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April 9, 2019 Comments (0) Views: 780 Old Bastard Sommeliers

Old Bastard Sommeliers : Jimson Bienenstock

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

In a new spin-off from our deliriously 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.

This sure-to-be-entertaining series will focus upon in-depth extended interviews (6,000+ words!) 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.

For our second chapter we strap Mr. Hot Black himself, Jimson Bienenstock to the Old-Bastard-Sommelier seat in GFR’s Room 101.

 


 

Good Food Revolution: So Jimson, what is it that you are doing these days? 

Jimson Bienenstock: I have two main jobs at the moment.

I set up a cool coffee shop on 245 Queen West, HotBlack Coffee three and a half years ago. I co-own it with my friend and competition barista Momi Kishi. We split the work, so that she does most of the day to day operations and I do the rest – the building, repair, design, permitting, accounts, licensing etc – but we work very closely together in sync. We try to have consistently great quality with a focus on speedy professional and friendly customer service. We have had a huge amount of international press coverage simply because we don’t have wiifi-  to encourage people to talk to each other. Weird that this is newsworthy.

The other job is National Hospitality Manager for the Zwilling portfolio of brands. I started the same week as I started the coffee shop. It’s basically a cross between Brand Ambassador and Experiential Marketer, primarily for Staub cast iron & ceramics, and the Henckel, Zwilling, Miyabi, Kramer portfolio of stainless steel & knives . I fell in love with Staub cookware at my previous job setting up a restaurant with Master Chef Jonathan Waxman, and I was offered this great opportunity when I left that job. It is quite flexible as far as the hours go – I don’t need an office and work with a laptop, and two phones out of my backpack – and have a mix between chef hours and day hours. I do way more than 40 hours a week, but never really added it up since I like what I do. I get to travel as much as I need to across Canada, and it allows me to keep in touch with the cutting edge of the hospitality scene nationwide.

GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to becoming a Sommelier?

JB: It was never something that I had really decided to do, it just sort of happened that way.

GFR: Tell us about your history in the industry? Where did you get your first start?

JB: Oooooh. being an old bastard, this might take a while…

I grew up in Dundas (next to Hamilton) and was supposed to be a doctor (ie my parents are doctors) I went to London to study and ended up with a Masters in Molecular Biology from Cambridge University. With graduation approaching, I came to the conclusion that medicine wasn’t for me, and I needed to find a job fast that would get me some money and international travel. I landed a job as a Graduate Management Trainee for Tate & Lyle (sugar ppl) in England, and at age 25 was managing the world’s largest sugar refinery on shift in East End London. I then went to Jamaica and Australia with them as a project manager setting up other sugar refineries. I was offered a full-time job in the middle of nowhere in Australia, but wasn’t up to settling down. So I quit, and moved to Paris in order to learn French and go to business school.

I studied French during the day and lied my way into a cocktail bartender job at night at Café Pacifico in Paris. It was a Tex Mex place and oh boy was my life in the fast lane all of a sudden. Crazy. We were drinking and smoking and the rest while bartending. Non-stop party and being paid for it.

My French became pretty good pretty quickly and became the bar manager there.

1990’s in Paris was amazing. French Touch music was just coming to life… St Germain, Daft Punk, Kid Loco, Thievery Corporation, Laurent Garnier – Club scene also taking off with Boy, Bains Douches, Queen, ManRay, Bataclan, Le Balajo, etc etc. Some clubs OPENED at 10am for ppl like us. I was hooked. Café Pacifico was “on the circuit” and we partied with the celebrities. The Ministry of Sound in London was a three hour train ride away. I started hosting some pretty out-there parties which would probably be called raves about 10 years later but without the chemicals.

I then set up a chain of Australian Bars called Café Oz in France, teaching the young French to binge drink. I also set up a few anglo style bars, and a little French wine bar over the next 10 years.

I had so much fun that it really did take me more than ten years of serious partying to calm down a bit.

I met my Swedish wife, Johanna, in Paris at that time, and we got married – we have two daughters born in Paris. Much as Paris was fun being single, it was a nightmare with kids. I did my executive MBA at that time, and we decided to sell everything and move to Toronto.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

GFR: And from that formative experience where did you go from there? And where has your career taken you over the decades?

JB: Arrived here in 2005. I couldn’t get a GM job in Toronto – “where is your Canadian experience?” Two very young kids, wife had no papers, cash burn rate was not good. So I took my two Masters degrees off the resume, wrote server instead of General Manager and landed a job as a server at George on Queen East. Complicated cuisine with Chef Lorenzo Loseto, fine dining, big place (100 ish seats inside, another 80 outside, 60 or so in private dining and the women’s club Verity next door). Wine program was a mess. After about a month, the owner came up to me, pulled me from service and took me out to lunch. He told to me that he could tell that I was no server, and wanted to know what the hell I was doing there.

Long story short, when I told him that I had a lot of GM experience in Paris, I was asked to look into why the cost of sales at George was so shit. I was asked to fill the sudden Sommelier vacancy a very short time later…I had never been a Somm before, nor had I ever trained formally, so ran out and bought and read Wine for Dummies, the White Wine for Dummies, Red Wine for Dummies, Champagne for Dummies, Canadian Wine for Dummies, and progressed to The Master Atlas of Wine in the week before I started the Floor Manager / Sommelier job.

I was floor manager & somm for a few months, and then became the GM of George & Somm & F&B Director of Verity next door for the next few years. I hired a great team of wine focused servers there, and got them heavily involved in the wine programme. Ian Thresher took over from me as Somm.

Next role was Food & Beverage Director of Outlets, Sommelier and acting F&B Director at the Royal York Hotel. 250 ish staff, $40M F&B, and ran the eight outlets, in-room dining,  the cocktail and wine lists throughout the 1365 room hotel. Gint Prunskus was host at Epic at the time, and I moved him into the Somm role of Epic – where he did an outstanding job.

A bit too corporate for me, and I only lasted about 18 months, before being headhunted and took the role as preopening & founding GM at the Toronto SohoHouse. Loved the fast pace again. Hired the terrific Zinta Steprans as Somm, where she did an amazing short wine list. (note: long lists are easy).

After that, I took another preopening founding GM job with NY Celebrity Chef Jonathan Waxman & Canadian Director Ivan Reitman at Montecito. Hired Stephanie Guth and then the delightful Tim Reed-Mannessy to do the somm work.

GFR: And what were your most memorable gigs over all that time?

JB: How about the opening night at SohoHouse – which happened to be the official Opening Gala for TIFF. First ever guest was Bruce Willis, since Looper opened the film festival that year. The building wasn’t finished, we had no kitchen (cooked everything off site at Nella on Bathurst), and the staff had never even been in the building. When Bruce walked in the front door at midnight, they were still putting up partitions between the ladies toilets. We had the 125 staff all dressed up offsite on Adelaide and sent them over 6 at a time by text. Somehow we pulled off a super high profile 500 person party – aided by several shots of vodka at Hooters mid-shift.

GFR: What’s the story behind your formal wine education?

JB: um…

GFR: Ok then, what’s the story behind your informal wine education then?

JB: A couple of years after I arrived in France, 1992, I met Jean Gobinaud of Chateau Gobinaud, Cru Artisanal, Listrac Haut Medoc through friends at his winery. We had bought a couple of barrels of his 1990, and the deal was 25Francs a bottle cash as long as we bottled it ourselves and took it without any labels (ie no tax). It was a farm with a shed really. Nothing fancy. A manual siphon to fill the bottles, and a weird setup with an old metal tractor seat to cork the bottles. I went back several times over the years – buying and bottling the 1992 and 1995.

I bought 10 cases each time and drank them over the years. I learned from Jean that his role was to grow grapes, and express them in the bottle through care and careful artistic blending. No bullshit. About as minimal intervention as you can get. Terroir. BOOM.

After the epiphany of Listrac Haut Medoc, I spent a fair bit of time over the next ten years or so filling up on cheap wines – going to Champagne at the weekends, trips to the south of France for southern Rhone, Bandol & Provence, Lyon / Dijon, south Burgundy / Beaujolais / Cote Roannaise, a bit of Alsace. I regret not doing much Loire, but somehow it was too close to Paris and I never got there.

I did really get into Calvados, Armagnac, Bas Armagnac, and artisanal Pastis too…

I didn’t know shit about anything else, hence the Wine for Dummies. No idea about Italy, Germany, Spain, California, NZ or Australia.

I have a good palate though, and every time an agent would show up at George, I would taste the entire portfolio, and take whatever I liked. Since I didn’t know anyone in Toronto, anything about the LCBO, or any of the usual agent suspects, I ended up with a pretty unique list, that earned me a nice listing in Zagat for the restaurant and a spot on the Board of the Ontario Chapter of CAPS.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

GFR: Have you ever been in a wine biz situation and begun to really feel your (relative) age? And if so, why?

JB: I’ve always been nervous about a lack of real academic wine knowledge, and wouldn’t call myself a “Sommelier”, although I certainly did perform the role of Somm a few times. Not an issue with age, but my dark secret of a lack of somm education.

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?

JB: I just kind of winged it myself. Kept my head down, did my job.

GFR: Can you remember your worst customer experience ever? I have a few doozies…

JB: We had tables with candles on them at George. I was called to the table to open a Clarendon Hills Hickinbotham for some couple. Some idiot had moved the candle to the edge of the table behind me, while clearing the table. I felt a kind of warmth on my bum and opened my brand new Tiger of Sweden black velvet jacket to see what was happening. Yes my jacket had properly caught on fire, and opening the jacket exposed the lovely and highly flammable silk lining with lots of fresh air to fan the flames. The resulting fire and whoosh noise as the silk caught fire sent flames decent enough to burn my eyebrows, shirt and pants, as I screamed FUCK FUCK FUCK and beat the flames out. Smoke, charred velvet smell and sprinkles of ash from the silk settled like snow all over the dining room.

The hardest part at that point was to try and settle the service down and open the bottle…

GFR: Many Sommeliers find themselves in the wine sales business. You have told me that you have not interest in that at all. What is your reasoning behind that?

JB: I have never felt that I had enough of a Somm skill set to pull it off, although I certainly have the blah blah. I like doing big projects, but nothing serious and wine-related seemed achievable.

GFR: So what makes for a good agent/supplier/merchant in your mind?

JB: Apart from the wine (duh), an agent that doesn’t overdo it or oversell but understands my needs, my taste and concept, and has reliable delivery, good delivery people, clear billing and no booboos on the invoicing.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

GFR: How do you feel that the industry has changed since you first started all those years ago?

JB: Wine recognition programs on the cell-phones are a biggie. More ppl think that they are experts because they have an app. I think it drives up prices on well-known wines, and makes label-chasers more confident. They will happily spend $$ on a Tig or whatever even though it’s undrinkably young. But the flip side is that others may be more keen to try something new.

Coravin is another biggie – it’s possible for an agent to have a big portfolio to taste on demand now. It was tricky in the old days when you were getting to taste a bottle after being open for 4 or 5 days…

GFR: And how has Toronto changed as a wine city?

JB: When I first started in Toronto in 2005, decent Ontario wine was just starting – at the time, it was a big deal to be pouring great Ontario wine by the glass…I had the entire portfolio of Hidden Bench among others, and poured a lot by the glass. Now it’s pretty rare to not see a local wine. We see a lot more interesting international wines now too.

GFR: What were the top spots for wine back in the day?

JB: I liked JK wine Bar, but that was because I had a crush on you.

GFR: *blushes*

*giggles*

And where do you feel does a good job wine-wise these days? And what makes them stand out from the crowd?

JB: I am most comfortable at Josh’s Archive 909 on Dundas West. He even had a Cote Roannaise open by the glass a few weeks ago. I have a real soft spot for great gamay. Always super professional service with a great variety of wines.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? And how have you viewed their evolution since your early days in the industry?

JB: The great ones are great and there are more and more of them. The shit is still shit.

GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario today?

JB: My personal favourites are the best of the CabFranc, Pinot Noir and Gamay

GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?

JB: Please stop the Baco.Noir. #nomorebaconoir should be trending

GFR: How do you feel about restaurants support of our local wine industry? How has that changed since your early days?

JB: Having decent Ontario wine has become mainstream – it is amazing at so many levels.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

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?

JB: It’s like drinking wine because it is organic. Drink good wine that is organic, or have a beer. Drink good local wine.

GFR: And what’s your take on this natural wine thing? And why do you feel it is even a “thing”?

JB: If someone can tell me what that means, then I might be able to answer. Just give me chemical-free, low intervention wine, that is an expression of the local terroir.

GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?

JB: My father is Hungarian and I remember having Bull’s Blood Magyar wine as a kid.

GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?

JB: The first wine I remember was when I first threw up having stolen a bottle of Dubonnet from my parents. Does that count as wine?

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

GFR: When do you children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?

JB: My kids have been trying wine for years and both are now in their early teens. We started by dipping a finger in a glass and giving a drop. The eldest is 16 and will have a half glass with us now and then. She prefers whites and roses for the moment. In France, 16 is the legal age to drink wine, and as a society, they don’t binge drink. Youth drunkenness is a rarity there. My wife Johanna & I believe that exposing them to quality wine at a reasonably early age removes the thrill, or the idea that it is a big deal.

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?

JB: Same in every industry. Always have been arseholes, always will be arseholes. May I mention at this point how much I respect the fact that you spell “arseholes” correctly? Just because there are holes in an ass, doesn’t mean that asshole is appropriate.

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.

JB: This business is especially hard because of youthfulness fuelled by cash tips, alcohol, easy availability of drugs and close physical proximity. Drawing the line is essential as a manager / mentor / leader, as it can get out of hand very quickly.

Harassment is indeed prevalent, I dare say in every aspect of society at some level, and not just sexual. I have been on the receiving end of some quite unwanted sexual stuff on occasion.

I give a little speech every time as GM I hire someone that goes something like this…

“Welcome to the team. You made it to me because you have been hired. In this place, everything is based on truth and mutual respect. You should have as much respect for me as GM as you do for the cleaner – if not more respect for the cleaner because he or she is probably having a rougher time than I am. This notion of mutual respect extends to all aspects of our work together as a team. A server needs to respect the busser, the bartender needs to respect the delivery person, etc. This rule of mutual respect applies not only to the job, but also applies to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and any sort of hazing, bullying, intimidation or discrimination. And if I find out that you have been involved in any level of disrespect, then you will remember this conversation as you are being fired.  

If there is any issue whatsoever that you are unable to solve with your manager, then here is my personal cell phone, and you should text or call me to discuss with full confidentiality. If you feel that you are unable to talk to me about it, then you should contact my boss, and you should feel free to discuss anything that troubles you.”

I hired about 150 ppl to open SohoHouse, 125 at Montecito and had that conversation with every single one of them. Sure, I had to fire a few, but by setting the tone right from the start, and letting go the people that don’t get it, it is totally possible to maintain a hassle-free environment. But it requires being tough, and not ever turning a blind eye.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

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…

JB: Just about all of France, northern Italy, central and east Spain, Portugal top to bottom, the western Germany / Alsace, a fair bit of Greece, Okanagan Valley, NY State, a few choice bits in Australia.

GFR: What have been the most memorable wine trips that you have been on over the decades?

And why? What made them so special?

JB: My first wine epiphany moment at Listrac Haut Médoc was the one. That was the discovery that I loved natural (oops, did I say that?) minimalist intervention wines.

GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?

JB: Not on purpose

GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?

JB: I think that I will leave winemaking to others. I am very happy where I am. Canada is amazing and I really cannot think of anywhere that I would rather live. If I did think that there is somewhere better, then I would go there.

GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?

JB: People. I like managing a cellar and a list because it drives the character of the restaurant/hotel, which in turn impacts the people in it – both the staff working it and the guests. Managing a cellar wouldn’t be interesting for me without the people.

GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?

JB: I am my happiest when I have set up a complicated place, and it runs well without me. I get a huge kick out of building a place and creating a sort of karma that becomes self-fulfilling. Hard to do, as it requires that all of the players involved – especially the ownership – fundamentally share the same vision. It hasn’t happened often, but when it does, it is magical.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Old Bastard Sommeliers?

JB: Peter Boyd. He is a real old bastard. And Anton, although Anton’s not that old, but he is a bastard.

GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?

JB: The two that I have worked most closely with, actively for over a decade, are Mark Cuff from The Living Vine and Bernard Stramwasser from Le Sommelier. They both stayed true to their vision. Although I don’t understand Mark’s orange wine or Bernard’s PX. I am a bit out of the game now so I don’t know many of the newer agencies

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 in over nine years!!!

JB: I used to get panicked when I made a call and ordered a large quantity of private order wine for a by the glass program. Luckily I only got caught out a once or twice. A scary one from Bernard was when I ordered a ton of expensive Il Carnasciale (second wine of Il Caberlot) to pour by the glass – a weird clone with big cedar notes. And the scary one from Mark was ordering a Gruner Veltliner that was the most expensive wine on the list at George. But they both sold well before their expiry.

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, 20 – 30 years ago? How old are you again?

JB: I haven’t had a fixed schedule for years. The places that I worked in were almost always 7/7 or even 24/7, so days of the week never meant much. Nowadays, being an entrepreneur as well as having a flexible sort-of-day job means that I can make the time for my kids or whatever just about any time, but I am also sort-of-on all the time.

It is really nice being able to turn the phone off when I go to bed now. I sleep more. Less stress.

GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?

JB: I don’t really have a favourite – I am always trying new things and new places. Is there such a thing as a hidden treasure nowadays with Instagram and social media??

GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?

JB: Yes indeed – I love cooking. I still do a lot of traditional French dishes – gratins, boeuf bourgignons and the like, crêpes, meringues, lots of soups. Still do some English ones too – I like the Nigel Slater style of recipes without quantities (just ideas). I also mess around with Asian flavours too and mix it up with a sort of homemade fusion. I hardly use recipes, and really base my cooking around seasonal availability in whatever fruit & veg place I am in. I do seem to find myself in Asian and other ethnic markets more & more – trying stuff out.

GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?

JB:– I always have lemons, limes, good unsalted butter, olive oil, vinegar, apple wood triple smoked bacon and 35% heavy organic cream in the fridge, and corn starch in the cupboard with lots of good spices and herbs. I make my own chicken stock and keep it in the freezer. With all of those on hand, I can normally rescue even the most evil disasters

GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto? And how was it when you started in the business?

JB: I think it’s a good community. The trade tastings seem a lot better than they used to be. But maybe I am just more relaxed because it’s just for fun and the people now – I am not worried about buying for a wine list any more.

GFR: How often do you hang about with other Sommeliers?

JB: I count a few Somms as my close friends, and although we don’t seem to gather as much as I would like, I am generally with some wino every week or two.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

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?

JB: I avoid the biggie country-specific tastings. But that being said I do like agent portfolio tastings and the big Ontario ones.

GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?

JB: Well, I can’t really answer that one. I have no idea. If there is a good idea or project out there that interests me, then I will go for it.

GFR: I know that you love music… What are your thoughts on music in restaurants? And who does it well?

JB: I guess great equipment is the start of my enjoyment. A great sound system with lots of powerful speakers allows a restaurant to turn the volume down and envelope you with balanced sound without being intrusive. You can tune in to the music or tune out and focus on the conversation. I would rather go to a concert or club to focus on the music, not a restaurant. I don’t want to go a restaurant where I can’t hear the people at the table. The last few times I was at Bar Isabel I remember the music being good, so that says something.

GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?

JB: The dinner service in Peter Seller’s The Party was awesome. Babette’s Feast was another. And Delicatessen was one of the finest darkest movies I have ever seen.

GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?

JB: Mostly industry ppl I guess one way or the other. I don’t go out that much and prefer to spend time at home and with my family. Making up for when I was always away I guess.

GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?

JB: Great for competitions. And scoring wines without a conflict of interest.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…

JB: I don’t think that I am very good at it either way.

GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?

JB: I used to smoke tobacco fairly heavily behind the bar in France passively. Then I smoked for about ten years, but that was before I took wine tasting seriously. I think smoking affects food tasting more… unless I am mistaken, chefs that smoke use more salt than non-smokers.

GFR: Coffee or tea?

JB: HotBlack Coffee

GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?

JB: Mignonette

GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?

JB: Korma

GFR: Milk or dark?

JB: Cortado for the first, then 2 espressos

GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?

JB: Mayo 

GFR: Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal-like?

JB: MR

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!

JB: Ontario Baco Noir will not pair with anything. Ontario Baco Noir can’t even pair with a corkscrew and a wine glass.

GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?

JB: I have a real soft spot for great Central Otago Pinot, Niagara Cab Franc, and my all-time favourite Neusiedler See, Burgenland Blaufränkisch (especially Heinrich’s).

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?

JB: I am out of the scene now, but what is all the fuss about with the use of the term “natural”. And I don’t get orange, petnat, or amphoras.

Fortunately those Aussie Sparkling Shiraz have gone. Only ever managed to get rid of them from the cellar with chocolate on those Valentines sommelier pairing menus.

GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? And why do you feel that is?

JB: Hockey player / golfer / celebrity wines? I live in hope. And Canadian / International Blends.

GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is, or always has been, overrated?

JB: I never understood the Sauternes thing. I have a hard time getting past the fungal smell. Although it doesn’t seem to bother me with sake…

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

Old Bastard Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock at his rather spiffy HotBlack coffee spot on Queen West.

 

GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?

JB: I usually have at least one beer a day. Been on the Lug Tread from Beau’s for a while as a base, and happily switch it up for a decent milk stout or Dunkel. Will also drink a good Belgian Trappiste or blanche. I don’t get the fascination with the IPA hops overkill trend. My go to spirit is Pastis. Best I can get here is the Henri Bardouin, but I miss The Jean Boyer Eméraude & Sauvage. I am a fan of old Calvados too – and am down to my last half-bottle of 50 year old Domaine du Bordage. I will weep when it’s gone.

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!

JB: You had nightmares because you ordered so much- haha!

I don’t mind the inventory. There was always cold beer in the walkin fridge. It was a nice quiet time for reflection.

It was the moronic Bay Street label-chasers that needed to “talk” to the Sommelier in front of the table to prove their Alpha-ness that killed me.

GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?

JB: Still my trusty rosewood Laguiole – had it for fifteen years – it was a gift from a lovely client. Single pull, nothing fancy, with a terrific knife. I do like to use my Ah-so, just because it’s kind of cool for some reason.

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?

JB: I used to drink a lot. I could really handle it too. I really hate hangovers, however, and now being an old bastard, they last longer. Somehow my body seems to work out when to stop drinking or just simply bail. And now that I am old enough, I don’t have anything to prove, so I can say no quite easily.

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!

JB: Well. We used to drink a lot at work. Wine & beer. Then kick it up a notch with spirits after work. I didn’t get much into the chemicals – I wasn’t a fan of the after-effects. I have always smoked marijuana (from before I started drinking). I did overdo the cocaine for a few years in France, but I am happily over that. It wasn’t really an addiction, but it was just always available and a quick fix for a lack of sleep.

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…

JB: I vaguely remember being thrown out of a bar in Buffalo into the snow for having thrown up on a table when I was underage…

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…

JB: time

GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week these days?

JB: unless I am at a tasting, just a couple at home

GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?

JB: I used to swallow always before I learned to taste properly. Now it depends on what I have to do afterwards…

GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?

JB: Always a mixed bag of different things.

GFR: Do you keep a cellar at home? How sizable and deep is it?

JB: I used to have a pretty big cellar when I lived in France. 400 bottles I guess. We drank it all with friends over a period of a few months when we decided to move here. It was fun. Now we are just-in-time apart from a few special bottles.

GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?

JB: That’s a hard one. I’m going to crack a Pastis and think about it. 

GFR: What is your perfect glass of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?

JB: about 10oz

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) The job is really about pleasing the people you serve. A colossal amount of knowledge won’t get you anywhere if you are unable to read the situation and interpret the guests’ needs. Especially those with limited wine vocabulary.

2) Inventory management, stock control and pricing are crucial to your success. If you are regularly out of stock of a certain price point or region or varietal, or your team can’t find a wine in your cellar when you aren’t there, then you haven’t done your job properly.

3) Or the other extreme is if you buy a wine that won’t move. You are wasting money & space, and will get seriously nervous when someone higher up asks you about all those dusty bottles in the back. You can’t discount them without hurting your cost of sales, and you may be in danger of ending up with unsellable old stuff that you may have to write off and give to the kitchen at a loss. I took a big hit at the Royal York Hotel, as some inherited unsellable pooched wines had to be dumped.

4) Keep your wine lists up to date. Always. Daily. Or even multiple times during the service if you are running a tight list or bin end list. Don’t make spelling mistakes, use the appropriate accents, and make sure that the vintages are all correct. It drives me batshit-crazy when I order something and much later someone sheepishly shows up saying that they couldn’t find it or they are out of stock and the first course is on the table…

 

GFR: If you could go back and have a word with the young Jimson Bienenstock as he started in the business, what specifically would you tell him?

JB: Stay off the drugs. You can have just as much fun, and have way better sex without them.

GFR: And now the cheesy question Jimson… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?

JB: It would depend on my mood. But just about anything except Baco Noir.

PS Does 55 qualify me as old bastard?

 

 


Jamie Drummond

Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And yes, 55 = old bastard.

 

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