For Curtis Stephenson, everything changed 20 years ago when he drank Riesling with Robbie Nellis.

“I was a busboy at Hy’s. We went out to a patio and (Robbie) was drinking wine. I was like, who is this guy? – he was a big macho guy who knew a tonne about wine. He asked me, “Do you want to learn?” So we went to a restaurant nearby and ended up downing bottle after bottle of Riesling while listening to Notorious B.I.G.”

Cut to 2018 and Curtis and Robbie, later joined by managing partner Margaret Hobbs, took their love for wine to the next level and opened the Ottawa-based wine agency and tasting room Buyers + Cellars. “We always wanted to do a project together… and this is it”, says Curtis.

I recently sat at the tasting bar at Buyers + Cellars while Curtis, a polished professional with the energy of a laid-back guy-next-door deftly juggled answering my questions, serving myself and other wine-loving women further down the bar, and hosting a group tasting at the table in the other room. On the menu are bottles available to taste and take home, wines by the glass (1 oz, 3 oz, 5 oz), flights, and the option to bring your own wine and pay a corkage fee. They also offer tapas and charcuterie to enjoy while tasting.

As I looked at the menu I mused, “ …hmm, a lot of wines I don’t recognize” to which Curtis replied proudly, “ …that’s what we’re known for”.

Sommelier Curtis Stephenson at Buyers + Cellars Ottawa tasting bar.

Sommelier Curtis Stephenson at Buyers + Cellars Ottawa tasting bar.


Curtis comes to the world of wine with a background in fine dining, having gained his vast knowledge of wine largely from sommeliers on the job at Ottawa restaurants like Hy’s, where he worked for 17 years, as well as Shore Club, and Riviera. “It’s my passion that fuels me”, he says. “I romanticize about wine more than I nerd out on it”, noting that the classically trained wine intellectual at Buyers + Cellars is his colleague Amanda Ramsay, the Wine Director. Curtis wants to allow guests to explore, but he also relishes in challenging them, “I want to filter down people’s expectations of what a varietal should be.” With a penchant for blind tastings, he enjoys challenging the subjectivity that comes from cues like the shape of the bottle or the glass. “Going in blind allows you to explore”, he says, embodying Buyers + Cellars’ mission to “discover uncorked potential”.

While perusing the menu, I took a moment to think back to my own journey with wine.

For me, everything wine-related changed in 2006.

I was enrolled in a course at George Brown College called “The Art of Food and Wine Matching”, and I was learning that “legs” weren’t simply the two flesh-covered bones that kept me upright, viscosity wasn’t just a term I had heard in motor oil commercials, and the term “noble rot” no longer made me immediately think of Hamlet. I was tasting Viognier, Syrah, tawny port, and Grüner Veltliner for the first time, and dreaming about exploring the world’s vineyards.

Checking out the inventory at Buyers + Cellars tasting room.

Checking out the inventory at Buyers + Cellars Ottawa tasting bar.


Before my vinous education started, wine for me was something that used to be in the now-empty wicker-bound Chianti bottle-turned-candle holder in my parents’ rec room bar. Then, it was a bottle of super sweet E & J White Zinfandel enjoyed in a dorm room with friends while getting ready to go out while listening to ‘90s R & B. Later, it was something to be uncorked tableside for guests on a dinner cruise in the Toronto Harbour. Not until my late twenties did I ever really drink wine or start developing any real knowledge on the subject.

Since then, like many of you, I’ve tasted hundreds of different wines. Working in the restaurant industry affords one the privilege of exploring this beautiful elixir made from grapes, and once you start to explore wine, it can be difficult to stop. I devoured The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil and continued taking wine courses. Even so, my early exploration of wine was still ripe with assumptions. I didn’t think I liked Riesling (still working on that one), I thought you could never drink red wine with fish, and, for a while, I took a cue from Paul Giamatti’s character in the movie Sideways, steering clear of Merlot.

Assumptions and preconceived notions about wine are exactly what the team at Buyers + Cellars wants to challenge.

According to Curtis, Robbie Nellis loves to source high-altitude wines from “off the beaten track”. “What we bring in is distinct”, Curtis says, also mentioning that they look for lots of good acidity in the wines for something balanced and food-friendly. “Robbie is a certified acid freak”, he laughs, telling me that he loves to source from places like Val D’Aosta in Northern Italy where they use heroic measures to harvest the grapes. “He likes to go where no one else goes… he likes weird and wacky.” Wines that pique Robbie’s interest have come from Jordan, Brazil, Bolivia, and Switzerland. Lebanon is next on his list.

The interior of Buyer + Cellars, 327 Somerset St W, Ottawa.

The interior of Buyer + Cellars’ gorgeous tasting room, 327 Somerset St W, Ottawa.


When COVID-19 hit, Buyers + Cellars had to do what many restaurants, bars, and wine shops had to do during the pandemic: they joined UberEats. “Our hands were tied”, shrugs Curtis. The agency and tasting bar’s struggles “mirrored each other”, he says. “All of a sudden, the only person buying wine from the agency was me”, as existing restaurant clients in Ottawa and Toronto simply halted their orders. Before, private orders were made up to five months in advance, so they had a year’s worth of wine on hand but were closed to the public. “Hence UberEats”, says Curtis. “It kept the lights on.”

As pandemic-panic set in, people started to drink more. Alcohol delivery at Buyers + Cellars rose to 30-40 orders per night, as opposed to now, with approximately 5-6 orders a night coming in since restaurants have reopened. They put every wine they had in stock on the UberEats menu and provided mixed packs, ran virtual tastings, and shared pre-recorded tastings on YouTube.

Back at the tasting bar, Curtis introduced me to four new wines:

Tenuta Olim Bauda Gavi di Gavi (2019), a crisp, Northern Italian white made from Cortese grapes.

Pravis Kerner “Le Biolche” (2020), a rare, potent, aromatic Italian white that had a lot of stone fruit and baking spice on the nose.

Curtis’ current favourite, Casa de Mouraz Nina (2019), a “weird”, fruit-forward and fun, foot-treaded field blend made from 20 different varieties (10 red, 10 white) from a farm in Portugal where goats roam and a rogue cat named Nina ended up on the label.

And my favourite of the evening, Alandes Paradoux Red NV (2018), a big, Malbec-heavy Bordeaux blend made by a Lebanese immigrant to Argentina.

Were my preconceived notions changed? Actually, yes. Turns out I do like Riesling — or at least a Riesling crossed with a Schiava grape (see wine #2). Curtis also taught me that a wine can sometimes remind you of a funky sour beer, in the case of the Nina. “I love when a wine challenges your perception of what it should be…it’s almost shocking to the senses”, he said.

Curtis isn’t interested in pouring the same wine into your glass each time you visit. He wants to “shatter expectations”. “It helps keep things alive”, he says as he adds that he changes the wine list weekly for exactly this reason. Although he wants guests to go outside of their wine comfort zones, he emphasizes that Buyers + Cellars is an inclusive, safe space where “there’s no room for pretension or snobbery” and that the team there wants guests “to have fun and feel comfortable in a luxurious atmosphere”.

But… he also wants to crack open your mind and pour in a sensory experience you’ve never felt.

Just sayin’.

The Buyers + Cellars Tasting Room is open Tuesday to Sunday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Contact them to book a tasting, and visit their online shop.

Buyers + Cellars is a Good Food Fighter.

Please support the businesses and organizations that support Good Food Revolution.