Old Bastard Sommelier Eric Gennaro.
In a relatively new spin-off from our extremely popular Young Blood Sommeliers series, we are proud to present The Old Bastard Sommeliers, who will be running in alternating months to our ongoing YBS interviews, well, that is if these Young Bloods can get off their arses to get their interviews back to me on time… *cough* *B O’R* *cough*
This sure-to-be-entertaining series will focus upon in-depth extended interviews with some of the more infamous veteran characters in the scene, examining where they go their first start, who inspired them, how (through their skills, eccentricities, and perversions) they developed into the legendary figures they are today, and what tips and tricks they would pass on to the young bucks who are occasionally making them feel like relics of a bygone age.
This month sees the appearance of a fellow I have admired for many a year… Mr. Eric Gennaro.
Good Food Revolution: So Eric, what is it that you are doing these days?
Eric Gennaro: I just sold Bricco after 6 years. Currently taking some time to plan out my next move. Enjoying spending time with the family and the weird feeling of actually having weekends off for the first time in 25 years. At this specific moment, I am bottling my Barolo Chinato I started on October 18, 2018 from 3 bottles of discounted Fontanafredda.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to becoming a Sommelier?
EG: After watching my manager drop a bottle of Sassicaia and yelling at me for not understanding the tragedy, I vowed I would learn more about wine than anyone in the restaurant. I was 18 and was studying art at York University. My interest in wine grew more than long early morning bus rides, studio classrooms, and field trips to the forest to view art nouveau installations of hanging men’s suits.
GFR: Tell us about your history in the industry? Where did you get your first start?
EG: I started as a cashier at Centro when I was 17. I had no idea what I was doing but thought I could be a busboy. They needed a cashier, I needed a job. My post was next to the bar and the wine cellar. I helped stock and clean the cellar and eventually learned how to make coffee and cocktails.
GFR: And from that formative experience where did you go from there?
EG: I took on the service bar role in the wine bar at Centro, then began serving in a little trattoria in Little Italy called Bertucci’s. It had an incredible wine program showcasing the majority of the Italian blue chips of the era. I then moved on to work at the Windsor Arms Hotel when it reopened in 1999. I passed the sommelier course at George Brown taught by the legendary, Jacques Marie and soon began to take on the role at the hotel. After 3 years I joined the team at Crush Wine Bar as King Street began its boom. In 2013, I opened a wine bar in the outskirts of the junction called Bricco focusing on the food and wine of Piedmont.
GFR: And what were your most memorable gigs over all that time?
EG: Being the sommelier at the Windsor Arms Hotel was special. I was 20 years old fresh out of wine school and had an unlimited purchasing budget. I was part of a tasting group that consisted of some major heavyweight winos, John Szabo, Peter Boyd, Francois Morrisette, and Laura Van Havermaat. Tastings started early and usually ended with listening to Van Morrison’s ‘Hymns to the Silence’, drinking Palinka John had smuggled from Hungary in plastic water bottles.
GFR: What’s the story behind your formal wine education? And with considerable hindsight do you feel that this was the best route to where you are today?
EG: I took the sommelier course at George Brown in 1999. I was surrounded by great people who inspired me to travel and made me realize that for all I thought I knew I didn’t know anything. I feel out of touch with today’s route.
GFR: Have you ever been in a wine biz situation and begun to really feel your (relative) age? And if so, why?
EG: When I was doing payroll and filling in employee profiles with birth years in the 2000s
GFR: Along the way, who inspired you the most? Did you have any mentors? And what did they do that set them apart from everyone else?
EG: I once worked a private event called the 5 families of wine, (Antinori, Torres, Rothschild, Egon Muller, and Mondavi). I met Piero Antinori. He was well dressed, super knowledgeable but what I loved was as he walked around the room he was able to communicate seamlessly in all four languages. I was blown away. Classy.
GFR: Can you remember your worst customer experience ever? I have a few doozies…
EG: I had a customer who would always send back his bottle if he couldn’t make the cork stand up on the table when he dropped it. He lived in the hotel so we couldn’t argue.
So what makes for a good agent/supplier/merchant in your mind?
EG: I think I good agent should take the time to read your list and menu. Every sommelier reveals their true loves within those pages. Play upon their heart strings. Timing is important. Following up with gentle pressure.
GFR: How do you feel that the industry has changed since you first started all those years ago?
EG: I think the industry has seen younger people take charge. There is less of a mafioso capo system of starting from the bottom and waiting for an opportunity.
GFR: And how has Toronto changed as a wine city?
EG: I used to say Toronto was about Cabernet, steaks, and Maple Leafs. While that is still true to some degree, I think the city has been exposed to so much more high quality interesting wine. We have gone from “give me the biggest wine that runs me over like a steam roller” to “how many dry rosés do you have?”
Bright eyes and blurry… Old Bastard Sommelier Eric Gennaro circa 2006.
GFR: What were the top spots for wine back in the day?
EG: Jamie Kennedy wine bar and Crush were on the cutting edge of things back then. Great sparklers and sherry by the glass. But I remember some great lunches drinking old vintages of baga wines from Luis Pato at Bairrada on College Street while watching the Champion’s League final.
GFR: And where do you feel does a good job wine-wise these days? And what makes them stand out from the crowd?
EG: I like Josh at Archive’s focus and attention to detail. Plus he’s a strong cyclist.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? And how have you viewed their evolution since your early days in the industry?
EG: It sounds crazy but I always find Canadian mid-level wines more appealing than super reserve labels. I think we are learning to embrace our cool climate as opposed to trying to replicate wines from our southern neighbours.
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario today?
EG: I am a Riesling fanatic. We should plant more.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
GFR: How do you feel about restaurants support of our local wine industry? How has that changed since your early days?
EG: When I first started out there were two Canadian wines in restaurants, Inniskillin ice wine and Cave Spring Indian summer Riesling. Now you’re more likely to find cab franc and Pinot noir.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Canada (BC, Ontario et al.) also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
EG: Simply put. Quality first. We don’t need to hand out 10th place ribbons.
GFR: And what’s your take on this natural wine thing? And why do you feel it is even a “thing”?
EG: Same answer. Quality first. I don’t know. I find for all the hype about varietal expression a lot taste the same.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
EG: Both my Italian grandparents made wine at home. One made red and one made white.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
EG: Not really. I do remember drinking freshly squeezed juice running down the wine press.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
EG: I have 2 kids 14 and 3. They taste all the great stuff. Especially Nebbiolo and Riesling.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm a few years back I still worry about the emergence of a new Wine Bro culture… also, I recently picked up on a LOT of that from the mixology crowd, full-on Jordan Peterson fans and all that stuff. I’d love to hear your thoughts? There have always been pretentious arseholes, right?
EG: Yeah. I remember after getting my pin, I was asked to be a wine judge for the following year’s sommelier class exam and I tried to stump a candidate. I felt like shit after wards. I vowed to be humble from that point. That man’s name was Anton Potvin. He turned out alright. I did apologize to him later on.
It’s tough cause it sounds funny to be a jerk about fermented grape but it happens. I just know that when I find a wine I like I want to share it.
GFR: Speaking of which, we are having some really important conversations right now about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, and what can be done to eradicate it from the culture. Things are changing and certainly for the better.
I’d be interested to hear your take on the topic, and perhaps what you witnessed during your years in the restaurant world… big question I know, but I feel it’s a topic that deserves discussion.
EG: This industry attracts the finest and the cruelest. I just let my staff know that they don’t have to be in a situation where they don’t feel comfortable. That’s my job to deal with not theirs.
Old Bastard Sommelier Eric Gennaro.
GFR: One of the greatest perks of our industry is the opportunity to travel. Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit? I know this is going to be a hell of a long list…
EG: Piedmont, Tuscany, Veneto, Umbria, Mosel, Rheingau, Pfalz, Bordeaux, Alsace, Rhône
GFR: What have been the most memorable wine trips that you have been on over the decades?
And why? What made them so special?
EG: 2002 Italy. Went with a good friend John Szabo. I had quit my job at the Windsor Arms and hadn’t really figured out a next move. We drove from Milan to Verona without taking the highway. John would be behind the wheel rolling cigarettes while I would hold the steering wheel and coordinate changing gears with him hitting the clutch. True story. We visited great wineries in Barolo all of which were shocked that we were interested in tasting the entire range as opposed to just Barolo. We were invited into people’s homes, a traditional bagna cauda dinner and even ended up in a 80’s rock party in a barn that was the equivalent to being in the San Siro stadium with Def Lepoard Ultras. I will ramble: Venison stew, rabbit terrine, pasta al’ uovo, fassona cruda with porcini, first of the season asparagus, 82 Barolo from Bovio, legends Giuseppe Mascarello and his civil war lamb chops, Lucky Luciano Sandrone, Alfredo Currado the great story teller, experiencing love at first sight with Chiara Boschis climbing barrels to get Cannubi samples. People and food were amazing and became the inspiration to open my own place.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
EG: I have. I made some Barbera and Chenin that I dried for 2.5 weeks before crushing. Barbera was terrible but 1 in every 3 bottles of Chenin was stunning. I also had a garagiste project with Nelson Abreu and Marlise Ponzo. We made 3 cuvées of old vine Barbera from Lodi. Barbera normale, Barbera cuvée amici and then 10 bottles of Barbera Super. Legendary.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
EG: No brainer Piedmont. Specifically, the Villero vineyard.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
EG: Bottles talk. People talk back.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
EG: opening Bricco. Closing Bricco.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Old Bastard Sommeliers?
EG: Peter Fricking Boyd. Sharp as a razor and soft as a prayer for all you Tom Waits fans
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
EG: Joe Alberti at Noble estates. Class Act. Not a bad bone in his body
GFR: Do you have any nightmares about working with wines? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar… and the clock is ticking away… I have them all the time, and I haven’t been in the role for almost nine years!!!
EG: I dreamed that I was doubled booked working in two restaurant across the street from each other. Tried to work at both. I would arrive to each table with a bead of sweat slowly dripping down my forehead. Terrifying.
GFR: Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday? And how does that day off differ from one that you would have had, say, 30 years ago?
EG: Going to sound crazy but I like waking up early on Sundays, usually to go cycling. Nothing gets you going after a hard week than hopping on your bike and try climbing as many hills as possible before puking. Then cooking. I love to cook.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
EG: We usually stay in the west end. Junction’s Hole in the Wall has great food and pretty good wine list. Now that cold weather is coming, we usually end up having a beef soup at Arrieros on Jane Street. Best empanadas as well.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
EG: I cook everyday. Favourite is braised rabbit.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
EG: I made a spaghetti bolognese with quinoa pasta. It went from al dente to mush in seconds. My regular diners (daughters) haven’t forgiven me.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto? And how was it when you started in the business?
EG: Everyone seems to know and support everyone these days. Great to see. In the old days when we got together it felt like we got together like revolutionaries planning a coup d’état.
GFR: How often do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
Old Bastard Sommelier Eric Gennaro.
GFR: I’ve heard so many of my peers say that they don’t do the big shows anymore, the big wine tastings. What are your thoughts on that?
EG: These days these big tasting are great social events but I hate being shoved by someone trying to taste the most expensive wine at the table.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
EG: Basketball coach. I have been told I have a high basketball IQ. If not that then design. I love Danish Teak tables and chairs.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants? And who does it well?
EG: I’m not a fan of tables close together and the music cranked up as loud as possible. I like more obscure tracks that make you say wow that was a great song, what the hell was that! Jamieson Kerr always pulls out some rare 70’s soul.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
EG: A Chef in Love
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
EG: The majority of my friends are not in the industry but they get it. They love inviting me out on Saturdays knowing full well what my answer will be.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
EG: Humbling. Nothing makes you like greater when right and ridiculous when wrong.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?
EG: It’s 2020… people still smoke?
GFR: Rather than get you to supply me with some delectable pairings, may I ask you to suggest a pairing that really DOESN’T work… perhaps a mistake that you have made over your years in the job… something that budding Sommeliers should know is a truly terrible pairing? A warning more than anything else!
EG: red wine and soft cheese
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GFR: In your mind, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why? And what fads have you seen come and go over the decades?
EG: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I think medium weight wine with less of fruit, oak and expression of the sun has taken the reigns.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? And why do you feel that is?
EG: Shiraz has come and gone. And I think the onslaught on Super Tuscans has dropped. I think the Australian Shiraz just became a little too one dimensional. As far as Super Tuscans go, I just think people hate not knowing what grapes are in their wine. People want to say they are drinking a Cabernet not a fantasy name based on the grandfather’s donkey that used to perform miracles. But I love those names and stories.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is, or always has been, overrated?
EG: Bordeaux. It is more of a trading commodity than wine region. Yikes.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
EG: i like German wheat beers. Especially with fresh mozzarella. Try that one. Not big into spirits but I do like amaro. Recently tried the Ulrich from Marolo. Very good.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier? Inventory always crushed me… In fact I just had a nightmare about not having done my inventory the other week!
EG: Inventory is a killer. I know what I have in the cellar.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
EG: Whatever pulltap I get gifted.
GFR: Due to us being around alcohol, many people in our industry often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze, or they develop issues. I’ve seen a few of my peers fall by the wayside.
What is your limit and how do you keep yourself in check?
EG: Everyone deals with life in different ways. My limit is a specific shade of purple on my teeth. I just don’t make it a regular thing.
GFR: There’s a lot of open discourse right now around the topic of both drug and alcohol abuse within the restaurant world.
Would you care to share a few of your thoughts about that side of the business?
To be quite frank with you, the thing I miss the LEAST about working in that environment are the late nights of drinking and recreational pharmaceuticals. I don’t think my body could take it any longer anyway!
EG: I am a cancer survivor so I was always more interested in restoring life rather than destroying it.
GFR: Speaking of which, have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time? I think it happened to me back in Scotland once… hazy memories…
EG: I still have a perfect record.
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure? None of the cures given to me by previous interviewees have really done the job for me… but seeing as you are an old pro…
EG: Pozole. A Mexican soup made with hominy corn, pork, chilis, dried oregano, crisp lettuce, onions, cilantro and sliced radish
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week these days?
EG: Not as many as I used to but I try for 1 a day.
Old Bastard Sommelier Eric Gennaro.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
GFR: Do you keep a cellar at home? How sizable and deep is it?
EG: I have about 150 bottles. I have a lot from 2005 and 2016. My daughters’ birth years.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
EG: 1996 Barolo Monprivato, Giuseppe Mascarello
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
EG: Riesling kabinett from the Mosel
GFR: What advice would you give to these young bucks? What sage wisdom can an old hand like yourself pass on to the younger generation of Sommeliers?
1) for as much as we know we don’t know anything
2) express your true love on the wine list
3) make less Instagram stories
GFR: If you could go back and have a word with the young Eric Gennaro as he started in the business, what specifically would you tell him?
EG: Stay in school
GFR: Quickfire round!
Coffee or tea?
EG: single espresso, followed by another
GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?
EG: hot sauce
GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?
GFR: Milk or dark?
EG: dark. I go through 4 blocks of 80% chocolate per week
GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?
GFR: Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal?
EG: depends. Not everything demands to be rare and not everything should be cooked to death.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Eric. Much appreciated.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he’s so glad to have Eric be part of this series.
Tags: Anton Potvin, Bricco, Eric Gennaro, Jamie Drummond, Old Bastard Sommeliers, Peter Boyd