sort of pasta maybe, because I’m obsessed with it and basically live on it and I’m confident I wouldn’t fuck it up. There would be charcuterie and foie and probably oysters. Dessert would be cheese. I love to cook but I’m not all that ambitious because I’m usually doing it as a form of therapy and relaxation, and I don’t find incredibly complicated recipes and a fuck ton of dishes all that relaxing. I also really prefer to eat simple food for the most part. I could live on cheese and charcuterie pretty happily, maybe the occasional olive or nut, and I’d be good.
The wine would depend on the pasta obviously, but there would be some Champagne, there would be some sherry, there would probably be some well aged Barolo, and looking at my wine fridge we would probably drink some whites from etna. There would be quarts des chaumes and there would be some amaro.
Name: Michelle Ratzlaff
Current gig: Operations Manager, Nicholas Pearce Wines
Child 'hood:' I grew up in The Hammer, aka Hamilton.
Did you always see yourself following this career path? How did you end up here? Not at all! I ended up here by accident, or by a series of small events that led me here.
I didn’t grow up with wine as a part of everyday life, so it never even occurred to me that this career was even an option. I went to the University of Ottawa and studied criminology, and my plan after graduation was to move to Toronto and look for a job in international development.
While I was figuring that out, I got a job in a restaurant. I started as a hostess but quickly moved to bartending. As part of the restaurant, we did weekly wine tastings and I quickly grew fascinated with wine and hospitality. I decided to take my first course with ISG just to learn the fundamentals. From then I was hooked, and I went on to complete my second level and then my Sommelier diploma.
During this time I was working at Pizzeria Libretto and a position opened up to assist on the wine list at Enoteca Sociale. I think that is when I realized I just might be able to make a career out of this. I worked there under the direction of Peter Boyd, who was an incredible teacher and I learned so much from him.
From there I joined him at Skin and Bones and then I went to The Chase, where I worked under Heather McDougall and then Jordan Alessi. It was amazing to go from these small wine bars to work on something so much bigger and with a different clientele. I learned so much from all of those experiences.
After a couple years at The Chase I was approached by Nicholas Pearce, who I had met back in my Libretto days. He was starting his own company and asked me to join him. It was really exciting to be a part of starting something new and taking on a new challenge.
Sources of inspiration: There were lots of people who helped me along the way. I would say Anne Martin and Jen Heuther are two sommeliers who I have so much respect for and who I think have blazed a trail for females in our industry and in our city.
From Somm to Sales: It was a huge shift. I started part-time and that only lasted a few weeks. Learning the ins-and-outs of the LCBO was a whole new world and completely changed the way I understood the world of wine. I feel like it's a disservice that somms don't spend more time learning about the LCBO process because it would help everyone - the things we can do, what we can't and why.
The day-to-day: I run a lot of the day to day logistics of the wine agency. On any given day I am touching base with our sales reps, emailing with restaurant clients and private clients, setting up offers for LCBO applications, arranging allocations with our local and international wineries and ensuring purchase orders are on schedule.
It also involves a lot of forecasting so I’m constantly thinking what the somms we work with will want to buy in two to three months.
Has your gender played a role in how you've been treated in this industry? Yes, for sure. There have been many times where you see that people are treating you differently then your male counterparts. It’s unfortunate that we have to often work twice as hard for half the credit.
There is a lot of pressure to act a certain way, dress a certain way. Every mistake or misstep often gets judged more harshly than those of our male peers.
The shift: I think historically without a doubt yes, males have earned more respect in this profession, but I hope this in changing. There are so many women dominating the wine world as sommeliers, as winemakers, and as educators, that I believe we are changing the perception that this is a male industry.
But it has taken a lot of work to change this and it’s not over yet. I’m sure we all have experienced a time when our male counterpart gets the recognition for a point or action we’ve already made/taken. There have certainly been barriers to our advancement and success in the industry.
What we can do: Be persistent, don’t stop talking about it and support each other. We need to build a culture in our workplaces from the top down; managers and owners need to take responsibility for creating a supportive and inclusive environment. Initiatives like this one are important as well, where we talk about the challenges we face and celebrate each other. Overall we need to do whatever we can to create our own opportunities, and use those opportunities to support other women in the industry.
Wine trends: In any industry it’s important to stay on top of new trends in your field and be aware of what your clients, which in my case means somms, may be asking for. We need to know what they are getting excited about and what they may be looking to include in their programs. Given how long it takes for wine to actually get here, it’s helpful to get on that train early.
That being said, classics are classics for a reason and it’s important to not lose sight of their significance in light of the trends, which by their nature will come and go.
Most loved and hated: For me the answer to both those questions is the same: the natural wine trend.
It is such a large, diverse category of wines, it encompasses both the good and the bad. I wholeheartedly believe that less intervention in wine making leads to the best and most interesting wines. However, I believe that intervention is sometimes necessary and that some of the wines that are trending in this category are in fact faulted.
Current obsession: I just purchased a few bottles of Rafael Palacios Louro; I’m pretty excited about that!
What’s the best part about being a sommelier in Toronto? Right now, the appetite for wine in this city is huge and it’s only going to make it better for all of us going out to wine bars and restaurants. The city’s restaurant scene is rocketing and there are so many smart, talented people who love to work and play together. It’s a great time to be in this city.
Resources, courses & books: I try to stay engaged with trade magazines, podcasts like I’ll Drink to That, and the International Sommelier Guild’s website and podcast. Plus I’ll dive into regionally focused books.
Best values in the LCBO: There are some great values to be found in lesser known regions. South and south western France have some fantastic wines at great prices.
Biggest wine myth: price dictates quality.
Favourite wine & food combo: I know it’s cliché but Champagne with anything.
Best advice: You get what you put into it.
Advice to the younger you: Work abroad and have more confidence in your abilities.
6 people for dinner (dead or alive):
1. Donatella Colombini
2. Queen Elizabeth
3. Barack Obama
4. Michelle Obama
5. Meryl Streep
6. Jancis Robinson
I would want to go all out with a tasting menu full of classic dishes. There would definitely have to be a crab or scallop course, duck breast and a pasta course – one with lots of truffles.
For wine we would have Champagne, Barbaresco, white and red burgundy.
To finish maybe a sweet wine or amaro.
Name: Marissa Kelly
Current gig: GM/Somm at Bar Sybanne
Child 'hood': Toronto!
Out of school: I was really hoping to get a PhD. Academia was my first true passion. It was kind of a strange fluke that ended up here. I managed to find a way to apply my love of teaching and learning to the world of wine and hospitality in general.
The goal before hospitality: I wanted to go into politics (in some capacity or another). Or to become a professor of political Anthropology.
Sentimentally & wine: I don’t remember a moment where I fell in love with wine. I’m not exactly a romantic but I can recall an exact moment in my life where wine became my new passion/obsession. I was working at Mercatto on Toronto street and I used to spend my days off drawing and re-drawing the map of Italy, with all the major grape varieties written into each region.
I am sentimental about many of the first wines that piqued my interest. For instance, Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc Champagne (by Chapuy). I can’t think of a single list that I’ve made without this wine in the last 8 or so years since I discovered it. I bought this wine for my wedding so it’s definitely one of the most precious to me. Dugat Py Meursault, Raveneau Chablis…basically any rendition of Chard from the old world can evoke quite a bit of sentimentality in me…
Inspirational people: SO many. I am inspired daily by the strong, thoughtful, curious and open-minded people that surround me. Likely one of the greatest influences in wine was the first sommelier that I ever met, Christopher Sealy. I trained under him at Mercatto on Toronto Street back when he was completing his sommelier certification and this was quite an influential moment in my life. He was so eager to teach and I was a sponge.
Current responsibilities: Excluding my GM duties…I manage a wine program by procuring my selection and ensuring that I have a list that is both financially profitable but also dynamic. I host weekly hour-long blind tastings for my team and I spend time touching tables during service with the purpose of assisting our guests with their wine selections. I love to share my passion through teaching and I am super excited to break down traditional stereotypes of what a sommelier “does” or acts like. I often end the night by sitting down and sharing a glass with any of the tables in the room. It always happens organically. I am in love with hosting and often our tables invite me to join them toward the end of their experience. So I basically just have a ton of fun at work. It’s the best.
Current regional wine obsession: I have and always will be in love with Chablis. I don’t have an obsession per say but I love introducing people to Spanish wines. They are such fantastic value and I don’t believe that they have gotten the play that they deserve.
On wine trends... Yes, please: Rosé by the plenty, all year round No, thanks: I hate the current obsession with Natural wines. I often love natural wines but I don’t love when that’s their only selling point. A lot of them are just too atypical and volatile. What’s the point?
Best part about being a Somm in the city: Knowing what to buy at the LCBO haha. I also really get a kick out of people being surprised and curious about my profession. It’s a cool aspect to my personality/life that always intrigues people. This generally leads to awesome conversation.
Least enjoyable: Convincing bankers not to drink Cab. Haha that’s a joke. Honestly, the job is what you make it. When I was in fine-dining I found it challenging to haul cases of wine in 3” heels and a pencil skirt.
Tough guests: I’ve always said, your clientele is what you make it. You teach your guests how to behave, you teach your clientele what to expect from you.
Hospitality rules: “I hate “hipster service". The whole, You Are Lucky To Be Here attitude really rubs me the wrong way. I don’t have any patience for people who make you wait to be greeted when you walk in the door, or If people watch you leave their restaurant and they don’t thank you as you walk out the door. If I get the sense that you don’t appreciate my business, then you’re torched. My expectations for hospitality are very, very high. Because it’s not hard to be grateful for someone’s business. And with over 7,000 restaurants in this city, we should be very very grateful if people choose to dine with us.
It’s a choice, we didn’t all ‘end up’ here: I don’t see hospitality as “serving people” I see it as, I’m hosting you; I’m entertaining you; I’m showing you a great time; I’m helping you celebrate a very special occasion, a milestone..or, maybe you’re just catching up with friends and I’m there to facilitate a good time. I see it as a very professional endeavour and I treat it that way with my team. I intentionally hire people who enjoy making other people feel good. We like to make other people happy, that’s why we do what we do. Sure, my whole team is made up of actors, film makers, graphic designers etc., but when we are on the floor and in service—we are hospitality professionals. And that’s all that matters in that moment.
Obstacles in getting to where you are now: I can’t say that I have faced any obstacles to becoming a sommelier. I was embraced every step of the way by each of my employers and my staff have always respected my position/ wanted to learn from, and with, me.
I have had a lot of challenges getting to where I am in management. If I’m being completely honest, I found it very difficult to find my voice as a female leader. For many years I struggled with finding a way to command respect without realizing that respect must be earned. It was a long journey to find out how that could be achieved by both my colleagues and my staff. It was also a very long and hard road to mastering my emotions in the workplace. I spent many years being far too emotional. This gave way to my not having much emotion at all. I think I’ve finally found a way to the centre; To lead with my heart but always remain rational and forward thinking. Putting the business first while still making my people feel like my only real priority.
Professionalism: I didn't come up in the industry with many strong examples of leadership. I didn’t work with people who were focused on hospitality or leadership for many years. In fact, leadership wasn’t a word that came into my vocabulary until at least 6 years into my career in restaurants. I can remember more than one Terroni pre-shift that started with, “Alright you fuckers, let’s go” *clap of the hands*. Clearly that was meant to be a joke but that’s not necessarily the tone that you want to start the night off with.
Has your gender ever been an issue? If so, how: There have been times that older male guests have questioned my credibility “I’m sure that I know way more about wine than you do”…but that type of interaction hasn’t happened to me in several years. More recently I have been told that I’m not qualified for certain roles that I’ve applied for and I am 100% certain that it was because of my gender. These places always end up having atrocious service and I generally have the last (evil) laugh.
Dressing the part (1): I was in charge of all the hiring and training at E11ven. I was only ever allowed to hire attractive female staff. I found an amazing bartender, Devon. She was gorgeous and talented…but, she had really short hair and we already had a girl behind the bar with short hair (my stunning friend Sam). [I was told] “That’s too many girls with short hair behind the bar.” I didn’t even know how to tell Devon that it wasn’t going to work out. I didn’t believe in this but I somehow had to support it... That was quite a while ago, and I think that the ‘downtown’ concept of beauty and attractiveness has changed quite a bit since then. Androgyny and edginess is more ‘mainstream’. Back then, (and possibly still now) if you had short hair, or you weren’t overly flirty, then you were likely a feminist. That’s a huge turn off for the average Bay Streeter.
part (2) A few weeks into opening Scarpetta as the Sommelier, I was wearing flat shoes carrying a tray of burgundies into the dining room. I was about to do wine service at a table. The Director of Operations for Scott Conant Management snuck up behind me and whisper-yelled at me, “WHY AREN’T YOU WEARING YOUR FUCKING HEELS???” …they were expensive shoes: patent leather. Despite this they were unacceptable because they weren’t high heels. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I was potentially put in that role in order to wear the dress and the heels. Yeah…I didn’t stay there for very long.
Do you think your male peers earn more respect in this profession: Sometimes. Although there are a lot of putzes out there. I think it’s easier for a man in a slick suit to gain immediate respect but that doesn’t mean that women can’t enjoy the same phenomenon. This is a very complicated issue. Can I say yes and no? A lot has changed in the hospitality scene in Toronto in the last 10 years. I truly believe that respect is generally given where due. I have also been called intimidating and even terrifying so perhaps I’m the wrong woman to ask??
If so, what do you think we can do to change this: Just keep talking! Don’t be silenced by ignorance. We need to stand together as women. Support one another. Build a community of women being awesome. And fierce.
Who has been your best mentor: This is actually a very long list. If I had to narrow it down to a wine-specific mentor then it would have to be both Christopher Sealy and Bruce Wallner. Hands down some of the finest people in our profession.
Best advice received: Always take the interview
Owning up: I’ve always been very direct and very blunt. Over time I learned how to be (more) diplomatic. I didn’t really have great examples of leadership when I was coming up. I can honestly say that I had no idea how to lead others until very very recently. It also took years until I had a boss that looked me in the eyes and said, “your message is correct. But the way that you are delivering it is offending people”. I truly struggled with this aspect of leadership for years. I was often right! But the end result was that I seemed wrong because of how I tried to get my points across. Steven Salm used to drill this line into my head…”treat your staff like you would treat your guests”. It took me YEARS to fully understand what he meant. But I have bent over backwards and eaten so much shit from my guests and after so many negative interactions with staff—I finally got it. You need to be hospitable and kind to your team. Bend over backwards for them. Tell them things that they need to hear in order to feel good about their experience. Etc. Words to live by..
I’ve learned a lot of painful lessons over the years. I’ve burned a lot of bridges and hurt a lot of people without realizing the effect that I was having on them. I’m so proud that I have been able to use all of these tough lessons to become a strong and hospitable leader.
What advice would you give your younger self when you first got into the wine industry: Trust your palate, have faith in yourself and shut up (and listen) a little more often
Best resources, courses and books for others wanting to get into this profession: Bruce Wallner’s Somm Factory all day!!! Bruce is the least pretentious and most excited teacher that Torontonians have access to. Take advantage! I personally loved “Wine Styles” by the people who wrote Wines for Dummies. This was the first wine book that I ever bought and it really helped me put things in perspective. In terms of other resources….each other!! There are so many “cork dorks” or whatever you want to call us/them in the city. Don’t be shy. We love to share our knowledge. Ask us a question and we generally won’t stop talking.
Finding good wine: Ufficio always has some great gems, Union ½ priced wine on Mondays and obviously Bar Sybanne ½ priced wine on Tuesdays! I really enjoyed the glass pours at Café Can Can when I was there last and Alo obviously has a wicked list. Ask Chef Craig at Campagnolo for his reserve list and if you’re ever in the East end, Allen’s on the Danforth has a wicked library of older Canadian wines.
Best value in the LCBO: Beronia Rioja Reserva, Cave Springs off-dry Riesling are my go-tos. If I ever see Norm Hardie’s Pinot I buy all the bottles on the shelf!
Biggest myth: That wine and food need to be paired. Sorry guys, but if the guest prefers to drink Cab with their oysters then there’s no point in trying to get them to drink Muscadet instead. They simply will not enjoy it
Fav combo: I have too many. I only drink wine with my food. Water is for the weak (or anything truffled with anything nebbiolo).
If you could invite 6 people to dinner (dead or alive) who would it be, what would you cook and what wine would you serve:
my husband Zoran
my best friend Francine
I don’t cook so everyone’s getting cheese and crackers. Raveneau ‘Les Clos’. Let’s go ’04 cos why not.