In the first of a ninth (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 another Sommelier who has chosen to make the business of buying and selling wine his life, and he’s possibly the most humble and mild-mannered of all our interview subjects, Mr. Mark Cuff of The Living Vine…
Good Food Revolution: So Mark, what is it that you are doing these days?
Mark Cuff: I own and operate The Living Vine inc. Its a wine agency that represents Biodynamic, Organic and Natural wines
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
MC: I started out working (mopping floors and bartending) in bars and restaurants in Newfoundland, PEI, and eventually spent time in Alberta (Fairmont Hotels) before moving to Toronto. I moved to Toronto in 2002 and got a job a Sassafraz in Yorkville as a server. It was such a busy restaurant, Jason Rosso was the chef at that time…the food was really good & it was a great team – we worked a lot.
While working there I completed the sommelier diploma with the International Sommelier Guild and worked my way into Management and the Sommelier position. Looking back the owners were very good to me considering I was pretty young (23-24 yrs) old – it was a great opportunity and my only Somm position before starting The Living Vine in 2006. I also worked at Le Sommelier and B&W wines before running my agency full-time – I owe them a lot for the advantages/experience that I gained over other people that have started agencies in the same period.
GFR: Tell us about your work with wines before you moved over to the dark side?
MC: I starting to take a serious interest in wine while working for Farimont in Alberta. My Somm gig in Yorkville was my only Somm position and the cliental there was mainly shopping for big name labels so it was pretty easy to curate. I think either side can be dark depending on who you work for.
GFR: Do you miss any aspects of the Sommelier role?
MC: I was never a particularly great server – But I loved selling wine on the floor.. I like people and enjoyed enhancing their experience by helping them discover something new. I also really enjoyed the ordering and inventory management side of it. Honestly, I really liked everything about the role.
GFR: How would you describe the portfolio of The Living Vine?
MC: We represent around 60 wineries from around the world, high quality wines that are grown biodynamically and organically or naturally. The people we work with are some of the best growers around – Amazing hard working people that are (in my opinion) transforming the wine industry.
It’s amazing how much things have changed even in the last 5 years … the movement went from obscure to niche to normal. When the company began very few people really cared or knew about biodynamic’s or what made a wine Organic, but for some it really resonated.. I really owe my business to our first restaurant clients.
GFR: How do you choose who you are going to work with?
MC: Although certifications are important It’s less about the stamp on the bottle and all about the viticulture & the people… how they work – we just believe this is the best to way grow grapes for great wines. We won’t import something just because is certified organic or biodynamic, the wines have to be great and clearly express the place where it was made.
GFR: So why did you choose to go down the organic/biodynamic route? What was it about those wines that spoke to you?
MC: The winemaking philosophies really spoke to me … I think the wines taste better and have more character than conventionally made wines. The idea that great wines are made in the vineyard, not the cellar – which it the opposite view of most modern winemakers in the last 30 years. It never occurred to me that too much oak, sulphur, chemicals, to much everything was being added to make a “great wine” style that is closer to an industrial product like pepsi. Its became so funny for me to hear large conventional wine companies discuss their terroir and artisan farming practices when they have oaked, sulphured and filtered any evidence of that out in the winemaking process.
The term Terroir is so misused we should invent a new wine term (GFR exclusive) that expresses the opposite: How about “Celloir” “A term for wines that use the cellar erase any evidence of the vineyard they were grown in or complete lack of Terroir” or what ever that is anymore. Humans have been making and enjoying wine for long time it’s only in the last 50 years we have been using industrial chemicals and additives to make wine.
I’m not saying you can’t make great wines conventionally, as we know this isn’t the case – There is also tons of horrible biodynamic and Natural wines out there as well. At the end of the day we can make good and bad wine with both approaches and I would prefer the natural approach.
GFR: How many accounts do you deal with? Private clients and restaurants.
MC: We are always looking for new restaurants and people to do business with. We have a lot of wine to sell J. I’m a little superstitious so I wouldn’t want to look that up, but it would be 100+ licensee accounts in Ontario.
GFR: What makes for a good account in your mind?
MC: I feel like we only sell to good accounts – Every restaurant we sell too has a unique personality that reflects the people and what they are trying to accomplish. If our wines help them accomplish that, we are always excited to see them, tastes new producers and arrange the sale of our wines. What ever a bad account is – we would not do business with them.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
MC: Not at all – I don’t think I ever saw my parents have a drink growing up. Definitely wasn’t the culture in our house… it was probably that reason if was so impactful when I discovered the wine industry in my early 20’s.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
MC: Yes – it was some of my friend’s father’s homemade wine when I was in high school…after the beer was all gone…surprised I remember that actually.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
MC: My view on that would vary/depend on the child and the parent. I think it is important to help your children develop healthy and realistic attitudes towards consuming alcohol – to appreciate it vs. abuse it or at least understand the difference if they do either.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it always with a view to being an importer yourself?
MC: I didn’t see The Living Vine coming at all. I loved and still do love restaurants – I pursued my sommelier diploma to obtain some management experience and learn enough to open my own place.
I had read a book recommended to me by my ISG teacher Wayne Gotts’ called “Real Wine” by Patrick Mathews that really inspired me. As I began to seek out the wineries I was reading about, they were for the most part not in our market. It wasn’t a eureka business idea kinda of moment where I saw the opportunity to represent/promote biodynamic and Organic wine making (which wasn’t being done by any agency at that time) but more because I had to get my hands on these wines.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
MC: Growing up in Newfoundland I wasn’t exposed to much wine culture, so when I moved out to Alberta to work for Fairmont it was the first time I ever met a Sommelier. Funny enough, Toronto Sommelier Will Predhomme was my roommate during my time at Lake Louise. I think it was there Will and a few of our colleagues that I got so hooked. We would get together after our shifts/days off and geek out on pretty good wines and fuelled by late night games of risk. I wasn’t surprised to see what a great professional Will became years later when he moved to Toronto and got the Somm position at Canoe. I think one night Will opened a bottle of wine with a shoe in 2002… before it was on youtube or cool. We became total wine geeks and i’m sure thats where I caught the bug so to speak.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm I worry about the emergence of a new Bro culture… I’d love to hear your thoughts?
MC: Who cares? I’m probably a pretentious arsehole to somebody. I’m not very judgmental of other people especially when it comes to things they are passionate about. I respect a person with a point of view – even if I don’t agree with it, at least they have an opinion. I don’t like mean people … everything else flies.
I would much prefer the so-called “Bro” culture than one that feels less like a larger family of professionals. Sharing ideas and helping each other succeed is important to our fragile industry. I wouldn’t have my company today if it were not for the help and advice of others in the industry.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
MC: I haven’t been to South Africa or eastern Europe – have been very fortunate to visit most countries we import form.
GFR: You have done a bit of winemaking haven’t you?
MC: Not really – a little for personal consumption years ago – mostly gave it away to family and friends and took away from the experience that it is best left up to the pro’s.
GFR: And where else would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
MC: I love selling wine – Not sure wine making will be in my future…but if it was it would be hard not to fantasize about having a vineyard in Northern Italy somewhere around the dolomites. That area is so beautiful is makes Tuscany seem kind a gross.
GFR: How much of a Wine Agent’s work is paperwork?
MC: If your main role is as a sales rep on the license side you are mainly just selling wine there isn’t a ton besides emails and monthly expenses. For wine agencies as a company probably 90%, and it sometimes feels like more – in addition to having a great sales team the most successful agents have grown because they are very good at the administration/logistics’ that comes with selling wine/servicing restaurants in our market.
GFR: So do you prefer to buy or sell bottles of wine and why?
MC: I love selling wine – We have so many great new wines arriving every week. Whether its our licensee clients or presenting to the LCBO. Sales is tough, if not impossible is you don’t love it.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
MC: The recession was tough – not just for us but for our clients and partners, some who lost their business or vineyards. But what came out of that changed our restaurant and wine industry. It’s a much more diverse landscape.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
MC: Toronto is full of great role models, so many amazing people out there these days – someone who is able to satisfy the needs of the business that employs them while embracing their passions. Great service is about treating people well. Once you get that everything else is becomes easier. There are lot people I wish would have been around when I was trying to get a start in a restaurant: Sarah Lyons (Drake150), Drew Walker (Four Seasons), Jordan Alessi (Chase Group), Mark Moffat (Shangri-La), Jimson Bienenstock (Montecito), Christopher Sealy (Midfield/George), Jen Agg (Blackhoof), Jonathan Gonsenhouser (Momofuku), Will Prehomme, Susan Beckett (Dandelion), Robert Gravelle (Jacobs), Allison Vidug (Shore Club) and John Szabo of course… I love seeing these people work – its so obvious that they love it.
GFR: And for Wine Agents?
MC: Some of the more established agencies in Ontario like B&W Wines, Le Sommelier, The Vine, Trialto and Lifford – if you look at their people, portfolios and the relationships they have fostered and continued to maintain its hard not to admire their accomplishments.
GFR: Do you still have nightmares about working as a Sommelier? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar… and the clock is ticking away… in fact I had one last night!!! And I haven’t been in the role for five years!!!
MC: I honestly can’t remember the last time dreamt’ about being a Sommelier. It actually feels more like a dream … such a long time ago with so much in between
GFR: And I guess that there must be a whole world of Wine Agent nightmares? Tell me about those…
MC: All the time. Forgetting my corkscrew, Missing a delivery or not being able to respond to an email … nothing major but they are pretty common.
GFR: Wine Agents famously have their weekends off… What’s your idea of a perfect weekend?
MC: Weekends are usually where I can catch up on what I missed during the workweek. There are very few weekends where isn’t any thing to catch up on. My wife Aleks works with me and we have a home office so we are always kinda of at home and work. It can be tough to focus with 2 little girls running around so things tend to get spread out to a 6-7 day work week.
GFR: Where are your favorite places to dine and drink in Toronto.. Perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
MC: There are so many great places to eat and drink these days – Woodlot, Hopgoods, Blackhoof, Bar Isabel, Edulis, Chantelcier, Bricco and George are some places I’m always looking forward to. For great Cocktails/glasses of wine Toronto Temperance Society, Union, Cocktail Bar, Midfield and Archive. I actually don’t get out a lot – kids like to eat early ..so usually only when we have someone visiting form one of our wineries or on a special occasion.
Hidden Treasure – Curry Twist in the Junction is one of the best Indian restaurants in the city.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
MC: I really enjoy cooking – I’m probably happiest in our kitchen. We try to cook at home as much as possible and try to keep it healthy and local – our girls will eat almost everything.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
No, I’m usually pretty focused in the kitchen.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
MC: Pearl Morissette, Norm Hardy, Closson Chase, Hidden Bench & Tawse are some of my favs.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
MC: Yes. It’s never been better.
GFR: Do all you Wine Agents hang about together as well? Are you all chummy? Or is it crazily competitive?
MC: Sure it’s a small world, I have some very good friends that are Wine Agents – Bernard Sramwasser from Le Sommelier is a very good friend.. we actually were just in France together attending a few wine shows. There are so many agents/reps that I like a lot and respect – I always enjoy running into Bernard, Ben Hodson, Howard Wasserman, Nicolas Pearce, Nicole Cambell, Mark Coster on the streets – they are great people with a real passion for this side of the business. I like seeing other people succeed as much as myself – its not an easy gig. Its also weird for me to feel competitive with people I like.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
MC: Everyone has stepped up their game in the last 3-4 year. The people behind the bars at (Ali) Union, (Jen Agg) Cocktail Bar, (Oliver and Robin) TTS and (Michael) Bar Isabel are at the top of the game. Looking forward to what Michael will be doing at Bar Raval. Bill Sweete/Casey Bee and their team at Toronto Temperance Society deserve a lot of credit for how they have helped transform cocktail culture. It’s hard to think of a better place to sit at a bar and have a drink.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Wine Agent? (You are not allowed to answer Sommelier)
MC: I’ve never really thought about – actually, I feel like I am still trying to be a wine agent.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
MC: The vibe of a restaurant is just as important as anything else, so music in a restaurant plays an important part. I do notice when a restaurant puts effort into an interesting play list.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
MC: I really liked the Movie Chef – reminded me of the first time time I walked into a real kitchen and saw the cooks prepping for service.
GFR: I’m guessing that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
MC: I think that they find it super interesting but don’t really understand how it works.. our market is a little complicated to explain.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
MC: Some people are very good at it. To get good at it requires experience. It’s not something I do very often as I’m evaluating packing, price, people vs just the wine in the bottle when tasting potential new products.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
MC: Probably with.
GFR: At last… someone with the same answer as me.
What’s your current favourite wine region?
MC: Right now Mount Etna Sicily – Generally I tend to always like wines grown in regions with volcanic soils – especially lighter more medium bodied reds. Loire Valley tho.
GFR: In your mind, as an agent, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now in Ontario?
MC: I would say that Ontario is hot in Ontario right now and for imported wine Spain and Germany’s wine industry is transforming and becoming easier for consumers to understand.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour in the province?
MC: I’m still not seeing a ton of merlot.
GFR: Really? What do you put that down to? The continuing Sideways Effect?
MC: That movie totally destroyed merlot. I think the movie suggested that Merlot is boring and lacks personality. Merlot hasn’t been able to recover or disprove that. I would love to know how many California merlot vineyards were pulled and replanted with pinot in the last 10 years.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
MC: For me overrated is overpriced… so premium Burgundy and Bordeaux. Some of the world best wines are made there but the price points are out of control at all quality levels and in some ways have made the wines irrelevant in restaurants. Tons of cache but challenging to sell.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? I know that you do like to eat out a fair bit? Maybe you want to plug a customer?
MC: I actually don’t eat out a lot. I live outside of Toronto and have 2 small girls. I did have an glass of French Cider and French Onion soup (Toronto’s best) at Woodlot the other day that was fantastic. Hopgoods, Blackhoof, Archive, Midfield, Chantecler and Woodlot are some of my favourites. George and Splendido still does some of the best tasting menu/wine pairings in the city.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with some Sommelier types, for their lists, and from your portfolios.
What would you suggest for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1: Stuffy Old School Private Club Sommelier with a very conservative membership wringing his neck every day. He wants to break free.
MC: We actually don’t have any clients that fit that description – not sure if there is anything in our portfolio they would want..:)
2. GM/”Sommelier” of a 22 seat Parkdale boîte that still blasts shitey 90’s Hip Hop, mistakenly thinking it’s dope. Thinks that brown liquor is boss because of the extortionate markup and sees wine as an afterthought.
MC: FYI 90’s hiphop is super dope. We probably don’t have anything they want but sounds like my kind of place for lunch.
3. A super-stressed Sommelier for a downtown hotspot, full of Bay street types, probably a bit of a powder-monkey, sweats a lot, and smells of an afterhours (stale cigarettes and hard liquor) at 3pm the next afternoon, when you are tasting.
MC: Would bring a mix of things they may never buy but would love to try and a few wines that would make sense that we always have in good supply. What’s a powder-monkey? Sounds cute and cuddly.
GFR: Hmmm… no… it’s my term for someone with a bit of a Bolivian marching powder problem. So neither very cute nor cuddly IMHO.
Do you often drink beers or spirits?
MC: Beer rarely, Spirits 1-2 times at week.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Wine Agent? And how do you find working within the fetters of the LCBO’s system?
MC: It’s the only system we have – would I like to see it a more open? Sure.. but their current staff/team has never been better – they have some great people who really care and want to bring the best retail experience to Ontario consumers. I think we could be a lot worse off. I have visited a lot of open markets and it isn’t as great as many LCBO critics would describe.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
MC: I have a black Laguiole that a friend gave me 5 or 6 years ago that opens almost every bottle of wine in my house.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
MC: I think screwcap won the debate but we will continue to see both until we are out of cork trees.
GFR: Due to us always being around alcohol, many people in our industry often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze, or they develop issues. What is your limit and how do you keep yourself in check?
MC: I have a really high tolerance for sure. But I have also never liked the feeling being completely “wasted”
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
MC: Would guess 10-20 wines – There is always an open bottle of wine around – something new or something we’re sampling or trying out.
GFR: When tasting with clients do you choose to spit or swallow?
MC: I almost never taste when meeting with clients. Sometimes I could have 4-5 appointments and driving to each meeting. + When I’m meeting with someone its about them.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
MC: Whatever is open or cold – I’m not that particular unless we have friends over.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
MC: The first time I tried Nicolas Joly’s wines always stands out. I had just started the agency and received a sample case of each of this three vineyards. I opened them all at once and tried them repeatedly over the next 3-4 days before hitting the streets to knock on Restaurant doors.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day pounding the pavements?
MC: Something white and refreshing …. Like riesling or verdejo
GFR: And now the cheesy question Mark… If you were a grape varietal what would you be? and why?
MC: Maybe Chardonnay because it can be anything it wants to be… I’d be happy as any grape as long as I’m farmed without chemicals and made with wild natural yeasts by people who care.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Mark!
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. He just celebrated his 66th birthday!
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 recently opened his exciting new project DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.