By Jamie Drummond
In the first of a brand new second (and very popular) series we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario. A few months 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.
Last year we put Pizza Libretto/Enoteca Sociale Sommelier Lesa LaPointe through the wringer in one of our most popular articles thus far. We followed this with an interview with the Owner/Wine Geek of Parkdale’s Café Taste, Mr. Jeremy Day, then with Zinta Steprans, who at that point was Sommelier at Toronto restaurants L’Unita and Malena but is now breaking hearts all across France. Finally we looked at a Sommelier who chose a different path altogether, Carolyn Balogh of Abcon International Wines.
For this second series we sit down with a fellow who is undoubtedly one of the most professional, mannered, and well-dressed Sommeliers in the city, Christopher Sealy. When we first sat down to record this interview, over a year ago methinks, I had no idea that it would take me so long to publish. With Chris on the cusp of opening his own place on Dundas West (at Gladstone) we felt that the time was right to get him up on Good Food Revolution…
Good Food Revolution: So what are you up to Chris?
Chris Sealy: I’m the Sommelier / Proprietor (owner) at Midfield Wine Bar and Tavern (soon to be opened) in Toronto.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
CS: No, not at all, I wasn’t. In my household, if we had wine, it would have been some Ontario stuff… Baby Duck, Spumante Bambino and the large formate big things of VQA/Ontario stuff.
My Dad had a full service bar… in every house we would move into he would renovate the basement and build a bar… and he would then stock it with scotches, sakes spirits, liquors that other people had brought over as gifts. There would always be wine on hand for people who wanted it. In our household what was consumed was mainly rums, but also single malt scotch, whiskey, and gin. My Dad was always entertaining.
JD: Can you remember your first experience with wine?
CS: It was Yellowtail.
CS: Oh, yeah. One of my best friends introduced me to wine of mine, – she had always been a server through highschool in Guelph and at UofT were we both attended. I hadn’t served at that point really, in a restaurant like, only Second Cup, but during my first year out of University I told her that I wanted to get into wine and asked what the best way was to learn more. So we sat cooked, sat down and got drunk on wine…
JD: And so he promptly served you Yellowtail?
CS: *dramatic pause*
JD: And so what was it that made you want to think that you wanted to get into the world of wine?
CS: I was a bachelor. My family have always enjoyed cooking. My dad as a role model in the kitchen had always cooked and my mom cooked for all the big parties at home, and there was always a notion I had of what was I going to drink with my food. I’m not going to drink water, and I’m not going to necessarily drink rum all the time.
JD: And this was in second year of University?
CS: No, this was after I had finished school. Fresh back from living 2 years in Paris, now ‘enlightened’ from my sojourn and living on my own, and that is when I actually started drinking and consuming wine with intent.
JD: May I ask what you were drinking during university?
CS: I wasn’t really drinking. If anything, the first time I drank was grade 12 and I threw up my 7 Molson X or Molson Black (super strong stuff) and that was the only thing ever had. In final years at University and when in Paris was when I actually started drinking. But, at that point it was rum and coke or rye and 7up. All that sweet and tasty, easy shit. White Russians… the drink of champions!
JD: What did you study at university?
CS: I’m a French Language Major with a minor in History.
JD: So, you just had this idea that you wanted to try and learn about wine?
CS: Yeah. In Paris, and learning to bartend, part time managing and simply understanding the French way of eating and going to market with my chef friends there. I returned to Canada and I needed to learn a new facet of service, how to be a better service professional.
JD: Was there something that inspired you, apart from you mother and father who you said liked to cook?
CS: It was a question of how do I incorporate this newfound ‘european’ way of eating and drinking with my Barbados/Caribbean mentality of hosting and putting on good parties with friends and family and neighbours, even the police at times. Similar mentality yet different elements.
GFR: What is your process for putting together a winelist?
CS: Well, I’m in a way self-taught when it comes to building a list… I asked questions of you, of Anton (Potvin) and John (Szabo), and other Sommeliers, finding out how they do things and whatever, and through doing that I have been able to build a style of my own. Observe, Ask Questions, Listen and Create.
GFR: When I started doing this series of interviews I was teased relentlessly by colleagues for choosing to interview a sequence of rather attractive female Sommeliers. One of the questions that I asked each of them was whether or not they had seen their gender as a help or a hinderance in their careers. I was speaking with a couple of folks about you the other day, saying I was coming to interview you, and they couldn’t quite place you… so I was describing you… and I would say “you know, he’s very dapper, good-looking, well-dressed, worked at Mercatto, Union, and Terroni’s Bar Centrale” and then I mention in passing the fact that you were black, and immediately they knew to whom I was referring…
CS: Ha! It’s interesting that you bring this up…
GFR: The wine world world, in Toronto in particular, is notoriously Caucasian… have you found the colour of your skin to be a help or a hindrance?
CS: I would say that’s kind of a two faced question… two sides of the same coin… in that there are two sides, two answers..
GFR: You mean a double edged sword?
CS: But nobody’s getting hurt or killed here… Yes, a double edged sword… A Catch 22 situation…
GFR: Are you sure it’s not a Catch 23 situation?
CS: What’s that?
GFR: It’s just a wee bit worse than a Catch 22…
Well… When I was working at Mercatto – Toronto St. it was very interesting for me to know more about Italian wines than many of the well traveled and well-heeled business customers, as at that point I was working towards my specialization in Italian wines. We had the first Enomatic and I was creating a list from North to South all regions.
It was funny for a big Italian couple or family who were sitting down for dinner to be approached by a fellow with my complexion, and to watch how surprised they would be when I could pronounce each Italian word or wine term as well as or better than they could.
Then that would open up a torrent of questions such as “Where did you learn to speak like that?… How did you learn so much about Italian wine”…” all of these questions that I would never be asked if I were not coloured.
And, in the wine business, as a hinderance, I think that some people come in and they don’t take me as seriously.
I grew up in Guelph (though it’s very different today), my parents are anglo – Caribbean but I’m fluent in French. I lived in Paris, not as an American, a British or a Franco-African from a former colony, I love service and hosting and have continue to study as a sommelier. I’ve seen all the angles.
JD: What would you say your high point in the business has been?
CS: Serving Coldplay…
JD: *Rolls eyes skywards*
CS: It was the drummer’s 30th birthday. He was given a bottle of ‘76. Lopez de Heredia Rioja. As we share the same birth year he offered me a glass. There is more, as manager I ended up serving them from the aperitif through to the dessert wine and then when it came to coffee and tea they all stopped and commented on the tea cups and saucers, the tea service that I had researched for the restaurant. I’m a big fan of good tea service. It was a complete beverage service experience.
GFR: And your low point?
CS: Not getting the support I required from upper management and feeling like your efforts aren’t good enough, when your team and client base now is. This has happened to me on several occasions… maybe it’s me…???
GFR: What is the biggest wine crime you have ever witnessed… and not reported to the wine police?
CS: Hmmmm… A client was speaking about Amarone and Barbaresco and Brunello in the same breath… “I like wines like Amarone and Barbaresco” and then he turned to his girlfiend and said “Hey, you’re from Calabrese, you know, like Calabrese wines!”… and then I had to school him a bit. He ended up with an entry level Nero d’Avola from Sicily, which he quite enjoyed.
I dont know… was that a crime?
I’ve seen people throw ice into their wine, but that’s not really that big of a deal. Chacun son gout!
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
CS: In think many are fantastic. I’m a big fan of Ontario Riesling and Cabernet Franc
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not in the wine business?
CS: I think I would be having a mid life crisis working in a bilingual call centre. I did work in one before running away to Paris!
GFR: What does your parents wish you were doing?
CS: I think my mother would have wished that I was either an accountant, a pro – basketball player or an architect. But they are happy and support what I am doing.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
CS: I think they are great for practicing methods and techniques in tasting and understanding regions and wines overall. It’s like a one-on-one basketball game, but the real measure is how you perform with the full team on the floor in front of the crowd with uncontrolled variables.
GFR: How do you rate yourself as a blind taster?
CS: 7 out of 10 – maybe a 6.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region/varietal/producer?
CS: Well I will always love Loire Valley Cabernet Franc (Chinon) and Chenin Blanc (Vouvray) It was love at first sight. So much character in these wines.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is currently overrated?
CS: Maybe, California Cabernet ,but it’s like, ok, me… I don’t like Woody Allen and his films just because, but I haven’t really seen enough of his work to make any reasonable judgment. But he just bothers me. I don’t know why, he just does.
GFR: Ha… I concur on the Woody Allen bit… he gives me a pain. I walked out of one of his films once, Vicky Barcelona, on a third date too.
When I am in a restaurant I often choose the wine first and then order food to fit the wine. Where do your priorities lie here?
CS: I usually choose food and then wine, it depends on the range of the wine list vs the range of the food menu. Lately I’m more relaxed cause it can stress my partner out.
GFR: What do you do on your days off?
CS: I watch soccer, visit Kensington market then plan and cook a good meal around a bottle of wine for my new little family
GFR: What would be your “desert island wine” and why?
CS: I think it would be a bottle or bottles of Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a second growth from Pauillac in Bordeaux. I had the privilege of tasting this wine twice, once in tasting of several vintages and once alongside the ‘5’ grand cru of Bordeaux at a Grand Cru dinner. This wine was so intriguing to me it rose above the rest for character and complexity.
GFR: Being a Sommelier I would imagine that you spend quite some time pairing wines with dishes… so let’s pair some wines with music…
Musical Pairing #1: Adam and The Ants – Young Parisians
CS: That’s interesting… I think I feel a bit more nostalgic in this regard… when I was working in Paris, it was a Sunday afternoon, we were sitting in a bar owned by some English and Scottish folks… and we would drink beer primarily, Kronenbourg… but I think that a white wine would probably be suited best… something very Provencal, country-like, maybe something from Jura, inexpensive and pleasant on a hot August afternoon in Paris, when everyone is on holiday. Something easy in a pichet… nothing too complicated
Musical Pairing #2: Chilly – For Your Love
GFR: Now this is a personal favourite of mine…
CS: Actually, no, I wouldn’t do wine with this…this is fashion! Hot stepping . I don’t usually drink when I go out dancing, you know, to a proper house music afterhours… I usually have a couple of dark rums… neat.. I’m a rum freak… it’s in my blood… and then I’m in the mood for… movement… so it’s not really wine I would choose.
Musical Pairing #3: The Theme from The Benny Hill Show
GFR: You know what this is?
CS: Oh yes… Wine-wise it’s got to be something fun… maybe a Sicilian, a Nero D’Avola… not entry level. Although it would have to be in bottle so as you didn’t spill it as you were chasing ladies or swinging from chandeliers.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
CS: Spirits – aged rum and Single Malts.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
CS: My Laguiole juniper handle sommelier series. Handsome with its leather case.
GFR: Folks in the wine trade often have quite the increased tolerance for alcohol. What is your limit?
CS: I think it’s pretty high, wine 3btls maybe, but rum that’s another story
GFR: I think I have only ever witnessed you in a “refreshed” state once (That night at Camp 4)?
CS: Yes I remember, your birthday, single malt and natural mystic that’s what that was…
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
CS: When I’m in the game 2-3 times a week.
GFR: Do you spit or swallow?
CS: Always spit! Always! Swallow when no one’s looking.
GFR: And now the cheesy question… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
CS: Tannat – dark and brooding! But gets better with age.
GFR: Christopher, thank you SO much for spending time with us at Good Food Revolution today, and all the best with your new venture, Midfield.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he cannot believe that it has taken this long to get Christopher’s interview up here. Thank you for your patience my friend.
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. He just recently took over the selection and purchasing of wine for the Pizza Libretto group whilst the wonderful Lisa LaPointe is on maternity leave. Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit.
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. And he looks a bit like the Mad Monk himself… Ra, Ra, Rasputin. Ah, those crazy Russians.