In the third 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 Rob Miller, a man about town for many a year, sitting down in the chair for our own particular brand of GFR interrogation… and this time we added a few tricker questions.
Trigger warning… Mr. Miller has a bit of a potty mouth.
Good Food Revolution: So Rob, what is it that you are doing these days?… I know you are a busy fellow, so I am intrigued how you juggle all this stuff?
Rob Miller: I’m not sure how I juggle as much as I do but things seem to fall in place. I’m very lucky that the restaurants I work with and the agency I work for are open with my scheduling and work with me on how I can fit in.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
RM: Oh, man. I’m going to date myself if I tell you all the experience I have. This will have to be a new series, The Old Bastard Somms?
GFR: Strangely enough, I am actually working on something for 2018!
RM: I’ve been working in and around restaurants since the early ’90s in a variety of roles… from bussing tables to hosting to serving to bartending to managing and then finally into the wine programs. Most of the 90s I was with a chain that wasn’t known for its wine lists to say the least. My closest friends worked in some of Toronto’s top restaurants at the time… The Fifth, Rosewater, Avalon and so on. We’d get together after work and they’d bring these crazy btls of wine and I’d show up with my Smirnoff Ice. Eventually I decided if I was going to stay in the industry I’d have to up my game and learn more about the good juice.
I took a Wine 101 course at George Brown and the hook was in. I left restaurants for a while and went to work as a Product Consultant with the LCBO for about 5 years in the early ’00s. I still did some part-time restaurant gigs, notably at the Distillery when it opened but that was more for social purposes than any real development. I left the LCBO in ’06 and returned to restaurants full time with a little more wine knowledge but no real plan per se. I always enjoyed opening restaurants… setting systems in place, the crazy long hours to start and the like but got bored with the mundane day to day. Not exactly what you need for a long term restaurant career. I was back and forth between London (my home town) and Kitchener-Waterloo (home for the last 8 years) trying to figure out what was going to make the most sense for me. what was my ultimate goal, was there an exit strategy, etc?
I did Somm work at a private club, opened up two very successful restaurants in the region as part of the opening teams and was doing some WSET teaching at the time for IWEG in Toronto. And then the opportunity to work in sales came along and I’ve been in this role for almost 6 years now. With a number of other projects on the side. And education has been a major point since that first course. Somm Certifications with ISG and CMS. Certificate in Oenolgy & Viticulture at UGuelph. Diploma with WSET. NExt goal is the Advanced pin with CMS. It never ends.
GFR: How would you describe your role at The Vine?
RM: Relationship builder. Sales is all about your relationship and trust with the people you work with, whether that’s co-workers, partners, or restaurant buyers. I’m incredibly lucky to work for one of the top agencies in Ontario and with some of the best people bar none in Southwestern Ontario. The Vine has a broad portfolio that definitely works for the part of the world I’m in. I can’t say enough about how much I love our Italian wineries. And what we’re doing in France now. And Cave Spring just gets better every year.
GFR: I’m certainly with you on the Cave Spring thang.
You work in a number of different restaurants right now. Tell us a little more about that?
RM: Yeah, I still do some Sommelier shifts. I’m at Langdon Hall here in town once or twice a month. George in Toronto every couple of months and Alo a few times a year. Three very different environments and great opportunities to learn each time I’m on the floor.
GFR: And how do they compare? Both the clientele and their tastes when it comes to wines?
RM: Well, Langdon is classic. Stately, precise, well structured environment. The wine list is 76 pages short and focuses mainly on the classics – heavy in France and Italy, and California, too. It’s a mix of à la carte and tasting menus. Busy, but never overwhelming. Truly a lovely place to work.
George is a bit of a wildcard. That place is humping busy all the time. Only tasting menus and Chef fires the food from the kitchen so it’s a fast paced environment, bit of a Wild West at times. Super cool wine list – it’s a great opportunity to flex your pairing skills because the list is very dynamic and changes on a dime. Always exciting.
Alo is like a fine tuned ballet. I just try not to upset the cart when I’m there. Serious professional team that works in unison with the same goal in mind. It’s an honour to be there – these guys and gals are seriously next level.
GFR: I have to ask how on earth you find the time to do all this stuff? Seriously?
RM: I get bored easily and say yes to a lot of projects and opportunities before I have a chance to sit down and say – hey, is this actually going to work? But I manage to make it work and it’s as much due to the people I partner with as it is my own time management talents.
GFR: Does your job, or rather, jobs, allow you to travel much? Where have you been lately?
RM: It does and it’s one of the perks of our industry. This year I’ve been to Italy twice (Piedmont, Veneto, and Friuli) and Portugal. Next year is shaping up to be quite busy on the travel front. I’ll be in Paris and Champagne in early February, plus doing a stage in NYC later that month at Daniel. Back to Italy early April and hoping to get to Burgundy and possibly Germany at some point in the year as well. I’d like to travel more – you truly learn and understand a region and its people when you’re there – but there’s only so much time I can be away.
GFR: Yes, I’ve been following some of your journeys on Facebook? You’d been focusing a fair bit on Italy recently, right? What’s the story with that?
RM: I have been. I was lucky enough to attend the Vinitaly International Academy last year run by Ian D’Agata, easily the most knowledgeable person regarding Italian wines. It was a challenging course but I managed to pass the Ambassador course and hope to write the Expert level in the near future. I’ve taken the jack of all trades and master of none approach with my studies up to this point but I’m looking to hone in Italy and really dig deep. Having said that, I just finished a certification with Wines of Portugal so obviously my focus changes from time to time.
GFR: You do some work with the tasting menus at Alo, George, and Langdon Hall, right? What are your thoughts on the whole tasting menu concept? Why do you feel that they fell from grace in Toronto? Who did them well? And who still does them well?
RM: Tasting menus can be a bit precocious at time … a bit up up yer arse and pretentious in their worst delivery. But in the right hands they’re both creative and inspiring. It’s a tough balance. There needs to be a rhythm to the dance, easily felt when it’s not there but tough to pinpoint what that is and how it’s going to jive and be felt by your guests. Patrick at ALO nails it … he gets it. Lorenzo at GEORGE for the most part does, as well. His food is bar none some of the best plates in the city. He’s a bit of a madman, though. The tasting menu at Langdon is a small part of service but well executed. Thoughtful, creative, locally inspired dishes. Jason and his team do some serious work, such a jewel in the country.
GFR: Now, how do I word this? Have you drunk the “Natural Wine Kool Aid”? I’m just kidding, kind of… I’m sick 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.
RM: Fuck no I haven’t! (I can swear right?) Look, there’s nothing fucking natural about wine. Grape juice ferments and eventually turns to vinegar, that’s Natural progression. I am completely for transparency in labelling. And the less intervention the better when it comes to wine. But a lot of these ‘natural’ wines are horseshit. Literally. They’re supposed to represent a more honest version of terroir yet they smell the same… poorly fucking made.
It’s a lesson in faults. Period. I’m all for a little stink in my juice but wine is a made product. It’s quickly becoming the new elitism in wine, this whole natural wine zealotry… the pendulum has swung way too far in the exact opposite direction. Having said that, there are some delicious wines made that are falling under the natural banner. But it’s a small percentage.
What makes for a good agent/supplier/merchant in your mind?
RM: Honesty. Availability. not trying to sell wine to a client to meet your quota but looking at what works best for their list. I would dread selling a case and having a phone call a year later saying, “Yeah, about that wine you sold me. I haven’t moved a bottle”.
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent/supplier/merchant?
RM: I don’t know… have you read “How To Do Business the H——- Way” … Overpromise and underdeliver. Telling people a wine is in good supply when it isn’t. Bringing a case of Rioja samples to your Italian restaurant.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
RM: Fucking love ’em. They get better every year. There’s still a lot of shite made but we’re killing it in some realms. Chard, Pinot, Riesling, Cab Francs, Gamay… I’m unfortunately not as up to date with the BC selections as I should be. A trip out west is well overdue. But I’ve had some lovely wines from Nova Scotia.
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario?
RM: See the core four above. And Gamay.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
RM: The whole blended international wine bullshit is a bit of a travesty, isn’t it? That shit needs to be outlawed. And seriously… if you have Nebbiolo planted give your head a shake.
GFR: How open are your customers to Canadian wines?
RM: More so every day it seems. Especially the younger generation. I don’t fault some of the older people who refuse to drink Ontario wine. They’ve been to the well often enough and been burned. It’s unfortunate though because there is some seriously sick juice being made in this province now.
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?
RM: I don’t care how local it is, if it’s shit it’s shit. Local first is great – but I want to be able to stomach it. Goes for food as well. Beer, too.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
RM: Not at all. My family was on the Black Tower tip. ‘Nuff said.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
RM: Yeah, I thought it was disgusting.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
RM: Good question… I don’t know. I’m all for a little taste earlier on it life. I think being aware of it avoids sneaking around to taste it and probably would save problems in the future? But I don’t have kids so I’m the last person to ask.
GFR: Our three year old lad is rather fond of the “fluff” atop a beer, and he likes to play “sniff sniff” with wine… but his Mum gives me the extreme hairy eyeball whenever she sees any of that.
When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to being a Sommelier yourself?
RM: Hmmm not sure of a specific time… most likely just before I joined the LCBO. I did my first Somm certification back in ’05 and I thought once that was done I’d be legit. But it’s an endless study realm and addictive as all hell.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
RM: I had a couple of friends, Walter Capasso and Matt Chong, way back when that definitely influenced me early on. And there was a Product Consultant I worked with early in my career, Frank Rey, that just amazed me with his knowledge and his palate.
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?
RM: Yeah, it’s true. There’s a bunch of dickwads in our industry. But that’s everywhere. And in Toronto at least, there are some serious female somm’s that could run circles around most of the men so I think that keeps the bro culture to a minimum.
GFR: True… very true.
Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
RM: Niagara, LENS, PEC, & Nova Scotia here in Canada. Chile, Argentina, Napa & Sonoma, Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto, Umbria & Friuli in Italy. Provence is the only region I’ve been to in France sorely enough. Penedes in Spain, up and down the country in Portugal.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
RM: Yeah, a chardonnay in class at Niagara College. It was straight up garbage.
GFR: Haha… your honesty is admirable.
And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
RM: Nowhere. Way too much work.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
RM: Hmmm… I’d prefer people but I was never a successful restaurant manager so maybe bottles would be a better choice? I’m actually quite keen on the business side of the wine game, and moving more in that direction.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
RM: I’ve been fired a few times… lol. But there’s always something to learn each time. It’s taken me a while for that to sink in.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
RM: Brie Dema. Top notch, works hard, studies like a fiend, truly admire her. There’s a lot of top talent in Ontario … Ian Thresher, Julie Garton, Tom Simons, Faye McLachlan, Chris Sealy, Emily Pearce currently. The old guard of course – Peter, Anton, Will and yourself for that matter. and of course John, Bruce and Jen – straight up legends.
GFR: I don’t know, that John’s a bit dodgy isn’t he*
And for Wine Agents/Importers?
RM: Nick Pearce is killing it these days, Big love for Mark Cuff( The Living Vine) , and Bernard Stramwasser (Le Sommelier) as well. Groupe Soleil has some crazy juice, Ben Hodson (Brix & Mortar) too. I’ve really liked what Rogers has done with their portfolio recently.
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 seven and half years!!!
RM: No wine nightmares, but I still regularly have server nightmares where the restaurant fills and you’re the only one around or in sight. Fucking have that way too often.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
RM: Do people read this far into the interview? Gym, brunch, nap, read a bit, open some wine, cook dinner. I’m not that exciting.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
RM: Too many to list. I don’t dine out that often in TO but I do try to hit up the new spots. Mad Crush is fire right now. Hard to stay on top of the Toronto scene. I’m more of a stay at home drunk these days.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
RM: I try to but I have no skills. I cook a lot of vegetarian dishes at home – really enjoy the Oh She Glows and Thug Kitchen series. Other than that, I’m pretty plain jane. I am doing an online cooking course though… I’ll keep you posted!
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
RM: No all-out wheels-off disasters but I do need to pay attention when I’m in the kitchen. I’ve eaten way too much dr- as-fuck chicken in my life though.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
RM: Fuck yeah.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
RM: Double fuck yeah.
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?
RM: I think Toronto is great. But I live in the burbs so I’m easily impressed by bright lights. Ascari is great, Mad Crush like I said before. I’m more excited to try something new than repeat. I’m not at all up to date with the local cocktail scene.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
RM: Most of it is shit. Music can be an important part of the atmosphere and yet restaurants play the most lacklustre uninspiring crap. It doesn’t take that much effort to find something that suits your vibe and represents what you’re trying to do. Alo has it on point… old school hip hop, some classic rock. A fun environment that says ‘hey, we’re having some fun as well as blowing you away’.
GFR: I am so over old school hip hop in restaurants myself… puts me off my food now.
Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
RM: No but I loved the series Uncorked – hope they make a second season.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
RM: Yeah quite a few. I think they think I drink all day long. As far from the truth as possible no matter how much I will it to be.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
RM: I tend to overthink it. Some people are naturals at it… I have to work extremely hard and taste regularly. and taste outside my usual drinking box.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
RM: Probably the latter. I’ll have to try it hungover and see where that takes me…
GFR: Yes. Don’t knock it until you have tried it.
What’s your current favourite wine region?
RM: Beaujolais. I could crush that shit all day. Northern Rhone if budget isn’t a factor.
GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
RM: Fuck. Well, natural wine of course. It’s cool to see the interest in indigenous varieties. I feel like people are very much open to exploring the weird and the wonderful than ever before. Ontario is having a moment as well.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? I why do you feel that is?
RM: Bordeaux, California (especially Napa) … anything the 1% drinks. Heavily oaked wines, although most regions are pulling back in that aspect it seems. I’ve had some Aussie Shiraz’s lately that have been downright elegant and pleasant.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
RM: Anything I’ve ever tasted with a 100 point score is usually boat gas.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
RM: Kraft dinner and Chardonnay. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Lately I’ve been crushing some Villa Papiano Vermouth with ginger cookies. Goddamn heaven.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… Xmas things!…
What would you suggest to pair with them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
GFR: Classic Xmas Turkey with ALL the trimmings
RM: There’s a whole bunch of trimmings in my world – stuffing, buttery mashed potatoes, vegetables in all manner and form, cranberries, etc. I personally love Pinot and Riesling at the table for this, both are usually quite versatile and work with the foods instead of being the main event. Champagne straight across the board, too.
GFR: Xmas ham?
RM: Rosé for the win.
GFR: Good call!
Traditional Xmas pudding?
RM: PX Sherries or Madeira. Then lights out.
GFR: Just thought I’d keep it festive…
Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
RM: I love Negronis and Manhattans. They get me in to trouble though so I usually stick to the wine when I’m out. I’m not taken too much by craft beer. Don’t love hoppy shit. I fell like craft beer is where wine was back in the day when 200% oak was a thing. Little to no balance. I’ll crush a Moosehead though 😉
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
RM: Pompous assholes. It’s wine man … we’re not saving the fucking world here.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
RM: I have a Code 38 but truthfully … I should never have paid that much. I’ve been rocking a Henckel lately that I’m in love with.
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?
RM: Man, I’ve had my own issues in the past. I drink regularly but I don’t love being drunk so I think that helps in some aspects. I try to stay active and workout regularly and doing so hungover is never any fun. It’s a dark side to our industry, for sure. I’ve seen many people taken down by their after hour activities.
GFR: 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 poor body could take it any longer anyway!
RM: I have partaken in enough pharmaceuticals to kill a team of horses. I mean, you work all night, want to hang with your friends after, have a few bevvies, drugs easily pop into that realm and the next thing you know, it’s 6:30 am and you’ve spent all your money from the night before. Tough cycle, not everyone makes it out alive. Most outgrow it but … Almost all decisions I’ve made AFTER midnight are poor at best. Kids, if you’re reading this – just say no!
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
RM: Surprisingly no, but I was asked to leave a local brewery a few months ago due to a friend and colleague of mine who fell up the stairs as we tried to enter.
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…
RM: Moscato d’asti. And left handed cigarettes if you know what I’m sayin’?
GFR: Haha… alright. I’m pretty sure that would make me boak.
How many wines do you taste in a week?
RM: Taste – once or twice. Drinking – there’s wine in some form just about every day.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
RM: Cave Spring Niagara Peninsula Riesling. Crush btls of that. And their Gamay as well. But I try to drink a different bottle each time so house maybe isn’t the best term?
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
RM: 1979 Ch Margaux, it was captivating, elegant and perfumed, so sensual and sexy.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
RM: You know, I love Italian whites … Soave especially. Shameless plug but the Pra Staforte Soave is one of my favourite bottle to open. Just the right balance of complexity and crushability.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Rob… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
RM: It’d have to be something difficult but I’m a bit of a challenge at the best of times so maybe Pinot Noir?
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Rob.
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.