In the second of an fourteenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario. 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 a young lady named Renée Sferrazza who happens to look after the wine side of things at Toronto King West spot Portland Variety.
Good Food Revolution: So Renee, what is it that you are doing these days? (Your position, and what that role entails)
Renée Sferrazza: These days I’m at Portland Variety doing the Wine Direction and Education for the restaurant, as well as building a start-up wine agency, Heirloom Vine Imports Inc. My days are filled with thinking about how to teach wine, tastings, and reading, watching, learning about wine!
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
RS: I have been working in restaurants and the hospitality industry for almost ten years now, sometimes it has felt like an eternity of working but I have had some great experiences. I was always more of a learn on the job kind of person and gained most of my experience and training working with people I respected and wanted to learn from. Although it was working on an Italian vineyard that pushed me, head over heels into loving the possibilities of the wine.
GFR: How would you describe your role at Portland Variety?
RS: Essentially my role at Portland Variety is anything to do with wine. Which consists of assisting with the direction of the wine list, running the ongoing wine education program for the staff, creating a wine spec and food pairing bible, and forwarding the growth of wine sales.
GFR: You have worked in a number different types of places… how does Portland Variety compare?
RS: The funny thing about working at Portland Variety is that I had worked at the location before, when the restaurant was called KiWe. It’s hard to compare working at Portland Variety to other places I have worked, because I had worked there before I knew who I would be working for and I always liked the owners.
I think Portland Variety does a great job at understanding what their employees are good at and working with those strengths and interests, more so than any other place I have worked. To me it seems that I work for a company that understands that I want to accomplish more with my life than what I am doing right now.
GFR: How open do you find the clientele to trying new things when it comes to wines? Is there a specific style of wine that the demographic crave? And just what is that demographic?
RS: The clientele demographic at Portland Variety is the King Street young professional, ranging from young 20 somethings to a more mature crowd – a real cross section of society. We are the neighbourhood restaurant/office/bar, and our clientele mirrors that.
I have been finding that the plate of our guests is for fruit forward wines. Wines from California and Portugal are fan favourite and people seem open to trying anything Mediterranean.
GFR: I’m aware that you really enjoy the wine education side of things. How important do you feel that staff education is to a successful wine program? And how do you make it work at Portland Variety?
RS: To me this is the most important part of the wine program, knowledge is the key to great sales, hands down. The staff sells what they find familiar, what they enjoy, and they know our clientele personally; if we want to change the direction of the list or sell more we need to educate the staff.
My way of doing this making wine education as relatable and fun, they are learning about wine after all. Most importantly I never come in with an assumptions, people can ask any question they want, and there are no stupid questions. I run a general wine education class on Wednesdays, do floor shifts to assist they staff sell wine on half price Mondays, create detailed spec sheets on new products, and create food pairing charts.
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?
RS: If drinking the natural wine Kool aid is trying and buying wine that is, let’s say questionable at times, I don’t think i have fallen for it just yet.
I could listen to someone’s thoughts on new wine endlessly, but I am stubborn and let’s say a bit particular- so I tend to only try what calls out to me.
To me wine is already so interesting, and there are a lot of nuances in more accessible wines.
GFR: I have heard that you are also moving into the importation side of things? Please tell me a little about that?
RS: That’s right! Two other crazy winos and I decided to create a wine agency start up, called Heirloom Vine Imports Inc. It has been a really interesting and fun process so far. As anyone who owns a wine agency will tell you this is a job with a lot of hard work but hard work isn’t scary.
I have always wanted to work in a more global job which is what makes being an importer so interesting. Working with the LCBO for the trends and interests of our clientele, selling something from a faraway supplier sounds like a dream job to me – I know I must sound crazy.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
RS: It going to sound so simple a good agent is someone that listens, answers their emails quickly, and understands who their client is and what they can 100% deliver on. This is a long term relationship industry good agents are remembered and the best people always hang around.
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent?
RS: A bad agent is the opposite of all those good qualities, or a person with noticeable wine pretentiousness – that off putting “I know more than you snobbish-ness”- no one wants to buy in that environment.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
RS: I think I may be too harsh sometimes on Canadian wines, as I tend to be more of a fan of European wines. Currently I am enjoying the wines out of Prince Edward County, mainly Rosehall Run and Pearl Morissette, anything interesting and off the path I will defiantly be interested in tasting it.
GFR: And how do the Portland Variety clientele find Canadian wines?
RS: We don’t have many Canadian wines on our menu at Portland Variety, the plate of our client is more towards warmer climate wines so we have be sticking to wines from the Mediterranean and California mostly. We focus on a more Canadian beer selection at Portland Variety.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
RS: I think that Ontario does a great job with Gamay, from almost any winery I truly believe that Ontario is Gamay’s new world home. I am hoping that overtime great productions of Ontario Gamay supersedes ice wine and becomes what we are known for.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
RS: I really think we should give up on low quality wine productions in Ontario. So many great winemakers here making captivating products, in a market filled with wine made from “whatever was on hand”.
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?
RS: I completed a bachelor’s in Environmental Studies so the importance of local is crucial to living in a sustainable society, however I do not think that our impression of local wine should be of low quality.
I think that quality is important and I think that viticulturists in Ontario show take a more European approach and only make what they do best.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
RS: I am Italian and I grew up in a very Italian household, wine was always around and it was very much a part of daily life. We had a cantina in our basement filled with wine, both bought and homemade, very stereotypical.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
RS: I do remember the first time I had wine, because I remember that I didn’t like it. However that was because it was my Nonno’s homemade wine.
At my Nonno’s house there was always his homemade wine in litre sized pop bottles. He would mix it with sprite to make it more palatable, I tried without the sprite and it wasn’t as good. At the time I was 10 and I thought that wine just tasted like my Nonno’s homemade wine, until I was in university. That is when I really started to enjoy wine.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
RS: Firstly I think it is important for children to see appropriate drinking habits from their parents starting at a young age. A glass of wine or two with dinner is fine, showing children the appropriate way to interact with alcohol. I believe it is more about the associations the child makes but I wouldn’t give wine to a child under 10.
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?
RS: About two years ago is when I really started my career in wine. I had started by attending more industry events, followed by working in Italy on a winery.
Becoming a Sommelier always seemed like a great certification to have because it went hand in hand with my career goals in this industry. It feels like being a Certified Sommelier now is more of an expert in wine, the skills of which seem very transferable to a variety of roles.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
RS: I was working at the Good Son about two years ago and we did these bar education days, mainly run by Moses McIntee. I had worked places with education days before, but Moses and the GM at the time told us about varying events that were happening around the city.
As much as it is fun to take a class and learn in that environment, I think it’s a far more interesting experience to go and get a sense of a community. Going to all these wine events showed me that I really like the world of wine.
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?
RS: To be honest I really don’t mind the Bro culture, I am a bit of a Bro myself. Maybe that is why I don’t mind it.
I like meeting people with these crazy big personalities, the more into it the better. To me this is the entertainment of life.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
RS: I am hoping my future holds the opportunity to visit more wine regions around the world.
So far I have checked out a good hand handful of regions in the Italy, my favourite being Soave, they make one of my favourite white wines. In Italy I have been to wine regions in Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Marche and Sicily.
I have done the quintessential visit to Niagara’s vineyard, and hopefully visiting Prince Edward County in the near future.
It is one of my goals over the next couple of years to make it out to more regions in Europe and South America.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
RS: Despite growing up in a family that made their own wine, I never made my own! Shocking right?!
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
RS: In a pipe dream I think it would be fun to make wine in Germany, maybe some Riesling. It just seems like they have a well written science and instructions on how to make wine, should be easy to follow; I’m hoping….. Ideally.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
RS: I think I prefer to manage people, it’s hard to tell because sometimes I get fed up with managing people.
The reason why I think people is because my goal in any job I have had is to forward sales, very business-y I know, but I like to learn what people are good at and what they enjoy doing. Overall it has always been the people I work for, with or sell to that determine what bottles I will showcase.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
RS: My career in the aspects of the wine world is taking off, I am really liking where I am right now. My life at the moment is filled with hard work, good wine and great people, so I am pretty sure that I am currently in a high moment.
A low moment would be a couple of years back when I got so fed up of working evening in restaurants that I decided to make a big change. My worst moment was one terribly bad night where everything went wrong, a table ran out on a bill and I nearly broke my ankle.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
RS: I have mentioned him once already but Moses McIntee, a great friend and an amazing person, has always been someone I saw as a role model. Not for being a Sommelier but for his work ethic in the hospitality industry, he has a way of conducting himself with such conviction and knowledge. I do find a lot of young blood in this industry to be a bit cocky. I had learned from Moses that cocky-ness is great but if you have nothing to back it up with, no real hard work, what is there to be so cocky about.
Also I believe that Emily Pearce-Bibona is doing some amazing and truly awesome work. I think that her championing of women in wine is so refreshing, needed and appreciated. She is definably a force to be reckoned with, a great role model.
GFR: And for Wine Agents?
RS: Working to build Heirloom Vine Imports has opened up many pathways to learn from role models that have done the same things I want to accomplish.
Three people that come to mind are Franco Prevedello, Alex Patinios, and Eric Thomassin. They have accomplished the dreams I have and they have been very generous in sharing their time and knowledge with me, something so paramount in learning how to import wine.
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… in fact I had one last night!!! And I haven’t been in the role for over six and half years!!!
RS: I don’t just yet, but I just got past having nightmares from my years working on the restaurant floor. I know the feel, those dreams are so stressful.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
RS: My ideal Sunday would start later in the morning, I am really missing summer because chatting about great wine in the park is one of my favourite things to do.
I am so fond of bringing a couple bottles and picnic lunch to the park for a day of tasting, snaking and chilling with friends. Maybe pack a bottle of Prosecco, some Frappato, a nice crispy Riesling… oh the possibilities are endless.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
RS: Let’s see some of my favourite places to drink are Archive, The Good Son, Bar Raval, Le Select, La Palate and Boehmer. I am more of an explorer of new places than a regular, the places I go to most often are where good conversation and drinks can be had.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
RS: I love to cook, and I think I am pretty good at it. I am best at Italian food, no one can bet my homemade pizza or gnocchi. I am do a pretty mean pesto.
I grew up learning to cook, in Italian culture if you can’t cook you can’t survive.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
RS: Luckily I haven’t had any disasters recently, although I remember back when I was first perfecting my pizza dough recipe I had eaten a lot of uber-subpar pizza.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
RS: Lately I have been meeting a fair bit of young people in process of becoming Sommeliers, like me. The community itself is very tight knit, I think that there is a fairly substantial community of Sommeliers in Toronto but you have to be at the right place at the right time to meet them.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
RS: It feels like all I do now is hang out with Sommeliers and people of the wine industry. Loving wine has a way of invading all parts of life, I talk about wine constantly, I think I have turned my friends into wine enthusiast.
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?
RS: Toronto is definitely a wine, cocktail and food culture city, every time a guest that asks me what is the food or drink of Toronto I never have an answer for them. I think it is amazing how much food and beverage culture is in this city. Every bar and restaurant is creating a different expression of the culture they know.
I am a big fan of the bar hop, start of at Rush Lane for a cocktail, head to Marben for dinner, Portland Variety for some after dinner wine, over to Bar Fancy for a cocktail before dancing at a party or the Drake. There are so many possibilities for a night out in this city, it just depends on what you feel like doing.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
RS: My original plan, back when I was in university was to be a diplomat. I have only every dreamed to work in a global job and I have always enjoyed working in government. My previous experience before starting this career involved working with the Pembina Institute, the City Institute of UTF in conjunction with city hall, and the Clean Air Alliance.
Due to the political climate of working in the Environmental field because of the Harper government I had to change my career path.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
RS: I love it! As long as the music suits the vibe, if it is too noticeable I start to question how good could the restaurant be.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
RS: Oz and James’ Big Wine Adventure! I could watch every episode of this BBC release a million times over. It is just so light hearted, it mirrors what I think of wine and the wine world. Because with wine you could be an expert and get lost in the pretentiousness of it, or you could be an enthusiast and get lost in enjoying wine. Putting those two thoughts together, chatting about what wine is and really enjoying it, is what this show does best.
GFR: I know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
RS: My non-industry friends don’t seem to mind me rattling on about wine, as long as I have an open bottle in front of them.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
RS: Blind tasting is definitely a skill, a skill I wish I was better at. I think to enthusiasts it will always remain the party trick, but it is highly impressive to see a mind filled with knowledge pin-point what exactly is in the glass.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
RS: Ah then we are the same, I am must better at blind tasting with a hangover. All my senses are in need of being recalibrated at that point, somehow that becomes the prefect moment to blind taste. And if I am tasting the previous night’s wine I should get the blind tasting right, don’t you think.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
RS: Right now I am obsessed with Sicily, I have been buying everything in site from the island. I think it is quickly becoming my favourite, I just love Sicilian wines!
GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
RS: I am pretty sure that volcanic wines are the big thing right now. Which I think is amazing! What a great “hot” item, it is so easy to sell. “Try this wine, it is grown on a volcano!”
Who doesn’t want to try something that was produced on a volcano? This is a great trend because it is a trend with some innately complex wines but from a very understandable place. Sommeliers want in and customers are down to try volcanic wines just for the novelty. I am a big fan of any trend that brings great wine and a concept that the general public can enjoy.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? I why do you feel that is?
RS: I have been seeing fewer and fewer varietal productions lately, and I have tasted some amazing blended wine recently.
I think that the public is more open to blends at the moment with the wines coming out of Portugal. I get the sense that unique varietals and blends are going to be more popular than same old varietal productions we have classically seen.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
RS: I know people always say Pinto Grigio but I feel like Malbec is often overrated. I have so many people order it without looking at a menu, and I would be curious to see what else could grow in Mendoza.
My opinions on if something is overrated are very Toronto hipster in nature, if too many people like something I may think it is inherently overrated.
There are some absolutely killer Argentinian Malbecs out there… I’m really digging so many of the higher altitude ones these days… think tonnes of blueberries and a very particular violety floral character.
What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
RS: My current favorite pairing is a Touriga Nacional. It a great wine for the season as it pairs best grilled or braised meats and hardy vegetables. The high tannins and fruity notes of this wine is complemented are best with well-seasoned, hardy winter dishes.
I am also a big fan of an Inzolia with a nice mushroom risotto or leafy winter green salad. Moderately aromatic with those nutty, citrusy, herbal notes I think it is a great white wine for the season.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… Toronto stereotypes.
What would you suggest to pair for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1. The Tattooed Parkdale Polyamorist out on a first date. Dressed to impress. Although I get the feeling that they don’t know too much about wine… ?
RS: My recommendation is a glass of Sancerre or a White Negroi.
Tattooed and from Parkdale they might not know much about wine but with a glass of Sancerre you could always throw out the fact that the wine is actually made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes and is simple from Sancerre. Same with the White Negroi
These are both a different take on something well known, both are great drinks to look impressive, knowledgeable and just hipster enough.
2. The Roncesvalles Mom on a rare night out with her friends. Usually like a wee Pinot Grigio. Quite conservative in her tastes?
RS: My recommendation is to try an Albarino.
On a night out she doesn’t want to stray too far from the familiar. An Albarino with its fresh acidity, floral and fruity- citrus notes is reminiscent of her usual choice and also very easy drinking.
3. The Leaside Forty-something who thinks that everything on the East side is better? Just got back from a vacation in Chile, and now refuses to drink anything but Chilean wines.
RS: My recommendation is a Sauvignon Gris
A pink berried mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, originally from Bordeaux it has found its new home in Chile. This grape makes a velvety textured wine with fruit notes of mango, melon and citrus. This is a great wine for the more informed enthusiast obsessed with Chilean wines.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
RS: I will often drink ciders when I am having a lighter evening with friends, and I am a sucker for a gin and tonic with cumber.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
RS: Probably that people ask me constantly if I am as good as “the guys from the Somm documentary”. I find that people are curious about the wine world but often have only this as a point of reference.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
RS: Anything really, as long as it opens the bottle. A classic corkscrew with a hinge would be the most prefer but I have opened bottle with pens in the past.
GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system… has it changed the playing field?
RS: I think it is great for small agencies because than can keep more expensive bottle for tasting on hand longer. In my view that is currently the only upside as it is not popular enough and too expensive at the moment to be use full-swing in restaurants.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
RS: As an environmentalist at heart I think the screwcap is a great way to elevate the stress on cork production. That being said it depends on what wine is in the bottle. In my opinion young wine would benefit more from the use of a screwcap, but for a wine that is meant to be aged I think I cork is best.
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?
RS: My limit is two bottles, or four ciders, or four gin and tonics. I usually drink a lot of water in-between, which help with hangovers. Lately I have been working on keeping my tolerance up, as I tend not to drink as much when I am working.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
RS: I have never in my life been cut off, or thrown out. I am hoping I can keep it that way as I am a good girl at heart, or at least I would like to think that.
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure?
RS: My hangover cure is simple. A glass of tomato juice before bed flowed by a B Complex vitamin, lots of water and at least 2 hours in bed watching TV before talking to any human beings the following morning.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
RS: Currently I average at tasting about 8-10 wines a week, unless I am selecting new wines for a menu then the number jumps starkly to 30 wines a week. I am on the slow and steady path of improving my blind tasting abilities at the moment.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
RS: I rarely ever spit, I probably should spit but I forget the second the wine is in my mouth.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
RS: At my house we have currently gone Beaujolais crazy! Usually we have a good selection of French sparkling, Vinho Verde is always around, and some Chianti on hand for all the pizza I make.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
RS: A Soave Classico in Soave. I will never forget it, and every time I drink Soave I remember this moment. Sitting outside a café in Soave, looking down the street at Peter Pan winery on a warm sunny Italian day. I remember wanted to go to Soave that day and the wine is simple unforgettable.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
RS: At the end of a long crazy day I will most likely finish a bottle of Prosecco. I usually like to start my evenings with sparkling after work, sparkling wine always puts me in a good mood. Plus it is so easy drinking.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Renee… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
RS: If I had to choose I would best represented by the Falanghina grape, the Italian varietal famous for its role in Roman wine and inspiration of Falerno Del Massico DOC. It thrives in volcanic soil, personally my soil type, and makes a light white wine with note of citrus blossom, apple, and pear with spicy mineral notes.
Falanghina is a complex wine made from an ancient grape, if I were to be any varietal I would want to be this interesting beauty.
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.