In the second of a tenth (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 sees the turn of Cassandra Mosher, a lady we first attempted to interview for this column in March of 2012. After recording a two hour long audio interview that was fuelled by a good few beverages, the thought of translating/transcribing all that was recorded was simply too much for me to to bear, so the interview was shelved.
Now, more than three years after that fateful night we now finally have a full interview with the woman herself…
Good Food Revolution: So Cassandra, what is it that you are doing these days? You’re always moving around a fair bit… I can’t keep up!
Cassandra Mosher: I am currently selling wine for a relatively new agency run by a friend, Joel Clarke, called Henderik & Co. We also just launched Capo Capo Aperitivo, which, is a new company I started with Joel, Owen Walker (Bar Isabel) and Diti Katona (Concrete Design). Also, just started helping Paul Perugini with his Fielding accounts. Oh! And working at Terroni serving a few shifts a week to maintain my lavish lifestyle 😉
GFR: Wow… so you are pretty busy.
And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today? Where else have you worked?
CM: I have been in the industry for 12 years doing all sorts of different roles. Started off working for Molson, bartending and serving in Peterborough, which eventually landed me in Toronto and on the doorstep of Terroni and that’s where things got serious.
I did the CAPS course while working there and then eventually took over the Somm position at Adelaide, did wine education for the company and started managing. I spent almost six years with them and then moved onto a few temporary gigs until Bar Isabel opened and I joined that team up until I started working with Henderik & Co.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you typically like to deal with when buying wine for an establishment?
CM: I tend to stick to smaller agencies and/or agents I trust. I find it complicates things to be buying from more then 5 or 6 on the regular.
GFR: What is your favourite part of the Sommelier role?
CM: I love building a list and changing it often to give customers a really unique experience whenever they come in with wines they might not have the opportunity to try elsewhere. To me there is nothing worse then having a restaurant I frequent be pouring the same BTG list for months at a time. At the end of the day, looking over a list you have curated and are proud of would give anyone in the Somm role a boner.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
CM: COMMUNICATION. Keeping your clients in the know. Don’t push. Be honest. I’ve been on both sides now and there is nothing worse then an agent who pushes, doesn’t have your best interest in mind and treats you as just another number. There is a special connection and trust that develops when an agent gets to know your personal taste and palette and what direction your list is going. That’s the agent you want to deal with.
GFR: And how does that affect the way that you go about selling wines to a restauarant?
CM: I’m still new at this so its taking some time to get to know all of my accounts but I put a lot of weight on getting to know what my people are into. I don’t like to waste anyone’s time bringing them something they won’t be interested in or doesn’t suit their list.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
CM: Norm Hardie taught me my viticulture class in the CAPS program 6 years ago. That was the first Canadian winery I ever had the chance of visiting. There is kind of an open invitation to visit the winery and I take the chance whenever I can. Spending time there has taught me so much about what we have to offer and appreciate it. Pearl Morissette is doing some pretty crazy things that are really exciting for Niagara. I also have a lot of love for Fielding and Hidden Bench.
GFR: There are so many Ontario wineries now. How do you choose who you are going to work with?
CM: I haven’t spent much time working with a list that has any Canadian wines. Henderik & Co isn’t representing anyone yet but would like to. We are shopping around looking for quality, reputation and value.
GFR: What could Canadian wineries do to help get their wines onto the wine lists of the best restaurants? Do you think that they give the restaurants enough support? And how about the Wine Council?
CM: The problem I hear mostly is that the price of Canadian wines tend to be a little high considering they are right in our backyard. I understand that most of the wineries are small production, etc. and couldn’t make a living charging any less but when you are working with a budget these charming stories don’t always matter. It’s unfortunate. On the other hand, It is nice to see more and more restaurants going with local wines and I think we have the WCO to thank for that.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
CM: I’ve tasted some very standout Gamays recently but I’m in love with Ontario Chardonnay.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
CM: Blending (especially more than 2/3 varietals). I can appreciate it works at times but I like to see the varietal and terroir showcased. If you got it, flaunt it.
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?
CM: There is dreadful wine coming from all over the world, Burgundy even! Wine is objective. It’s about trusting the source and who is promoting it.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
CM: No way. My mom drank Coors Light and mixed her white wine with juice (she still does). I didn’t exactly grow up with the finer things.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
CM: Wild Vines Strawberry. Grade 11. Field Party. I wish there was a more romantic story to tell.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
CM: I’m totally giving my children wine with dinner by the time they are 9/10 (diluted of course). I like to live a European kind of lifestyle and they will too.
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?… or did you always want to be an agent?
CM: When John Szabo was doing a tasting at Terroni and he was giving a lesson on Valpolicella, Ripasso, Amarone, which always really confused me. Something clicked and I was able to answer some question he asked the group that nobody else could. Felt pretty good. I enrolled in classes the next day. I never wanted to be an agent. This came out of nowhere.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
CM: Terroni/Mr John Szabo.
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?
CM: I’m feeling the opposite recently. I’m actually very excited about the amount of young woman entering this world. Montreal somm, Elyse Lambert, just obtained her MS status! Very inspiring to any lady in a business that was previously male dominated.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
CM: At this point the bulk of my travels have been to Italy. Lombardia, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Umbria, Lazio and Sicily. Niagara and PEC, but that goes without saying.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
CM: Not yet!
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
CM: Mount Etna. I am in love with that region.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
CM: People. I like Dialogue. I like teaching. Cellar Management and the paper work side of things is probably my least favourite part of the job.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
CM: I’ll start with the lows: It’s been hard being a young woman in the wine industry, especially in the beginning. I was 26 and nobody took me seriously. I worked at Adelaide and Church so it was a lot of the Bay St crowd. A server would send me to a table to recommend a wine and they would sit there and comment on how old I looked, my tattoos and what I was wearing without even listening to what I had to say about wine. It was discouraging, even though I knew I could run circles around them if they actually took a minute and listened to me. So many egos when it comes to this business. It still happens now and I am 32.
Highs: I have had the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s largest wine fairs. I have travelled all over Italy more then once with the Mammolitti Family (Terroni). I have had people that I have the most respect for hand over their wine list to me. I have had some of Canada’s greats as mentors including John Szabo, Christopher Sealy and Jamie Drummond of course 😉
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
CM: All those ladies out there who are finally getting recognized!
GFR: And for Wine Agents?
CM: Sheila Flaherty! She is brilliant, organized and fun and super cute! I look to her for advice often. (s/o to Paul Perugini and Filippo Cognini)
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!!!
CM: Only about doing tastings in front of a group. I still get nervous standing up in front of people. I broke the cork the first staff tasting I ran at Terroni. That has caused some nightmares.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
CM: Brunch at Midfield, afternoon snacks and cocktails at Bar Raval and then home to make dinner and open some nice bottles with a few close friends. Cold Tea BBQ if I’m feeling wild. Or get out of the city and go out to PEC for the day.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
CM: Bar Raval. Bar Isabel, Union, Campagnolo, Parts and Labour are probably my top picks if I’m feeling like spending some dollars. Wallflower on Dundas is super cute for drinks. Otherwise, I’m eating Asian. TOC, King Noodle, Sansotei, Tien Thanh.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
CM: I love to cook although I don’t get a chance to do it as much as I’d like. My Lasagna is a favourite amongst my friends and I’m really trying to master the egg, in all its forms.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
CM: Overcooking a damn omlette. Eggs are my nemisis. Most people don’t realize how hard it is to get an egg right.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
CM: I do, very much so. Having only crossed over to the agent game about a year ago I have had tremendous support and advice from agents I used to buy from. Gone are the days of us competing with each other. For most of us, it’s all about making it more cohesive.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers and/or Wine Agents?
CM: I do, but I maintain a nice balance of friends who work in many different careers otherwise it becomes too much and all you talk about is industry stuff.
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?
CM: We’re becoming world class for sure. I find myself really proud talking about all of the exciting things happening here when I travel. I would probably end up at Bar Isabel/Bar Raval for cocktails. I was just in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail and Toronto was representing hard! It was cool to see. For wine my go to is Archive.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
CM: I can’t imagine doing anything else outside of this industry.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
CM: A must. I am crazy when it comes to atmosphere. Lighting, music, etc has to be perfect for the room and the feel they are trying to put out there. It’s a fine balance. Needs to be cohesive while not ruining the vibe of people interacting.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
CM: I Am Love with Tilda Swinton. The whole movie. Or Ratatouille.
GFR: I know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
CM: They are into in. I’m the person they call if they need any recommendations on wine, beer, restaurants, etc. They usually let me pick the wine at dinner. It’s flattering. They also call when they need reso’s… I’m sure you can relate. That part isn’t always fun.
GFR: Haha… yes… I remember that part.
What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
CM: I think it’s the best way to learn but I also find it very intimidating.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
CM: Probably the same. I’m less likely to second guess myself.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
CM: Mount Etna or the new Faro DOC outside of Messina.
GFR: In your mind, as a Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now?
CM: People are super into Gamay right now. The whole orange wine fad seems to be hanging on but on its way out. Sherry is also making a splash!!!
GFR: Hmmmm… personally I’ve always had a issues with the majority of the orange…
And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour?
CM: I think people aren’t as enamoured with natural wines as they once were. They can be amazing but I think people are realizing, even if it is natural, faults aren’t always becoming.
When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
CM: Riesling. People will chastise me for saying that.
GFR: Errrr… yes… but each to their own.
What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
CM: Stuffed zucchini flowers with ricotta, anchovy and parmigiano and Norm Hardie’s Niagara Chard.
GFR: What are the advantages and the disadvantages of working as a Wine Agent over being a Sommelier?
CM: Doing sales can be really hard at times. You have to always be hustling and there is no security but as a wine agent I make my own hours and spend my days visiting friends in my favourite spots and talking about what I love.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but this time with the kind of people who would have the following tattoos.
What would you suggest for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1: A gentleman with a faded blue spiderweb tattoo on his neck and two teardrops falling from one eye?
CM: Australian Shiraz. Super outdated and a little sad.
2. A lady with an exquisitely detailed floral pattern winding around her arm ?
CM: Alsatian Pinot Gris. Lively and fresh with a sweet opulence.
3. A gentleman with a full sleeve of black tribal tats?
CM: Aglianico di Taurasi. Deep, dark and brooding.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
CM: I love beer. I was at Bar Volo for a brief amount of time and learned a lot from those guys. And whiskey.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
CM: Spending time in the cellar and doing paperwork.
GFR: And as a Wine Agent?
CM: Cold calling.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
CM: Classic double hinged waiter’s friend
GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system… has it changed the playing field?
CM: Definetely. It allows agents to keep wine open for weeks longer then you would normally be able to which saves us a lot of money.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
CM: I am all about the romance of opening a bottle of wine so I prefer corks but I respect why a producer would go with a synthetic cork or screwcap to save money and avoid the potential risk of cork taint. Many of my accounts won’t buy a wine with a screw cap and we don’t have any on our portfolio.
GFR: I’m very much surprised that is still the case. Wow. Some people really do still live in the past…
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?
CM: It’s a slippery slope and I will be the first to admit that it can be really hard not to consume too much too often. My limit is pretty high but I know when to leave. Especially, if it’s around my industry peers.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?… I think I have witnessed you being cut off actually.
CM: Not true!! Although, last time we tried to do this interview I think we were both pretty close. I have never been cut off.
GFR: Hahaha… pretty much.
Do you have a good hangover cure?
CM: Alka Seltzer. Ramen.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
CM: It is always changing. I tasted more working as a Somm, which I miss. Anywhere from 5-30 depending on the week and what I have lined up.
GFR: When tasting with clients do you choose to spit or swallow?
CM: Depends how I’m feeling. Last tasting of the day I always swallow.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
CM: Always changing.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
CM: In Piedmont sitting on the Terrace of Sergio Germano, Terroni’s Barolo producer having a glass of ’05 Barolo and looking over the Serralunga vineyards. It’s when I fell in love with Nebbiolo and finally understood it. That love affair still exists and probably always will.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
CM: Rose! Of all sorts…
GFR: And now the cheesy question Cassandra… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
CM: Pinot Noir. Classic. Complex. Versatile. Highly debatable. Difficult.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Cassandra!… and thanks for doing this AGAIN.
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 recently opened his exciting new project DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.