In the first of a fifth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario and occasionally elsewhere.
A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers.
Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising stars.
This week we speak with a Young Blood Sommelier that I have been trying to coax an interview out of for over two years, the mercurial Sarah Lyons, Sommelier and General Manager at The Drake One Fifty in Toronto’s Financial District.
Good Food Revolution: So Sarah Lyons, what are you up to these days?
Sarah Lyons: Itʼs been a whirlwind! I joined the Drake family in the end of August as GM of our new outpost, Drake One Fifty. We opened at the beginning of October and it has been non-stop every since.
GFR: Describe how your position at The Drake One Fifty differs from your previous roles?
SL: Drake One Fifty was a huge project – bigger than anything I have been involved in to date. I was late to the table, joining the team only a month before opening, and had to hit the ground running. There is so much legacy with the history of the Drake Hotel (celebrating itʼs 10th anniversary this year) so I had to learn and absorb everything to do with the brand. Catching up with the history and influencing our vision for the future was a huge undertaking for me.
GFR: And how would you explain the wine program at The Drake One Firty?
SL: I have a fairly clear perspective when building a wine program that I try translate to each list that I write. I try to stay away from trends and ʻlingoʼ and focus on the quality of the wine. Given the list at One Fifty is fairly small compared to past lists Iʼve worked on, it has to be strategic. Itʼs actually more challenging to write a list on a smaller scale – I canʼt just buy everything I love. I have had to satisfy the wine demands of the neighbourhood, while still curating a list of quality and interest.
GFR: Drake Owner Jeff Stober is known for having an immaculate attention to detail… does he have any input into your wine selections? And what is his favourite wine style?
SL: Jeff is definitely detail driven. I would say it is one if his great gifts and such a contributor to his continued success. He is passionate and motivated by his intuition. In this case, it works in my favour – he sees my passion for an exciting wine program and this allows him to trust my decisions. We share a love for old world wines, which make choosing wines for him a real treat. I know I can show him a gem and he will appreciate it.
GFR: How many agents do you deal with?
SL: I have been dealing with the same 10 agents for years.
GFR: What makes a good agent in your mind?
SL: Trust and support. Loyalty. There is nothing I hate more than the hard sell. There is a lot of wine out there so as wine buyers we can afford to be choosy about who we buy it from. I have been dealing with the same people for years and by now would consider them friends. I have managed huge lists and tiny lists. The agents that supported and helped me with the small lists are the one I am happy to support when running a huge program.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
SL: I wouldnʼt say that wine had an enormous presence for me growing up. I think wine was something my mother enjoyed with her friends just as young ladies enjoy their wine today. It was always around but I wasnʼt paying close attention early on.
GFR: Do you ever get intimidated by lengthy interviews for Toronto‐based non‐profit websites?
SL: Ha! Cheeky Mr. Drummond…. there was this one time… Honestly though, I tend to settle in behind the lists I write so interviews of any kind are a little outside of my comfort zone.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
SL: I think that the world of wine is fascinating from a historical and geographic perspective – it is like anything cultural. Children should be introduced to culture as early as possible. I am not recommending that kids get drunk but exposure to anything at a young age can only be a benefit in the future.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
SL: I wasnʼt drawn to this industry by some higher power, like many I started out part- time while I put myself through university. After a time, something just clicked for me and I realized that I am passionate about food and wine and the world of restaurants allowed me to utilize my skills while allowing me to be creative and think on my feet. I never looked back.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
SL: Itʼs funny, I never really thought about it until you asked. I suddenly remembered a visit to France when I was twelve. My mother took me there to visit some friends. It was there that I had my first glimpse into the nuance of food and wine – Paris, quelle surprise! Our family friend showed me foie gras for the first time and started to teach me about Burgundies and Bordeauxs. I was fascinated that there was so much to know about this wine in a bottle – it was like there was a whole world of secrets and a history that had been unlocked for me. I like anything that shows the interconnectedness of all things.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious males… mostly… would you say that being a woman been a help or a hindrance to you?
SL: The male dominated wine world definitely helped shape who I am today. Back in the early days there were very few women in senior positions in restaurants. I had a lot more to prove than my male counterparts. I was young and female and rarely taken seriously. But I am good at what I do and had to had the confidence to just keep pushing, knowing that eventually if I did a good job, the strength of my reputation would follow. Rather than playing a game I wasnʼt invited to, I just worked hard. A challenge for sure, but it ensured that my reputation was built on respect and the quality of my work because I didnʼt have the boys club to lean on. There is definitely an inner circle of males in the wine world, but more and more the young females are stepping up and continuously proving themselves, and the boys ask us to join a little more frequently now.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
SL: I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to travel, but sadly it is not nearly as much as I would like. Regions in France, Italy and Spain are the ones I have been fortunate enough to visit on multiple occasions. I lived in France for a short while and used my time there to see as much of everything as possible. There is still so much to see and learn.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
SL: I have, but I think my passions would lend themselves to the growing rather than the making. I love gardening and all things farming. There is something special about digging in the dirt and cultivating something. Using knowledge and intuition and hard work to help something grow to a final product is innately appealing to me.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
SL: Anywhere that the sun shines and the people around me have a passion for food, wine and life is a-ok with me!
GFR: In your new position at The Drake One Fifty you work as General Manager as well as a Sommelier… In your mind what’s the biggest difference between managing bottles and people?
SL: Wine doesnʼt talk back! No, but seriously the dynamic between human personalities versus vino personalities are completely different. Both take a creative intuition to manage, wines change, come in and out of stock, trends change and they often compete or cannibalize each other on a list but with people there are so many more layers – bad days, breakups, sickness, and feelings to be respectful of. I am constantly learning to manage both.
GFR: And which to you prefer to manage and why?
SL: Itʼs the interplay of the two that I truly love. I am currently managing a fairly young staff, some of whom are new to the world of wine. I love bring them together. I have recently begun a wine seminar for the staff of Drake One Fifty on alternating Saturday afternoons. It is not mandatory and so I get to capture the staff that are truly honing their passions. It is very informal and I get to unlock some of those secrets for them. I get to see their eyes light up as they realize that wine isnʼt the mystery they thought it was.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
SL: I have to say there are only highs and learning experiences. Amuse-Bouche and my current position with Drake One Fifty are clear highs for me. I am honoured to have had a key part to play in both. Some of my learning experiences have been the positions I have held where I wasnʼt able to fully realize all of the elements that are important to me in my job. In these positions I took the opportunity to learn what I could and really develop relationships. I truly believe that I wouldnʼt be where I am without the fullness of my complete experience.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
SL: This could be different for different people. A role model is someone who inspires and Sommeliers embody so many differing qualities – passion, discipline, depth of knowledge and most importantly practice. Anyone in your life that displays these characteristics could be your role model even if your passion differs from theirs.
GFR: Do you ever have nightmares about working as a Sommelier? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar…
SL: My nightmare always has to do with wines going out of stock. It is so challenging to curate an interesting list AND keep it in stock. This is the ongoing problem here in Ontario – there is plenty of wine, but it tends not to be the wines I support.
There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to deliver the perfect wine to your guests.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… or perhaps you have Mondays off?
SL: Right now I am lucky enough to get the two of them in a row – but I tend to default to working, there are never enough hours in the day! The idea of a perfect Sunday or Monday off is one where I donʼt think about work and am able to enjoy my home, my friends and my family. In the winter months I love to shut in and cook for the people I love, and in the summer months I love to putter in my garden – or maybe play a little catch in the park.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine in Toronto.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
SL: Given my heavy workload I tend to be a bit of a home-body these days. Cooking recharges my batteries so I donʼt end up going out as much as perhaps I should. If I go out it is usually to indulge a little. I like to go out in the afternoon and take it easy, so it feels like a treat, or playing hooky from real life. A Monday afternoon stop-in at California Sandwiches never disappoints.
GFR: So you cook yourself… What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
SL: My favourite ingredients to cook with are tomatoes, eggplants, kale, onions, cheese and protein of any type. I tend to work these into my recipes either consciously or unconsciously.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters?
SL: Well there was this one time where I set my barbeque on fire last summer… It was tragic. I had cooked two beer-basted rotisserie chickens and forgot to clean the grease trap, and let me tell you that poor beautiful ribeye went up in flames.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
SL: Love, love, love. I am so pleased that people today actually want to drink them. I remember back in the day you couldnʼt sell them if your life depended on it. The only people that would order them were European tourists because it is instinctive for them to drink local wines. I am slightly concerned with the amount of people that have absolutely no experience who think it would be ʻneatʼ to make wines. This trend is creating a bit of a glut of wines of mediocre quality, but like everything it will level out. Canadian wine making is still in its infancy in the grand history of wine making.
GFR: Your Drake One Fifty house wines have rather interesting names… what’s the story there? And who makes them for you?
SL: When the Drake Hotel looked to have a house brand they named it ʻStarving Artistʼ which was a nod to the neighbourhood they are in. When opening in the Financial District we couldnʼt resist the opportunity to be a bit cheeky with our nod to our neighbourhood, so we named it ʻFat Bankerʼ. It has been well received and we have it on tap. Vineland makes it.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine on?
SL: I have to say that Crush Wine Bar is the best place in town to experience wine – and it is not because that used to be my list! There is so much available by the glass and they have the depth in the list to have something for everyone. In fact, I encourage my staff at Drake One Fifty to go there because they can try so many different wines.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
SL: I truly have no idea. Probably something to do with teaching or production of some sort, maybe books… I like a career that is unpredictable, allows/forces me to think on my feet, interact with people and has to play to my passions in some way or another. Truthfully though, Iʼve been doing this so long I canʼt imagine my life without it.
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I were a Doctor…
SL: My mother is actually extremely supportive of what I do although I know she worries about the long-term effects of the hours and the pace. It took a while for the family to get used to the hours and my schedule, but my parents also have unconventional jobs so it didnʼt take long for them to move family gatherings from Saturdays to Sundays. Besides, mom has gotten the super vip treatment in some of the best restaurants and by some the most talented Chefs in town – who can complain about that.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
SL: ʻLike Water for Chocolateʼ the book (movie wasnʼt bad) is one of the only times that the feelings and passions of the cook resonate through the food – that really spoke to me. I have worked with so many Chefs and when they are off – angry, sad, hating life – it really comes out in the food and the guests can taste it. The secret ingredient really is ʻloveʼ – there really is no other reason to do what we do. Other than that, that burger that Samuel L. Jackson has a bite of with poor old doomed Brett in Pulp Fiction is another one of those moments. I donʼt think a person alive can watch that move and not want a ʻtasty burgerʼ afterwards.
GFR: I know that you have many non-‐industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
SL: Non-industry friends… hmmm, have to think about that for a bit… most people I am close to are or have had something to do with food and wine… I guess there are a couple of acquaintances and mostly they think it is pretty cool. They donʼt really understand it, but everyone likes being treated as a vip because the know the boss.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
SL: Iʼve always been on the fence when it comes to blind tasting, although I respect the people that are great at it – and I know I am not a ʻsuper-tasterʼ (thanks to you actually!). I try to take the fear out of it when I teach it to my staff because it can be very intimidating but people can get better at it with practice. It is like when I played music growing up, I was decent because I worked at it and not because I was gifted at it. There are those out there though who just take it too far – it always comes down to the pretention – I just have not patience for that.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
SL: Probably have to say with the hangover – though it is far less pleasant…
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
SL: I always default to rustic old world appellations. Wines with character and value and that are lesser known seem to always deliver unexpected surprises.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
SL: Any wines with too much hype. There are so many wines out there and so many of them good. It is an ancient craft and I respect those who respect the history of wine making and itʼs relationship with food. When something becomes a trend in wine and then is mass-produced it loses all of the character that went into why the original was so special to begin with.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on the current Drake One Fifty menu?
SL: I love the Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc. It is so versatile. I love it paired with our steak tartar. There is tomato puree and pickled shitakes in there, and topped with our 65 degree yolk it has a voluptuous richness. The two together are a simple and elegant match.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with… Canadian politicians… guessing what their tastes in wines, beers, or spirits would be…
1: Pierre Trudeau
SL: I bet Trudeau would have loved a great glass of rose. Wildly undervalued, rose is one of those wines that go so well in so many situations. It takes a strong and confident man to drink a glass of rosé with ease.
2. Stephen Harper
SL: Tepid water? Or maybe a light beer – an American one.
3. Rob Ford
SL: That guy, hey? I think Southern Comfort – learned from sneaking sips from the dusty part of his parents bar as a kid.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
SL: I love beer but I canʼt ʻdrinkʼ beer – fills me up. One or two at the right time is just perfect. I do love a fine cocktail. If Iʼm not drinking wine it is definitely spirits – gin and bourbon are my go to, but I wonʼt say no to a fine scotch or rum.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
SL: Inventory was definitely the part of the job I hated the most. In my current position we hire a company to take care of that for me. I almost cried with joy when I heard the news. Second to that is the physical changes to the list – I hate sitting there in front of the computer typing away. Things change all the time and it is painful to have to continuously overhaul the list.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
SL: Bright orange pull-tap. Not too loose, not too tight with a good sharp knife.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate?
SL: It was hard to get used to at first and went against everything I had learned, but it quickly permeated wine service and nobody notices anymore. The time spent with the table while opening the wine is greatly diminished, but it is good for the wine and fast for the bartenders.
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze. What is your limit?
SL: It can be alarming, canʼt it? Over the years I have learned the art of sustained consumption. Jury is still out as to whether that is a good or a bad thing.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
SL: I am the one to cut myself off these days! Days are long and morning comes early… When you are busy all the time those next mornings are more and more precious…
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
SL: Not as many right now. My focus is so diverse and my schedule so packed that I have less time to devote to leisurely tastings. My tastings are very specific and focused right now.
GFR: When do you choose to spit or swallow?
SL: Swallow. I am just not sure the fullness of the wine experience is complete when you spit.
GFR: I hear you on that one!
What’s your “house” wine at home?
SL: Gruner Veltliner. Hands down. For years it has been my go to – nobodyʼs heard of it and everyone loves it. You canʼt go wrong.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
SL: Itʼs always the first glass of wine I have each year at the end of the long day of putting my garden in each spring. There is always the smell of earth in the air; the glorious exhaustion of the hard work in the yard under the warm sun – sitting there with the promise of a great harvest and many more bottles out there to come.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the restaurant?
SL: I always make sure that there is a nice Gruner on my list for both my guests and myself to enjoy. Also, having a nice rose around doesnʼt hurt.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Sarah… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
SL: Gruner. You are what you drink.
GFR: Why thank you Sarah Lyons. I’m so happy we got to do this at last!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.
Peter Boyd has been a part of Toronto’s wine scene for over two decades. He has taught the Diploma level for the International Sommeliers Guild, and has been the sommelier at Scaramouche Restaurant since 1993. He also writes about wine, food and pop culture and raises show molerats for fun and profit. He’s also one of the most solid guys in the business.Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and is slowly taking over this city.
A well-known and much respected figure on the Toronto food and wine scene for almost twenty years, Potvin has worked in many of the city’s very best establishments including Biffs, Canoe, and Eau. In 2004 Potvin opened his incarnation of the Niagara Street Café, a restaurant that has gone from strength to strength year after year, with universal critical acclaim. Anton spends much of his time traveling and tasting wine and has been ranked highly in consecutive years of the International Wine Challenge. Anton is currently working on his exciting new project with Chef Nick Liu.