In the fourth of a second (and very 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.
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 at Soho House, Carolyn Balogh of Abcon International Wines, Christopher Sealy of Midfield fame, then a debacle of an interview (my fault) with the mercurial Ms. Sheila Flaherty, ex of Mercatto and Pearl-Morisette, and just the other week we sat down with Café Boulud‘s Jordan Alessi.
For this issue we strap Lawrence‘s Sommelier Etheliya Hananova to the chair and start asking questions…
Good Food Revolution: So Etheliya, what are you up to?
Etheliya Hananova: I’m working full-time at Lawrence and gearing up for a busy spring/ summer.
GFR: Describe your wine program?
EH: Simply put, it’s a list of wine I’d want to drink from smaller-scale producers who use responsible methods both in the vines and in the vinification process.
GFR: How would you say that the wine and restaurant scene in Montreal differs from that of Toronto and/or other Canadian cities?
EH: To be honest, I don’t get out of Montreal often enough to visit other Canadian cities. From what I’ve seen, though, I think that the most obvious difference is that Montreal’s wine scene is centred around European wines (especially France and Italy), while elsewhere in Canada, there’s much more of a New World sensibility.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
EH: My family owned restaurants from before I was even born, so food and wine were sort of integral to my consciousness (nothing fancy, but it was always a priority). My family is from Russia, so I think vodka and whisky were a little more prevalent than wine in my early childhood. I may or may not have memories of being challenged to do shots at age 8 by a drunk uncle.
GFR: If you were to have a child/children, at what age would you introduce them to the wonderful world of wine?
EH: I don’t have any children, but were that to become a reality, I think I’d be letting them know about wine pretty early. More than anything, I think I’d be encouraging them to explore and develop their sense of smell and taste all the time.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
EH: I didn’t. It happened entirely by accident after the failed pursuit of a career in the arts. I’ve only gotten past my denial about being fully immersed in this business recently, but I’m actually quite happy with the way things are.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
EH: Well, there were many precursors, but I think my first wine-related epiphanies happened while I was living in New York, working at a restaurant in Brooklyn. Meeting winemakers at Louis/ Dressner tastings in New York really opened my eyes to a very different perception of what the wine world could look like. It was the first time I saw that wine could be something human and warm, rather than corporate and elitist.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously male-dominated… has being a member of “the fairer sex” been a help or a hindrance to you?
EH: There are actually a lot of female sommeliers in Montreal, so I don’t think about it too much. It’s rare that it comes up… having said that, once in awhile, you get the occasional stodgy male client who asks me for the sommelier and can’t quite believe that it IS me.
GFR: At Lawrence do you have to work as a Manager as well as a Sommelier?
EH: I don’t manage- I work the floor full-time as the sommelier. That’s code for busser, napkin-folder, water-filler, door-greeter, and also, wine service.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
EH: Career highs: Working harvest in the Loire valley and spending three weeks visiting winemakers throughout Italy last summer. Career lows: I’m still working on developing those. There’s so much further to fall.
GFR: Tell us about your WORST customer ever? (and don’t say me, please)
EH: The worst customer that I’ve ever served was a man who was part of a group of six people at a small, high-end restaurant that I worked at years ago. He wanted to order the tasting menu, even though I had explained that for the tasting menu, the entire table had to order it (a question of timing for the kitchen) and his table-mates wanted to order à la carte. He was so mad that he stood up and screamed at me in front of a full dining room, threatening to defame me and the restaurant to as many people as he could if I didn’t fulfill his request. I came close to committing a very serious crime that night.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… or perhaps you have Mondays off?
EH: I actually have both off, which is amazing. I know I’m lucky to have the schedule to have, and I’m grateful for it. A perfect Sunday involves lying in bed for hours, waking up at a leisurely pace, meandering around the city on a sunny day, getting a coffee and a snack, and then going to Jean-Talon market to buy fresh ingredients to make dinner at home.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine in Montreal… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of your lovely city?
EH: I know it sounds like I’m plugging the restaurant I work at, but I actually love going to Lawrence for lunch and brunch. I love going to the SAT Foodlab regularly… the chefs, Michelle Marek and Seth Gabrielse, do a great job, and the menu theme changes every 2-4 weeks, so it’s hard to get bored of going there. For late-night, and especially for the wine list, L’Express is a fun place to go as well.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
EH: I love to cook but I’ve never gotten very good at it- I have a pretty limited repertoire. I like making soups, ratatouille, and homemade ricotta, but honestly, that’s a twice-a-year occurrence.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters?
EH: Let’s just say an attempt at salt-encrusted mackerel ended in tears. I still find salt in very unlikely places, months later.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
EH: Winemaking is a young venture in Canada, but there certainly is some interesting potential. There’s still a lot of exploration and experimentation happening. I like Norman Hardie’s wines and I really admire the couple making biodynamic wine at Les Pervenches in Quebec. Clos Saragnat’s ice cider is really cool.
GFR: Do you have any thoughts on the Natalie McLean controversy? (perhaps you didn’t even hear of it up there?
EH: I heard a little bit about it- I don’t know the details but the whole thing sounds a bit sketchy.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
EH: Selling Slap Chops or cubic zirconia jewelry on an infomercial, I’m sure.
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I was a Doctor…
EH: My mom’s actually pretty progressive, and cares a lot about food and wine, so she doesn’t mind what I do. Having said that, I’m sure she secretly wishes I made a lot more money.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends and how do they feel about what you do for a living?
EH: I do have a fair number of non-industry friends- I’ve known most of them from before working in wine, so not much has changed in our relationships…
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
EH: I think it’s a great way to sharpen the senses in a non-pressure situation, I hate it from a competitive standpoint. I find it irrelevant for any other reason than to develop and hone your sensory skills for the sake of improving ones’ tasting abilities.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
EH: Champagne (the small grower-producers).
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
EH: Lots of things. Scores, commercial wines that taste the same year in and year out, luxury brands and cult wines… also bad attitudes.
GFR: I know through eating at your restaurant that that you are rather skilled when in comes to pairing with wine… What is your favourite wine pairing right now?
EH: Skin-macerated whites from Friuli Venezia Giulia with brains fried in brown butter with capers and sage. Vouvray demi-sec 2004 from Domaine Lemaire-Fournier with mackerel and bacon served on fennel tarte tatin.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?
1: Asparagus. Artichoke, and Roasted Onion Tart with a Poached Egg placed on top?
EH: A good fino or amontillado sherry, or skin-macerated white wine (“orange wine”), like Ponka from Paraschos, or Radikon. Or Vin Jaune from Michel Gahier.
2. Chilled Lobster and Avocado Soup with Spicy Tomato Confit Drizzle
EH: Sparkling Vouvray from Vincent Carême or Gringet from Savoie by Belluard.
3. Crème Brulée with Garam Masala
EH: Bugey de Cerdon from Renardat-Fâche. Because it’s good.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
EH: Yes- I like Saison Dupont from Belgium, and the Saison from the local brewery Dominus Vobiscum. For spirits, I’m a big fan of Calvados from Michel Beucher and Domaine Huard… I drink a lot of cocktails (Manhattans and Negronis), and I really love Vergano Americano in the summer. And the winter. Also in the spring and in the fall, come to think of it.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
EH: I hate typing up wine descriptions for the staff reference binder (for when I’m not there at lunch), and I hate labeling each wine on the wine list with the corresponding shelf number every week. Both very necessary but tedious tasks.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
EH: Good old Pulltaps work just fine for me. I have a Laguiole at home, but I don’t use it often. It was a gift engraved with someone else’s name on it that I ended up receiving instead because that person didn’t show up to an event that he was supposed to participate in.
GFR: What are your thoughts on Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural wines?… there seems to be a crazy interest for the natural schtuff right now in Montreal?
EH: I’m not really interested in the trend aspect of it- having said that, there’s no denying that the popularity of this sector of wine is in some way beneficial to those who care about how and why these wines are made. I am simply concerned and most interested in the background of a wine, who makes it and its provenance. I’m not interested in divorcing the finished product from its origin, and I don’t believe that the finished product can really, truly be good in a meaningful way unless there is a commitment to producing great grapes from healthy vines in a balanced environment. Those are the only kinds of grapes that you don’t have to mess with in the cellar afterwards- then, all kinds of additives and corrective substances and techniques can be avoided.
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine. What is your limit?
EH: I am actually kind of a lightweight for a Russian. About 3/4 of a bottle is my limit- after that I kind of feel like I’ve passed the point of no return. Having said that, if I’m eating a lot and drinking over a sustained, long period with lots of water, I can drink more than that.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”?
EH: Nope. At least not that I consciously remember.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
EH: Not as many as I’d like to be tasting.
GFR: Do you spit or swallow?
EH: Spit at tastings, swallow the rest of the time.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
EH: Beer. Also Bourgogne La Soeur Cadette by Valentin Montanet.
GFR: Do you keep a cellar at home?
EH: If by cellar, you mean a closet with 24 bottles in it, then yes.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the restaurant?
EH: High acid chenin blanc or riesling.
GFR: And now the cheesy question… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
EH: Um… next. Can’t do it. Makes my organs turn against themselves just thinking about it. You can out my unwillingness to cooperate, I’ll understand. 🙂
GFR: Well thank you for spending time with us today!!!
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. 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. And now Skin and Bones! Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and it TAKING OVER THIS CITY!
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. Anton is currently a gentleman of leisure.