In the fourth of a fifth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario and occasionally elsewhere.
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 week sees the appearance of an old and good friend from the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar days, Mr. Jacob Wharton-Shukster.
Good Food Revolution: So Jacob, what is it that you do at Chantecler these days?
Jacob Wharton-Shukster: I take care of the front at Chantecler – that includes all of the beverage and service aspects of the operation.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before this position?
JWS: Before Chantecler, I was last working with Claudio Aprile at Origin Restaurant; I’ve, of course, had some experience working with you at the JK Wine Bar (quite a few years ago!), and I’ve done some studying with the International Sommelier Guild.
GFR: And how would you explain the wine program at Chantecler?
JWS: At Chantecler, we try to bring in exciting wines from smaller producers that are the product of growers – real people making real wine.
GFR: With all due respect may I suggest that you are one of the younger Sommeliers who have drunk the Natural Wine Kool Aid? There seems to be a small group of you centred around the Woodlot Axis that are greedy for the stuff. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject…
JWS: Not sure that we’re capitalizing/abbreviating NWKA yet. Nor am I sure I even particularly like the word ‘natural’, as applied – I think you’re describing a group of people who seek a return to traditional winemaking. We look for wines that are made in the vineyard, not in the winery, and are grown by farmers and vignerons, not corporations and consultants.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you deal with?
JWS: We deal with about a dozen or so importers.
GFR: What makes a good agent in your mind?
JWS: A good agent will know what wines are your jam, so to speak, so they don’t waste their time or samples hawking bottles of little or no interest. I try to taste everything with an open mind, and am often happily surprised with great recommendations from good wine agents.
GFR: And a bad one?
JWS: …will show up without appointment, with samples, wearing too much cologne or perfume, and demand to taste lousy product on the spot. More common than you’d think.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
JWS: Not necessarily wine of any quality, but definitely around wine. My dad used to make plonk in the basement.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
JWS: Not sure that I can remember my very first taste… though it is traditional for Jewish boys to have a small slurp of Manischewitz at eight days old, so I suppose it would have been then.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
JWS: As early as they can palate it? I feel like children who are introduced early are less likely to stigmatize responsible consumption in adolescence. They know what enjoying a bottle of wine at dinner looks like, separate from high-school encounters with binge drinking.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
JWS: When I first discovered one could eke out a living in the field.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
JWS: My first proper introduction to wine was with Jamie Kennedy. You used to host an informal staff tasting every Friday at the Gardiner, and every Wednesday (I believe) at the Wine Bar. I quickly started coming to both.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious twats… do you think that is slowly changing?
JWS: Yes and no. Any knowledge based endeavour will surely attract a certain degree of know-it-all-ism. I’m noticing a more rootsy approach to the understanding of wine. Folks making the good wine are farmers, after all.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
JWS: Haven’t done nearly enough travelling – planning to do Loire this fall.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
JWS: I don’t have nearly the wealth or breadth of knowledge to go about such an undertaking! Becoming a grower is a serious, life-long commitment. Incredible, but hardly something armchair experience can hope to replicate. Maybe one day.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
JWS: Exclusively for the scenery: Santorini. I just want to live there.
GFR: Do you know any Sommelier/Wine jokes? I only know the one with the punchline “They had to let him go as he was walking around with a Semillon”
JWS: Thats the only one I know! Maybe the one about how to make a small fortune in Ontario wine… (start with a large fortune.)
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
JWS: I think people. Bottles are fun. People are funner.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
JWS: Opening the restaurant was a huge career high for me. Really, really exciting. Lows come and go (as do bad services at the restaurant.) Trying to focus on the good parts.
GFR: Apart from me *cough*, who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
JWS: I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for how Svetlana (now at Pearl Morrisette winery) did the list and service at Ascari Enoteca. Incredible selection of fantastic wines, a great understanding of generosity, hospitality, with no ego stroking. Great passion.
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…
JWS: Still have bottle retrieval nightmares from Buca. The wine room was what felt like an epic walk from the dining room, and there were a lot of mystery bottles at the beginning.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… but I think you actually have Mondays off?
JWS: We’re open seven days a week at the restaurant, so I usually try to take off Tuesdays, Thursdays, or both. Favourite way to waste a day: bicycle ride followed farmer’s market followed by dinner at home with too much wine and too many friends.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
JWS: The boys at Midfield have a fantastic, very Montreal-feeling spot that I love. Big fan of Archive, further east on Dundas. Really great list. Woodlot has perhaps the best list in the city, and of course, the food is great.
GFR: Although you eat at the restaurant a lot, do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
JWS: Actually, I rarely eat at the restaurant. I love to cook, but can’t at home as much as I’d like. I love to roast or grill big chunks of meat or seafood, and have a feast with a bunch of sides and vegetables. Last big meal I cooked was a whole roast lamb shoulder. Very homey and gratifying.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters?
JWS: Of course! I think most people have had the experience of the endless wait-out for a braise to become tender. We eat late at my house, so an extra hour or two in the oven can take you to 2am…
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Have you had the opportunity to try any real standouts recently actually?
JWS: I love Canadian wines from quality producers. Tawse were able to sort out a case of 2004 Pinot Noir for us. Really fantastic, mature expression of Pinot from Niagara. All the wines from the Old Third in Prince Edward County are unbelievable. They are starting to do a varietal cider that’ll knock your socks off. I’m also very impressed by the quality of work from Pearl Morissette. The 2010 Cabernet Franc could be the wine that converts detractors. Lastly, super excited by the excellent sparkling wines of Benjamin Bridge in Nova Scotia.
GFR: Do you feel that there is there a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
JWS: For sure. Very lovely bunch of young, passionate individuals, who seem less interested in competing with one another, and more interested in drinking great wine.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine on?
JWS: It’s getting better… we don’t have as much of a wine culture here as, say, Montreal. Toronto is a beer and whiskey town. Thats not to say that the culture doesn’t exist, or isn’t building. It just means that when folks go out for dinner, you see a lot of people drinking cocktails or beers.
That being said, it’s amazing how many people are guzzling wine at 416 Snack Bar – one of the best places to get a late night bite and glass of wine.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
JWS: Not sure that I ever self apply the title ‘sommelier’, but if I weren’t working in restaurants, I think I’d be working in music.
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I were a Doctor…
JWS: My parents have always been incredibly supportive of my various pursuits… though I suspect doctor. Not lawyer. She hated that.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
JWS: I love the introductory scene in ‘eat drink man woman’. Our protagonist is preparing a traditional chinese feast, which includes him chasing after a chicken.
GFR: I’m know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
JWS: Sometimes super excited, always supportive, occasionally bewildered. I occasionally feel like the work is a bit hedonistic, since it’s always about experience, but hey – someone has do it.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
JWS: Parlour trick or legitimate study? Little bit of both. Amazing how great blind tasters can nail region, variety, producer and vintage. It’s a real show of incredible study. But also prone to huge error. I feel like there are some days where I taste clearer than others. Either way, it’s a lot of fun.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
JWS: Definitely the former. Nothing like an early morning tasting with last night’s wine still on your… “mind”.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GFR: What is “hot” in the world of wine right now at the den of Natural Wines that is Chantecler?
JWS: Have a really cool VDF wine from Agnes & Rene Mosse called the “Magic of JU JU”. Glossy, aromatic and cutting chenin blanc from Anjou. Really unbelievable.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour at Chantecler?
JWS: Fucked up wines. I feel like a lot of time, ‘natural’ gets used an excuse for flaws. We like clean wines. It’s unfortunate when an otherwise great wine is ruined by lack of stability, and doesn’t survive the trip across the water. Fucked up wines are out.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on the current Chantecler menu?
JWS: Interesting dish from the tasting menu. The dish was a sea urchin panna cotta, topped with fresh urchin and carrot cream. We paired an interesting wine from Emilia-Romagna; a lightly sparkling Malvasia from La Stoppa. Off-dry, perfumed, and absolutely delicious.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… if these people walked into your restaurant and looked thirsty what would you give them wine-wise… and why?
1: Admiral Horatio “Full” Nelson (UK War Hero)
JWS: Old PX Sherry – brown, kind of dirty, opaque, and ever so bitter-sweet.
2. Alice Feiring (US Natural Wine Advocate)
JWS: The Old Third Pinot Noir 2011. Great example of quality Canadian natural wine expressing time and place.
3. T-Pain (Questionably talented “musician”)
JWS: Cristal Champagne. Because, of course?
GFR: I think it’s more likely to be this muck.
Do you often drink beers or spirits?
JWS: Definitely into beers and spirits. Really like cocktails. Nothing beats a cold beer after a long day.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
JWS: Difficult clients. We have just about the nicest customer base in the world at Chantecler, but it can be challenging just the same – especially as a younger staff. Older clients occasionally have a hard time relying on our expertise. We had a woman the other night return a glass 2012 Dmn. De la Pepiere Muscadet “Clos des Briords” – she thought it was ‘sour’, and that we should definitely check our bottles before serving them. What do you say to that?
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
JWS: Pulltaps. Used to have fancy corkscrew. Must be lost under my bed.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate?
JWS: Cork. I’m interested in these semi-permeable screwcap closures, but they remain unproven. High end corks are more reliable than ever.
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze. What is your limit?
JWS: Trying not to find out these days. More spitting – less hangovers.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
JWS: Never cut off… recently denied entry. Neighbourhood bar. Must have been a LONG day…
GFR: Do you smoke cigarettes? Some of the best tasters I know smoke quite heavily, so I’d love to get your thoughts on this.
JWS: It’s true, some of the best tasters smoke quite heavily. I’m neither the best taster I know, nor do I smoke quite heavily, but I am prone to the occasional smoke after a couple of wobbly pops. Definitely affects me the next day, without a doubt.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
JWS: Depends on the week. I tend to group appointments, so there could be a day where I taste a couple dozen. Try and taste as much as possible!
GFR: When do you choose to spit or swallow?
JWS: Spit at group tastings and before work. Swallow when drinking and eating with friends.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
JWS: J.P. Brun Beaujolais. So good.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
JWS: Surprisingly, I think Norm Hardie’s county pinot, first vintage. First time I realized wine could be… that.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the restaurant?
JWS: I really like Muscadet. A nice, probably too-cold glass of Muscadet will always set you right.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Jacob… If you were a grape varietal what would you be? And why?
JWS: Nebbiolo! Idiosyncratic, sour, and occasionally bitter… but can rise to the occasion in the right circumstance.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Sir!
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.
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 working on his exciting new project Gwailo with Chef Nick Liu.