In the first of a fourth (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, Café Boulud‘s Jordan Alessi, Lawrence‘s Sommelier Etheliya Hananova, Momofuku‘s Service Director Steve Sousa, the lovely, warm, generous, knowledgable lady that is Svetlana Atcheva, Mistress of Wines at Toronto’s Enoteca Ascari, Josh Corea, from Dundas West’s splendid Archive Wine Bar, and a few weeks back the irrepressible Jasmine Black, now of Enoteca Ascari.
This week sees the turn of the utterly charming and polite gentleman Sommelier who goes by the name of Gary Stinson…
Good Food Revolution: So Gary, some big changes for you recently Gary… what are you up to these days?
Gary Stinson: Yes, a lot of changes for me this year. Since 1800 Degrees closed in March of this year, I have been sitting on the other side of the table, selling wine. I took a job at one agency, immediately after the restaurant closed and it just wasn’t a good fit for me. About a month ago I joined Rolando at Argentum Wine Imports and I’m loving it. Great portfolio and great people to work for.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before this position? When we first met you were in restaurants.
GS: Actually, working as a sommelier in restaurants helped prepare me for selling wine to restaurants. Having done the job, I can relate to my customer. I also sold bottled water years ago, so I had a bit of a background in sales to begin with.
GFR: And how does selling wine as an agent differ from selling wine on the floor?
GS: Great question. It’s all about relationships whether selling to guests at a restaurant or to a restaurant. Getting to know people, asking questions and listing carefully to the answers are the most important skills.
In the restaurant, you have a captive audience, the sale is made when the guest walks through the door. You know your guest is going to buy a bottle of wine so my job was to guide them, to get to know their palate, the price point they are comfortable with, what they are eating that night, etc. to match the right bottle of wine to the guest.
When selling to a restaurant, you no longer have a captive audience, your customer has hundreds of wine agencies to choose from, so you have to work hard to stand out. Many of the same skills are involved, getting to know the customers palette, the menu, the price range on their list, in order to bring them the right wine to taste.
GFR: Coming from restaurants and moving to the dark side, what in your mind makes for a good agent?
GS: I try to emulate the agents that I enjoyed working with. A good agent demonstrates that they have listened to you, that they’ve done their research, show you products that are relevant to your wine program and don’t waste your time. Answering emails and getting back to customers promptly is also important and demonstrates that you are interested and attentive without being annoying. Also, it’s about paying attention to your customers buying patterns and your own inventory to make sure you let them know you’re running out of something so they have a chance to buy more. It’s about making your customers life easy.
GFR: And what are the biggest challenges facing someone like yourself in wine sales?
GS: Traffic! Trying to stay on schedule on a busy day when you have wine open and many appointments can be a real challenge with the insane traffic in Toronto.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
GS: I grew up in Canadian beer culture, my first alcoholic drink was a beer. Wine might show up on the table at Christmas and other special occasions but no one in my family was really into wine back then.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
GS: I think it was Moody Blue, no doubt chugged with a couple of friends outside of a high-school dance. Horrible sparkling wine, likely made from Concord grapes.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
GS: I think the perfect age is when they ask. If your child asks if they can taste whatever mom and dad are drinking, give them a taste. The more forbidden it is the more likely they will go nuts and get drunk at a party the first chance they have.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
GS: I was working as a chef and my interest in wine kept growing, learning what wines to paired with my food seemed like a natural progression. I started reading various wine encyclopaedias, then taking some courses with the ISG and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. I decided to go through to obtain my sommelier diploma and I’ve never looked back. I still love the kitchen and miss cooking professionally.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
GS: As I said, as a chef, wine started to really intrigue me, it was the one part of the meal I didn’t know very much about. Someone got me a copy of Hugh Johnson‘s The World Atlas of Wine for my birthday. When I started reading I was fascinated by the history, agriculture, geography, geology, chemistry, it was such a vast and multifaceted subject, I couldn’t get enough.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious wankers… do you think that is slowly changing?
GS: I think it is changing, slowly. It always amazes me when I hear stories about the stereo-typical, arrogant sommelier. To me it’s a humble job of hospitality and service.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
GS: I think we all dream about making wine. I would love to learn.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
GS: I’m a huge Burgundy fan, so if we’re dreaming…Many top Burgundy producers have a “hands off” approach to wine making that I would be most interested in learning.
GFR: When you were in the restaurant world I know that you had a fair number of managerial duties, was that something that you enjoyed?
GS: For the most part, yes. At times being responsible for absolutely everything could be overwhelming. At 1800 Degrees, I had an extremely talented and hard working team. I really enjoyed leading my team through a busy night.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
GS: I loved managing my cellar. Keeping my wine well stocked and organized properly was not only a point of pride but made me feel calm and at peace with the world. But essentially, we all do this because we love people, because we love hospitality and the buzz of a brisk service.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
GS: I was never happier and more fulfilled when guests would tell me how much they enjoyed a bottle of wine I helped them choose. Putting my Wine Spectator Award up on the wall at 1800 Degrees was a proud moment also.
I think a low point for me was being told to remove the word sommelier from my email signature at my last job. I still don’t understand the logic behind this.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a really great role model for Sommeliers?
GS: That’s a tough question, because there are so many amazing somms. Will Prehomme, Peter Boyd, Corey Ladouceur are all inspirations to me but I think Christopher Sealy is a great role model for aspiring sommeliers. It’s great to see Christopher challenging stereo-types and breaking down barriers in an industry dominated by white males. Hopefully, many other young men and women of colour will follow his lead.
GFR: Do you ever have nightmares about working as a Sommelier? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar…
GS: For sure. My nightmare involves having a full restaurant and having too many tables to get to, everyone’s wine needs decanting and I’m running around with my hair on fire.
GFR: With a bit of a change in your position, what’s your idea of a great day and night off?
GS: Hanging around the house with Karen and our dogs, shopping for wine and ingredients for a special dinner. A bottle of good bubbly while cooking and a nice bottle to pair with my creation. I can’t think of a better day.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
GS: So many great restaurants, established fine dining institutions, trendy new places opening constantly, who can choose a favourite? For drinks, I love a casual neighbourhood places like The Midfield and The Emmet Ray. I’m currently in love with the Porchetta Sandwich at This End Up.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
GS: Yes even when I cooked professionally as a chef, I still cooked at home quite a lot. I sort of get obsessed with things seasonally. Being late fall now, I’m into braising anything from pork shoulder to lamb shank, from short ribs to duck confit.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters?
GS: When you cook for years in restaurants, there’s always a disaster or two. One of the worst ones for me was, as an apprentice, burning salad croutons for a large party just minutes before the party arrived.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
GS: Love Canadian wines. Ontario and B.C. producers tend to be just getting better and better at what they do. I think Ontario has huge untapped potential for sparkling wine production. We have some great sparkling wine producers, but I think there’s room for growth.
GFR: Do you feel that their is there a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
GS: Yes, I think there’s a great sommelier community in Toronto. There’s all kinds of tasting groups that one can belong to. Most of the city’s top somms are great mentors and there is a good sense of camaraderie in the industry.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine on?
GS: Tons of great wine lists in the city. I’m out in the west end so I’m excited to see Eric Gennaro (of Crush Wine Bar fame) opening Bricco Wine Bar in the Junction.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
GS: I would likely still be cooking and drumming in a band.
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I were a Doctor…
GS: My mother was one of my inspirations to become a chef in the first place, so she is pretty pleased with my career choices.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
GS: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, from 1946. Staring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Champagne is constantly flowing in this movie and the most important scene in the movie takes place in a rather impressive old wine cellar full of Burgundy.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrXM7dC9PoQ]
GFR: I know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
GS: Most non-industry friends think that I sit around and drink wine all day, but certainly when working in restaurants, none of them were envious of my hours. Of course, most of my friends do enjoy a sommelier at their finger tips. I get friends calling from the LCBO calling me to ask what to buy. My friends also love the chef skills too.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
GS: I’m not the best blind taster in the world myself, however its really the only way to properly assess a wine. If you’re not tasting it blind, then you have pre-conceived ideas about what you’re tasting. When you’re tasting blind, you don’t have those notions, so the wine has to speak for itself.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
GS: I think we’re all better tasters with a bad hang over.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GS: I absolutely adore champagne. So many styles to explore and infinite food pairing possibilities.
GFR: In your mind, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now?
GS: More and more people are discovering Spanish wines these days. Spain offers a vast spectrum of styles from sparkling (Cava) to fortified (Sherry) and tons of great dry white and red wines. To top it off, Spanish wines are under-valued so the price is right.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour?
GS: For some reason French wines don’t get the recognition that they deserve in Ontario. I’m not sure whether its because of difficult to pronounce names, the complicated AOC system or perhaps the wines are just drier than their New World counterparts. Also, we seem to be seeing a trend of alcohol levels slowly coming down again.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
GS: California Cab. Although there are certainly some great California Cabs that shouldn’t be overlooked there are too many that are over priced and unremarkable.
GFR: What is your most memorable food/wine pairing?
GS: 1989 Domaine d’orfeuilles demi-sec with roast rack of pork and braised cabbage.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but this time it’s with… hmmmm… Canadian musicians… and you have to guess what they would enjoy by way of wine… and why…
GS: Pinot Noir, mellow and thought provoking.
GS: Champagne, hopefully all those bubbles will cheer this guy up.
GS: Dolcetto. It’s fun, fruity, stylish and Italian.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
GS: Love beer, so many great craft beers from Ontario and all over North America to discover, not to mention classic UK and European beers. Love a good gin Martini and for after dinner, I enjoy a good Bourbon or Cognac.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as an agent?
GS: I would have to say collecting money is the least favourite part of my job.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
GS: A black Pulltaps. They’re functional and inexpensive so there’s no upset when you loose one.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate, and how do your accounts feel about that?
GS: I see absolutely nothing wrong with screwcaps, especially for whites and reds intended for early consumption. These days, for the most part, everybody seems happy with screwcaps for their by the glass wines, but there seems to be consensus that wines of a higher pedigree deserve a cork closure.
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze. What is your limit?
GS: As long as I’m pacing myself and nibbling food along the way, I’m pretty good with drinking wine all day.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
GS: I have been cut off in the past, but it’s been many years. It was likely back in the day when I was playing drums with a band.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
GS: Entirely depends on the week and whether or not I attend official tastings, but probably anywhere from 20 to 100.
GFR: When do you choose to spit or swallow?
GS: I always spit in a professional setting.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
GS: No one particular house wine, but moderately priced sparkling such as Crémant de Bourgone or Cava is always on ice at my house.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
GS: At my ISG graduation, they served Charles Ellner Champagne. Memorable not only because this was my first time tasting Ellner’s Champagne, which has become one of my favourites, but also because of the occasion.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the restaurant?
GS: At my last restaurant job for the longest time, myself and much of my staff were in love with the Albert Mann Auxerois.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Gary… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
GS: Syrah! Syrah is powerful and spicy but most importantly, it ages well.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Sir!
GS: The pleasure was all mine.
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 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. Anton is currently a free agent.