In the fourth of an fifteenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario (and occasionally from further afield as is the case this month). 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.
As promised, we again focus our attention upon our talented friends out west…
Good Food Revolution: So Bryant, what is it that you are doing these days out in Vancouver? (Your position, and what that role entails)
Bryant Mao: I am the Wine Director at Hawksworth Restaurant Group. I am in charge of everything that is related to wine for both Hawksworth and Nightingale.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
BM: I got my International Sommelier Guild Diploma in 2006. I started as a bartender in Vancouver at the River Rock Casino and George and then started serving at Brix restaurant in Yaletown which led to filling in all of the front of house positions there. After that I spent four years in London working at Chez Bruce as a sommelier and a couple of months at The Ledbury before moving home to take the job at Hawksworth.
GFR: How would you describe your role at Hawksworth?
BM: I am the Wine Director. I am in charge of the daily operations regarding wine services. Currently there are eight sommeliers on the wine team. I do all of the purchasing, and work closely with agents to select products. I also work with chef to select pairings for the the tasting menu.
GFR: You have worked in a number different types of places… how does Hawksworth compare? Tell us a little about the place for those who are unfamiliar…
BM: Hawksworth is the whole package. This is the best kitchen team I have ever worked with. David Hawksworth is a culinary pioneer in Canada.
GFR: How open do you find the clientele to trying new things when it comes to wines? Is there a specific style of wine that the demographic crave? And just what is that demographic?
BM: We are very lucky because the sommelier team has built a trusting relationship with our guests and they are very open to suggestions. We ask a lot of questions to find out what the guest likes in terms of wine – style, region, budget and then we find the best wine for them. We find that we can build trust even with new guests by asking questions and listening before making any recommendations.
There is a high demand for local wines. We put the best representations of local wines on our list to share with our guests. Our restaurant attracts a wide range of people, both local and tourists. Locals want to drink from home and tourists want to experience everything BC has to offer.
GFR: What’s the size and scope of the wine/beverage program that you run?
BM: We currently have about 800 selections available on the Hawksworth wine. We have another 800 labels cellaring that are not on the list yet.
At Nightingale we have about 125 selections on the wine list. Both restaurants have over 30 wines by the glass.
GFR: Does your job allow you to travel much? Where have you been lately?
BM: Yes, it’s definitely one of the perks of the job. I just got back from Napa and was able to travel to Italy twice in the past year. I was in Hong Kong for Burgundy En Primeur at the beginning of the year and will be traveling to the Okanagan this month.
GFR: What sets Vancouver apart as a wine and food city?
BM: Vancouver is multicultural and it shows in our cuisine. We have remarkable access to fresh ingredients.
GFR: Now, how do I word this? Have you drunk the “Natural Wine Kool Aid”? I’m just kidding, kind of… I’m sick fed up of “natural wine” zealots to be quite honest. How do you feel about the scene?
BM: I don’t care about natural wine. I just care that wine is good.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
BM: They have a good understanding of the restaurant they are working with, the list, the philosophy. And emails – not phone calls!
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent/supplier?
BM: Anyone who shows up without an appointment or during service.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Do you ever see anything but BC stuff in your market?
BM: I am a supporter. We have a long way to go, but there is a lot of potential. We don’t see much. The import laws here make it difficult for other provinces to break into our market.
GFR: Have to had the opportunity to try much from Ontario? I’d love to hear your thoughts…
BM: Not a lot. But, there’s definitely a few producers I’d like to work with. Currently Closson Chase on the list. I have worked with Tawse in the past and I’d like to see Norman Hardie, Pearl Morrisette and others of their caliber in our market.
GFR: Yeah, that inter-provincial protectionism is a bitch when it comes to wine. Can you see a way forward here?
GFR: How open are your customers to Canadian wines?
BM: We are a destination restaurant for international travelers so our clientele is very open to Canadian wines but as we discussed above, it’s difficult to share anything other than BC wines with them.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Canada (BC, Ontario et al.) also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
BM: Yes, of course there is some blind support for local despite value. We offer a respite from that. We always try to find the best quality and value Canadian wine that can compete on a global scale, not just the domestic market.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
BM: I was born in Taiwan and wine is not the most popular choice there. I was introduced to spirits before wine. My dad would give me a drop of Johnny Walker Black with a lot of 7Up when I was growing up so I could sit with the grown ups.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
BM: No! But it was probably Baby Duck in high school
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
BM: As early as possible.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to being a Sommelier yourself?
BM: Right after I finished the introductory course from the International Sommelier Guild. I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to learn more about wine. I had always worked in hospitality but I didn’t have a career plan. At that time, I was more focused on the bar trade.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
BM: Aside from school, Terry Threlfall gave me my first sommelier job when I was living in London. He gave me my first taste of the world of wine.
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?
BM: It’s out there. I’m not a part of it and don’t really think about it. It’s not a part of the culture at Hawksworth.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
BM: I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to visit most of the old world wine producing countries as well Chile, Argentina, California and Oregon.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
BM: No – I’m better at selling the wine than making the wine.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
BM: I’d rather drink it than make it.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
BM: People. Because I share the bottles with them.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
BM: I think the career high is yet to come, but right now I work with an amazing team and we have both autonomy and support from the management and owners.
Low: I was once a bartender at a karaoke bar in Richmond serving Johnny Walker Black and soda or Chivas Regal with Green Tea.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
BM: Terry Threlfall. He doesn’t have much formal education but has worked his way through the ranks and has trained and inspired sommeliers around the world. Those of us who have had the privilege to work under him have moved on to great careers and are some of the top sommeliers in London, Melbourne, and Vancouver. His attention to detail regarding wine service is uncompromising. He completely changed the wine scene in Vancouver and is my personal Mentor.
BM: David Gleave MW of Liberty Wines in London. He has one of the purest palates I have ever come across. It shows in his portfolio. He strives for purity, quality, and represents the most exceptional wineries from all over the world.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
BM: Watching English Premier League Football early in the morning. I usually catch up with a friend or two for beers and some sort of fried food and more football.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of your city?
BM: I like Kinome on West Broadway. It’s a premium Japanese Izakaya who make their own soba noodles. I’ve known the owners for over a decade and have been following their careers. They have an interesting, boutique sake selection and are always happy to share a bottle of champagne!
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
BM: Yes, I cook quite a bit. I make a lot of fried rice for post-work snacks. Kimchi fried rice with fried egg is a favourite.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
BM: My girlfriend says I under season everything.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Vancouver? On my recent trip I was made to feel most welcome there!
BM: Yes – it’s a small and close-knit community. Lots of young, motivated people supporting each other. It’s really positive, and while close-knit, we are always ready to welcome newcomers.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
BM: I live with one so it’s hard to get away from them. But yes, I have a big team at work and spend time with them off hours. I like bartenders too. For diversity.
GFR: How do you feel about Vancouver as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
BM: Vancouver is one of the best cocktail cities in Canada. We are further ahead with the cocktail scene than the wine scene. Vancouver has bought into cocktails but our high taxes and the government monopoly make it difficult to expand our wine culture.
Now that Shaun Layton doesn’t have a home bar, I’m left without a bar. I tend to stay at my home restaurants for wine – the staff discount makes it appealing and I can always find company.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
BM: Used car salesman.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
BM: I don’t like music in restaurants. I miss the no-music environment of London restaurants.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
BM: Casino Royale when James Bond first meets Vesper Lynd, James Bond is drinking Chateau Angelus from a Burgundy glass.
GFR: Jeez… I never noticed that before!
Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
BM: One! We grew up together. I haven’t asked him how he feels about it but he has noticed that the bill is always higher when I get the wine list.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
BM: It’s a great party trick. I’m horrible at it.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
BM: I’m equally bad all the time.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
BM: Burgundy now and forever. Etna from Sicily has caught my attention lately.
GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
BM: I think that people are looking for wines that actually have a sense of terroir and time. People are more interested in indigenous varieties and are up to try something new.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? I why do you feel that is?
BM: Wines that are faulty or poorly made and have lost their terroir. On the flip side, people are over highly extracted, oaked, sugary wines. People are looking for well made wines now. The pendulum has swung both ways and has thankfully found the middle.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
BM: Scores! They only represent one person’s opinion. The tasting notes can be useful but the points are meaningless.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
BM: We have a beer pairing on our spring tasting menu that’s working really well right now. Four Winds Dry Hopped Sour “Nectarous” with with 48 month aged Iberico ham, cantaloupe, lime, and pickled cucumber.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… Hmmmm… infamous drinkers…
What would you suggest to pair for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
BM: A Magnum of 1996 Bollinger R.D.
BM: Double Canadian Club Neat with a bottle of Moosehead.
BM: You’re lucky I could even pretend to answer the above ones. I grew up in Taiwan – it’s like another planet there.
Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
BM: All of them. A good pint of Guinness. An ice cold Sapporo. A nice aged rum.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
GFR: Oh yes…
What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
BM: Pulltex. Standard. $8.
GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system?
BM: I have one, but I don’t use it.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
BM: Are we still debating this? I don’t open the bottles in front of them anyway, so they mostly don’t notice.
GFR: Due to us 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?
BM: I have an international reputation for being able to fall asleep anywhere if I’m over my limit. It keeps me out of trouble.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
BM: I fall asleep before it gets to that point.
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure?
BM: A bottle of Gatorade, a can of coke and an ice cold beer.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
BM: We taste everything we open, so hundreds.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
BM: Spit. I’m working.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
BM: 2001 Georges Roumier Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Les Cras
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
BM: Rob Roy on the rocks.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Bryant… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
BM: Pinot Noir, it’s so difficult.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Bryant.
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 67th 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 now GM at DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.