In the second of a seventeenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario. 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 month we have an in-depth banter with the young gentleman behind the wine list at Toronto’s Fiorentina restaurant, Damien Detcheverry.
Good Food Revolution: So Damien, what is it that you are doing these days?
Damien Detcheverry: I am looking after Fiorentina restaurant’s wine list since they reopened at their new location in December 2016. I have been organizing winemaker’s dinners a few times a year, the last one was March 28 with Mackenzie Brisebois from Trail Estates and I am working on a dinner with Organized Crime Winery. I am also doing some consulting work for private events and work on the floor at La Societe.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
DD: When I was a kid I wanted to be a chef, so when I was 15 I went to an hospitality school in Nice. I need to mention that I am from a small French Island called St Pierre et Miquelon located just south Newfoundland. So to pursue my dream I had to leave my parents and go to the other side of the Atlantic, not something that is easy to do when you are that age but I was really determined.
There I learned about cooking, but also every other aspect of the industry such as wine, service, and marketing classes. I studied there for 6 years, got my BTS “Art de la Table” which I think is the equivalent to a BA in Canada. Then I worked in kitchens for a couple of years until I realized that my place was on the floor. I love talking and interacting with people and in the kitchen it was more yelling than anything else.
I arrived in Canada in March 2009, my English sucked, so I got a busboy job at Didier Restaurant, a few months later my English got better and I moved into a server position. There was no sommelier so I started being the guy that would help guests with wine and I really enjoyed doing it. After two years at Didier, I travelled to New Zealand. I got a sommelier job at O’Connell St Bistro, one of Auckland’s best restaurants. This is where I realized that this is what I wanted to do. So in February 2012 , I passed my certified sommelier exam from the court and I’ve been studying and breathing wine ever since.
I came back to Canada in May 2012, I started working at Mogette Bistro as a restaurant manager/sommelier for a year and half before moving to Fiorentina Restaurant where I occupied the same position for two and a half years.
Then I moved to LS to a server position, I didn’t see my family a lot and my wife was working opposite hours and with a young child it was becoming tough on us. Now I still work a lot but my schedule is more appropriate to my family life.
GFR: How would you describe your role at Fiorentina?
DD: I have a great relationship with Tina and Alex and when I moved to LS we still wanted to keep working together, so I am looking there beverage program. I built their wine list from scratch and now I mostly do maintaining, I update the list every few months in function of seasons and new exciting wines entering the market. I work closely with their staff to ensure that the list fit what the customers are looking for. I also organize winemakers dinner with them every few months , we’ve done four local wineries so far and a fifth one is in the works with Organized Crime Winery. Fiorentina is all about working with local produce as much as they can, and it goes the same with wine.
GFR: How are the clientele when it comes to their taste in wines?
DD: Customers at Fiorentina are fairly curious, the list is mostly composed of small boutique wineries products and even though guests don’t recognize any of the wines there is a real enthusiasm behind what we offer.
GFR: You have worked in a number of different restaurants all over the globe. Tell us a little about the differences that you have noted between France, New Zealand, and Canada when it comes to restaurants regarding food/wine/service?
DD: I find it very interesting that each country is so different. In France people love eating, and it’s very easy to find good quality food, it’s not even a debate, it’s just normal. In France I find that people are very classic and traditional in terms of drinking, Aperitif to start, then wine and then coffee and sometimes digestifs.
But I though the French knew how to do it until I got to New Zealand. Kiwis definitely know how to live. First champagne is like drinking water there, everybody drinks it. They love food and wine a lot and let’s not forget about the “stickies. That’s how they call sweeter wines which 90% of people drink. One thing shocked me though, being French I eat my cheese between my main and dessert, there they do it after dessert… not my thing, but I got used to it.
In Canada, it’s very multicultural, and you can feel that guests have a wide knowledge of food. However, I have to be honest, we should step up our game when it comes to making the best of a dining out experience, dessert wine is a rare thing, champagne a bit, but compared to New Zealand we are amateurs. But I have I faith in people, we’ll get there.
GFR: Is the general level of service here in Toronto really as bad as so many people make out?
DD: It is easier to find good food than good service. For a long time, serving was just a way to make money or a stopgap until you found something better… it was never considered like a real job. If you go to France, most servers are doing it for the rest of their lives, at least half of them went to an hospitality school, which are everywhere. To improve the level of service I think we need to consider it as a real career option. I do it with commitment and passion and I expect everybody else to do the same. I think the quality of service is a way better than when I arrived here 10 years ago, but we still have a long way to go.
GFR: Does your job allow you to travel much? Where have you been lately?
DD: I have kids so I can’t say that I do a lot of wine-focused trips these days, but I do travel. I went to Spain last year, visited Rioja and Navarra and I am going to France in two weeks and I’ll go through Burgundy, Rhone, Bandol, Gaillac, and Cahors.
My inlaws have a house down in Mazatlan, Mexico so we go down there the most, and I have to say, Mexican wines are good. It’ s produced mostly in Valle de Guadalupe in the Baja California and in Valle de Parras which is near Monterrey. I definitely want to visit wineries there in the next couple of years.
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 with nothing but derision for those who feel otherwise. Saying that, I do feel that there are some astounding “Natural” wines out there, so don’t get me wrong. How do you feel about the scene? … perhaps I just have a very low tolerance for volatile acidity, I don’t know… but there is some right old crap out there.
DD: I have tasted natural wines that blew my mind, however I don’t like the idea of making natural wines just because it’s trendy, that’s when it become not so interesting.
There are some good natural wines and also so bad ones, but for the most part, it’s not for me.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier/merchant in your mind?
DD: Every supplier has very good wines, good wines, and average wines. To me it’s all about the person. A good agent knows what I am looking for before he shows up to a meeting. He’s reliable, he doesn’t run out of wine on me without telling me ahead, and has a good attitude.
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent/supplier/merchant?
DD: Agents that don’t call me back or that have a very limited time slot to taste with me. Example: In 3 weeks between 4 and 4.30, no thanks. I guess they don’t want my business.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
DD: I love Canadian wines, I think there is some beautiful product coming out of Ontario and BC and I also feel it’s my duty as an Ontarian Sommelier to showcase it as much as I can. There are a lot of talented young winemakers and I feel that the sommelier community is more and more supportive… which calls for a very bright future.
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario?
DD: I love County Chardonnay and Niagara Syrah, there is also some fantastic Rieslings and Cab Franc.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
DD: I never came across an outstanding Pinot Gris.
GFR: How open are your customers to Canadian wines? And how have you seen the industry evolve since you arrived here?
DD: Lots of people still don’t want to drink some wines I suggest as soon as I say Canadian, but there is definitely a huge progress since I arrived in 2009.
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?
DD: I think we should definitely promote our wine regions and be proud of what grows on our land but not to the detriment of quality. If we sell a wine that is of poor quality and say it’s amazing, the guest might never order a Canadian wine again, so yeah, it’s not helping the cause.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
DD: In France wine is everywhere. Every family gathering there was some good bottles of wine on the table. Also, going to hospitality school from the age of 15 helped me a lot. Although I didn’t fully appreciate it until I was in my early 20s, wine been around me most of my life.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
DD: When I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, my parents use to mix red wine with some water and a bit of sugar. When you think about it now it sounds disgusting, but that was my first taste of it.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
DD: So my daughter has just turned four, so hopefully she can pass the intro and certified level this year. I still have a bit of work to do with her though, she keeps smelling raspberries and strawberries no matter if it’s white or red, but I am sure we’ll get there.
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?
DD: I was focusing on becoming a chef for so long, so as much as I always loved wine I only considered it as a career option when I was 22.
Being a sommelier was not in my plans when I started my career but more I learned and more I wanted to know until it became a necessity.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
DD: I remember meeting Norm Hardie when I was at Didier, and seeing him explaining his wines with passion to us really gave me an interest to explore wines further.
So I went to see Norm in the county and I think that you can’t understand wine better that when you go there, taste it from barrels, go for a walk in between the vines, meet the people. And funny enough, I met my wife that same weekend over Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir, Raspberry Pie and Vanilla Ice Cream.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm a few years back I still worry about the emergence of a new Wine Bro culture… I’d love to hear your thoughts?
DD: I think there is a lot of hard working and dedicated sommelier out there who really want to make a difference and share their passion with others, and those ones are often the most discrete.
However, there are also the Somms that like listening to themselves talk, judge other sommeliers or wine professionals, and who thinks being a sommelier is just looking good.
GFR: Speaking of which, we are having some really important conversations right now about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, and what can be done to eradicate it from the culture. I’d be interested to hear your take on the topic… big question I know, but I feel it’s a topic that deserves discussion.
DD: It’s definitely something that needs to be eradicated. My take on the subject is pretty basic, we are equal, we are all paid to do a job, so let’s stick to that.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
DD: While I was in New Zealand I visited every single region there is to visit there. I travelled through Australia (Hunter Valley, Barossa, Mclaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Coonnowarra, Yarra Valley, Rutherglen and Beechworth), Spain (Rioja, Navarra), France (Provence, Rhone, South West ) and of course Ontario (Niagara and PEC).
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
DD: No I haven’t and I am not going to. There is a lot of people that are doing it really well so why would I bother.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
DD: I love Waiheke island in New Zealand, definitely a place I would live, and I love what they grow there. They do Syrah really well, which happen to be my favourite red grape, so yeah, it seems like a good match.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
DD: Although I love working as a group of people to make the best experience for the guest as possible, I’ll have to say bottles, because I am obsessed. I need to know where they are, how many there are at all time.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
DD: New Zealand was a high for me, I was the sommelier in one of the best restaurant in the country, also this is where I pass my certified level, where I finished top of the class.
However when I came back to Toronto, immigration issues slowed my progression a lot, but this now behind me, and things are good now.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
DD: I don’t want to comment on people I never worked with or met and I had the chance to work with Samuel Quartier, and besides behind very knowledgeable, he represents what a sommelier should be for me. His cellar was always clean and organized… he’s very humble and genuinely wants to share his passion.
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
DD: I work with a lot of great agents, Nic Pearce, Tim Manessy (Living Vine), Daun Bailey (Barrel Select), Marcel Rethore (Le Caviste), MJ MacDonald (Cellarsource) but I really enjoy working with Jeff Payne from Le Sommelier. I don’t think it ever took more than five minutes for Jeff to return my calls, emails or text. After a tasting he always sends me an email with the technical sheets from the wine I ordered and a list of the wines I tasted with him that day. A very professional and pleasant person to work with.
GFR: Do you 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… I have them all the time, and I haven’t been in the role for over seven and half years!!!
DD: I don’t like to disappoint people but mostly I don’t like to disappoint myself. I put a lot pressure on myself, sometimes to much, to get things done perfectly. So yes it does results in nightmares, or waking up because something is on my mind like (did I order that wine, or am I going to get it on time for that party), but in the end it always works out.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
DD: I do have Sunday off actually, and for me it’s family day. We don’t see each other a lot on the same time, I only see my wife two to three days a week so we usually go for brunch, go to the park with the kids or other activities depending on the weather, make dinner, bedtime routine for the kids which takes a while and a lot of energy, and then it’s time for a nice bottle of wine, usually red, and a movie or TV show.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
DD: I don’t go out much in Toronto anymore, mostly because I have kids and this is definitely a social life killer, and also I bought a house in Barrie.
I can already hear people say “Barrie?, what the fuck are you doing in Barrie?”
So listen, if you want a house these days you have no choice, also Barrie is great, probably the most beautiful waterfront in Ontario, and it takes me no time to go skiing or fishing.
Now let’s go back to the subject, I have been to Akira Back twice since it opened, and I have been to Hanmoto recently, both very different atmospheres, but both really good.
Also Fiorentina is amazing, chef Alex Chong is to my opinion one of the best in the city. His food is outstanding, so please go visit you won’t be disappointed, beside they have great wine list
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
DD: I love cooking, I do it a lot, I cook every time I am home at night, which is twice a week. I love cooking everything, braised beef cheeks is on my list of signature dishes, but my favourite is to cook with whatever I find in the fridge.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
DD: I am not really good at making desserts. Pastry is too precise for me , I like being spontaneous when I cook.
Also I can’t cook rice or fried eggs, I don’t know why, I can cook very complicated stuff, but eggs and rice? Can’t do, so my wife is in charge of those.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
DD: There is definitely a lot of sommeliers around, which is encouraging, and you can tell, as there are a lot of great wine lists these days.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
DD: Not really, I chat a bit when I go to trade tastings but I don’t go out with other somms. Not that I don’t want to, it just never happened.
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?
DD: There is lots of options, but like I said I don’t go out much. I have been to Chantecler a few times and they make really good cocktails and I like Archive for wine.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
DD: I don’t know, I’ve never dream of doing anything else. Does wining the lottery count?
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
DD: Music is very important and most of the time not taken seriously. I hate when I go to a nice restaurant and the music is blasting in my ears that I can’t hear myself think.
I actually had this kind of experience when I was in Mazatlan in January. My in laws offered to babysit so my wife and I could go on a date night. So we went to that really nice restaurant, food was great, ordered a bottle of Casa Madero Cabernet Sauvignon, good service, nothing to complain about. So why ruining the experience by having one musician inside and one the patio playing two different types of music, it sounded like a very bad argument, not really what I had in mind.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
DD: I do have a bunch. But this one is special. In this movie Louis de Funes, one of the most iconic French actors, is blind tasting wine, actually he is not , watch and you’ll get it. He lost sense of smell and taste earlier in the movie and need to find what wine it is. When I was a kid I thought it would be cool if I could do that one day.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
DD: I do have a lot, and some of them think I am some kind of superhero, others think I just drink all day, and most of them are jealous when I post tasting pictures at 10am. Also when I go to their house they always think I am gonna criticize or judge what they are drinking, but let me get this straight friends, you can drink whatever makes you happy, I don’t care.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
DD: I think it is the best way to give a fair judgment to a product. I have been tricked like that before , blind tasting wines I had preconception about, it change the way I aprroach things.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
DD: I don’t think I ever tried, let’s add that to the pile of stuff I have to do this year.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
DD: Northern Rhone, Beaujolais and Burgundy is and will always be on top of my list but I also tasted some great wines from Campania in the past year.
GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
DD: Anything orange, natural or biodynamic is very trendy right now and you asked why?? Because the hipsters said so.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? I why do you feel that is?
DD: Overly Oaked wines, mostly from California, Barossa Valley Shiraz doesn’t seems as popular either.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
DD: There is, marketing is a very powerful selling tool, and a lot of time they are selling a wine for a way better than it is.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
DD: It’s spring so let’s go with Loimer Brut Rose paired with an Asparagus Salad.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… some dishes from the countries you have worked in
What would you suggest to pair with them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
DD: I love beers. I drink lots of local beers lately, we produce lots of good ones in Ontario so no need to cross borders. Also my friend Brooke introduced me to sour beers, and I really enjoy that. I also love scotches, rum, calvados and I can’t forget chartreuse.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
DD: I am not sure I hate anything about my job.But not seeing my family as much as I’d like to is no fun.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
DD: I almost feel like a smoker that have a cigarette but no lighter, whatever will do. In a professional environment a double hinged limonadier works best for me.
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?
DD: I know what I can drink and what I can’t. Wine and beer I haven’t found the limit yet, however mix drinks like rum and coke, two and it’s time for bed.
GFR: There’s a lot of open discourse right now around the topic of both drug and alcohol abuse within the restaurant world. Would you care to share a few of your thoughts about that side of the business? To be quite frank with you, the thing I miss the LEAST about working in that environment is the late nights of drinking and recreational pharmaceuticals. I don’t think my body could take it any longer anyway!
DD: I started in this industry when I was 15, I have seen a lot of parties. I managed to stay away from drugs, as they never appealed to me.
But with the long and hard hours we work, pressure needs to get out somehow, and going for drinks after work is often the way to go, and it sometimes results in abuse. I don’t go out anymore, but I used go out after work a fair bit.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
DD: I have never been cut off, I like to stay in control-ish when I drink, some people would think that I am no fun, but I never understood the concept of being shitfaced.
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure? None of the cures given to me by previous interviewees have really done the job for me…
DD: I have been shown a trick by I-don’t-remember-who when I was a teenager and it works for me. A spoon of olive oil before drinking, it doesn’t cure the head but does it for the stomach.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
DD: I don’t count, some weeks I feel that my teeth will fall off and in others barely a sip of wine, but in average I will say 20.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
DD: Most of the time I spit, however, sometimes, when it’s really good, I forget.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
DD: I drink lots of different stuff, I rarely buy the same wine again. I love spending hours in the LCBO looking at every single bottle.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
DD: I am sure people except me to say 1975 Latour, which was amazing don’t get me wrong. But the ones I remember the most are the ones I drank in good company. I remember that 1997 Stonyridge Larose we blind tasted at the end of a service at O’Connell Street Bistro, just before eating MacDonalds, that was a fun night.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
DD: A crazy day at work calls for nice cold beer.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Damien… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
DD: Probably Syrah, but a Northern Rhone Syrah. Game and blackcurrant, with peppery notes.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Damien.
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.