In the fourth of a fourth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario… and occasionally elsewhere… as you’ll see today.
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.
Once again we cast our net just a little bit further… this time all the way to my hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, to catch up with a talented young laddie named Jo Radford from Timberyard.
Having worked with Jo’s father Chef Andrew Radford for many a year in the 90’s at the much-lamented Atrium restaurant, it was simply superb to be able to interview Jo for our Young Blood Sommelier series.
Good Food Revolution: So Jo, what is it that you do at Timberyard?
Jo Radford: I guess my main role would be defined as running the bar… all things liquid. Tea, espresso based & v60 coffee, beer, cider, perry, mead… spirits, cocktails and we produce all soft drinks in house as well…
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before this position?
JR: Having grown up surrounded by catering and hospitality a lot of my experience has come from a young age. In addition to this, living in Australia for two years whilst working with a few of my parents’ old employees has been a great eye-opener.
Regarding certified training I don’t currently have any. It has been much more of a case of learning as I go and on the job. Not to discredit WSET and other qualifications but hands on experience can’t really be beaten.
GFR: And how would you explain the wine program at Timberyard?
JR: Evolving. Having opened under 18 months ago our approach to wine has grown as we have grown. I myself have a great deal to learn and my learning curve is definitely reflected in the way we approach and source wine.
We are just undertaking a fairly exciting change whereby our wine list will be of exclusively European origin. The food we serve has such a focus on produce close to home and so we feel the wine list should reflect this too. There is a fairly large emphasis on organic and biodynamic wines too.
GFR: With your entire family being involved in the restaurant… do they have any input into your wine selections?
JR: To a degree, yes. Although we have a certain vision of what we want to achieve there is such a free reign at Timberyard when it comes to creativity. In a sense, all who we work with have an impact on many aspects of the restaurant.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you deal with?
JR: Originally we wanted to keep it fairly tight so only dealt with three suppliers. As we have grown so to has our supplier base. We now deal with around five suppliers on a weekly basis with an additional one or two who we call upon monthly. This is constantly growing and I foresee many more suppliers being called upon in the coming year.
GFR: What makes a good agent in your mind?
JR: Adaptability. It’s so important being able to focus in on each client’s needs and what they are looking for. Of course a good portfolio is fairly important but even with one of the best selections of wine available some suppliers aren’t quite as favourable as they should be.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age? Actually… I know the answer to that question!
JR: I was indeed. Growing up with my parents running restaurants food and drink were all around me.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
JR: I do, I wasn’t a fan. My mother used to favour red wine and I vaguely remember having a sip in our back garden on a summer’s evening.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
JR: Fairly early. Alcohol needs to be respected, especially at a young age. A good friend of mine has an idea whereby alcohol awareness and, to a certain degree, tasting and appreciation should be an extra-curricular activity at school. A great idea but unfortunately very difficult to implement.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
JR: It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Having studied at university with an eye on a career in forensic psychology I kind of fell into hospitality and wine. I’m happy it all unfolded this way.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
JR: [The late] James Sankey. A previous employee and close friend of my parents who had such passion and incredible wine knowledge.
GFR: The Sommelier and Cocktail worlds are notoriously full of pretentious arseholes… do you think that is slowly changing?
JR: Potentially. There is still a lot of pretence involved, but in fairly different ways. With wine it seems a little more pretentious with age; as in knowledge comes with age (not to discredit the younger sommeliers, of course). This can be quite intimidating at times. With cocktails there is, and probably always will be, a certain air of self importance that many bartenders adopt.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
JR: As a youngster we travelled through France and parts of northern Italy but I was too young to appreciate it. Unfortunately none as of yet but there are a few on my to do list for sure……Austria being near the top.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
JR: Grape wine not so much but I am constantly playing about with other ideas at work. Being so focused on local and seasonal produce I have made ‘wine’ of sorts from a number of other ingredients including honey to make mead, treacle & Douglas fir, sweet cicely and barley & meadowsweet.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
JR: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make wine in sunny Scotland. I have heard rumours of it being attempted but the lack of sunshine, but not necessarily the cold, is a huge issue.
GFR: Is your role purely that of Sommelier or do you have managerial duties also?
JR: It is managerial as well…… It can be difficult working alongside and discipling close family and friends.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
JR: Being a family run business and employing so many friends I do find it difficult at times to be disciplinary… bottles are easier, they don’t answer back.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
JR: Career highs have absolutely been returning from Australia to help open up Timberyard with my family. As far as career lows go, I haven’t had any notable ones yet…..hopefully that trend can continue.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
JR: James Sankey was a great role model. I just wish I had had the opportunity to work with him properly as I’m sure the experience would have been invaluable.
GFR: I worked him throughout all of my years at the Atrium from 1993 until 1997 when I moved to Canada, an I wholeheartedly agree with you there.
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…
JR: Yes, or worse, only finding un-refrigerated white wine…..or newly delivered red wine which is too cold……. It’s so frustrating when the wine is on the premises but not at the correct temperature to serve.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… or perhaps you have Mondays off?
JR: We luckily have Sundays and Mondays off. A really good Sunday would start with a little lie in and then I would surround myself with friends and eat and drink lots of good food and wine. I am about to launch a little side project and its likely it will eat into my weekend off……I need to make the most of them whilst I can.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Edinburgh.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
JR: For food, I do find it difficult. There are a lot of high end and a lot of good fun lower end restaurants but the middle bracket is sparsely catered for. Additionally, the higher end establishments are a little dated in my eyes…..very formulaic and pretty much all classic French. There is a great sushi restaurant called Kanpai just round the corner from Timberyard. Being allergic to fish it’s a slightly ironic recommendation.
For drinks, there are a lot of exciting things happening in the city. Jason and Mike who own Bramble have two other fantastic cocktail bars; The Last Word Saloon in Stockbridge and the newly opened Lucky Liquor Co. on Queen Street.
The Bon Vivant on Thistle street is another favourite.
I hear whispers of other exciting projects too…
GFR: Do you cook yourself or do you leave that up to your Father and Brother? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
JR: I do cook yes……one of the chefs we work with and myself often cook big Sunday roasts on the weekends for friends. A lot of fun.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
JR: None that I can think of. At least none that my guests have passed on….
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Have you had the opportunity to try any actually?
JR: The Canadian wines I have had a chance to try have been wonderful.
Peller Estate‘s Ice Cuvée and Dessert Ice Wines were beautiful.
There are a couple of wonderful examples from just south of the border in Washington State that I have tried too.
Unfortunately it can be rather difficult sourcing many outside high end restaurants.
GFR: Is there a good Sommelier/Cocktail community in Edinburgh?
JR: The Edinburgh hospitality scene is a funny one. It is fairly small and as such fairly difficult to avoid. All in all there are some great characters involved
GFR: How do you feel about Edinburgh as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
JR: I find myself visiting the usual haunts most weekends.
For cocktails it tends to be Bramble, The Last Word, The Bon Vivant or The Devil’s Advocate.
For wine The Bon Vivant and The Bon Vivant Companion are good shouts. Henri of Stockbridge is also fantastic. They have a great selection of organic, biodynamic and natural wines from France and the rest of Europe.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
JR: It would most likely still be food and drink related. This little side project will maybe help answer that question…….
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants? When I worked with your parents at the Atrium there was a strict no-music rule. What kind of music works in the dining room in your mind?
JR: I quite like a little music in restaurants. It has to be unobtrusive…..the food and drink are still the man event of course. It can add to the atmosphere so greatly though.
Understated, ethereal and somewhat dreamy music works in my mind……it does however greatly depend on the setting, style of restaurant and the food being served.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
JR: Not a scene as such but I do love Withnail And I……a lot of great food and drink themes running throughout.
GFR: I’m guessing that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
JR: A career in hospitality has often been frowned upon but it is slowly getting more and more respect. I think when friends come in and experience what we have to offer they start to understand and appreciate what a great line of work it can be.
Most of my friends are fairly into their food and drink and so are pretty supportive of what I do.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
JR: Blind comparisons are great in my mind. It allows for completely unbiased judgements. The idea of blind tasting is however rather strange to me. I understand how it can help with the development of your palate to a certain degree but I fail to see how, as a skill at transfers into many real life situations.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
JR: Without for sure. My palate tends to be a bit shot after a big night. Too many harsh spirits.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GFR: What is “hot” in the world of wine right now?
JR: Organic, bio-dynamic and natural wines. There has been such a focus on these sorts of ethos in relation to food and I simply can’t understand why it isn’t pushed more with wine and other drinks too. Of course it’s been around for a very long time but it is rarely focused upon with such importance as it is in the food world.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour?
JR: Supermarket wine… of course it still serves a purpose but there are so many poorly produced wines and, ironically, so many better options at a reasonable price if individuals spend a little time searching. There are some great independent wine and spirit shops with affordable wines and great knowledge on hand.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
JR: I’ll probably get lynched for saying this but Champagne as a region can, at times, be hyped up. It is not to say that I don’t love drinking champagne but more to say that I feel that many houses rely on the regions reputation and exclusivity. Additionally, there are some great other options that often get disregarded as a result of not being ‘champagne’.
At Timberyard we stock the whole Nyetimber range…..English sparkling wine made with the same grapes and traditional methods used over the Channel in Champagne. They produce some beautiful alternatives.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on the current Timberyard menu?
JR: We are enjoying matching Weingut Max Ferdinand Richter Kabinett Riesling with our pickled duck, hazelnut, pear, beetroot, and scurvy grass.
The off-dry Riesling works great with the slightly sweet pickle liquor while still having enough acidity to cut through the earthy flavours of the beetroot and fattiness of the duck.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with… famous/infamous Scots… guessing (or knowing) what they would enjoy wine-wise…
1: Jimmy Boyle
JR: I guess it depends whether it was in his early years or later in life. Back in the day I’m sure a good bottle of Buckfast (highly caffeinated tonic wine) would have gone down a treat. I’m sure these days he has slightly more expensive taste. Perhaps a Sancerre.
JR: I understand Jack Vettriano got in a little trouble last year whilst driving over the limit….but, while still being a man of class how about a small glass of burgundy each…
GFR: Hmmm… I wasn’t actually aware of that!
JR: Schloer (a non alcoholic grape juice drink)… he’s teetotal is he not?
There seems to be a bit of a theme going on here… Scots who can’t handle their drink or who have given it up altogether.
GFR: Ha, that wasn’t my plan, but you have a point!
All three of them used to come into the Atrium, the first two on a regular basis actually!
Do you often drink beers or spirits?
JR: Yes. There are a few wonderful breweries popping up, most notably in London, who focus on making beers the way they used to be made. Proper pale ales, IPAs, porters and stouts. I’m a big fan of these. The Kernel and Partizan [breweries] are making some beautiful beer just now.
Spirits wise it tends to be calvados, apple brandies and good whisky that I turn to. As well as Campari. I am a huge Campari fan.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
JR: Stock take (inventory) is incredibly tedious. We go through a fairly large volume of stock too so putting away orders and keeping the cellar in check can be quite a challenge as well.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
JR: I have recently been given a beautiful old horn corkscrew which I have been using with great pleasure. I would love to know it’s story and taste some of the wines it has opened throughout its life.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
JR: It’s always wonderful using a corkscrew. There is something so traditional, showy and classy about removing a cork from a good bottle of wine. But on the other hand I can completely understand the shift towards screw cap. In general our customers aren’t too opinionated but I remember from my time in Australia how cork enclosed wines were a rare breed.
I just hope the cork doesn’t completely disappear from the wine world.
GFR: Due to us always being around alcohol, many people in our industry often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze, or they develop issues. What is your limit and how do you keep yourself in check?
JR: I tend to only really drink at the weekends. It’s a dangerous habit drinking during the week, especially with the hours we all work.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
JR: I can recall a couple of times when friends behind the bar have hinted with glasses of water and long waits between rounds but I have never been “cut off” as such. Not that I can remember anyway.
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
JR: A good shower and a walk. The Scottish elements have an incredible knack at waking you up and shaking you into order. Scotland’s penchant for fried food, although immediately tempting, never works in the long run.
GFR: Do you have any booze related tattoos?
JR: Just the one…….a friend and myself enjoyed a particular hedonistic summer drinking too much Campari so we ended up getting matching Campari tattoos on our livers.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
JR: New wines in a normal week: probably in the region of seven or eight including extracurricular tasting. This varies massively though, especially when portfolio tastings pass through town.
GFR: When do you choose to spit or swallow?
JR: Generally it depends on the plans for the rest of the day. If its a full portfolio tasting spitting couldn’t be more valuable. If it’s just a few samples here and there I think it’s really important to swallow when possible…
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
JR: Recently it has been a lot of aromatics…..Viognier, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
JR: I remember a wonderful glass of wine I was given at Noma. It was a natural still white from champagne. So lively. The match was absolutely wonderful and I loved the idea that a few small producers were going against the grain and producing a still wine in a region so notorious for its sparkling wine. I wish I could remember the producer now.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the restaurant?
JR: Three Choirs‘ Coleridge Hill. A blend of Phoenix, Madalaine Angevine & Huxelrebe. Beautifully crisp and dry with a wonderful English hedgerow/elderflower nose. It is produced in Gloucestershire.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Jo… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
JR: Probably Pinot Noir. I’m sensitive and fragile.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Jo!
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 a free agent.