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 Lesle Gibson (of Sotto Voce, Teatro, Xacutti, Grace, Barrel Select, and more recently, Mellecey fame) take a little time out with Good Food Revolution…
Good Food Revolution: So Lesle, what is it that you are doing these days?
Lesle Gibson: Right now I’m working on my next chapter and the highlight of my career… Gibson Family Group, a new wave wine agency and home to the wine angels.
I’m launching in October so this is just a little sneak peak…
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to becoming a Sommelier?
LG: I never thought of a career in wine let alone the restaurant industry.
I fell into it after spending a few years in advertising in London UK during the early 90’s. Not loving the ad scene as much in Toronto when I returned home, I ended up working at Hemingway’s in Yorkville bartending to make ends meet. From there it sort of snowballed into what i think has been a pretty great run in the industry. The Somm part came a bit later.
GFR: Tell us about your history in the industry? Where did you get your first start?
LG: My first introduction into the restaurant scene from conception to delivery came 25 years ago when friends of mine were opening their first place. It was such a family environment of good friends, hard work, great food and wine. Terroni created magic and still does all these years later.
After a few years there I was asked to help at one of the first wine bars called Sotto Voce. College Street was discreetly cool back in the mid 90’s. I loved the concept of the bar and had so much fun learning about wines. I decided to get my Somm in 1996 and my wine life was created from there.
GFR: And from that formative experience where did you go from there?
LG: My friend Wayne and I decided it was time to move on our own and we scraped together enough to open Teatro in 1998. It was insanely fun. I started wine flights and we focused our menu around the wine experience first. After Teatro I opened Xacutti, Bella, Shag, and Parc in LA and then back to TO for my last baby, Grace.
I created every wine list and managed every bottle.
GFR: And what were your most memorable gigs over all that time?
LG: There are so many but Janet Jackson’s 40th was definitely a highlight
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?
LG: Tony Barato of the Giancarlo fame also owned Sotto Voce at the time. He recognized my passion for wine and encouraged me to enrol in the Somm programme. Back then it was with the International Sommelier Guild with Jean-Jacques Marie. And yes, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
It was tough to break that glass ceiling as a woman and I was determined to make a restaurant and wine name for myself all those years ago.
GFR: Have you ever been in a wine biz situation and begun to really feel your (relative) age? And if so, why?
LG: I guess. I mean I feel my age daily. But I’m smart enough to realize that there is still so much to know which keeps me feeling young. I recently had someone smarter and younger explain to me the Pet Nat craze because I just couldn’t get it on my own.
GFR: Yeah… the Pet Nat craze…
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?
LG: Definitely Tony from Giancarlo… he was the first to recognize that I had a palate for tasting. His encouragement and wisdom helped pave my way.
GFR: Can you remember your worst customer experience ever? I have a few doozies…
LG: Wine wise? I do recollect an experience with corkage… Food wise? Where do you start… and LA wise it definitely involved a thug, his gun, and my safe.
GFR: I know that you finally got into the wine sales side of things, how did that come about, and how do you find it compared to your time on the floor/in the trenches?
LG: I spent 20 years buying wines for my restaurants and was the working somm on the floors most nights. I also hired the best staff and empowered them with the tools to sell. After I sold my last resto I started an events company and spent the next few years working with a few agencies selling wine back to restaurants. There are so many similarities in both worlds. Ultimately we are all buying and selling wine from producer to agent to sommelier to customer.
I do miss time on the floor, in the trenches and in the weeds, but I love the freedom of time that the agency world offers.
GFR: So what makes for a good agent/supplier/merchant in your mind?
LG: Honesty and communication. Understanding each others needs and lists. I loved tasting with people who understood my wine vision and respected my space. I strive to offer the same to clients I’m tasting with now. And I’m definitely not a big fan of the pushy sale.
GFR: How do you feel that the industry has changed since you first started all those years ago?
LG: The women. For real. It’s remarkable how many amazing, talented women are in this industry. It’s inspiring.
GFR: And how has Toronto changed as a wine city?
LG: Toronto has made its mark as a wine hub in Canada. Good wine is everywhere.
GFR: What were the top spots for wine back in the day?
LG: All of my spots of course:)
GFR: And where do you feel does a good job wine-wise these days? And what makes them stand out from the crowd?
LG: In this day, everywhere with the creative individuals based here in Toronto. The Pop-UP whether its under the Gardiner, in a park or someone’s backyard, these individuals are creating new experiences accessible to everyone.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? And how have you viewed their evolution since your early days in the industry?
LG: I like Canadian wines. I’ve always included them on my list even in the early days. Today it’s easy! There are so many amazing choices that just weren’t available back in the day.
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario today?
LG: It’s really all I drink these days from any country, but Chard and Pinot.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
LG: I wouldn’t say give up, as there is passion out there but I was never an Ontario Cab fan.
GFR: How do you feel about restaurants support of our local wine industry? How has that changed since your early days?
LG: It’s so much better than before but i think that is reflective of the times and the wines. Like I mentioned earlier, we have evolved as a wine culture and our wines have evolved as well.
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?
LG: Quality should be of the most importance. Always. I would think most people would see right through that.
GFR: And what’s your take on this natural wine thing? And why do you feel it is even a “thing”?
LG: I think the natural wine thing or movement came from a good place but now needs to calm down. All the winemakers I’m working with are making wine in the most natural method they can. However if a wine needs some stability and consistency that is a producer’s choice. Wouldn’t they know best? Who am I to say that’s not natural.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
LG: I always loved wine, perhaps not always the best, but in my teens there wasn’t a weekend that went by without a bottle of Moody Blue or Mouton Cadet before the Friday night roller skate.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
LG: Not my first taste, but my first over indulgence.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
LG: Early. My parents exposed my brother, sister and I to wine and alcohol and provided the guidance for us to respect it. My parents are amazingly cool.
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?
LG: In every industry, Jamie. I spent years and years trying to take the pretence out of the wine world and introduce people to regions and grapes they knew nothing about. I believe it is a huge disservice to the industry to have these cultures emerge. These individuals knew nothing about wine at some point in their lives and I think they need to remember that. We all start from the ground up.
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.
LG: Have I witnessed things YES. Do things need to change YES. Do we have a long way to go YES but do I think we are going to get there DEFINITELY.
GFR: One of the greatest perks of our industry is the opportunity to travel. Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
LG: I’ve travelled extensively but not so much as a perk of the industry. Running restaurants didn’t allow for wine travel as much as I would have liked and i turned down a hell of a lot of great trips. That said I have ventured through most of Cali and France’s wine regions with Germany and Italy coming close.
GFR: What have been the most memorable wine trips that you have been on over the decades?
And why? What made them so special?
LG: Most recently meeting my newest collaborator in Burgundy looking for product. It was her first time surprisingly, as she’s very well wine-travelled. Her enthusiasm was infectious and we had an amazing wine searching trip. We were also able to attend the Musique & Vins au Clos Vougeot festival and that was exceptional.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
LG: God no.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
LG: I would say Burgundy but with climate change and the hardships so many face I don’t think I’d be able to stomach the struggle.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
LG: Both really. I’m a people person but I always loved looking at my bottles. It’s a similar pleasure to the shoe collection. I’m obsessed.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
LG: Both highs and lows came from my restaurants. Opening night and the great reviews are highs I’ll never forget. The struggles of making ends meet and closing the restaurants I loved are unimaginable lows. The greatest part of life however is knowing that another career high is around the corner which I’m living now.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Old Bastard Sommeliers?
LG: Anne Martin. She’s a legend. And a great teacher of so many Sommeliers in this industry. She’s also a lady who’s been through it all.
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
LG: Carolyn Balogh… she’s an old friend and a great agent. I loved tasting with her always.
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!!!
LG: I used to. And it usually involved opening a crazy expensive bottle of wine with a crumbling cork. But thankfully they’ve dissipated over the years.
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?
LG: Sunday’s have always been family day. Whether it was my work family or blood family it usually revolved around some sort of brunch that turned into dinner. Sunday Funday is as old as it gets. 30 years ago the stamina was much different. Now it’s brunch or dinner.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
LG: I love Chabrol and L’Unita – they’re my go to’s for sure. There are so many great restaurants in the city I still haven’t discovered but I will definitely be making a bigger effort soon.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
LG: I love to cook. It really is how we spend our nights at home with friends and family. I think it comes from endless nights in my past at the restaurants. And it helps that I like my food. I’ve got a plethora of great recipes and but no faves at the moment.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
LG: Not of my own volition but a guest did put my bernaise in the microwave to heat it up…
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto? And how was it when you started in the business?
LG: There is a good community in the city, however I think there can be some improvements. I’m hoping to help with that soon.
GFR: How often do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
LG: It’s not something that I seek out that’s for sure, but lately i’ve been surrounded by some real angels.
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?
LG: I think any tasting is an opportunity to find a diamond in the rough.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
LG: Having babies and driving someone to hockey practice.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants? And who does it well?
LG: Music has a huge importance on the dining experience but knowing the volume and style suited to your restaurant is key. L’Unita is an old pro at this.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
LG: They’ve all been stated but let’s just say Withnail and I was the first brilliant wine scene I experienced back in the late 80’s.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
LG: Yes I have many non industry friends and they all love what I do for a living. Friends with benefits is more of a wine term in my experience.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
LG: It’s the only way to get an unbiased truth.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
LG: Sober. And first thing in the morning. Couldn’t even imagine that with a hangover.
GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?
LG: Jean Jaques Marie told me if you smoke and taste, keep it up. Not very healthy advice but true.
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!
LG: A big mistake I’ve seen made over and over is not understanding your chef’s dish. Or insisting a guest needs to drink a particular wine to suit your pairing needs despite their aversion to the grape.
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?
LG: I think hotness comes in many forms to many people. I might not have jumped on the Pet Nat wagon as I’d drink champagne every day if I could. It’s popularity proves it’s hot but I’m not sure that it’s a fad.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is, or always has been, overrated?
LG: Confusion and intimidation of ratings… and the grid of stars and sugar content.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
LG: No. I grew up on an apple farm and can’t handle the cider unfortunately. Beer and I were never friends. Spirits and I separated in University.
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!
LG: Not having a wine on the list.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
LG: Any good corkscrew works for me.
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?
LG: Depends on the day, celebration and what tomorrow has to offer
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!
LG: It’s there and always has been but I think we’re changing as a industry
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…
LG: The first time i was cut off was the reason I don’t drink spirits.
GFR: I see…
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…
LG: The only cure is the from the night before… last drink is the one to avoid. Short of that, a quarter pounder cheese, water and a four hour nap.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week these days?
LG: A lot.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
LG: My go-to’s of friend wines… Domaine Lucien Jacob, LQLC to name just a few
GFR: Do you keep a cellar at home? How sizeable and deep is it?
LG: I try. But it’s constantly replenished.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
LG: What I’m drinking tonight.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
LG: The wine that has already been poured.
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) Keep it serious but have fun
2) Career’s are meant to change
3) But you must always love what you do
GFR: If you could go back and have a word with the young Lesle Gibson as she started in the business, what specifically would you tell him?
LG: Don’t change a thing.
GFR: Okay, a final quickfire round…
Coffee or tea?
GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?
GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?
GFR: Milk or dark?
GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?
LG: Ketchup AND Mayo.
GFR: Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal?
GFR: And now the cheesy question Lesle… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
LG: I think that’s a crazy question. I’ve had many roles in my career so I think I could be many grapes. But the quality would always be there. And that’s what counts the most.
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 know Lesle since he moved to Toronto around 25 years ago!