In the fourth of a ninth (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 Annette Bruley (AKA “Sweary Mary”) who looks after the winelist of the east end’s Ascari Enoteca… she is also a lady I worked with for may a year at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar back in the day. And you know what they saw, you can take the girl out of Thunder Bay…
Good Food Revolution: So Annette, what is it that you are doing these days?
Annette Bruley: Managing Ascari Enoteca in Leslieville, Toronto, a wine bar and pasta bar, which includes buying wine and selling wine… and also scrubbing toilets.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
AB: Informative Pizza Hut teen years aside, I worked on cruise ships for a bit which whet my appetite for the hospitality industry, and was the bridge between a long stint the corporate graphic design industry and the food & wine industry.
By the time I left the design industry I was an account manager, and I entered the food & wine industry as a hostess. I’ve moved around restaurants since then, learning what I can and Ascari is the first place that I’ve been responsible for curating a wine list.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you typically like to deal with?
AB: I’ll deal with anyone who sells wine that suits our wine list. No closed doors. I wouldn’t have found some of my favourite wines on our list or had an opportunity to learn so much from certain agents if I had limited that number.
GFR: What is your favourite part of the wine purchasing role at Ascari Enoteca?
AB: Discovering and learning about wine and spending other people’s money. And drinking wine. And having opportunities to expose our customers to wine they wouldn’t normally have heard of let alone had a chance to try.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
AB: One who listens to what we are trying to achieve with our wine list at Ascari and then responds with appropriate wines. One that takes time to taste with me… I learn a lot from some of those people.
One that is friendly to our staff and that respects the service staff… they’re moving the wine too.
One who waits to get off the phone with me before they swear at me because I called one more time and begged for an emergency delivery.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
AB: Canadian wines are great and are getting better and better and not only getting more national recognition but international too… sometimes the other way around. And I would meet imminent death by a little Bulgarian if I didn’t put Pearl Morissette at the top of our list. It’s a genuine answer regardless.
Ascari also holds a special place in our hearts for Norm Hardie, Lailey, and Cave Springs. The wines, the people behind them and their agents have all been a part of the foundation and inspiration behind our wine list over the last 3+ years.
GFR: There are so many Ontario wineries now. How do you choose who you are going to work with?
AB: For those same reasons, we have committed to keeping those wines on our list and then rotate some other favourites on and off when we have room and when we think they suit the list. Small restaurant, not a huge budget, minimal space… but there’s always room for others every once in awhile.
GFR: What could Canadian wineries do to help get their wines onto the winelists of the best restaurants? Do you think that they give the restaurants enough support?
AB: I think there’s quite a bit of support. Make sure you have a passionate and persistent sales rep. If your wine is good, ideally the rest will take care of itself. I don’t encounter the “I don’t drink Canadian/Ontario wine” customers as much as I used to…that attitude based on misconception is still out there but producers and their reps are doing a great job of improving not only their product but changing consumers’ minds. And they’re being more aggressive with our customers, not just the wine directors or sommeliers.
Someone must be doing a great job if we continually get customers walking in and asking for specific Ontario wines. One of our favourite events we hold at Ascari is our Up Close & Personal series (I f****** shudder at that name… sorry Erik) which involves bringing in the winemakers and having them hangout at the bar and pour the wine if customers feel like ordering it. It’s super laid back and it’s basically bringing the vineyard straight to the customer in an approachable way, hardly any costs involved. Any time we’ve invited winemakers from Ontario we’ve gotten nothing but positive, willing and eager responses.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
AB: Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc… finally getting there, Riesling.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
AB: My technical knowledge of winemaking is limited right now but I feel like I want to say “almost nothing.” The art of winemaking is an amazing thing. If we can sell a cheap and delicious Ontario Zweigelt by-the-glass for three years then there’s got to be a lot of potential out there.
Ascari is a big supporter of the non-interventionist style of winemaking, when good winemakers know how to coach a varietal to shine in its home… kind of masterfully guide it along instead of forcing it to be something it’s not. There’s nothing wrong with atypical wines and creating our own point of reference for them in Ontario based on our own unique elements. But the wines still have to be good. And some of them are great but I guess there’s still a lot of work to be done.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Ontario also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
AB: Ontario’s wine industry is still pretty young but it has so much potential. It needs people to continue to bring light to it and support it. I’m not going to drink something that’s shit and like you said, there’s some dude in Burgundy making plonk but who rides the coattails of other winemakers.
But everyone deserves the chance to go through trials and tribulations and grow from there. If some of these people are already exporting their product to other winemaking countries then they must be doing something right. They can’t do that without support. That’s part of the agenda right? Be better? There’s no one “right” way to do anything, including this really amazing thing they’re all doing. The tighter their community, and the more open-mindedness and support amongst the entire community then the better the potential to be really great at what they do. (I feel like I’m about to bust-out a really f****** bad rendition of Kumbaya…)
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
AB: Half my family is Italian so naturally I had an Uncle who made his own wine that could strip the enamel off your teeth and get you drunk all in two sips. But growing up in Thunder Bay involved more beer than wine… a lot of OV and 50.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
AB: Warm white Black Tower. Remember that bad-ass black glass bottle? One can never forget that experience. It was in my parents wine cabinet next to the Blue Nun and Hochtaler. Needless to say I did not fall in love with wine at a young age.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
AB: Young! Wine is food. It should be introduced to us as an extension of food at a young age and enjoyed as such, not just as something to get bombed on in your back yard… not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m also not saying feed your kids bottles of wine at the table, just introduce it slowly and responsibly.
I think North America can be a little backwards and trashy when it comes to drinking alcohol in general… but that’s for another discussion.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it always with a view to being a Sommelier yourself?
AB: Not until Ascari. I loved the food & drink industry as a whole and knew I was in it for life but it wasn’t until Ascari that the wine aspect of it clicked, thanks to my passionate former boss, mentor and crazy friend Svetlana. And now, because I’m still so green to all of this, I find I obsess over it…like, I wake up at 4:30am and thinking about wine tastings and questions I have as a result of them and then I text Svet…and she responds, right away sometimes…who the hell responds to a 4:30am text?
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
AB: Haha! You, at the JK Wine Bar. But don’t ask me to expand on that… it’ll just get awkward. But seriously, I was a hostess when I started and I barely knew anything about wine and the approachability you provided in training made it very easy to sink into. After that, wine started to become an adventure and it wasn’t intimidating anymore.
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?
AB: When and where, in any industry are we ever not subjected to pretentious arseholes or bro-culture, or potential for it? It’s not a new concept. Everyone wants to find a place of comfort and acceptance in any job they do…but elitism won’t help to further the success of everyone involved in this industry.
Wine is supposed to be something joyful, to be enjoyed by everyone. The more this industry exposes itself and supports one another, the more potential we all have to become more successful and stable, the farmers and producers, the winemakers, the agents, the restaurants, the LCBO… let’s not forget about them, etc etc. Trust me, I am genuinely passionate about this job but I want to make money. Roll in it someday maybe, but would settle for covering my rent.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
AB: Sadly, despite all the traveling I’ve done, I’ve only ever visited Ontario vineyards (PEC and Niagara area). My very first vineyard visit was to Hillebrand with my parents on a Valentine’s Day long ago… I had a wicked hangover and thought I was going to blow chunks when I got a whiff of stale fermentation in the air. And then the actual wine tasting… not a chance.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
AB: I once accidently poured one red into a different red in my wine glass. It wasn’t bad. I’m thinking about doing it again and adding some sparkling water to it and see where that goes.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
AB: I don’t want to. I want to drink it and sell it. But I would happily do both of those things in Piedmont. Does watching people make wine count? Still definitely in Piedmont.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
AB: Is there a choice? Pretty much the same thing. Can’t have one without the other. I can’t picture a successful career in wine without the two together.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
AB: I feel like my career is too green to answer this… highs would simply be having this job, but I can work on the lows. Give me a year. Or a couple of months. Give or take.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, is a real role model for Sommeliers?
AB: I’ll answer this in a general way: someone who is open minded, curious, driven, a teacher, shares their knowledge, wants everyone to succeed, one love, let get together and feel alright, blah blah blah. If I had to answer names I can only provide names of people who have inspired other sommeliers that I personally know…
I hear Peter Boyd’s and Jeff Connell’s name come up often. My own inspirations were you, Christopher Sealy, and Svetlana Atcheva.
GFR: And for Wine Agents?
AB: Don’t know… but watching Nicholas Pearce grow his own business over the last three years has been impressive. That’s got to be inspirational to some newbies out there. And what Mark Cuff is doing with The Living Vine is always an inspiration to Ascari.
GFR: Do you still have nightmares about working with wines? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar… and the clock is ticking away… in fact I had one last night!!! And I haven’t been in the role for five years!!!
AB: Just last night I had a nightmare that I was your customer… and I ordered a bottle of Fuzion… and you couldn’t find my bottle in the cellar…and the clock was ticking away…
No nightmares… not yet. Just obsessive behaviour.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
AB: One in which I’m not working. Which I am. Every Sunday. All the time. Otherwise, a perfect day off involves sleeping in with no alarm clock, eating and drinking with friends, and other things I won’t mention just in case my parents read this.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
AB: Dandylion and Edulis…those places cause me to miraculously shut my mouth and think in detail about what I’m eating… you get lost in those dishes. Great wine lists too.
I recently revisited Woodlot after a long time and forgot how much I love that place. Archive Wine Bar and Midfield Wine Bar. I love that both those places are on the same strip but you get very different, but equally lovely experiences. Which is great because then I can visit both in the same night. And of course there’s always Pizzeria Libretto… pizza and Gragnano from Campania… can’t go wrong.
Also, if I told you about a hidden treasure it wouldn’t be a hidden treasure anymore.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
AB: I used to but ironically, since I started in this industry I don’t do much of it these days. On occasion when I’m inspired, I’ll make a batch of gremolata or chimichurri and keep it in the fridge for when I buy my favourite cheap cuts of meat, flank or skirt steak, grill them along with vegetables, or throw a simple salad together… simple and fast and tasty.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
AB: I consider my propensity for continuously turning to the same late night snack, Shin Ramyun ramen noodles with a poached egg, to be a disaster.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
AB: I’m just starting to meet the community. I’ve definitely met a lot of great people through Ascari who have taught me a lot before I even took over this list. And anytime I seek out someone for help or opinions or information there’s always someone available so that’s cool.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
AB: Ha! Do you hang out with other gingers? I hang out with people I like hanging out with. Sometimes they’re sommeliers, sometimes they’re dishwashers, sometimes they have jobs for companies where even though my friend has been working there for almost 20 years I still can’t explain what she does for a living. I do enjoy nerding out about wine with other sommeliers and agents but that often comes after industry events… and has to involve more wine and food.
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?
AB: Toronto is broadening its horizons and testing the waters. It’s exciting to see that happen. Some things will be trends and come and go, some things will be labeled as trends but should stay forever. It’s normal when an industry starts to grow in a big city.
As far as where I go, you can reference my dine & drink answer for wine. But for cocktails, I cannot tell a lie, I don’t seek them out… cocktails usually come into play when I’m done work and head over to the Comrade looking for something refreshing and I decide that it’s not going to be sparkling wine.
Hi-Lo’s cocktail list is appealing to me too… simple and refreshing. But I’m biased about both these places… both owned and operated by our company family or neighbourhood friends.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
AB: I’d be living somewhere on a beach, operating a beach bar and grill, sleeping on the beach, running on the beach, drinking on the beach, eating on the beach, I’d leave it only to swim in the water… or use a toilet. Because you can’t do that on the beach… I think.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
AB: Play it. Play whatever you want. It’s nice when a restaurant integrates it into the experience they’re delivering. Just don’t play it so loud that at the end of my meal I feel that I may have worked off all the calories from what I ate by yelling at the people I’m dining with throughout the whole meal.
When I go out to eat, I do it because I love breaking bread and drinking and connecting with my family and friends. I can’t do that if I can’t hear them. And I mean the really loud stuff, I’m not 89 years old. If you have a bar or a snack bar, etc., then that’s a different story.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
AB: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Part VI, The Autumn Years, Maître-D’ and Mr. Creosote, buckets and barf, “I’ll have the lot”
GFR: I’m know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
AB: We’re all aware of the fact that it’s difficult to make plans together so we’re happy to see each other whenever we can and are all happy that we have jobs, collect paycheques and don’t live on the streets. Sometimes when we go out for dinner they let me choose the wine. So there’s that.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
AB: Blind tasting is amazing! You get the most honest, genuine and authentic responses about wine from people when you blind taste. Would I want to compete with more experienced tasters via blind tasting? No f****** way. I can tell you exactly what I think a wine tastes/feels like and how it will go with certain food but I’m nowhere near being able to tell you what vintage it might be or where exactly it’s from, etc. I’ll leave that to the experts until further notice.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
AB: I’m having trouble remembering whether I’m one or the other. It’s a blur.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
AB: Piedmont. There’s classic and fun stuff to be had from there. Although I just had a life changing tasting with a producer from Madiran… it might just be the producer I’m falling for but maybe the winds are changing…
GFR: In your mind, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now at Ascari?
AB: That’s hard to peg. What surprises me the most would be customer requests for savoury wines that are becoming more common.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour there?
AB: Nothing has fallen out of favour but we tend not to carry producers or varietals that already have a lot of exposure.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
AB: Not overrated but overexposed and sometimes abused, good ol’ Cabernet Sauvignon. We try to use the request for California Cabernet Sauvignon as a gateway to exposing other varietals to our customers. Burgundy and Bordeaux… why you gotta be so expensive? I’ll still drink you, but why?
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something from your menu?
AB: Lambrusco di Grasparossa (or any dry red sparkling) with Salumi
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with typical Eastenders.
What would you suggest for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1: A group of young mothers desperate to get their wine on whilst their partner takes care of the child/children… “We usually love Pinot Grigio!”
AB: My favourite customers! Not joking. When I hear “Pinot Grigio” I hear, “I’ll drink anything that is refreshing and fairly priced.” I always insist that Pinot Grigio requests are the gateway to exposing people to new wines. I’ve sold Chardonnay to people who request Pinot Grigio, I’ve sold Greek wine to them, Tsindali (Georgian white), and dry Muscat…and then they come back and ask for it. It’s great!
2. The co-owner of a nearby sustainable fishmongers. She knows a fair bit about wine and is quite particular.
AB: I’ll pour her whatever I want and she’ll like it.
But for real, while she does enjoy some classy whites but once professed to being a “Sangiovese whore” so I would serve her the Caiarossa Pergolaia… a Sangiovese blend done in kind of a classy-old school-elegant-Bordeaux style. (Is she going to be upset you referred to her as a typical Eastender? Because I think she can take you…)
3. Your bosses… John and Erik… in for dinner and business meeting.
AB: Hiiiiiiigghhhhhh rollers! Just kidding. Can’t go wrong with a great Barolo, especially the lovely G.D. Vajra Albe that I’ve got crush on right now…classic and approachable, perfect for entertaining guests at a business meeting. Wait, are they having a business meeting just the two of them? Peroni draft all around. They like to keep it real.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
AB: Being from Thunder Bay, beer is in my blood but I really do prefer sparkling wine over beer when I’m looking for bubbles. But when it comes to beer, I’m not a connoisseur and will go for whatever is refreshing and clean and sometimes often lean towards something with citrus notes. I really like Saison.
I still like 50…it reminds me of Thunder Bay. It actually has some lovely spicy and floral notes (see that, I tried to make 50 sound classy). I’m not a spirits connoisseur either but every once in a while I like to sip on cheap whisky or bourbon at the end of the night. Someone told me once that whisky is for sipping. I’m working on it.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
AB: Trying to work within a budget. Which is also challenging in a fun way but what if there was no budget? That’s exists right?
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
AB: The Waiter’s Friend or whatever it’s called, double hinged. The ones that are not bulky in design, fine-jagged teeth on the blade. I especially love the ones that don’t end up in my co-workers bags or purses at the end of the night. Don’t ever leave it lying around. Servers are scavengers. And guaranteed where you find your missing corkscrew, you will find all your missing pens.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
AB: I don’t think I have a stance. If it’s suitable to the winemaking process and aging and storage and if the wine is good, it’s good. That’s pretty much how I respond to any customer who might ask about it. I suppose we could get a little deeper into this from a winemaker’s point of view but I’ve already bought the wine, it’s good and I’m not storing it very long. The joys of a small cellar.
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?
AB: My limit is high. What exactly does “keeping yourself in check” mean? And is it necessary at all times? As long as I remember everything the next day I’m all good.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
AB: Last summer. My friend got married and we all ended up at the Comrade at the end of the night. I forgot to eat… all day. I was still standing and mobile… in very high heels but my responsible friends at the Comrade saw through that and cut me off. I love my friends.
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
AB: Sleep. Water. Ibuprofen. Sleep. And then a nap.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
AB: 0 – 30… you mean for work right? I can’t disclose my number for what I taste socially.
GFR: When tasting do you choose to spit or swallow?
AB: I play for both teams.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
AB: Since I’m a classy chick, it’s a $7.75 bottle of Portuguese wine — Alianca Terra Boa Vinho Tinto from the LCBO. Cheap, refreshing, dry but juicy and even has some decent structure. I would buy it even if it came in those hooch jugs. Or I always have some cheap bubbly from the LCBO at home.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
AB: It was a glass of Qupé… I think it was a (Roussanne/Marsanne blend) that I had during wine training at the JK Wine Bar. It was a moment when something clicked and I understood the potential of white wine and realised how much else was out there…and also how ignorant I was…
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
AB: I’m a sparkling wine lover so usually something with bubbles. Currently having a love affair with the Cleto Chiarli Vecchia Modena Lambrusco di Sorbara. Glass, bottle, whatever works.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Annette… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
AB: I’m not a grape. I’m a f****** vine.
GFR: I see. Thank you for taking the time Annette!
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. He just celebrated 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 recently opened his exciting new project DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.