In the fourth of a third (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, and then recently it was the turn of Josh Corea, from Dundas West’s splendid Archive Wine Bar.
This week we speak with the irrepressible Jasmine Black, who at the present moment in time seems to be working everywhere in the damn city!
Good Food Revolution: So Jasmine Black (not the porn star), what are you up to?
Jasmine Lee Black: I’m a wine slinging hired gun at three restaurants in the city : The Chase two nights a week, Elleven at the ACC during Leafs home games and Ascari Enoteca in Leslieville on Sunday and Monday nights. My gig at The Chase and Elleven is completely wine focused and very straight forward – I walk in, help stock wine, communicate the 86d list and then go onto the floor to sell and open bottles until I leave ! At Ascari I go back to my long forgotten roots and serve a few nights a week. As of next week I will be taking over the wine program as our beloved Bulgarian is moving forward on an exciting new path !
GFR: You have worked at quite a few interesting spots over the years… where would you say that you learned the most?
JLB: I definitely feel that I learned the most running the wine program at Reds Wine Tavern (formerly Reds Bistro and Wine Bar). I was still finishing up the CAPS program at Niagara College when I took over the list. Interestingly enough, I was in the Sommelier Management module when I received my business cards. I made my GM get new ones printed with the title Wine Director rather than Sommelier – I was worried it would jinx my chances of passing the final exam. I, admittedly, didn’t make it to all of the classes of that module as I was learning what it meant to be a Sommelier and how to run a wine program every day when I walked into that building.
It was a huge, award winning and intimidating list to take over but it taught me a lot. I had to learn how to please the Bay St palate while still standing by my beliefs. My proudest day was when MY wine list was released at our re-opening (Reds went through some extensive renovations and re-branding last Fall). I had learned so much through building it and training the staff on it. Once everyone felt confident in being able to work with the list I left Reds. I had accomplished exactly what I hadn’t even known I wanted before Reds – it was time to move onto the next challenge …… Weslodge !
GFR: And what do you hope to be doing in five years?
JLB: I originally answered this question on a plane ride to California to work harvest last month. My answer then was : have completed a few more harvest stints and at least one full harvest, have travelled Europe, have discovered ‘where I fit’ in the wine world (teaching, consulting, working at a winery, etc), not be in Toronto and live somewhere with space near the water.
Since returning from California the answer to that question has become much clearer. I have always been hugely interested in the grape growing and wine making side of this industry and have known I wanted to learn more about it. That’s how I found myself working harvest in Napa recently. I knew the experience would go one of two ways – I would either come home with a much greater appreciation for and knowledge of that world and continue on with what I’m doing OR I would come home knowing I needed to keep going down that path. After my first day of work at O’Shaughnessy I knew that I was done for – there was no turning back.
SO – a very long winded answer – to get to the point….
In five years I hope to have completed the UC Davis Extension Wine Making Certificate Program and be working at a winery that I equally learn from and contribute to.
GFR: What makes a good wine agent in your mind?
JLB: I have been lucky enough to develop great relationships with some agents in the city. What they all have in common is their ability to balance being available to me when needed without being too present, pushy or over bearing.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
JLB: My mother is a Chef so I knew about wine, in that it was often consumed when eating. She is much more of a beer gal herself (except when she demands that I bring home wine and tell her all about it) and I spent a lot of my childhood in Bahamas with her and my grandfather – who drinks room temperature beer, dark rum or brandy. Therefore my exposure to wine was quite limited until I started working in restaurants. I started life out as a beer girl !
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
JLB: Any child in my life will be exposed quite young I can assure you. It would be impossible for me not to teach my child about what I love. I even try and get my Chihuahua to taste my glass of wine !
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
JLB: I was living and working at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise during the summer between my second and third year of University. By this time I already drank wine (plunk mostly) and was growing more interested in it. That summer I worked for my first Sommelier and had my ‘aha’ moment in the world of wine (a Savennieres – hence my email address and constant obsession with the Loire Valley). Tarrah was a great teacher and loved to share her passion with those that showed any sign of interest.
I went back to Waterloo and finished my schooling, while bartending and supervising at a local restaurant. It wasn’t until I graduated and had to think about what I was going to do with my life that I applied for the CAPS program.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
JLB: Not nearly enough ! I have spent quite a bit of time in Prince Edward County, Niagara, Napa and Sonoma. I have also visited the Okanagan Valley a few times.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
JLB: My goal is to go back to Napa for harvest next year – I am not even close to being done learning from the wonderful people at O’Shaughnessy. I bugged Sean (Capaiux) about coming back next year every day that I was there. I think by the time I left he was starting to realize he didn’t really have much say in the matter – that I would show up on their doorstep one way or another.
GFR: Are Winemaker’s dinners more trouble than they are worth?
JLB: They can be a pain in the ass and may not be the ideal way for consumers to learn what and who are behind the bottles they enjoy BUT if they get even one thing out of their experience with the wine maker then its worth it. It would be great if everyone could visit the winery and get to see it first hand, and talk to the wine maker in their natural environment, but that’s not always possible.
GFR: In your current role do you have to work as a Manager as well as a Sommelier?
JLB: I made a conscious decision not to sign up for another Somm/Manager gig so that I could concentrate solely on wine. I work at three different restaurants and it gets confusing as to where I am supposed to be or what wine list I am working with on any given day but I am very happy not to be telling some 40 year old server to stop picking his nose and go top up waters on table 22 !
GFR: Do you prefer managing bottles or people?
JLB: I think the answer is quite clear from my above response….
GFR: Tell us about your WORST customer ever? Absolute, ABSOLUTE worst…
JLB: I had a guest at Weslodge request to speak with the Sommelier – I walked over, introduced myself, asked how I could be of assistance. He scoffed, said that he was expecting a man and wouldn’t be needing the opinion of a woman – he didn’t get to enjoy any wine at my restaurant that evening – a moment I was happy to work at a restaurant with security !
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
JLB: Sunday Fundays ! It’s been awhile since I had a Sunday off actually. I work at Ascari Enoteca on Sunday nights – which is almost as much fun as having a day off ! But – in the past – one of my best friends and I spent every Sunday together enjoying some combination of : Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, matching old man pajamas, multiple pizza and Chinese food deliveries, Coronas with a neck of tequila enjoyed on my old rooftop and copious amounts of wine.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine in Toronto.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of your lovely city?
JLB: I have just recently re-discovered House on Parliament – the best prime rib sandwich in the city ! Richard and I are huge fans of Ka Ka Lucky Seafood BBQ Restaurant in old China Town – enough rice, bbq pork, broccoli and extra sauce to feed an army for $6 !
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
JLB: I love cooking but don’t do it nearly as much as I would like to. Richard is an amazing cook so he normally takes over when he’s home. I make a mean cheese plate though 😉
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters?
JLB: Sometimes Richard and I try to cook together when we are both way too inebriated to make good decisions – it once consisted of left over sausage meat, potatoes, and onions – until Richard threw in Bourbon and coffee beans !
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
JLB: I think there are some beautiful wines being made by talented and passionate people. Of course there is shit as well – that’s the case in any wine making region in the world. I feel very strongly about supporting our local talent whenever possible.
GFR: What are the biggest challenges running a wine program in Toronto?
JLB: I’ve never run a wine program in any other city so I don’t know from experience but working with the LCBO and the lack of availability of certain regions is frustrating on a good day.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine city?
JLB: I think there is a lot of room for growth and the wine culture is still developing. I think there needs to be more support and mentorship between people in the industry as well as support for local wineries.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
JLB: I would be a large animal handler or large snake handler for sure !
GFR: *sighs with exasperation*
What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I was a Doctor…
JLB: My Mother is hugely supportive of what I do and because she has always been in the hospitality industry I can’t think of what else she would wish I was doing. I’ll ask her when she gets back from BC.
GFR: I know that you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
JLB: Some don’t get it but they all try and they all care that I’m doing something I love. I get constant phone calls and text messages on what red wine under $30 they should buy for their first meeting with their significant other’s parents or they will send me photos of bottles they have loved and want to know more about it. They have been the inspiration behind me going to the LCBO once a week to take a look around, see what’s available and hunt for bargains.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
JLB: To me there are two kinds of blind tasting :
1) to experience and judge a wine without pretense or context
2) to break down the wine into components to attempt to figure out varietal, region, etc
Learning how to taste wine constructively through the CAPS program and mentorship from other Somms has been very educational but I don’t compete or particularly care that my blind tasting skills are probably at their all time low these days.
I strongly believe in the first kind of blind tasting. You can learn so much about a wine and about yourself through tasting this way. I recently sat on the judging panel for SOSA’s 2nd Annual Ontario Wine Judgement for the second time and was shocked at some of the wines I loved and others that I spat out almost immediately – it knocks you down a peg and I think that’s important sometimes.
GFR: Where is your favourite wine bar in the world?
JLB: Willi’s Wine Bar between Santa Rosa and Windsor in Sonoma. I also love their sister restaurant in Healdsburg – Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on your current menu?
JLB: When I’m sitting on my couch : Ruffles Original potato chips and something sparkling
When I’m out for dinner at Libretto on the Danforth : margherita pizza and Gragnano
When I’m working at Ascari : chicken liver mousse crostinis and Domaine Baud Cremant du Jura
It turns out I’m a whore for sparkling wine !
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
JLB: I love the cocktails at Weslodge, can always go for a dirty gin martini and want my dessert every night to be the Athol Brose from Harbord Room. I drink a ton of beer whenever I’m helping out at a winery – it takes a lot of beer to make great wine !
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
JLB : The disconnect between selling wine in a restaurant in a big city and where the wine is coming from gets to me sometimes. There are moments where it feels like there could be anything in that bottle and it doesn’t really matter to the guest, or the server or whoever. I have some amazingly supportive and like-minded friends in the industry that help keep me on base.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
JLB: Nothing interesting – plain white two step.
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze. What is your limit?
JLB: Depends on the day and my choice of poison but fortunately, and unfortunately, it is quite high.
GFR: Do you have any wine related tattoos?
JLB: None of my tattoos are directly wine related but there are a few ideas in progress – I won’t spoil the surprise !
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”?
JLB: Every so often I used to get ‘put on plastic’ at my old watering hole in Waterloo – the beer would still be flowing but the idea was to make me stand out as the drunk one with a red Solo cup instead of a pint glass – unfortunately for them I am not embarrassed easily.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
JLB: Depends on if I have supplier meetings or not but an average of 10 probably.
GFR: Do you spit or swallow?
JLB: I was waiting for this question – had no doubt it would be in this interview. Depends on how good the wine is normally – there are some that I can’t force myself to spit out and others that make it hard not to.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
JLB: Norman Hardie something – thanks Rich and Norm !
GFR: Do you keep a cellar at home?
JLB: Richard and I have boxes of wine in the corner of our dining room, wine bottles on top of our armoir and a small fridge of wine in the kitchen – nothing as sophisticated as a ‘cellar’.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
JLB: 1905 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho Reserva
The most stunning wine of a great line up last Family Day at a Peter Lehmann lunch hosted by the wonderful Matt Lane and Anya Spethman.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night working?
JLB: This last Monday’s debacles were started off with a bottle of the 2011 Punset Dolcetto d’Alba – thanks Marina !
GFR: And now the cheesy question Jasmine Black… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
JLB: I couldn’t think of an answer to this so I asked a good friend of mine. He said “Chardonnay …Most people think they know who you are by seeing you but you are so versatile and great in many different styles”
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.