In the fourth 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 week, in a little bit of a departure from our usual unsung heroes/heroines of the restaurant scene, we peek into the realm of Sommeliers who work within the hidden world of private clubs… and so we are speaking of the truly unsung and, for the most part unseen, stars of the profession.
Having myself worked as Sommelier at Toronto’s Granite Club from 1998 through to 2003, I have a fair bit of experience working within the private club environment, and I know first hand how it can differ from the standard Sommelier gig.
Enter stage right Taryn Zaharchuk, an especially talented young lady who manages the cellar and wine lists at Toronto’s York Club.
Good Food Revolution: So Taryn, what is it that you do at The York Club?
Taryn Zaharchuk: I’m the assistant sommelier at The York Club. The only sommelière, I should say. (A very intense British customs officer kindly reminded me that this was the proper term for a woman in the wine profession). My daily duties at the club range from administrative to management to service. I’m responsible for wine service, inventory, cellar tours, private wine dinners, food and wine pairing and buying, just to name a few. Sometimes you’ll even catch me manning the front desk. I’d like to think I’m an epic multi-tasker.
GFR: And how would you explain the wine program at The York Club?
TZ: In a word, French. If we didn’t have ample amounts of Chablis, I think the club would implode. That being said, we have a pretty decent collection of Californian and Italian wines as well. The wine program is subtly changing though as we introduce new wines, from all over the world, to the cellar.
GFR: What kind of autonomy do you have with regards to the purchase of wine?
TZ: It depends on the situation. We structure our tastings at the club as a group event so I wouldn’t say that the purchasing is really up to one person. We like to include anyone who has an interest in wine and anyone who’s responsible for selling it to the members. And chefs. We love to include chefs. After tasting the wines (prices are never mentioned until the end) we rate them with a simple number scale from most loved to least liked. After that is tallied up, prices are revealed and then a decision is made based on what our group liked the most and how well it can fit into our program. When it comes to tasting off-site, then I get carte blanche. If I like it and I know I can sell it, we buy it.
GFR: The York Club is known for having a pretty serious cellar. What are your favourite older bottles in there?
TZ: The York Club was founded in 1909 so there are two bottles of wine from that vintage. One is Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey and the other is Chateau Lanessan. Technically speaking, they are available to buy but I have yet to sell one.
GFR: It could be my own inherent narcissism, but when I worked as Sommelier at a private club many years ago I remember being quite upset that because of a private club’s PRIVATE nature my wine program, no matter how wonderful it was, would never get even a whiff of media attention. Do you ever think about this?
TZ: Yes and no. Sure, it would be nice to get some accolades for the wines we have and the place I work, but it’s also kind of interesting to have a cellar and club shrouded in mystery. As you mentioned, the private nature of the private club doesn’t really allow for these things to be revealed. Well, I guess until now… sort of. If I lose my job tomorrow, I’m blaming you.
GFR: Oh goodness, I do hope not Taryn!!!
How many wine agents/merchants do you deal with?
TZ: I’d say around 15… maybe 20. It’s constantly growing. We never limit ourselves to just one agency or merchant because of the array of products that we’re looking for.
GFR: What makes a good agent in your mind?
TZ: I like it when I feel like I’m not being sold to. We all know that’s the endgame but I’d rather deal with people who feel relaxed and comfortable in the tasting/selling environment and who are willing to go off topic sometimes. I like to hear the side stories about the wines or the personal experiences. That helps me relate to and ultimately sell the wines to the club members.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
TZ: My mother’s side of the family is Italian so by association wine was always visible and talked about. My uncle, however, was the one who really made me aware of it. He had a small vineyard and orchard in the Beamsville Bench area where he produced wine each year for himself and the family. My sister and I used to stay there quite often when we were much younger and play amongst the vines.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
TZ: I think I was four or five. Our family gatherings always involved wine and the kids got about an ounce of wine mixed with ginger ale or sprite. The older you got, the more wine and the less pop. My parents must’ve known something was up because I always told them that while they got to have red wine, I got to drink rosé.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
TZ: Based on my own experience, I’d say it’s not about a specific age but more of a cultural or personal choice for the parents. If you’re going to introduce your children to alcohol at any age I think it’s important that it be done in the right context.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
TZ: After I left university, with a degree that wasn’t the most practical, I moved home. My father was just starting to really get into wine and to collect. At that time, I didn’t really see it as more than an enjoyable beverage but as his interests grew, the topic of wine was something we often discussed at the dinner table. We would do food and wine pairings (my mother is an amazing cook) and discuss what paired well and what didn’t. It all stemmed from those kinds of experiences and eventually I realized this was something that I could make a career out of.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
TZ: I’d have to say my Uncle first, because he owned a vineyard, and then my Dad. He really gave me the confidence to move forward with this.
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?
TZ: Trends will always come and go and I definitely think that being a Sommelier is something of a trend at the moment. That can be said for the service industry in general though. It’s seeing a revival of sorts, which I think is a great thing. In the end, there’s no such thing as bad publicity and the fact that this profession is being noticed, appreciated and maybe even revered is something we should all be happy about.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
TZ: Prince Edward County and the Niagara regions. All that is about to change though as I head to Tuscany this September.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
TZ: It would be wonderful to buy back my Uncle’s vines in the Beamsville Bench and attempt a commercial winery. If that doesn’t work out, then it’s off to Provence!
GFR: Is your role purely that of Sommelier or do you have managerial duties also?
TZ: I’m still relatively new to the club so my managerial duties are limited, but this allows me more time with the wine.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
TZ: That’s a tough question. I don’t think I could imagine managing one without the other at this point. They sort of balance each other out. They can both be stressful at times but at the end of the day, if you need peace and quiet, you can always turn to the wine cellar.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
TZ: I know some very generous and enthusiastic wine folk and have therefore been lucky enough to meet some truly fantastic winemakers and taste truly fantastic wines. Recently I was lucky enough to taste two ’82 Bordeaux. A Gruard-Larose and a La Mission Haut Brion.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
TZ: As cheesy as this might sound, I think the greatest role model for sommeliers are other sommeliers. Whether they’re MSs or just starting out, as a global community we support and encourage each other to keep moving forward and to keep learning. They say the more you learn about wine the more you realize there is to learn and I’ve found that there is always someone willing to answer your questions or in many cases, have the same ones. At the end of the day, we are all just uber excited about wine and I think that inspires us and those interested in the profession to keep going.
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.
TZ: Oh yes. They usually occur before a wine dinner or a private event. I’ve recently been asked to do small wine tastings/seminars for some of the members and those always find their way into my nightmares.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… or perhaps you have Mondays off?
TZ: My parents live in Belfountain, which is a small hamlet in Caledon. It’s so quiet up there. The perfect Sunday would be playing with my two dogs outside and taking them for a walk on the Bruce Trail. It is the ultimate place to go and clear my head.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto..perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
TZ: I live a short walking distance from Rose & Sons and Big Crow so I am a fan of those restaurants. Fonda Lola is also fantastic. They have great tequilas too. I ate at Edulis a little while back and I recommend it to everyone. It has some of the best food in the city and I love the ambience.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
TZ: Sometimes. Not as much as I used to unfortunately. My favourite dish to cook has been and always will be pasta Bolognese. I grew up on it so it’s the ultimate comfort food.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
TZ: Recently, no. My sister always likes to remind me of when I destroyed a can of mushroom soup by letting it boil for too long, but that was a long time ago.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
TZ: I am really starting to enjoy Canadian wines and I think they have come very far in terms of identity and techniques in such a short period of time. It is exciting to watch a wine region, with such great potential, grow. I recently visited Pearl Morisette with a group of colleagues and was very impressed with their wines and their philosophy. It takes a lot of gumption to stand behind and continue to produce wines that are ‘atypical’ or that don’t follow the status quo. Exciting things come from winemakers like that.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
TZ: I’m still relatively new to Toronto and to the Sommelier community, but I definitely have to say yes.
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?
TZ: I think it’s heading in the right direction. I work close to Museum Tavern so I often head over there for a Negroni. Or The Beverley Hotel. They have great cocktails. Some of the most unique ones that I’ve tried in the city have come from Hoof Cocktail Bar. As for wine, I haven’t been able to check out many wine bars. Sad, but true.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
TZ: A comedian. I’ve been told I can be quite funny.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
TZ: I prefer the buzz of conversation to music in restaurants.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
TZ: I’m not sure how many people have seen or know of the movie, A Walk in the Clouds, but it’s a beautiful story about family and wine. There’s one scene in it when the vineyards are threatened by frost and they all wake up early and use fabric fans to spread heat from small fires to warm the grapes. It’s beautiful.
GFR: I’m guessing that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
TZ: They think it’s amazing. I always get handed the wine list when we go out and get texts or calls when they’re at the LCBO, asking what to buy.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
TZ: It’s a love/hate relationship. I can sometimes put a lot of pressure on myself so when I’m not even close to getting what the wine is, it’s frustrating to say the least. On the other hand, it’s really the best way to objectively taste wines without the influence of price, country, style or varietal. It’s also the coolest ability of a sommelier.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
TZ: Definitely with a hangover. My senses are in hyperdrive and I’m less likely to second guess myself. Probably because I had a similar wine the night before.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GFR: What is “hot” in the world of wine right now… at The York Club?
TZ: Burgundian whites and Bordeaux reds. We have a 1998 Chateau Batailly on by the glass and its our number one seller.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour at the York Club?
TZ: Unfortunately, Australian wines. I feel like that is the case in a lot of establishments though.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
TZ: It pains me to say it, but Chablis.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now? A dish on the current York Club menu?
TZ: Our grilled Washington State lamb with the 2010 Massimo Penna ‘Sori Sartu’ Barbaresco.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but some dishes that are often seen as old school private club classics? And please choose some special wines from your York Club cellar. Price is no object as I am covering the bill today…
1: Cobb Salad
TZ: 2009 Baron de Ladoucette ‘Baron de L’ Pouilly Fumé
When Chablis is not the order of the day, this is the wine I love recommending. It sits on the lees for roughly 8 months so it has a really rich texture and long finish. This is a serious wine.
2. Lobster Thermidor
TZ: 2012 Château de Léoube ‘Secret de Léoube’
My favourite Provençal rosé. There is such depth and weight to this wine that I can easily sell it to members, both female and male. With all that’s going on in the glass, it’s faint copper colour seems ironic.
3. Beef Wellington
TZ: 1993 Chateau La Fleur-Petrus
A not so great vintage from a great Pomerol house that I have dubbed the ‘Barry White’ wine. So smooth.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
TZ: Spirits, yes. Beer, not as much.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
TZ: Polishing glasses. I can handle the inventory… but the glasses… they never end and it’s mind numbing.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
TZ: A Forge de Laguiole horn tip corkscrew.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
TZ: I’m team cork. The screwcap takes away a lot of the mystique of the wine, for me. Anyone can unscrew a cap, but not everyone can remove a cork properly. Especially from some of the older bottles. The York Club is a very traditional club so I think it’s safe to say that most of the members agree with me.
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?
TZ: I don’t know if I’ve ever thought to quantify my limit, but I’d say it’s up there. If I know it’s going to be a long day or night then I sip and savour… or just drink slower.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
TZ: Oddly enough, no. I’m sure my mother gave me a few looks over the years at family gatherings, but nothing major.
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
TZ: One litre of San Pellegrino and a cheeseburger. Followed by a beer. If you don’t have time for all of that, then ginger ale with a few dashes of Angostura bitters and you’re good to go.
GFR: I only wish it were that simple for me!
How many wines do you taste in a week?
TZ: Some weeks we see more agents than others and I can attend a lot of tastings outside of the club. On average, I’d say 15-20.
GFR: When do you choose to spit or swallow?
TZ: In all honesty, I haven’t quite perfected the art of the spit so I don’t usually do it. If it’s a private tasting at the club or a smaller venue with personal spittoons then I’ll spit but I tend to shy away from the large, communal spittoons. Let’s just say I had a bad experience once.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
TZ: I’ve slowly started to collect so my ‘house’ wine changes depending on what I’ve got the most of. Currently, 2004 Tolos Montepulciano D’Abruzzo from Terra D’Aligi.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
TZ: 1824 Malmsey Madeira. The night that was tasted was full of memorable wines but this one definitely stood out. The best was that there was a second bottle, just on the off chance that something wasn’t right with the first. Naturally, both were fantastic.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the club?
TZ: A glass of champagne… or two.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Taryn… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
TZ: Falanghina flegrea. A potentially ancient varietal (I have a bit of an old soul), whose name can be hard to pronounce, spell or remember, but once you’ve encountered it, it’s hard to forget.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Taryn!
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.