In the fourth of an twelfth (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 interview one of the hardest working women in the business. Lorie O’Sullivan has been working as a Sommelier in Toronto for many a year. With her just recently taking on the prestigious role of Sommelier at The Ritz-Carlton Toronto, we felt that the time was right to shine the spotlight on this remarkably talented lady.
Good Food Revolution: So Lorie, what is it that you are doing these days?
Lorie O’Sullivan: I’ve taken the job as Head Sommelier for TOCA restaurant located in the Ritz Carlton. I’m responsible for buying wines, maintaining the list, inventory, staff training, and my favourite part, recommending great wines to our guests at the hotel.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
LO’S: Before that I was looking after things at the Platinum Club at the ACC since 2006. I have to give a shout out to April Kilpatrick that hired me as a Stagier for the Ruth Chris Steakhouse which was truly my first gig as Sommelier. She then recommended me to Jennifer Huether at the ACC. I was also hired at Touro Brazilian Steakhouse to oversee their wine program when it first opened. This gave me a great perspective on how to manage your own list. I also recommend wines to The Lakeview Restaurant which I’m proud to say is an all-Ontario list.
GFR: How would you describe your wine program at The Ritz?
LO’S: A fantastic selection of Italian wines to pair with our cuisine with a big splash of Canadian, French, and American (mostly California) wines to round out the list.
GFR: You have worked in so many different types of places… how does The Ritz compare?
LO’S: We do have a lot of guests similar to those of the Platinum Club, but they’re more open to having wine pairings as well as trying a wine from Ontario for the first time. For me, it’s really exciting to persuade some try an Ontario wine – et voila – they absolutely love it!
GFR: How open do you find the Ritz clientele to trying new things when it comes to wines?
LO’S: It depends. Out of town guests are much more open to trying new wines, especially when it comes to Canadian wines, while on the weekends we see a lot more local guests that prefer the usual suspects, like the big California or Italian names.
GFR: When managing a list, how do you select who to work with?
LO’S: When I came to the Ritz, there were already some relationships in place that I continue to work with, but I’ve brought in a few more agents that have a great portfolio that fits with what I’m trying to build at TOCA. My decisions are based on what my guests are asking for and what I think my guests will enjoy.
GFR: Now, how do I word this? Have you drunk the Natural Wine Kool Aid? I’m just kidding, how do you feel about the scene?
LO’S: Of course I have. I’ve tasted some great Natural Wines and some that were not so great. I think it’s still a growing scene in Toronto and if it works, that’s great. On the other hand, I’ve never had a guest ask me for a Natural Wine so I don’t think that those wine work for my clientele.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
LO’S: One that really communicates with you and knows your list well, makes recommendations based on my needs. It’s important to me that my agents keep me informed on pricing, vintage, or supply changes for wines that are on my list. I really appreciate an agent that can make deliveries in a pinch if suddenly I have a last minute need that exceeds the inventory I have on hand.
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent?
LO’S: One that doesn’t let you know that a wine I’m serving by the glass is out of stock during one of your busiest periods. At a recent meeting, an agent spent more time engaged with their phone than they did with me. That’s probably not the best way to endear yourself to a Somm.
GFR: Haha… I think I know who you are referring to!
How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
LO’S: I’m from Niagara and, unequivocally, I love Canadian wine! I grew up on the bench in Jordan, Ontario, and some of my favourites are Henry of Pelham, Flat Rock, Cave Spring, Tawse, Sue Ann Staff, Fielding, Hidden Bench, Peninsula Ridge, and Organized Crime. From Niagara-on-the-Lake I dig Stratus, 2027, Hillebrand/Trius, and Southbrook. I’m also an unabashed fan of Norman Hardie and his place is a must stop on the way to Sandbanks Provincial Park. There’s a lot of great stuff coming out of BC, but my heart will always remain in Niagara.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
LO’S: Riesling is my personal favourite, but Chardonnay, Gamay, Pinot Noir, and especially Cabernet Franc also rank high on my palate. I’m a huge fan of Cabernet Franc, it’s highly food friendly, has great acidity and medium tannins, so it’s perfect with pasta in a red sauce.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
LO’S: I’m of the perspective that if you’re growing something not traditionally suitable for Ontario conditions, but yet it works and you have people that love it, then go for it. Variety is the spice of life, but sometimes you have to be realistic.
GFR: That’s a good point.
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?
LO’S: This is a bit of a touchy subject. If we’re promoting local wine, then the quality should be excellent, which lends a lot of credibility to wines made locally. The other side of the issue is that sometimes people show an unfounded bias against Ontario wines and I don’t think that’s a balanced perspective. It’s easy to say that wines from certain regions are better than others, but if you’re not open minded about wine, then what’s the point?
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
LO’S: Definitely a very early age. My grandfather is Irish and my grandmother is Italian, both on my dad’s side. Every Sunday, my Nana would have us over for home made spaghetti and meatballs. Yes, I was spoiled. There was always a bottle of wine on the table, either home made from Concord or Lambrusco grapes, or sometimes Baby Duck. I remember the Baby Duck bottle because of the cute baby chick on the label.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
LO’S: My grandfather always gave me a tiny glass of wine cut with ginger ale so wine always tasted sweet to me. It wasn’t until the early nineties that I discovered Cave Spring and Peller Estates and had my first Riesling that got me thinking that good wines could come from Ontario.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
LO’S: I introduced my son to wine when he was around the age of four, but he’s never really liked it. “This smells like alcohol,” he’s always said. Now that he’s a lot older, he says he likes beer much more. For now, my wine cellar seems to be safe.
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?
LO’S: I was a law clerk before I became a Sommelier and I was really drawn to pairing wine with food. I started taking classes through ISG and I was hooked. I also knew I wanted to work in restaurant so I worked at a high end restaurant three nights a week as food runner to learn the dishes and understand more about pairing food with wine. For many years I was a law clerk by day and worked in a restaurant at night. Sort of like Supergirl, but instead of super powers, I knew I could taste pretty well.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
LO’S: When I was at college getting my law clerk diploma, I worked for Andres Wine in one of those kiosks in a grocery store. I remember tasting people on wine and that’s when I discovered that we do make decent wine in Ontario. I also learned about VQA wines and how important that was for local wines.
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?
LO’S: I disagree here. There are lots of emerging female Sommeliers and I think we are dragging the world of Somms up a notch or two. Also, I have the opportunity to travel with Sommeliers from all over the world and I think we are starting to see less of this bro culture with younger generations coming into the field. I’d like to think that female Somms bring some balance to the culture.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
LO’S: Oregon (Willamette Valley), Washington State (Walla Walla), Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Argentina, Portugal, and Germany.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
LO’S: Personally I’d rather leave that to the experts. However if this is a pipe dream and I’ve become a gifted winemaker then it would be Burgundy preferably in the Côte du Nuits.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
LO’S: Definitely bottles. I’m very fortunate to have a job where I just manage bottles and it allows me to give my guests and the wine list the attention each deserves.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
LO’S: Working in the Platinum Club and allowing me the opportunity to learn and grow as a Sommelier. I worked with so many great people there and built relationships with guests that now they come to see me at the Ritz. I haven’t had too many lows, other than a restaurant that didn’t pay me, so I had to the take them court. The good news was that I won and I finally got paid. That law clerk background certainly came in handy!
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
LO’S: We have a few in the city. Will Predhomme runs a regular tasting group which is awesome. Jennifer Huether is my former boss at the ACC and is a great mentor to me. I learned so much working with her and she gives a lot of her time to Sommeliers going for their Advanced and MS by running boot camps, tasting groups, and one-on-one sessions. She was also instrumental in brining Guild Somm to Ontario. I have to mention Serge Janjic (Treasury Wines) who just passed the MS theory portion and Julie Garton (Oxley).
GFR: And for Wine Agents?
LO’S: B&W, The Vine, Lifford, Nicholas Pearce, Le Sommelier, Halpern, Stem Wine Group, and Trialto all do so much for the Sommelier community by offering master classes, lunches and dinners with pairings, and tastings with winemakers.
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!!!
LO’S: That has definitely happened to me – or worse where I’m pouring wine and I’ve accidently spilled it on customer!
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
LO’S: I tend to be a homebody on my days off, so going for a walk then a great dinner with a bottle from cellar is what I do. In the summer, you’ll find me poolside in Grimsby at my dad and stepmom’s house.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
LO’S: I love Bobbi-Sue’s mac and cheese and I take it home to pair with a buttery rich Chardonnay! Otherwise, if I go out, the cocktails and tequila at Los Colibris are delicious, and right across the street from work.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
LO’S: I do cook! I make amazing Italian meatballs!
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
LO’S: Only when I make cookies and am also drinking wine and then forget to the set the timer!
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
LO’S: I do. When I first started working as Sommelier in 2006 there really wasn’t much of one but lately over the last five years one is finally emerging in thanks to CAPS, Guild Somm, and wine agents in town.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
LO’S: I do! But our interests are now beyond just wine, which makes for some solid friendships.
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?
LO’S: I think we have a great wine and cocktail city. Archive nails it with an outstanding BTG program. For cocktails, Byblos or Westlodge and I’m dying to go to Imanishi Japanese Kitchen.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
LO’S: No doubt, I’d be a law clerk working for a top firm in the city with an even more epic wine cellar.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
LO’S: Nothing cheesy, but I think music is essential. Personally I prefer something uplifting and modern…how do you describe “chill out music”? I’m not naming names to avoid ridicule!
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
LO’S: Sideways, when Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, visits a diner, drinks the ‘61 Cheval Blanc out of paper cup and pairs it with a burger.
GFR: I know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
LO’S: They think it’s really cool, but I think that they secretly think I go around with a buzz on all the time.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
LO’S: It always fun and keeps your senses sharp.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
LO’S: Depends on the quality of the hangover. If it’s a mild one, I’m actually better, but if it’s a killer, then I don’t even want to see, let alone smell, a glass of wine.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
LO’S: Equally Oregon and Burgundy.
GFR: In your mind, as a Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now?
LO’S: High acid wines. I’m personally trying to make Soave hot again.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour?
LO’S: California Syrah. It’s all about the mighty Cabernet on my list.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
LO’S: Definitely natural wines. A hit and miss in my books and some I’ve tasted just seem like lazy wine making with the hipster attitude thrown in. Kids, if you think you’re cool, you’re not.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
LO’S: Ricotta ravioli & meatballs with a Chianti Classico.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… Canadian Prime Ministers
What would you suggest to pair with them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1: Justin Trudeau
LO’S: Negroni then a good bottle of Musigny!
2. Jean Chretien
LO’S: Bordeaux perhaps a ‘95 Chateau Margaux (that’s been open for hours) to reminisce about his days as PM.
3. Stephen Harper
LO’S: Diet Coke. He doesn’t strike me as a sophisticated drinker.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
LO’S: I do! I like the occasional beer and I’m a mojito girl, but only in South Beach.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
LO’S: Administrative work for sure.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
LO’S: Pulltaps corkscrew.
GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system… has it changed the playing field?
LO’S: I think it’s changed the playing field in a positive way. I’m fortunate enough to have one at work. It’s great because sometimes I have guests that want to have a higher end wine by the glass. Usually, though, I end up selling the entire bottle or if there is a bit left, I’ll open it and do a staff tasting. It’s a win-win for me.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
LO’S: As long as the wine is good, it really doesn’t matter to me. If I’m busy then I really appreciate the screwcap so I can get to the next table faster. Most of my customers feel the same way. As long as the wine is great, why does it matter how its capped?
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?
LO’S: I actually have a much lower tolerance than people think, so I drink in moderation and make sure I have lots of water. I always tell people that water is your best friend when you’re out for drinks.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time? I don’t think that I’ve ever heard about you getting cut off?
LO’S: Ha! I’ve always cut myself off before someone’s had to tell me!
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
LO’S: I try not to get hangovers but when I do a big glass of water and 2 Advils do the trick.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
LO’S: Twenty-five to fifty, but that depends on the week.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
LO’S: I usually spit but if it’s something delicious then I will swallow.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
LO’S: For a white it’s been an Ontario Riesling and for red, an Oregon Pinot Noir.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
LO’S: 1990 Mouton Rothschild. We use to have three bottles at the Ritz and I sold one to a guest who shared a glass with me. It was so elegant.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
LO’S: A nice buttery Chardonnay with a bowl of popcorn.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Lorie… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
LO’S: Grüner Veltliner. Quirky, fun, and gets along well with others, but can sometimes have a slight edge!
GFR: Thanks so much, Lorie!
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.