In a relatively 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 third chapter we interrogate the venerable Ruben Elmer, a man who, when it comes to the Toronto wine biz, has been around the block more than a few times.
Good Food Revolution: So Ruben, what is it that you are doing these days?
Ruben Elmer: In 2017 my partner Robert Albis and I purchased The Case For Wine , most mornings I can be found at the office dealing with the pertinent issues at hand – our business is three fold and keeps us all on our toes, we have substantial business with products listed at the lcbo, wines presented monthly through vintages and we also have a really healthy consignment portfolio that enables us to bring in some of the most profound wines from around the World.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to becoming a Sommelier?
RE: I grew up with Parents in the Pub Business in Soho, London. I’ve always been surrounded with booze but didn’t have any real affinity or desire to learn much about beer, wine was something that always interested me and I got the job to handle wines for the Pubs at 16 years old. When I moved to Canada my first job was at Zucca Trattoria, I had my eyes opened up to great wine by Sommelier Emory Haines and Chef Andrew Milne Allan
GFR: Tell us about your history in the industry? Where did you get your first start?
RE: My first job solely working with wine was at Prego Della Piazza and Black and Blue, I was 24, Michael Carlevale hired me and let me run the program, we were moving a lot wine, it was hard to keep up, a cracking first job.
GFR: I’d say!
And from that formative experience where did you go from there?
RE: I was hired by Michael Bonacini to work at Auberge du Pommier
GFR: And what were your most memorable gigs over all that time?
RE: Prego was crazy, always flirting with chaos in the best possible way, opening cases of DRC and turfing out Yorkville rogues at the same time. I enjoyed my time at Canoe working with a great kitchen and the best front of house team
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?
RE: I took the Sommelier program in Toronto with Jacques Marie, every student should be lucky enough to experience a teacher such as him at least once, I don’t think he stuck to any curriculum given , most days he would dish out compelling and inspiring stories that would encourage more study.
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?
RE: Good Chef’s always inspired, Andrew Milne Allan at Zucca, Anthony Walsh at Canoe. I was fortunate to work with many of the original importers in the consignment channel, Scott Wilson of Du Chasse was a good resource with the kind of knowledge that doesn’t come from a book.
GFR: Can you remember your worst customer experience ever? I have a few doozies…
RE: We almost poisoned the [late] singer Prince at Black and Blue with hidden walnuts in a soup, he took it well.
GFR: I know that you got into the wine sales side of things quite early on, how did that come about, and how do you find it compared to your time on the floor/in the trenches?
RE: One of the main reasons was the complete lack of work / home life balance in the Restaurant business, this is a problem that causes major brain drain in the Restaurant business.
I’ve been fortunate in the sales side in that I’ve only ever worked with reasonable, smart and decent people.
GFR: So what makes for a good agent/supplier/merchant in your mind?
RE: A good Merchant puts together a Portfolio of wines with personality and spirit that they’re proud to sell and talk about every day. Keep your word, support your customers and offer the great service, nobody has a monopoly of good and great wine.
GFR: How do you feel that the industry has changed since you first started all those years ago?
RE:I think Sommeliers are under more pressure to meet ungodly wine costs
GFR: And how has Toronto changed as a wine city?
RE: Wine has been democratised to a degree, I see it used more and more as an everyday occurrence with food and friends,
GFR: What were the top spots for wine back in the day?
RE: Avalon was always good to get the good stuff.
GFR: And where do you feel does a good job wine-wise these days? And what makes them stand out from the crowd?
RE: You can get good wine at most places these days, if you’re looking for something more profound you’re best bet is to look for more independently owned affairs, a Restaurant that’s happy and confident that they can open up serious wines and move them by the glass.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? And how have you viewed their evolution since your early days in the industry?
RE: I’ve always liked them a lot and the tenacity of the people that make them, my initial exposure was tasting with people like Donald Ziraldo, John Howard, Charles Baker, and the Specks .
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario today?
RE: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
RE: I’m not a fan of Appassimento.
GFR: Ha. You and me, both…
How do you feel about restaurants support of our local wine industry? How has that changed since your early days?
RE: I only ever worked in restaurants that supported the industry, maybe because they were ahead of the pack in terms of outlook. I guess you see more support from the broader restaurant community these days, not just the top tier.
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?
RE: Every good idea and thought gets abused once it has commercial appeal.
GFR: And what’s your take on this natural wine thing? And why do you feel it is even a “thing”?
RE: I’ve tasted plenty at wine shows around the World, most don’t keep my attention, some have been delicious. It’s a thing because it sparks debate and it’s new.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
RE: I grew up in my parents pubs, always surrounded by some form of wine, I remember Frascati was a popular pour.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
RE: Asti Spumante with a curry – killer match
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
RE: Breakfast? If they’ve been taught to have a healthy respect for it, my experience has been that they’ll ask when they are interested .
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?
RE: I purposely avoided those movies for the same sort of reasons. There are always a few pricks in every group, in my experience they don’t last because it’s an industry based very much on relationships and hard graft.
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.
RE: I’ve witnessed plenty of harassment and seen the consequences that comes to both parties.
Largely though, most of the Restaurants I worked in you had to be a strong character just to survive, people caught stepping over the line were largely policed in the moment by peers.
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…
RE: Most of them when I think about it, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, USA, South America, Germany.
GFR: What have been the most memorable wine trips that you have been on over the decades?
And why? What made them so special?
RE: The best trips are always a factor of who you go with, one of the most memorable was a trip to Portugal with Jamie Kennedy, James Chatto, Peter Boyd, and Anthony Gismondi.
GFR: Ah yes… I’ve heard about that trip!
Have you ever made your own wine?
RE: Not Yet
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
RE: I’d take a few acres planted to gritty underdog varieties and make a delicious field blend .
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
RE: People, my days of inventory, thankfully, are long done.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
RE: I guess a high would be the successful purchase of The Case For Wine and so far a seamless transition of ownership.
Knee Deep into Winterlicious always felt like a low.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Old Bastard Sommeliers?
RE: I like the stamina of Peter Boyd.
GFR: The constitution of an ox, that man…
And for Wine Agents/Importers?
RE: I like the ethos of Profile, Noble Estates, Vinifera, and The Vine
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 ten years!!!
RE: Plenty of nightmares but I’m usually awake
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?
RE: 30 years ago I was 14, how old do you think I am?
Sunday’s always started late, go out for lunch and a livener , watch a movie, maybe spend the evening with friends. Now the perfect Sunday should include Champagne, Roast Chicken, Pinot Noir, and Barolo
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
RE: I cook everyday, one of my go to dishes is a slow roasted leg of Lamb, throws most wines into relief .
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
RE: I once locked a Turkey in the oven at Thanksgiving by pressing the oven clean button
GFR: No way?!!! Really?
Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto? And how was it when you started in the business?
RE: I sense there is now, it wasn’t big 20 years ago, maybe a dozen or so
GFR: How often do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
RE: Not very.
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?
RE: I can definitely see why you’d think like that, many of the big tastings are essentially political entities, staged by a countries trade department to impress, promote and fill rooms, sometimes with little regard to the quality of those attending .
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
RE: I do, they seem interested and sense that it’s quite glamorous which isn’t necessarily true.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
RE: I used to do it as a means to an end, but quite frankly sitting around a table talking about the wine in my glass always leaves me cold .
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
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!
RE: Aged white Rioja and garlic soup wasn’t a big hit at a Toronto Life event once
What’s your current favourite wine region?
RE: I like the people, the wines and the food of Piedmont most.
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?
RE: Nebbiolo is hot and about to blow up in a big way.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? And why do you feel that is?
RE: Everyday French wine is hurting, not the prestigious names but the kind people drink on a daily basis
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
RE: I’ve been enjoying Cognac from Pierre de Segonzac recently, the difference a small hands on distillery can make is absurd .
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!
RE: Inventory was it for me, you measured your life by it… remember, the first six letters in Inventory spell invent
GFR: Yikes… I never went that far myself! Although I did bust two assistant Sommeliers getting very creative with their numbers once…
What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
RE: Nothing fancy, just a double lever
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?
RE: I tend to stay away from liquor and keep to wine, don’t keep Grappa at Home
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?
RE: I’ve seen a lot people take things to excess and a few of them have paid the ultimate price, if you want any kind of longevity in a business constantly surrounded by booze you have to be structured with your downtime, some of the people who best handled those situations made a regime to keep fit and active.
GFR: 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!
RE: Don’t sell yourself short Jamie
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…
RE: No yet, but I have ambition
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…
RE: Milk thistle and distilled water
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week these days?
RE: Not many these days, 30ish
GFR: When tasting with clients do you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
RE: Castello di Neive Barbaresco
GFR: Do you keep a cellar at home? How sizable and deep is it?
RE: A small collection, not deep, I have no patience.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
RE: It was an old Ygay Rioja from the 70’s with Jay Fallah
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
RE: Whatever’s coldest, something non varietal .
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?
- Don’t offer your services for free
- If you consult get paid half up front
- Read more books than courses taken
- Travel as much as you can
- Only work for Restaurants that pay their suppliers
GFR: If you could go back and have a word with the young Ruben Elmer as he started in the business, what specifically would you tell him?
RE: Put your tips in the bank.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Ruben… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
RE: A grape that enjoys the view of the Ocean – Shit, that’s Mouvrèdre.
GFR: You are a funny man, Mr. Elmer… thank you for your time!
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 really feeling like an old bastard himself these days…