In the second of a fifth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario and occasionally elsewhere.
A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers.
Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising stars.
This week we speak with Young Blood Sommelier Ellen Jakobsmeier from Toronto’s Splendido restaurant.
Good Food Revolution: So Ellen, what is it that you are up to these days?
Ellen Jakobsmeier: Currently the Sommelier at Splendido, a.k.a. Mom, a.k.a. Fräulein, a.k.a. @SommEllen
GFR: Splendido has a track record of having a stellar wine program, so you have some pretty large shoes to fill there.
I believe that the restaurant is going through some serious changes right now… what is going on and how is this going to affect the wine list?
EJ: Big changes are abound! Carlo Catallo has vacated the building, and Splendido is under sole direction of Chef Victor Barry. Chef’s offerings are of tasting menus only, so my responsibility is to design nightly pairings to match the individual courses, and ensure the cellar is stocked with a wide variety of wines. It really is a Sommelier’s dream to do what I’m so lucky to do here. I’m seriously looking forward to our upcoming Winemaker’s dinner and Collaborative Chefs dinners also.
GFR: So I take it that you enjoy working with a tasting menu?
EJ: I couldn’t be happier! Quite often I feel like Alice in Wonderland, leading guests “down the rabbit hole”, as is our mantra here. Chef Victor has an amazing palate, and we collaborate on pairings frequently, though he has not-so-secret appreciation of anything Burgundy.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before this position?
EJ: I like to think I went the “method Sommelier” route. I really believe in order to truly pursue a career in wine, I had to experience it. I had to drive tractors, hand-pick grapes, operate presses and crushing machines, work through language barriers, experience 3-month Shiraz-stained fingernails, and witness the process of grape to wine on a first hand basis. So, before I began my formal studies with CAPS at George Brown, I spent nearly three years abroad, completing three vintages working as a cellarhand in McLaren Vale, Australia and Marlborough, NZ.
GFR: How was it working with the legendary Carlo Catallo? That man does know his wine that is for sure!
EJ: Watching Carlo work his magic on the floor is captivating – he’s an All-Pro. One minute – he’s keeping staff in line like a military General; the next minute, he’s the most gracious and hospitable host, shaking hands and kissing babies. It truly was a performance to watch, and I’m thankful for the short time we did spend working together on the floor.
GFR: And what was the most important thing that you learned from him?
EJ: Speed, efficiency and precise execution. I guess that’s three things, but they cannot exist in isolation. One cannot spend time waxing poetically about the bouquet of a wine that a table has purchased during the decant – there’s no time! From my decanting station in the restaurant, I can see at least four other wine lists down on tables, and the respective guests looking to speak to the Sommelier, and all I can hear is the clock ticking.
GFR: Splendido has been known for having servers with an amazingly high standard of wine knowledge… how does one maintain this level of wine skills with the staff? Regular education sessions I am guessing?
EJ: Yes – I’m very fortunate to work in a restaurant where the owner believes that both the kitchen and service staff should have weekly wine training. Each Friday at noon for the kitchen, and 3pm for the servers, we have a weekly tasting. I choose the theme – whether it be new glass pours, comparing varietals, regions, climates, or winemaking methods – and we have a fun dialogue about the wines. I like to serve them all blind to build confidence and allow our palate to guide us, versus preconceived notions about regions or varietals. Each session is concluded by asking “how much would you pay for this wine”? It’s amazing for me to have both perspectives – the kitchen has an amazing memory of assorted aromas and flavours. One cook in particular nails down her candy associations with every wine – Jolly Ranchers, Fuzzy Peaches, Skittles. It’s a highlight of my week, and I can only imagine what passersby think is happening at the bar.
GFR: How much autonomy do you have in your position with regards to purchasing and the like?
EJ: I am lucky to have a very long leash, but that being said our wine program is always open to new suggestions from staff and management. I will usually engage with agents, taste through the wines, and then present a taste of my favourites to the bosses. We’re a big family here, and I’m fortunate to work with people whose opinions I trust and respect.
GFR: How do you find working with your lovely Chef/Owner Victor Barry? And how closely do you work together when it comes to the tasting menus? Describe that process please?
EJ: Chef Victor is truly an artist, and his bursts of creativity are unpredictable at the best of times. It’s exciting and invigorating to work with him on pairings. We collaborate together all the time, and try to have a story behind each pairing. Having worked with Carlo for so long, Victor has naturally developed an informal knowledge about wine, spirits and beer. He understands how pairings can enhance his dishes, much like a squeeze of citrus or a sprinkle of Esplette. We like to go beyond just the traditional wine selections, and incorporate beer, cocktails and house made sodas into the tasting menu pairings whenever appropriate.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you deal with?
EJ: About 15-20 agents
GFR: What makes a good agent in your mind?
EJ: Punctuality. Listening to what I’m asking for. There are a lot of secret hints I will give when I taste with agents, though not by intention. The best agents can pull those secrets out, and then bring me amazing wine for the list. It’s much like having that exceptional restaurant server who lets you think you’re ordering what you want, but they already knew what you wanted the moment you sat down.
GFR: And a bad one?
EJ: Impunctuality. I can’t help it – my father is German and he instilled a permanent clock that will forever be 15 minutes early for everything. I’m not very receptive to a pushy sale either.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
EJ: I was fortunate to have an upbringing where my family believed seeing the country in which I was born, Canada, was more important than an all-inclusive to the Caribbean. Whereas friends were going to Disneyland, I was packed in the family motorhome, heading down to Peelee Island to visit a “new” wine region that my mom had to visit. This was over 20 years ago.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
EJ: Yes – and it definitely had Sprite and a squeeze of lime in it. White wine spritzers and family BBQ’s – a classic pairing. The Magnotta French White was always flowing on Canada Day. Early exposure to Canadian wine was influential to my current preferences.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
EJ: I think at an early enough age when children (more like adolescents) can start to understand and appreciate it as a complement to a meal, vs. wine exposure in the late teenage years when white zinfandel swigging contests are held in sorority dorms, or so I’ve been told.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
EJ: I always had the pieces to the puzzle, but it was when I decided to seriously commit to CAPS upon my return to Canada that I knew it was for me. Now happily settled at Splendido, I couldn’t think of any other career I’d rather be pursuing.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
EJ: Definitely my mother. Unfortunately my father’s mother passed away from alcoholism before I was born, so he rarely drank when I was growing up. My mother and however would always enjoy a glass or two of wine with Sunday dinner.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious twats… discuss.
EJ: I’d say there are a lot of boys in the boy’s club, but that being said, I have found there is a wonderful community of fellow women of wine that I absolutely adore! Toronto has an extremely passionate community of wine connoisseurs – both professionals and hobbyists. I love picking people’s brains to find new avenues of oenological inspiration for our list.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
EJ: From Canada: Niagara, Prince Edward County, and future trip to L.E.N.S. on the horizon; Barossa, Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills, Riverina, Langhorn Creek and Orange (Victoria) while I was in Australia; Marlborough, Martinborough and Nelson when I was in New Zealand.
GFR: Yes, you mentioned that you had been involved in three crushes. What did you learn from your experiences?
EJ: It was pretty much a real life game of Survivor: Vintage edition. I learned how to count to 10 in Spanish, German and French, as these regions employ cellarhands from all over the world. I learned a 40,000 L tank can be reduced to a pop-can when someone forgets to open the lid during a transfer to a truck. I learned how important it is to double check EVERYTHING, or an accidental 17, 000 L of juice can quickly find a home down the drain. The thing you see are baffling!! Everything comes down to the importance of communication.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)? Back in Australia?
EJ: No – closer to home. I would love to make my whites in Niagara, and make my reds in Okanagan. I am almost never disappointed by Okanagan Syrah or Bordeaux Blends (Painted Rock, Le Vieux Pin), and the whites in Niagara are only getting better and better. In a perfect world I would make German-inspired Riesling in Niagara, and have Sunday pig roasts with a permanent supply of crackle and sausage. Forever.
GFR: Do you know any Sommelier/Wine jokes? I only know the one with the punchline “They had to let him go as he was walking around with a Semillon”
EJ: What did the wine professional wear on vacation in Mexico? A Sommbrero. Ha.
GFR: Is your role purely that of Sommelier or do you have managerial duties also? Damn I despised those pesky managerial duties…
EJ: Though my business card says Sommelier, my role is extremely fluid. To be a successful at Splendido, versatility is key. I go where I’m needed. Throughout the course of the night, I’m the coat-check girl, food runner, busser, bartender, host, and sometimes captain. I love the reaction on some of my guests’ faces when they are shocked to see the “coat-check” girl is coming over to advise on beverage pairings and discuss the merits of Canadian chardonnay.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
EJ: If I had to choose, it would be bottles. That being said, I really love the team I work with, and I hope I’m able to help them develop their wine knowledge, if not expose them to something unique and different in the wine world. I can’t think of anyone who enjoys managerial duties.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
EJ: Career highs – being serenaded by 35 members of the Confrerie at their Splendido “Burgundy pre-1990” theme dinner. Career lows – corked bottles. My heart breaks a little when a bottle is sacrificed to the TCA villains. In my fantasy land as a Somm Superhero, one of my superpowers would be to extricate cork taint from bottles, but we can save that for another interview.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
EJ: Hmmm… that’s a toughie. I think a role model for sommelier’s is the selfless Sommelier. There are a lot of egos, judgement, gossip, that can really be negative in a profession that is drive by competition (i.e. Blind Tasting, the Somm movie, for example). I have a tasting group in which we all expose ourselves and work to make each other better tasters. My mentor at Splendido, Heather McDougall, was a fantastic role model. She believed in me, and continues to inspire me to achieve greatness. My sensory development teacher, Evan Saviolidis, was also someone who believed in each of his students, and I owe a lot of gratitude for his fair but firm approach in shaping the next generation of sommeliers.
GFR: Do you ever have nightmares about working as a Sommelier? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar…
EJ: Yes, I have a very similar nightmare, but it also involves Carlo and a look of rage on his face. Another – each bottle I bring to a table is corked.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… or do you actually have Mondays off? or both? If so… perfect Sunday and then a perfect Monday?
EJ: I’m fortunate to have both off. My perfect Sunday / Monday happened during Winterlude in Ottawa, where I flew out early Sunday morning for a weekend of skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, drinking hot chocolate, and getting my fill of Maple Syrup taffy hardened via snow-troughs. It was ridiculous fun – I felt like I was living a Canadian Tire commercial. When not living the Canadian dream, I love to do brunch. The man and I check out a new brunch spot each Sunday. The trick is to go early to avoid lines. Lines give me rage.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto, perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
EJ: Then they won’t be hidden anymore!! I live in Leslieville, and like to keep local. I love the Sunday dim sum at Pearl Court in Chinatown East. The chocolate chip cookies at Burger’s Priest are the best in the city. Te Aro’s coffee is dear to my heart as I lived for a short time in the eponymous Wellington neighbourhood when I was in NZ. Lady Marmalade’s brunch is consistently delicious. For a sneaky indulgence, Rasher’s bacon sandwiches are next level. For Dive-bar goodness, Hi-Lo is a favourite, as is visiting their beautiful bartendress Ally Martin. I shall stop there for now.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
EJ: I love to cook! My man knew I was the one when I made him my deal-sealer ribs. Only close friends and family members get those. More recently we had a Champagne and Arctic Crab evening at home while taking in the Oscars. Bloody knuckles were a small price to pay for the sweet, sweet crab leg meat.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters?
EJ: Yes my first foray into the world of cooking was disastrous. It involved a mis-measure of Baking Soda vs. Baking Flour at the tender age of 12, a tea-cozy that caught fire, and a panicked phone call from my sister to my mother at work. Needless to say, years of Martha Stewart episodes and a cable subscription to the Food Network were the basis of my informal cooking training.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Have you had the opportunity to try any real standouts recently?
EJ: I LOVE Canadian wine. I love the community. I love that we’re so lucky to be so close to amazing wine producing regions. As I mentioned, Okanagan’s reds really stand up to international offerings of comparable varietals. Niagara and P.E.C.’s whites are nearing exceptional. It’s only getting better.
GFR: At Splendido do you still see customers dismissing Canadian wines in favour of lesser wines from elsewhere?
EJ: I like to incorporate Canadian wine into the pairings for our tasting menu. I also like to do so blindly. Our service style of a leisurely tasting dinner encourages conversation, so I like to ask guests to taste it first, and tell me what they think before the big reveal. Will Predomme’s NSP Syrah is a current favourite, and has been extremely well received by our guests. We have a dish that feature’s Hidden Bench eggs, and accordingly I pair Hidden Bench wines. The full-circle local movement is fun to illustrate to guests through their pairing experience.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
EJ: Very tough decision. I really wanted to be a Curator at a Museum in my early days of university, so I’d probably be working at the R.O.M., hanging out with dinosaur bones and contemplating my existence. Perhaps I still work will fossils, but it’s more fun now when I can taste them in wine!
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I were a Doctor…
EJ: Nope. I’m certain she would be ecstatic if I were living in a bungalow in the East End, preferably next door, about to put up a second story, married, and a mother to my own child, possibly with another on the way. Just kidding. On a more serious note, being such a wine lover herself, she now has her own personal Sommelier to ply her golden years with tailored recommendations. That’s called investing in your future. She couldn’t be happier with my career.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
EJ: Much to the dismay of my man, I love to watch wine docs and movies. I will never forget the scene of Miles (Paul Giamatti) trying to drink from the spit bucket at the tasting room in the movie Sideways.
GFR: I’m know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
EJ: My best friend is a paramedic. We have very interesting conversations. Otherwise majority of my friends are in the industry, and we just get together and geek out about tastings and wines together.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
EJ: Blind tasting is so much fun! At the end of a busy night I like to blind taste my GM Jeffrey Graves and Chef Victor together. I like to blind taste tables that I know will be into it, and our regulars at the bar. I always have interesting bottles open, and our Coravin makes it even easier to challenge palates. As for myself, I blind taste regularly with my tasting group. Though painful at first, there’s a particular magic connection when the person reading out their tasting notes is saying everything that’s in your head.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
EJ: Without – definitely.
GFR: Any good hangover cures you would care to share with us Ellen?
EJ: I was introduced to Berocca (a vitamin seltzer-like drink) in Australia, consequently the place where I experience some of my most outrageous hangovers.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
EJ: Gah! This is like choosing my favourite child. I’d have to say, Burgundy, but only because of the Confrerie dinner a few weeks ago. The Rhone is very close now too. Can I choose a varietal instead? Syrah.
GFR: What is “hot” in the world of wine right now at Splendido?
EJ: Canadian for sure. Getting into Spring, I’ve been looking at some yummy Vouvrays and Grüners of late. Grower’s Champagne!! We’ve seen a massive flux in sales of French sparkling lately, so I’ve been bringing in some great bubbles.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour at Splendido?
EJ: Typicity. I love to show guests wines that taste like what they want, but are not what they want. They are looking for Napa, I’ll take them to Spain. They want Bordeaux, I’ll show them Madiran.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
EJ: Big, bold reds and alcohol content. I guess this is more of a problem that I encounter tasting. I’m fairly sensitive to the % levels, and don’t understand how people can enjoy big, bold reds that read 14% and up.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on the current Splendido menu?
EJ: We’re working on a Vouvray and Scallop ceviche right now, but I love our Salmon Sashimi and German Riesling. Our Chocolate dessert and Barolo Chinato is very interesting. And I love putting the Tawse Cabernet Sauvignon icewine down with our Rhubarb dessert. White wine or dessert wine pairings are my most favourite.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… if these Toronto mayoral candidates walked into your restaurant and looked thirsty what would you give them wine-wise… and why?
1: Olivia Chow
EJ: I saw her campaign colours are purple and yellow, so I think of Spring, and I think of Riesling. Sour and sweet. Versatile. A wine of the people.
2. Rob Ford
EJ: Hennessy or Courvoisier? Perhaps Cristal? He’s been acting super O.G. of late.
3. John Tory
EJ: I’d go older Burgundy. Domaine Roumier 2006. Complex. Delicious. Thoughtful. And expensive.
GFR: You just came through Winterlicious… I’d love to hear your honest opinion on that?
EJ: It was a treat!! It’s fast and furious, but it’s fun to introduce guests to our food who would not normally be able to afford the Splendido experience.
GFR: You change your wine program a bit for that right?
EJ: Yes and no. I’m always trying to look for wine that punches above its weight, and that applies to Winterlicious as well.
GFR: And yet you still manage to find some damn interesting wines… that Madiran was great? Who was that from again?
EJ: Yes, that was delicious. Alain Brumont’s 2007 Chateau Montus was delicious. Sadly I have only a few bottles left.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
EJ: Beer. I met my man at The Bier Markt – he was a bartender, I was a host – so a mutual love of beer is key to a successful relationship. He works for Junction Brewery in the West End, so our fridge is always stocked. There will likely be a kegerator on our patio some Summertime.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory… drove me insane with the inanity.
EJ: Cutting my fingers on foil. Hands down. There are quite a few new bottles on the market that turn into razor blades after the first cut is drawn with my wine knife. My pockets are always full of band-aids just in case.
GFR: What do you feel is the biggest wine service faux pas?
EJ: Sniffing corks. It’s funny to watch!
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
EJ: Heather gifted me a graphite Pulltap when I was hired at Splendido. It’s very special to me. I’m an All-Pro with the Ah-so, given the experience I’ve now had with all the old crumbly corks in the bottles our guests often bring in for me to disgorge.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? I still don’t get why we even have this conversation, but how do your customers feel?
EJ: When waiting in Australia, I can count on one hand the number of times I used my corkscrew. It was a novelty for my co-workers to “give the bottle to the Canadian” to witness my superhero talent at removing a cork. The cork shortage, the price, the inconsistency – all signs point to a future of screwtops. I don’t think they’ve been around long enough to provide an educated answer to that questions. That being said, I did have some impassioned wine-fuelled conversations with Aussie winemakers about their dismay at the death of cork in their country.
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze. What is your limit?
EJ: I like to test my limit a few times a year. Recently it’s been at Barberian’s industry nights, and their Margarita Snow Cones were the true test.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
EJ: Not by a barkeep, but definitely by my boyfriend! He’s 6’7”, and pretty good at judging when I’ve gone past the point of no return.
GFR: Do you smoke cigarettes? Some of the best tasters I know smoke quite heavily, so I’d love to get your thoughts on this.
EJ: My parents never smoked, and I find the smell of tobacco cigarettes quite offensive. However, Guinness does taste better with a cigar in hand and a glass of scotch on a dock in cottage country. Perhaps it’s a matter of pairing?
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
EJ: Hmm… depends on the agents visiting!! Some will bring upto 20 bottles at a time. I’d say an average week is 25-50.
GFR: When do you choose to spit or swallow?
EJ: Spit during tasting with agents – a clear head is necessary for my job here. I save swallowing for during service when guests often offer tastes of their beautiful wines they bring in.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
EJ: Hmm… lighter body reds with high acid. NZ Pinots, Italian Barberas. I have a love of rosé in the summertime.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
EJ: A glass of 1989 Mascarello Monprivato. It was exquisite.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the restaurant?
EJ: Something sparkling.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Ellen… If you were a grape varietal what would you be? And why?
EJ: Syrah. It took me to Australia for the adventure of a lifetime, and I continue to fall in love with it over and over again.
GFR: Thank you for taking time to do this Ellen!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.
Peter Boyd has been a part of Toronto’s wine scene for over two decades. He has taught the Diploma level for the International Sommeliers Guild, and has been the sommelier at Scaramouche Restaurant since 1993. He also writes about wine, food and pop culture and raises show molerats for fun and profit. He’s also one of the most solid guys in the business.Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and is slowly taking over this city.
A well-known and much respected figure on the Toronto food and wine scene for almost twenty years, Potvin has worked in many of the city’s very best establishments including Biffs, Canoe, and Eau. In 2004 Potvin opened his incarnation of the Niagara Street Café, a restaurant that has gone from strength to strength year after year, with universal critical acclaim. Anton spends much of his time traveling and tasting wine and has been ranked highly in consecutive years of the International Wine Challenge. Anton is currently working on his exciting new project Gwailo with Chef Nick Liu.