In the second of a sixth (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 time around we sit down with the recent winner of Ontario’s Best Sommelier title, the modest and utterly charming Mr. Steve Robinson of Ottawa’s Atelier restaurant.
Good Food Revolution: So Steve, what is it that you do at Atelier?
Steve Robinson: I have the honour of managing the dining room and looking after the wine program.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before this position?
SR: Before starting at Atelier, very little experience. I met the owner, Marc Lepine, while we both worked at the Courtyard Restaurant in Ottawa. I was a busboy then, my first restaurant job. Marc was the chef and was teaching in the Algonquin College Sommelier program. We would grill each other with wine questions every day. Something clicked.
GFR: And how would you explain the wine program at Atelier?
SR: It is built around the wine pairing that matches the 12-course tasting menu we serve. I typically serve 9 or 10 different beverages (usually wine) with the menu. My goal is to offer the best possible matches for each dish rather than focus on a traditional wine pairing progression. There really is very little that is “traditional” at Atelier.
GFR: What kind of autonomy do you have with regards to the purchase of wine?
SR: As far as I can tell, nearly complete autonomy. I make the numbers work at the end of the month, and I buy as I please. That being said, Marc will make specific demands from time to time.
GFR: You just won Ontario’s Best Sommelier competition, so congratulations are certainly due! When you compete in a competition at that level, what do you feel are your greatest personal strengths?
SR: Thank you. I grew up as a competitive athlete and as a result I am familiar with stresses of competition and the intense emotional impact it can have. It took a while, but I feel that I now know how to use stress to my advantage rather than just coping with it or trying to ignore it.
I enjoy serving people too, that definitely helps.
GFR: And in what part of the competition were you reminded of your weaker areas?
SR: I got lucky this year, the judges didn’t entertain questions on benchmark producers during the service exam. That’s my weakness, but I’m working on it.
I feel that I struggle with cheese knowledge as well, we don’t work with much cheese at Atelier.
GFR: How do you feel about going on to the nationals? Do you get anxious? And if you do, what do you get anxious about?
SR: Right now I’m not anxious at all. I don’t expect to be a finalist at the upcoming nationals, though I will try my best. Honestly, it’s somewhat of a relief to be back at the bottom of the pile. I’m aiming for the finals in 2018.
GFR: Well, we’ll be following your progress carefully and will be sure to catch up with you and report back at the next level of the competition!
How many wine agents/merchants do you deal with?
SR: Probably 15 to 20 different agents total, but 5 or 6 key agents.
GFR: What makes a good agent in your mind?
SR: 1) Wine quality 2) Knowledge and understanding 3) Punctuality and efficiency.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
SR: Wine was not part of my up-bringing. Wine was like a Big-Bang for me when I turned 19 and could make it cheaply for personal consumption.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
SR: Yes, though I cannot say if it’s an actual memory or merely something my brain has composed after hearing the story many times. But my twin sister and I got a thimble’s worth of sparkling wine at birthday party when we were young, like high-chair young, and we got wasted. It was great.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
SR: Soon as they can sit in a high chair! I feel that children should be introduced to wine in their infancy, by watching parents share it together in a familial environment. Sharing wine with family may be one of the healthiest activities known to mankind. Now as for children consuming alcohol, that depends on the child, the time, and the place.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
SR: At 19, when I started making wine at a U-brew.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
SR: For me wine was an escape from the unpleasantness of university. It was an opportunity to study and obsess over something I actually enjoyed.
I remember the 2005 LCBO Bordeaux En Primeur Catalogue vividly. I read every goddam review in that magazine like 5 times, and I circled the wines that I thought I would really enjoy. When I knew very little about wine, I glorified Bordeaux. I now struggle to find excitement in it.
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?
SR: I don’t know what a bro culture is, but I hope I’m not part of one. And yes there’s a lot of pretention in wine, but very few arseholes.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
SR: Vinho Verde, Greece, Okanagan.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
SR: That was the plan from day one!
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
SR: On a mountain, in Italy, with a dog, a skatepark and a rink.
GFR: Is your role purely that of Sommelier or do you have managerial duties also?
SR: Almost anything outside the kitchen is my responsibility.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
SR: Ultimately, people. But I wouldn’t manage people if it weren’t for the bottles.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
SR: Highs: Enroute top 10 new restaurants in Canada, Canadian Culinary Championship 2012, BOSC 2014. Growing up with Atelier.
Lows: Not enough time.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
SR: Veronique and Pascaline.
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.
SR: Definitely. My nightmares are typically service related, but seldom specifically for sommelier reasons. In real life, I experience a tension in the 1.5 hours before the first reservation. Once service is underway I tend to relax more and more. My nightmares usually involve trying to prep the dining room solo in an impossible situation before the first guests arrive. The resos always arrive early, and there’s always more than they had reserved for. There are never enough chairs. The lights are always too bright. The dream never ends either, eventually I wake up. But there is never any resolution…
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… or perhaps you have Mondays off?
SR: Perfect Sunday is up at 11am. English Breakfast, banana. Either a good figure skating practice, a solid swim, or go skateboarding and film a clip. Spend some money at some point. Dinner with my family or my girlfriend. In between all that I drive around and rap to myself. Ahh, perfect.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Ottawa.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
SR: Wellington Gastropub, Two Six [ate], Oz café, Beckta, El Camino.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
SR: I cook most of the time. Eggplant stir fry is up there at the moment. Steak is always an option.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
SR: Actually no, I haven’t messed up much recently.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
SR: Love ‘em. Quebec Ice Apple Cider, Ontario sake, Ontario chardonnay.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Ottawa?
SR: It’s very friendly but I feel lacks a sense of cohesion. I’m trying to do my part to improve that.
GFR: How do you feel about Ottawa as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
SR: El Camino for cocktails. Wellington Gastropub has a very unique list with usable pricing.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
SR: As long as I don’t have to make the playlist it’s all good. I enjoy explicit hip hop with gourmet food, it makes it taste better.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
SR: ’86 Pichon Lalande heist from Sopranos.
GFR: I’m guessing that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
SR: They love it.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
SR: Don’t be afraid to be wrong.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
SR: I seldom taste hungover. I assume I’m worse, but maybe not.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GFR: What is “hot” in the world of wine right now… at Atelier?
SR: Natural and low intervention wines are hot. Ditto for Atelier.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour at Atelier?
SR: I seldom purchase zinfandel in any manifestion. I will when I think one is good for its price. That may never happen.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
SR: Bordeaux and Burgundy. Sorry. Chablis is exempt though.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on the current Atelier menu?
SR: “Ostrich the Grouch” – Ostrich tataki marinated with soy/maple/ponzu, pistachio pudding, miso mayo, yuzu powder
Ontario Spring Water Sake Teion Sakura.
That one tastes damn good.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with some Canadian dishes.
What would you suggest for them wine-or-beverage-wise and why?
1: Classic Poutine (consumed around 2am on a warm Montreal morning, on the street, after a few beverages)
SR: Norm Hardie niagara Chard, whichever vintage you have in your bag.
2. Classic Tourtiére (consumed on Xmas eve as part of a Canadian Réveillon celebration)
SR: Maturing Cote-Rotie, heck, maybe a Jamet.
3. Poached B.C. Spot Prawns served with Chopped Duck Egg, Truffles, Quince/Herb Foam, and Tomato Horseradish (Consumed in one of our country’s finer dining establishments)
SR: Cotat Sancerre
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits? And if you do, what are you preferences?
SR: I’m seasonal with beer. In summer, I want a reasonably bland pilsner style beer from a chilled green bottle. In winter, oatmeal stout is a favourite. Ardbeg is a favourite scotch. Bourbon manhattans are the pinnacle. Straight up, no ice, martini glass.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
SR: Tasting a wine I’ve purchased and being disappointed.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
SR: My mom has the most dextrous one I’ve used. Generally, two prong pull tab.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
SR: Generally speaking I prefer screwcaps, unless a producer is willing to invest in some very serious corkage.
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?
SR: Confronting and identifying your own tolerances is very important. It’s been my profession for a long time, I can handle a lot of booze. I just don’t like to lose control.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
SR: I must have at some point, but it’s been a long time.
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
SR: Time Machine.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
SR: 30-40 I think.
GFR: When do you choose to spit or swallow?
SR: I generally spit in a professional setting. Otherwise, it depends on what I want to do later that day.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
SR: Chablis and Nebbiolo.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
SR: Zind Humbrecht Clos St Urbain Rangen de Thann pinot Gris. I think 2004. Good god!
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the club?
SR: Grand Cru Riesling, dry style.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Steve… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
Riesling because it transmits it’s growing site with amazing clarity and honesty. Likewise, I’m a pretty honest guy.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Steve!
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 is currently working on his exciting new project Gwailo with Chef Nick Liu.