In the fourth of an sixteenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario (and occasionally from further afield as is the case this month). 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 month sees the turn of the talented Astra Marchi, Sommelier at Niagara-On-The-Lake’s Treadwell Farm-to-Table Cuisine.
Good Food Revolution: So Astra, what is it that you are doing these days?
Astra Marchi: Enjoying life in Niagara wine country! I’m a sommelier at Treadwell Farm-to-Table Cuisine in historic downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. I moved here from Toronto about seven years ago and just bought a home on the wine route.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
AM: I’ve got a degree in Environmental Science and a Masters in Education. After moving to the Niagara region, I spent a lot of time at Niagara wineries, working at a small family-owned vineyard estate. I found myself going back to school yet again. This time, it was for a couple of WSET courses. That led to full-time sommelier study at Niagara College, and certification with CAPS and the Court of Masters.
GFR: How would you describe your role at Treadwell?
AM: I’m part of a fantastic sommelier team at Treadwell. My role as sommelier is part wine consultant, part concierge, all service. The restaurant has a separate wine bar and hosts private dinners as well as brunch, lunch, and dinner service, so there are many different experiences offered within the same restaurant. I might be working the restaurant floor, the wine bar, or assigned as a dedicated sommelier to a private dinner party in our cellar.
GFR: How are the clientele when it comes to their taste in wines?
AM: Because of our location in Niagara wine country, much of our clientele is tourist- driven. Our guests actively seek local wine off our list, and my team is really cognisant of our roles as ambassadors of Ontario wine. Guests don’t just want to drink the wines, they want to visit the local wineries, make cellar purchases, and I need to be able to assist them with their entire visit.
GFR: Does your job allow you to travel much? Where have you been lately?
AM: Being part of a team of sommeliers allows me to take off for a week at a time, every couple of months or so. I’ve travelled to B.C. four times this year, spending half of that time in the Okanagan, searching out small producers. On one such tour, I visited 18 wineries in four days, which made for a very tight, focused schedule. It was also extremely rewarding to come home with beautiful examples of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Pinot Gris and Riesling from T.H. Wines, Le Vieux Pin, The 50th Parallel and Tantalus respectively. I was also happy to sample the Foch — a varietal I just don’t see much of here at home.
I’m also an island girl at heart, so when I do travel, the Caribbean is a frequent destination. I usually eschew any wine while in the tropics, preferring to sample local beers and rum. I’ve visited sugarcane plantations and rum distilleries in Barbados.
GFR: Now, how do I word this? Have you drunk the “Natural Wine Kool Aid”? I’m just kidding, kind of… I’m sick and fed up of “natural wine” zealots with nothing but derision for those who feel otherwise. Saying that, I do feel that there are some astounding “Natural” wines out there, so don’t get me wrong. How do you feel about the scene? … perhaps I just have a very low tolerance for volatile acidity, I don’t know… but there is some right old crap out there.
AM: Wow. Tell me how you really feel! There is a lot of crap out there, indeed. And my patience wears thin for zealots of any kind. The natural wine scene is hot, but it’s not where I place most of my attention. I hold steadfast to my belief that a wine should stand on its own merit, natural or not, it should be excellent on the palate and interesting to pair with food. If the wine reeks of VA and doesn’t enrich any of our food offerings, well then, it’s a fail, no?
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier/merchant in your mind?
AM: A good agent or supplier delivers on time and is proactive without being pushy.
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent/supplier/merchant?
AM: One that runs out of a wine on my list without telling me. It just makes for awkward moments and I hate disappointing my guests.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
AM: I’m super passionate about Canadian wines and I think we all should be. Its incredible what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last thirty or forty years. Our industry is in its infancy and there are so many areas in which we can amplify our efforts. In fifty years, a hundred years, lets consider where we might be just in terms of terroir and optimal varietal plantings. At the heart of winemaking is also grape-growing, and I feel we should protect our agricultural and viticultural industries from urbanization. It’s sad to see agricultural lands that were farmed for decades being razed to build homes upon. I’d rather see vines being planted, farmers being paid, and Canadian wines on dinner tables across the country.
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario?
AM: Chardonnay. We do cool-climate chardonnay really well here in Ontario. I think you’ll find beautiful examples of pinot noir, and riesling here as well.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
AM: Sweet rieslings. Even off-dry rieslings are a bit passé. I’d love to see a shift towards drier, more Alsatian or Mosel-style rieslings. I’d like it to be so prevalent that crisp and dry becomes the norm. I’m tired of hearing people say “I don’t like sweet wines, so no riesling, please”. When I do encounter this kind of reluctance, I usually go right ahead an pour a splash in their aromatic white glass and somewhat force them into discovering how refreshing a crisp, dry riesling can be.
GFR: How open are your customers to Canadian wines?
AM: Most of our customers are actively seeking Canadian wine. We choose small producers to showcase what Ontario can do.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Canada (BC, Ontario et al.) also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
AM: Well, that’s just not right. Again, a wine should stand on its own merit. I can’t imagine myself promoting a wine that doesn’t meet my own standards of quality.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
AM: Quite aware, although it wasn’t part of daily life. Wine was reserved for special occasions like anniversaries, or Christmas. My parents are from Trinidad, so while wine wasn’t part of their regular repetoire, we always had a fantastic selection of rums, brandies, ports, and scotch. Which makes sense, considering the history of wine transport to the tropics. So I grew up thinking wine was very special. It was purchased and enjoyed purposefully and for celebration.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
AM: I was maybe seven years old and it was sparkling. Probably Asti Spumante!! I was fascinated by the pale lemon colour of the wine and its precious bubbles rising in my mum’s best stemware. I remember having a sip and being cruelly disappointed. After that, I was served ginger ale or Peardrax (a sparkling pear soda) in a crystal flute on these occasions.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
AM: While I don’t feel children should drink wine, they should be encouraged to smell what’s in mum or dad’s glass. Children can be taught wine colour, varietals, stemware. There’s so much about wine that can be taught (or learned) without drinking it. I always teach a small lesson to my niece and nephew when I’m pouring around them.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to being a Sommelier yourself?
AM: It was upon my move to Niagara-on-the-Lake that I decided that I need to be in the wine industry and I would do whatever it took to get there. I never imagined myself as a sommelier, and I’m pretty excited about the accomplishment.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
AM: About 10 years ago, my father-in-law said the word “sangiovese” to me. I didn’t realize it was the grape of Chianti. I think this was the spark that led me on a wine journey to becoming a sommelier. Somms are curious creatures who will read endlessly to sate their own questioning minds.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm a few years back I still worry about the emergence of a new Wine Bro culture… I’d love to hear your thoughts?
AM: My immediate thought: If you’re on the floor, you leave your ego at the door. My second thoughts: Hmm, I’m not sure Wine Bro culture is new. I’ve had moments where I really need to dig deep to showcase my knowledge. As a woman, it’s my best defense against Wine Bro culture: framing my knowledge to prove my expertise.
GFR: Speaking of which, we are having some really important conversations right now about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, and what can be done to eradicate it from the culture. I’d be interested to hear your take on the topic… big question I know, but I feel it’s a topic that deserves discussion.
AM: What can be done to eradicate it from the culture? Maybe we can teach our young boys how not to become sexual predators. There have always been programmes for women on how not to become a victim. Why not flip the coin? Women have faced harassment for ages. We know the difference between consensual versus unwarranted behaviour. We’ve taken the self-defense classes and checked our necklines and hemlines before stepping out the door. Eradicating sexual harassment isn’t just a matter how not to be victimized, it’s also a matter of not being a predator.
GFR: I could not agree more.
Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
AM: My trips to France and Italy were pre-certification, so although I’ve booted around some classic regions, I didn’t visit the way I would now. I have plans to tour Champagne in the new year. My family has a condo in Tuscany and I was meant to visit last summer to tour Chianti, Montalcino, and Cinque Terre. As the fates would have it, I had to postpone my trip, but it is definitely in the works.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
AM: No, and I’m pretty sure that’s a wise move.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
AM: In a pipe dream? Let’s go to Provence and bleed off some rosé!!
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
AM: Bottles. I like their symmetry and clean lines. There’s something about perfectly aligned bottles that makes me very happy.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
AM: I once worked as a research assistant for the groundwater lab at U of T. I was so excited to land the position but once I started working in the lab, I thought I would die of lack of human contact. I don’t think I lasted more than six months…
On the other hand, I’m pretty thrilled to be where I’m at right now. I work for one of the best restaurants in arguably the prettiest little town in Canada. I’m proud to be a somm, and I’m grateful to be part of a talented sommelier community in Niagara and Toronto.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
AM: Jennifer Huether, MS is a real role model for me. She taught me to be “confidently wrong”. To be bold in my conclusions and forthright in my observations. Her advice encourages me to take risks, as that’s the only way we learn and grow.
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
AM: I’m always impressed by Nicholas Pearce.
GFR: Do you have nightmares about working with wines? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar… and the clock is ticking away… I have them all the time, and I haven’t been in the role for over eight years!!!
AM: My nightmares are never about working with wines. Instead, I find myself at a strange university, having to write a final exam for a course I didn’t know I signed up for. I wake up feeling pretty impressed that I would just show up and wing it.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
AM: Is this a joke? Who gets Sunday off?? A perfect Sunday for me begins with a lie-in with my husband, a mimosa-filled brunch with friends, a long walk with my dogs, a nap in the afternoon, and a hearty dinner at home.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
AM: I like to eat and drink at Buca, Bar Raval, Momofuku Daishō, and Richmond Station. Kiin at 326 Adelaide St West is an absolute treasure. Inspired by royal Thai cuisine, their menu is replete with beautiful, artistic dishes.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
AM: I do cook! My mother-in-law has been handing down Tuscan family recipes to me. I make a mean Italian sausage and rapini dish with Romano beans. Paired with Chianti Classico, it’s a winter night’s dream meal.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
AM: Maybe once or twice in my life, but not recently. I’d like to think I’ve mastered my kitchen. Or maybe I need to venture out of my culinary comfort zone!
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
AM: Absolutely! We’ve got such great talent here, I really feel that we support each other. The sommelier network is tight enough that we see each other at tastings, lectures and other events.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
AM: Yes, of course! Somms are the best friends to have! My co-workers are like a second family and my classmates from CAPS are still happy to geek out with me over a bottle of wine or a quick jaunt to some wineries.
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? And how is it out in Niagara-On-The-Lake? as you are out there now!
AM: Toronto is a fantastic wine and cocktail city. I like the lists at Archive, e11even, and The Federal, but you’ll most often find me in the lobby of the Shangri-La. I like to drink in beautiful surroundings. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, you’ll find me at Backhouse, Treadwell, The Tide & Vine, and the Garrison House.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
AM: Not drinking as much wine…
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
AM: Music is critical to your restaurant environment and to a guest’s dining experience. For me, it’s always top of mind: it should be on, audible but not too loud. More upbeat and urban on weekend dinner service, loose and jazzy during lunch and weeknights.
GFR: Oooooooh… Jazzy. I’m not so sure about that. Working with that sort of stuff playing would probably turn me Postal.
Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
AM: Scarlett O’Hara gets drunk on Irish whiskey in a scene of Gone with the Wind. I also love the party shots of Holly Golightly’s apartment in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
AM: Yes. Many are impressed with the level of training it takes to be a sommelier. Others tease that it’s not a job at all!! A lot of my friends are wine savvy industry peeps, so they know the deal.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
AM: It’s a great tool to taste wine without preconception. I don’t mind the approach. And I do think it’s more than just a party trick.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
AM: Definitely without a hangover! I don’t do anything better with a bad hangover. Consider me dead to the world if I’m hungover. Ugh.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
AM: Burgundy is my favourite wine region at the moment. I’m addicted to Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Chardonnay. Maybe I’m addicted to Kimmeridgian soils. Chablis and Irancy never dissapoint me.
GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
AM: I get a lot of requests to taste the “orange” wines on my list. It’s trendy for all the wrong reasons. Usually a sip or two later, my guest feels like they’ve made a terrible mistake and I move quickly to put a glass in front of them that will meet their wine expectations and make them feel like they got it right. They will usually explain that they’ve read about orange wines in the newspaper and were expecting something much different.
GFR: Sorry, I’m laughing so much at that.
And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? I why do you feel that is?
AM: Hot climate, heavily-oaked Cabernet Sauvignon. I think the pendulum is swinging the other way, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Balance is key in wine and I love a winemaker who exercises restraint and a bit of discipline in showcasing what the vintage has to offer that year.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
AM: Any wine that is heavily marketed, or comes from a large continuum of brands is overrated for me. I prefer small-batch wines from small producers.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
AM: Braised beef short ribs with 2012 Stratus Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ll love it.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… New Year’s Resolutions…
What would you suggest to pair with them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
A person who has made a resolution to only drink sulphur free wines?
AM: I’ll resist the temptation to argue there isn’t a completely sulphur-free wine, and happily suggest the biodynamic wines of Pyramid Valley Vineyards. They do a long ferment to stabilize without adding sulphur during the winemaking process. Although I like their Howell Family Vineyard Cabernet Franc, I imagine this guest would enjoy their Grower’s Collection Kerner Orange Wine ‘On Skins’.
A person who has made a resolution to go to the gym four days a week?
AM: Shedding pounds? No wine, no sodas, no beer. Have a classic vodka martini, straight up — no olives. Garnish with a lemon twist.
A person who has made a resolution to stop eating meat? (so best wine with vegetarian dishes I guess)
AM: Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 for Thai and Indian curries. Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault for quinoa or other grain bowls. Rippon Mature Vine Pinot Noir for lentil stews.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
AM: I do often drink beers and spirits. I imagine I will always have a soft spot in my heart for a classic Negroni. I have a selection of Trinidad rums at home that I treat like gold. I will usually ask for a bottle of any family member returning from a trip to the Caribbean. There is always a bottle of Grey Goose in my freezer for a beautifully chilled
cocktail or martini on the spot. I like Hendrick’s Gin or in the summer I will visit Dillon’s Distillery in Beamsville for their Strawberry or Cherry or Rose Gin. Depending on the season, I will stock up on lagers, pilsners, IPAs, or stouts.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
AM: I’m in love with my job, but I hate losing my corkscrew! Why do I keep losing corkscrews??
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
AM: Hands down, the best tool is a double-hinged waiter’s key like a Pulltap’s or similar style.
GFR: Due to us 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?
AM: My limit is a bottle of wine, so 4 to 5 glasses. My wallet keeps me in check!
GFR: Now that is a good answer.
There’s a lot of open discourse right now around the topic of both drug and alcohol abuse within the restaurant world. Would you care to share a few of your thoughts about that side of the business? To be quite frank with you, the thing I miss the LEAST about working in that environment is the late nights of drinking and recreational pharmaceuticals. I don’t think my body could take it any longer anyway!
AM: It’s a challenging environment, especially if someone has alcohol/drug dependency or abuse issues. Do we turn a blind eye as an industry? I’m not sure we do. Open discourse and easy, non-judgemental access to medical treatment is the way to go.
GFR: Again with the spot-on answers.
Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
AM: Hmmm… I’ve never been cut off! Maybe this should be my New Year’s Resolution?
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure? None of the cures given to me by previous interviewees have really done the job for me…
AM: You’ll want to drink plenty of water for at least a day before indulging. Follow that with matching a glass of water for every drink while imbibing. Before you go to bed, take two Advil with a glass of… guess what? More water.
There’s a lot to be said for a pot of coffee and an egg and sausage breakfast; the caffeine, protein, and fats will help make you feel better. Sleep is imperative, you’ve slightly poisoned your body and it wants to get rid of toxins (damn you, congeners!) so rest up while your body heals itself. This isn’t much of a cure, just a regime.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
AM: Anywhere from 20 to 30 a week.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
AM: Most often I will spit. But, If a wine is exceptional, I want the full experience. How is it in the throat? In the stomach? Is it silky? Does it burn? How warm is it? I want to know all of that. So yes, I will swallow occasionally, and discreetly.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
AM: I’m working on a case of Ropiteau Frères Meursault and a case of Penfold’s Bin 2. You’re welcome to drop in for a glass.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
AM: 1997 Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo. It was so thrilling on the palate, I wished it would never end!
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
AM: Ha! At the end of a crazy day at work, whatever’s open will do! I am usually too tired to really enjoy something like a Barolo. I don’t want to think, so straightforward flavours like Vinho Verde, Riesling, Pinot Noir are what I reach for.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Astra… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
AM: I’d probably be an obscure varietal, like a Xinomavro or Plavic Mali. Something with a name most people haven’t heard before and will ask where it’s from. I’m a bit of a curiosity that way!
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Astra.
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 67th 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 is now GM at DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.