by Jamie Drummond and Malcolm Jolley

“It’s about our soil.”

Phil Sabatino is making a serious point. But then, nothing Sabatino does is by half measure. Whether it’s the legendary wine list (6,000 labels – Wine Spectator Grand Award) at his legendary restaurant, Via Allegro, or the Wine Tasting Challenge, which he founded in 2004. The point of the blind tasting contest, he makes clear, was to have the most challenging and best paying sommelier and amateur palate bout with $20,000 in cash prizes to be put toward further wine education, and thousands more in food and wine treats. As Sabatino sees it, Southern Ontario has one of the greatest food and wine hospitality cultures in the world, and we owe it to ourselves to respect it and celebrate it. It’s a lesson he learned from his Italian immigrant parents who honoured their new homeland. He tells us: “It’s about respect for our soil, what Mother Nature gave us.”

When Sabatino opened Via Allegro in 1996 he made sure that his wine list featured as many VQA wines as possible (he may have the most in and from Ontario as it is – he’s not sure), and he made certain he had qualified sommeliers on the floor, a rarity at the time. The Wine Tasting Challenge is an extension of his commitment to paying back “the soil” he explains: “It’s about bringing up the next level of Ontario talent.

Anyone may enter the blind wine tasting contest, which is invigilated and audited by Brock University’s Cold Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. Contestants must guess what their drinking, and the best match wines.

This year Donald Ziraldo spoke to entrants and an award in his name for innovation, development and inspiration in the promotion of food and wine will be awarded in 2011.

Malcolm Jolley and Jamie Drummond

Jamie Drummond and Malcolm Jolley are the principals behind Good Food Revolution. The video above was made possible by the generous sponsorship of Fortessa/Schott Zwiessel Canada.