In the second of a seventh (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 check in with the wise-beyond-her-years Stephanie Guth, Sommelier at Toronto’s nascent Montecito restaurant.
Good Food Revolution: So Stephanie, what is it that you do at Montecito?
Stephanie Guth: I take care of the wine list at Montecito. I am responsible for managing the list, buying the wine and doing inventory. I also manage on the floor.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before this position?
SG: I took the CAPS program at George Brown before moving to London (England) where I worked as Assistant Sommelier at Pied a Terre, which has an extensive cellar of over 800 wines.
There are a dozen tables in the restaurant and 3 of us were taking care of the wine on the floor (an indication as to) how much wine we sold. Only tasting menus were offered at dinner and guests would, more often than not, get the wine pairings. We did things a little differently – we served the pairings blind to the guests. We would deliver the wine before each course arrived and let the guest taste it without food, then after they had tried it with the dish, went over with the bottle and explained a little about the wine. Serving this way took away all the biases guests had towards certain grapes, regions and/or countries and let them fairly judge what was in the glass.
It was wonderful to see how open they were to trying new wines and how interested they were in talking about wine. Because the tasting menu was tweaked everyday the wines changed several times a week. It definitely kept me on my toes and I was learning something new everyday.
Many of our regular clientele had extensive wine cellars in their homes and would bring in bottles … on many occasions I was lucky enough to try many older vintages of Chateaux Pétrus, Margaux and Haut-Brion.
GFR: And how would you explain the wine program at Montecito?
SG: The wine program at Montecito is meant to highlight the food we serve. The food involves hyper local ingredients but is strongly influenced by Italian and California cuisines.
Four of our wines made are for us by Thomas George Estates, a California winery, which is owned by the Canadian father-and-son team of Thomas and Jeremy Baker. The Montecito Label wines are a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and a Cabernet Sauvignon and their fruit comes from premium AVAs like Russian River and Sonoma County. We also have some great Canadian producers who were chosen to complement the local theme of our restaurant and I believe, together with our selection of California and Italian wines, you will definitely discover a wine you will enjoy. I can’t forget our extensive selection of grower Champagne’s because they’re just so damn delicious.
The list is just shy of 100 selections. Our clientele, so far have been diverse – business meetings at lunch, couples at the bar and in the cocktail lounge, families in for Sunday brunch, so the list has to appeal to a wide audience … their tastes, preferences and, of course, a variety of price points, which, I believe, it does. The food menu changes on a daily basis and we print new menus for lunch and dinner on a daily basis. The wine list is on the flip side of the menu so I am able to remove and replace wines whenever necessary.
GFR: What kind of autonomy do you have with regards to the purchase of wine?
SG: I came on board just over a month before we got into the space. My GM (Jimson Bienenstock) had already reserved a few hard-to-get wines from suppliers, which I was happy to include on the list. But I’m fortunate to have free reign to choose wines.
GFR: And where do Ivan Reitman and Chef Waxman’s palates lie when it comes to wines?
SG: Ivan has an extensive wine cellar at his home in Montecito and he tends towards fuller-bodied reds from California and older Bordeaux. When he’s in town he likes to drink Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from the Marina Cvetic
Chef Waxman loves wine from all over … so long as it’s food friendly; red and white Chateauneuf-du-Pape, whites from Friuli and Northern Spain and reds from Sicily. Because he’s from California he also loves his Napa and Sonoma Cabernets. Over the summer I have seen him drink a lot of Rosé – Chateau de Léoube in particular.
GFR: Montecito is a big place… What is the appetite for wine like there, and is most of it ordered in the bar, restaurant, or patio?
SG: More wine is sold in the dining room but we also serve a fair bit in the brasserie on the ground floor. We unofficially opened at the end of July, a relatively quiet time in the city, but TIFF is around the corner and we anticipate a very busy time.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you deal with?
SG: I deal with almost 30 wine agents, which may be crazy considering the list is just shy of 100 wines. I’m happy to work with anyone who has great wine to sell.
GFR: What makes for a good agent in your mind?
SG: Someone who is friendly, never pushy, quick to respond to emails and delivers promptly.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
SG: Growing up, wine was always in the house and often enjoyed with dinner. There would always be some kind of bubbles over the holidays and at parties.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
SG: I was probably 10 or 11 when I had a sip of my mom’s Chianti. I remember how dry it made my mouth feel and being turned off by the sour taste – I didn’t understand why someone would want to drink the stuff.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
SG: I think the earlier children are introduced to wine the better. If it is something that is enjoyed by the whole family over a meal why not dilute a little for the kids?
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
SG: One thing has always seemed to lead to another so as cheesy as it may sound, my career into wine has happened very organically.
After high school I took the Hospitality and Tourism program at the University of Guelph and over the course of the degree took some restaurant courses. I found I really enjoyed working in the kitchen so after graduating, decided I wanted to become a cook and enrolled in the Culinary Management followed by the Italian Culinary Arts programs at George Brown.
I spent a couple months staging at a restaurant in Italy, which served quite intricately prepared dishes and had a vast wine cellar. Before service everyday I would see the Sommelier talk and taste with the chef to determine pairings. I remember thinking what a cool job that would be. It really peaked my interest so when I moved back to Toronto I pursued wine studies and before moving to London decided to make the switch from back to front-of-house.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
SG: I was on vacation in Paris with my mom years ago and she suggested taking a trip to Champagne. We toured Mumm’s and Moët & Chandon and learned about Dom Pérignon and the process of making Champagne. That trip made me fall in love with France and Champagne.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm I worry about the emergence of a new Bro culture… I’d love to hear your thoughts?
SG: In London the only Sommeliers I met were French and yes mostly male and sure some were pretentious – or maybe it was just that they were French … But my experience has been that the more experienced a Sommelier is the less pretentious he/she is. They are not new to the game and know it’s not about making others feel inferior.
In Toronto all the wine people I know couldn’t be friendlier. As you know, the community is very small. There seem to be more girls in the business here (than in London) and people are very supportive of one another.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
SG: Besides Niagara and PEC I have had the opportunity to explore a little bit of France – Champagne, The Rhône Valley, Provence, Languedoc. I have been along the Mosel and to Baden in Germany. I was lucky enough to go on a wine-buying trip to Porto and the Douro Valley in Portugal. I have also explored some wineries and Heurigen around Vienna.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
SG: I did harvest at Chateau de Campuget, a winery in Nimes, a few years ago and can testify that waking up at 3am to pick grapes in the dark (when the temperatures are cooler) is only fun for a few days. The idea of making wine has been lost on me. I prefer to drink the finished product.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
SG: Provence – warm temperatures, sun, sea, the food … I probably wouldn’t get much work done down there.
GFR: Is your role purely that of Sommelier or do you have managerial duties also?
SG: Is there a Somm job in the city that doesn’t include managerial duties?
GFR: Hmmmm… there are few choice positions!
So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
SG: The people I work with are tremendous but I appreciate the peace and quiet I get in the wine room.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
SG: (Knock on wood) I have yet to experience a real low – I absolutely love my job. A memorable high occurred at the BB&R 2011 Bordeaux En Primeur tasting when shared a spit bucket moment with Jancis Robinson – it was pretty cool to be at a tasting with the lady who wrote all THE books on wine. Getting the opportunity to travel for work is also always a high.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
SG: My Head Sommelier in London (Mathieu Germond) taught me so much about being a Sommelier; to truly embody the job, the importance of a familiar face in a restaurant and gaining the trust of your guest. I loved to see guests come in and not even look at the wine list because he knew them so well. They trusted him to bring a wine they would love. He would always surprise and never bring them the same wine twice.
Though I have yet to master it, he also taught me there is an art to reading people. To listen intently to understand what a guest is asking for, even though they might not be expressing it in such a clear way. i.e.: when guests tell you they don’t like dry red wine. All the red wines on our list are by definition dry but they are often just looking for the baking spices and roundness that barrel aging can impart. He also taught me about the power of suggestion. The vocabulary you use to describe a wine can sway people one way or the other.
But most importantly he instilled that in the end it’s all about recognizing how best you can serve the guest and try your best so that they leave happy … and return.
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… and the clock is ticking away…
SG: I worry about dropping a bottle that a guest brought from their cellar … one they have kept for years to enjoy on a special occasion …
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… or perhaps you have Mondays off?
SG: My perfect Sunday would involve waking up on a gloriously sunny morning (ideally in the South of France) – when you can feel in the air that it’s going to be really hot day. Breakfast would involve visiting the market to pick up fresh bread and fruit. Go home, get back into bed and eat breakfast while reading the paper. Than we would take a drive along the coast to some quiet beach and lounge in the sun all afternoon followed buy a lunch of oysters and crisp Chablis from Domaine Gilbert Picq & Fils. All our families would come over in the evening and we’d grill bistecca alla Fiorentina and veggies for dinner and drink white Chateau Simone and some spicy Schioppettino.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
SG: Brunch at Beast never disappoints. I have had many great meals and wines at Edulis and Actinolite. I’ll grab a Banh Mi at Ba Le 2 whenever I’m in Chinatown. I live uptown and pick up great pizza from Pizza e Pazzi and the best scones in the city from Baker and Scone on St. Clair.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
SG: I love to cook and like to say that I often do but my boyfriend might beg to differ. He would argue that he does the cooking and I open the wine. I’m often in the kitchen when I open wine – so I like to think I help him cook. I like to cook more on the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas not when I come home after working a long shift, than I just want ramen.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
SG: I narrowly avoided burning the house down not too long ago but only because I turned the wrong burner on – the element had the paper-towel holder on top … the smell of burning plastic took a few days to subside.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
SG: I love Canadian wines. In my experience people from other countries don’t realize we even produce wine – only icewine. But we are lucky to have so many great producers a short drive East and West of the city; Pearl Morissette, Leaning Post, Kacaba and Lailey in Niagara. The Old Third and Keint-He in PEC.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
SG: Absolutely. We are a small city and the community is tight. When I decided to move to London I had so many people offer insight and contacts from their time overseas – it definitely helped me get my job at Pied a Terre.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
SG: I think Toronto will always be playing catch-up. It’s not fair to compare because wine is so much more part of the European culture but I would love to see more wine bars in the city and more Champagne, Sherry and Madeira on lists!
The Geraldine is great for cocktails and Terroni on Queen always has interesting wines by the glass.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
SG: I would be a Nose – a perfumer living in Paris working with Jean-Claude Ellena at Hermes.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
SG: I think music is very important in a restaurant. A good playlist can change to whole mood of a room. I worked in a restaurant once where they didn’t play any music (they didn’t want to pay for the license that’s required to legally play music in Europe) and it always felt like the room was always missing something.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
SG: Bill Murray’s scene in Lost in Translation when he is doing the whiskey photo shoot … With more intensity! … The look on his face is priceless.
GFR: I’m guessing that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
SG: They have a hard time believing I get paid to drink on the job.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
SG: I think blind tasting is important. It is great to judge a wine without any preconceived notions. Considering global warming and lack of typicity it is getting harder to nail a wine down. It’s often a humbling experience.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
SG: As my hangovers seem to last longer the older I get, I am pretty much out of commission the next day (aka couldn’t be bothered to do much of anything).
But I definitely believe I taste better after a glass or 2 …
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
SG: I have a love affair with the Rhone; the peppery spices of a Saint-Joseph Cuvee Papy S.Montez, the dark fruit and dry herbs of Vaqueras, the floral scents of a Condrieu from Domaine Blanc Christophe, the almond notes of a white Hermitage from JL Chave and the smoked meat and game aromas from Beaucastels’ Hommage a Jacques Perrin.
GFR: What is “hot” in the world of wine right now… at Montecito?
SG: California wines are the go to – Peju Sauvignon Blanc is quite popular as are all the Napa Cabernets. Italian reds are also a popular choice – Francesco Cirelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Le Salette Valpolicella and Castiglion del Bosco Rosso di Montalcino.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour at Montecito?
SG: We haven’t been open long enough for me to notice anything falling out of favor but as we head into fall I anticipate Rosé sales slowing down.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
SG: The prices of Premium California wines are overrated. So are ‘natural’ wines that are simply faulty.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on the current Montecito menu?
SG: We get beautifully dry aged NY strip steak from a farm in ON which is served covered in chanterelle mushrooms and toped with arugula butter … pairs beautifully with 2011 Teroldego from Foradori.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with some of Ivan’s films.
What would you suggest for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1: Animal House
SG: Bud Light. From a keg. At a frat party.
SG: 2012 Stift Goettweig ‘Messwein’ Gruner Veltliner in honour of Arnold.
3. And of course, Ghostbusters.
SG: Spiked hot chocolate topped with tiny marshmallows – too obvious?
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
SG: How much I drink depends how my week’s been … I enjoy a cold beer sailing with my dad or dry cider in the park in the summer. In the winter I drink more Scotch.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
SG: Finding the space for inventory is always a challenge.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
SG: I was gifted a classic gold Pulltap but I use whatever double hinged corkscrew is in my jacket pocket that day.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
SG: There will always be something romantic about the cork – says something about the winemaker’s belief in the potential of the bottle. But for wines meant to be enjoyed young, I see nothing wrong with the screw cap. I recently came across a Chablis that was screw cap … it was a village but still took me a little by surprise only because I had only ever seen cork from Burgundy. Makes sense at that level though.
I have never had a bottle rejected because of the material of closure but I still think customers expect cork past a certain piece point.
GFR: Due to us always being around alcohol, many people in our industry often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze, or they develop issues. What is your limit and how do you keep yourself in check?
SG: I like to think my tolerance is pretty good. I’ve learned it’s easier to stick to drinking one thing all night … be it wine, beer or spirits. Depending on my week at work … I try and not drink too much on my days off.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
SG: Not that I can remember …
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
SG: Advil and a spicy Caesar.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
SG: Depends on how many tastings I have scheduled but on average I taste 10-15 wines.
GFR: When do you choose to spit or swallow?
SG: I always swallow a little of every wine I taste but how much depends on how good the wine is and if I have to work after tasting.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
SG: This summer we’ve drunk a lot of rosé … mostly French. I picked up a lot of 2013 Tavel from Domaine des Carteresses that was particularly delicious as well as some great 2012 Fiano di Avellino from Terradora Dipaolo.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
SG: I can’t narrow it down to one … a glass of 1985 Chateau Haut Brion – my birth year. It was so elegant with velvety tannins, surprising red fruits on the nose with leaves and leather on the palate. Also a glass of 1960 Chateau d’Yquem was pretty spectacular – such a layered palate of quince, dry mangos and apricots.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night?
SG: Since we’re heading into fall I would love to end the night with a rich Savennières like Les Genets from Domaine Laureau.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Stephanie… If you were a grape varietal what would you be? and why?
SG: Hmm maybe Riesling … for its German roots (my Dads from Berlin), varying sweetness levels (depends on my mood) and because it is geographically expressive (I’ll pick up and move just about anywhere).
Thank you Jamie!
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. And today he is celebrating his 66th birthday!
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 just opened his exciting new project DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.