In the third of a tenth (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 weeks sees the turn of Ms. Brie Dema, one of the Sommeliers in the magnificent team at Langdon Hall.
Good Food Revolution: So Brie, what is it that you are doing these days? What is your role at Langdon Hall?
Brie Dema: I’m a Sommelier at Langdon Hall- we have a team of three.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
BD: I’ve worked in the service industry for about a decade – from slinging beers in pubs to fine dining. My role in wine really began about five years ago.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you typically like to deal with when buying wine for an establishment?
BD: I don’t really think there is an ideal number. It’s more about the needs of your wine program. I would ballpark that we work with 10-15 agents- and several Ontario wineries directly as well. It’s all about maintaining the list and sourcing the best product to do so.
GFR: What is your favourite part of the Sommelier role?
BD: I love working the floor… is that the typical Sommelier response? I’d bet that it is and for good reason. I got into this role because I genuinely love making guests happy. Part of that is also being able to broaden someone’s view or experience in the world of wine, and add a little fun while doing that.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
BD: I really like agents that are familiar with your restaurant and wine program. They understand what fits well on your list, and get excited to share wines that they could see working well for you.
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent?
BD: Someone who doesn’t take the time to get to know your restaurant, or who lacks passion for the industry.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
BD: I’ve been loving Ontario Riesling and Gamay this summer… and every summer… year round really. So many great examples, and really diverse styles, but all have that Ontario signature.
GFR: There are so many Ontario wineries now. How do you choose who you are going to work with?
BD: There are certainly lots of fantastic Ontario wineries to work with, and choosing which to list is hard. We have some great longstanding relationships with wineries that have worked well with our cuisine and our philosophies. I think that maintaining a good representation of Ontario is important for us.
GFR: What could Canadian wineries do to help get their wines onto the wine lists of the best restaurants? Do you think that they give the restaurants enough support?
BD: I think that the great majority of Canadian wineries are very supportive of the restaurant scene. It’s always a plus when a winery can connect with your guests in person. We do a summer BBQ series that features Ontario chefs alongside Ontario winemakers. It’s a lot of fun for the guests to meet and put a face or story to the wines they are enjoying.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
BD: We do a lot of things really well here in Ontario. I tend to gravitate towards Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cabernet Franc produced here. Why? They show well in different vintages, despite making different styles from warm to cool years.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
BD: Well, Mother Nature is pretty good about showing us which sites work best for which varietals. I think it’s not so much about giving up on a particular varietal, but maybe just finding its ideal vineyard home. We have climate related challenges for sure here.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Ontario also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
BD: There is so much good Ontario wine out there that you don’t have to promote wine of lesser quality just because it is homegrown. Focus on the good!
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
BD: Wine was not a major part of the dining table at home growing up. It was much more common for my family to enjoy beer, or Slivovitz- an Eastern European fruit brandy.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
BD: Not particularly. I sure remember my first taste of Slivovitz- certainly not built for young palates. My dad probably had a good laugh at my reaction to it. It was my experience in restaurants that introduced me to wine. Pinot Noir and its ethereal aromas were one of my first loves in the world of wine.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
BD: I think that there are different cultural views on this topic that should be respected. At the end of the day this decision should be left up to the parents. We should also remember that tasting wine and drinking it to be intoxicated are totally different. I identify with the ‘European’ view, where a teenager might have a small taste of wine with the family at home. Again, it’s about what works for you and your family.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it always with a view to being a Sommelier yourself?… or did you always want to be an agent?
BD: I’m so happy that I landed on a career in wine. Being a Sommelier came along first because of my hospitality background, and I’m loving it (cue McDonalds music). I love that there are so many roles one can play in the world of wine, and I’m not really sure which ones I’ll explore yet. For now, I’m beyond content.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
BD: The restaurant environment really gave me my first insights into wine. I also have an ex-boyfriend- now good friend- that worked for a wine agency and encouraged me to start the WSET program. I definitely owe him a bottle of bubbly for his role in me finding my path.
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?
BD: Being down to earth and approachable are really good traits to have. It’s important to realize that there is a lot to know in our field of study, and if you are pretentious you might miss out on learning opportunities. Plus, it’s just not that fun to be around pretentiousness. Good thing I haven’t encountered it much in my experience in the Sommelier world.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
BD: France, Northern Italy, BC, and the Finger Lakes. Seems like a tiny list in comparison to where I’d like to visit, but the exploring I’ve done so far has been really eye opening.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
BD: No, but that would be an amazing experience!!
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
BD: I fell in love with the rolling hills and amazing culture of Piedmont when I was there this summer. It would be a dream to make wine there.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
BD: I love working with people, but I think I’d prefer to manage bottles. Less drama involved I guess.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
BD: Career high is landing at Landgon Hall. Career low? We all have off days and low points, and its best not to dwell on them.
GFR: Always thinking in the positive… and admirable trait, Brie.
Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
BD: You come to mind, Jamie. I like your down to earth, yet direct approach to wine. That paired with your, shall we say, joie de vivre, really shows the fun side of wine. There’s a wealth of great Sommeliers in Toronto who are very supportive of people starting out in the industry, like Bruce Wallner and Will Predhomme. Katy Moore is a very important role model for me, so full of knowledge and always willing to share it.
And for Wine Agents?
BD: I’ve met a lot of great wine agents. Nicholas Pearce comes to mind, I really like his passion. Steven Campbell is a great role model as well.
GFR: Do you still 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… in fact I had one last night!!! And I haven’t been in the role for over five years!!!
BD: That’s too funny, yes I have had work related nightmares. That running in sand feeling when you’re five steps behind during service, or I’ve had ones revolving around turning old corks to dust tableside. Do you think that accountants have accounting nightmares? Or that kindergarten teachers have bad dreams of being mobbed five year olds?
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
BD: I live in Kitchener-Waterloo, which is west of Toronto and close to some nice walking and hiking trails. I try to get out there as much as possible on days off. I also like down time that involves homemade meals, good wine, and hopefully friends and family to share it with.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our Cambridge?
BD: My favourite after work spot is the White Rabbit in Waterloo. It has a great cocktail list and a fantastic spirits selection focused on whisk(e)y. Great menu as well, and who doesn’t love snacks and bourbon after a long work night? I know that we don’t have as big of a dining or bar scene as Toronto, but I’m super proud of the passionate small business owners in the area doing their thing. It’s not easy owning an establishment in a small dining scene, and as consumers we have to support that scene for it to grow. A must visit KW restaurant is Public Kitchen and Bar, which has delicious and creative small plates, and a fun cocktail list.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
BD: I love to cook, but working with people that have cooking talent is humbling. I’m really simple in what I like to prepare, but try new things when I’m feeling bold. I cook vegetarian dishes quite often, maybe because I haven’t mastered the perfect sear on a steak yet. I’ll leave that to the pros for now.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
BD: Yes, and it usually stems from distraction. I like to cook with good music on and a glass of white or a cocktail on the go. Let’s just say that my favourite pizza place is saved in my phone.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Ontario?
BD: Yes! I’ve gotten the chance to spend more time with some amazing Toronto based Sommeliers, and it’s a really great community there- super welcoming and fun. It’s nice to meet talented and passionate individuals that are so down to earth.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers and/or Wine Agents?
BD: I do- west of the city is a smaller community of Sommeliers and agents, but still full of that same sense of camaraderie. I’ve met some lifelong friends through interests in wine, and have had many a great night tasting wine or just kicking back with like-minded friends.
GFR: When you come into Toronto, 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?
BD: I don’t get into the city as much as I’d like to, for social purposes anyways. I really like Archive 909, Bar Isabel, and Rush Lane. You guys are really lucky to have so many great options to choose from, and if anyone has a great suggestion for me I’m always open to checking out a place I haven’t been to.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
BD: Growing up I wanted to be an astronaut/ballerina/marine biologist (really?)/writer/artist/sunflower, so maybe one of those things. I was a bit of a dreamer as a child. Not much has changed I guess.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
BD: Love it! As long as it’s in the background for dining, and suited to the vibe of the place. I think good, loud tunes at a late night spot can be a highlight of a night out.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
BD: A scene in a movie doesn’t come to mind, but this meme I found online made me spit out coffee from laughing so hard. I’m not even sure if its authentic but if so Jimmy Fallon gets it.
GFR: I’m know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
BD: My friends are happy that I do what I love, despite the sometimes antisocial hours. It’s hard to watch friends go to cottages or baseball games in the summer and not be able to go along, but the good friends understand why you can’t.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
BD: It’s one of the most humbling parts of tasting, and should be done at every opportunity when studying.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
BD: I’m not sure, but maybe I’ll put that one to a test.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
BD: It’s hard to choose! Piedmont and the Loire are consistent go-to regions for me.
GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now?
BD: I’ve found more and more people are gravitating towards wines that have unique qualities, and that speak to their sense of place. Guests are looking for a new experience, testing new waters so to speak. It’s so great to celebrate diversity.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour?
BD: Homogenized cookie cutter wines. Not sure that they were ever ‘in’ in the first place.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
BD: Not particularly, I think that all quality wine has a place, purpose and audience that appreciates it.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
BD: Fresh Ontario peaches in a salad with fresh greens paired with an off dry but vibrant Riesling.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but this time with musicians who performed at the Collosioni festival
What would you suggest for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
BD: I recall that Sting collaborated on a wine label. I haven’t tried it, but that wine maybe. His music certainly went well with the 2011 Marchesi di Barolo Cannubi that we enjoyed while watching his show.
2. Mark Knopfler
BD: Something super mellow, like Chamomile tea. Why? Because both make you feel a little sleepy.
3. Mick Hucknall
BD: I hear he’s an avid fan of Tennent’s Super Strong Lager.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
BD: Yes for sure- I’m a big whisk(e)y fan, and have been known to enjoy a cocktail from time to time.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
BD: It’s a bit of a fringe lifestyle in a way- working weekends and holidays. At the end of the day, I do it because I love it, but it’s just important to make sure you balance work and home life.
GFR: And as a Wine Agent?
BD: I haven’t worked as a wine agent, but I hear that ‘life on the road’ can be taxing.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
BD: I have this inexpensive Pulltex corkscrew that I purchased in St Emilion that I just can’t bear to part with. It’s probably close to retirement. Time for an update, and my eye is on a Code 38.
GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system… has it changed the playing field?
BD: It definitely gives a freedom to pour high end wines at the restaurant, and I’ve heard that agents really enjoy working with them.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
BD: It’s a hot debate, and guests that ask my opinion usually don’t realize how many wines are affected by oxidation or other issues under cork. I support both screwcap and cork for different reasons I guess.
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?
BD: I actually don’t have a high tolerance for alcohol for whatever reason. It’s great to be able to reach for a Radler or a Kabinett Riesling, or a low alcohol drink when you don’t want to feel the effects of consuming booze. Remember, it’s a game of Chess, not Checkers.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?… I think I have witnessed you being cut off actually.
BD: I’ve been to some pretty rowdy weddings that I’m sure the bar staff were happy for last call. It’s always been in harmless good fun though.
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
BD: A Jedi mindset- there is no hangover. Or pizza, Netflix, and the day off are also effective.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
BD: It can be hard being west of the city to taste frequently, but we taste a lot at work. I taste more with Bruce Wallner now, and that’s been amazing.
GFR: When tasting with clients do you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
BD: This summer has been an exploration of rosé and Cru Beaujolais. My go to at home ‘house’ wines definitely change often.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
BD: 1924 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. A historically important bottling that was still showing good drinkability, and crazy complexities of age.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
BD: I reach for Scotch or Bourbon after a tough service.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Brie… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
BD: Loire Chenin Blanc maybe? Fun and funky, and becomes layered with age? It’s funny to think of being a grape instead of a cheese.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Brie!… and thanks for doing this.
BD: Thank you Jamie!!
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.