In the third 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 chat with the amiable and sharp-witted Gint Prunskus, a young gentleman who treads the boards and expunges the corks at Toronto’s beloved Fairmont Royal York Hotel…
Good Food Revolution: So Gint, what is it that you are doing these days?
Gint Prunskus: Being the Sommelier at The Fairmont Royal York is always keeping me busy… I just snuck away to LA/Santa Barbara recently. My fiancée, Lindsay was there for a six week work stint and I visited with her after a lengthy hiatus apart.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
GP: In another lifetime, I worked and spent most of my 20’s in Amsterdam, Netherlands: an ideal place to be in your 20’s! From there I had easy access to many of the world’s great wine regions and could escape to Paris or Champagne in a matter of hours so I really tried to exploit that when I was there. Once I found out that a ‘Sommelier’ was a real profession, I decided that I was going to try and make it work in Toronto.
When I first came back to Canada I did everything from working in a kitchen, retail and a ton of volunteer work. I even used to write the wine column for the Ryerson University student paper under the name Gordon Gartrel, an alias I borrowed from an old episode of The Cosby Show.
After doing wine and bartending courses at George Brown, I started at the Royal York nearly ten years ago. During this time I was studying with The International Sommelier Guild and have been certified with them since 2007.
Since then I have done Courses with IWEG/WSET and hopefully am not done there.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you typically like to deal with?
GP: I don’t have an exact number but there are many because we change our wine list seasonally. We’re constantly tasting and talking to wine agents representing local and international product. We work together with several great agencies and good quality wine is easy to find for our guests.
GFR: What is your favourite part of the Sommelier role at Epic?
GP: We talked about top suppliers for beverage but our food suppliers are also very special. We’re now working with 100 km Foods, Societe d’Original, Forbes Wild Foods and St. Canut Farms so that sure helps to make the wine look good. We try and create an experience that is authentically local and my personal travel style aligns perfectly with that.
Our guests often do as the Romans when in Rome, so they are often open to trying top quality local wine. We also get a pretty diverse clientele so it’s necessary to have at least a little bit of everything to cater to all of their needs.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
GP: Ideally, tasting with an agent should feel like you’re at your own kitchen table with people you would invite into your home. Some agents will move mountains to meet your needs so these are really the best kind to deal with. Delivering product on time is also important.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
GP: I love them, but I happen to love the style of the wines that we specialize in so it’s easy for me. As for current favorites, I like Sixteen Mile Cellars and Big Head in Niagara, Painted Rock in BC and Norman Hardie of Prince Edward County.
GFR: There are so many Ontario wineries now. How do you choose who you are going to work with?
GP: Mostly well established producers with a track record of excellence but a few new hotshots here and there. It’s a lot trickier to find great products for a good price than it is to find great products so this is what keeps Sommeliers employed.
Canadian Wines are not always cheap so typicity with an excellent balance of acid and fruit character is really what I think all wine drinkers want. The Appassimento trend in Ontario has been really helpful for Sommeliers looking to please people curious to try the Ontario wines who are normally fans of fuller-bodied reds.
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?
GP: Cross-marketing support. Our staff have visited some of Ontario’s best and it really clicks in once they see the place, meet the people and hear their story. You see them speaking of it with more enthusiasm too which ultimately enhances the guest experience.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
GP: Bubbles, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc… All grapes that I love, so it’s easy for me to appreciate the local wines.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
GP: Late ripening stuff is tricky to do every year but great in the right vintages. Icewine obviously excels, I just think that there’s more great dessert wine in the world than anyone has time for.
GFR: Ha… I have often thought the same myself!
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?
GP: If there was a shortage of quality product this would be a problem but fortunately there isn’t. I lack talent or maybe just energy when it comes to faking enthusiasm so I’m lucky not to be stuck promoting stuff that I don’t actually love. For the people that do, that is a skill that I can actually appreciate though.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
GP: My parents always drank wine and cooked with it but they didn’t study or really explore it so much. Before I started enjoying wine, I was always interested in the idea that it could enhance a food experience. It was fascinating to me that people would pay a lot of money for it, describe it at such lengths and store for long periods. Once I started traveling the world and enjoying wine, I found it fun to try and make sense of this.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
GP: I think it was in the fourth grade with another mischievous friend. This would have been strictly horseplay so I wasn’t trying to calibrate quality or even deciding if I liked it.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
GP: It’s hard to say not being a parent, but I am grateful that my dad would give me a tiny glass of beer during Hockey Night In Canada as a kid. I remember not appreciating the taste of beer then, which is hard to imagine now. I do see myself sharing small amounts of well paired wines at the table with kids in the future though.
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?
GP: I recall telling a Sommelier in Amsterdam that I wanted to do what he was doing and he looked at me like I was crazy. I think he was probably thinking “you can afford to eat here and you want to be me?”. This seems normal to me in hospitality now that I’m on the opposite side of the equation though. When you’re around the kind of food that we serve in Epic, you’d find yourself wanting to be a guest too. I also felt that I had a keen sense of smell, sharp sense of taste, a great memory (although too often for useless information) and more importantly the ability to link smell and mood to those memories.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
GP: After I realized that I really enjoyed it, I began asking a lot of questions and there was a particular wine merchant in Amsterdam that patiently answered a lot of the more remedial ones. When I came back to Canada, Professor Peter Bodnar Rod would have to be considered my main mentor as I had him for all three levels with the Guild. I can also say that everyone that I studied with in school was important too though. Forming friends and tasting groups really allows you to extract value out of the experience of going to wine school.
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?
GP: “Bro culture” is quite possibly the funniest term that I have ever heard in my life… Thankfully the subjects in that movie that you are clearly referring to do not typify the Toronto community. I think that it is generally a very good community here and that is a bi-product of having the right industry leaders. If everyone wants to be Tony Aspler or David Lawrason, the wine world is headed in the right direction.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
GP: Niagara, PEC, The Finger Lakes, Champagne, Loire, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Napa, Sonoma, and most recently Santa Barbara County… They’re all beautiful for different reasons.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
GP: I participated in the 2013 crush in Tuscany. I stayed at San Gervasio, in between Florence and Pisa. They’re a small Agriturismo and producer of fantastic Organic Tuscan wines. While for me it was mainly about the Sangiovese, they do a lot of international stuff there like Chardonnay and Merlot very well too. It will certainly be nice to note that when the 2013 vintage eventually does get released here (which will be a while, as they do not release too early), I will actually be able to say that I had a hand in making those.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
GP: Since we’re dreaming, I’d probably choose something geographically impossible. The proprietor of San Gervasio once pipe-dreamed aloud about having “San Gervasio in Canada” and that caught my attention. Actually, since I love Tuscan wines and enjoy living in Canada, I’d really like to steal that answer. Santa Barbara County is definitely on that list as well.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
GP: On some days I certainly prefer bottles but I feel lucky to be able to do a bit of both. Managing people is more difficult but I think that the rewards are also greater. I derive a lot satisfaction from maintaining positive working relations and trying to get everyone pulling the same rope.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
GP: My former boss joined the Chaine des Rotisseurs a couple of years ago and this was an induction dinner for the ages. For those who don’t know about the Chaine, it is a brotherhood of food and wine industry bon vivants who get together every so often to wine and dine like rockstars. Then Chef and Chaine member David Garcelon designed a beautiful menu that had been fussed over for months, I did the wines and the results were very impressive I think. As far as Canadian food and wine is concerned that would be very hard to top.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
GP: Nice people. Nobody likes a jerk anyway but in our industry we really can’t afford pretentious or unfriendly types. As mentioned, Tony Aspler is an excellent role model for Sommeliers and I’m also inspired listening to the Szabos speak about wine.
GFR: And for Wine Agents?
GP: Jocelyn & Ric from TWC Imports, Nicholas Pearce, Peter Sharp of Select Wines, Bernard Stramwasser of Le Sommelier, and Mark Cuff of The Living Vine to name a few… There really are a lot of good people in this business.
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!!!
GP: Work-related nightmares are ever present in my mind period – They haunt me, they want me. I’m not sure it makes me good at my job or it’s a complete disadvantage. The wine cellar at the hotel is under renovations right now too so the wines are in a logistically tricky temporary location. Most of the nightmares right now are related to that.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
GP: I typically work on Sundays but when I’m off, it’s always a blast. A great day for me starts with fresh fruit and the right amount of espresso to get me going and then I like to accomplish something. Usually that means exercise but even if it’s just crossing something off of my to do list for that sense of accomplishment this establishes a positive mindframe that can carry me through the day.
Every good day culminates with good food and wine so everything else can almost be considered a lead up to this. The perfect dinner is often a collaboration of what Lindsay and I have taken nearly all day discussing but we also don’t mind somebody else doing the cooking. Music is a necessity as is some unmentionable monkey business.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
GP: For serious food and wine dinner-date spots the favorites include Beast, Bar Isabel, Geraldine, Bar Buca, Edulis, & Woodlot. For casual and delicious, I like The Hogtown Cure, Golden Turtle, Burger Priest, Porchetta & Co., and I am still a very loyal devotee to Ghandi Roti. I drink beer too so some favorite spots for a pint include Pacific Junction Hotel, Bambi’s, The Red Light, Sweaty Betty’s, Squirly’s and Unloveable.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
GP: I absolutely love cooking meat. A Frenched Rack of Lamb is something that I can execute very well and I tend to favour those Middle-terranean spices with it (i.e. cumin, crushed pistachio, cinnamon, dried red chile) and of course maldon salt and black pepper. I think all Sommeliers tend to prize Pork Tenderloin for it’s versatility with wine. Usually my dinner and wine plans go hand in hand but it’s liberating to have Pork Tenderloin around as you have the freedom to change your wine scheme on a whim. I’m also confident handling duck breasts. The vast majority of what I love to cook at home is often just an excuse to cook meat.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
GP: Not a disaster because they tasted great, but I sure made a mess with homemade perogies recently. Lindsay did all of the prep work too and they still came out looking like a dog’s dinner.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
GP: There is. I truly enjoy running into most of the people I run into at trade tastings and a big part of our growth as Sommeliers is simply talking with them and hearing what’s exciting to them. I studied with a lot of good people too so anyone I went to school with is always a pleasure to run in to.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
GP: I don’t go for drinks with them often enough but, I sure love running into other Sommeliers at wine tastings. I delight in catching candid opinions from Peter Boyd, Krysta Oben, Will Predhomme, Allison Vidug, Christopher Sealy, Bruce Wallner, Lori Sullivan, Evan Saviolidis, Adrian Marquez, there’s so many…
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?
GP: I have too much respect for the spirit world to fancy myself a cocktail authority, but Bar Raval sure is paradise for Sommeliers. Almost every cocktail there contains more than one type of Sherry and I’m very very ok with this.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
GP: My choice to go into this line of work was largely based on combining my interests with a legit profession. I once heard former NHL linesman Ray Scapinello say that “if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I think I just might try and kill two birds with one stone again and be a dj, a chef, a fitness instructor, a music historian, a comedy writer, or a photographer.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants? What goes on at Epic?
GP: As much as I love St. John, I certainly don’t subscribe to Fergus Henderson’s anti-music in restaurants stance. For me, the right music can make or break the ambiance of any establishment. Live performances are always interesting and we are lucky to have entertainment Wednesday through Saturday in Epic. We have a lot of local talent coming through… Tyler Yarema, Christine Ghawi, Thomas Reynolds, John Roby, Julian Taylor, Terrence Gowan, Christine Aziz to name a few.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
GP: I didn’t like Sideways because I found the soundtrack and both lead characters offensive. Having been to Santa Ynez and Santa Maria recently I have to admit that I’m excited to give it another shot. More for the scenery than the dialogue though.
GFR: I know that you have non-industry friends…how do they feel about what you do for a living?
GP: They think it sounds amazing because they often enjoy the fruits of my labour. I like the fact that it forces them to up their wine game and if I can impart some appreciation to take back to their friends or loved ones that can earn them some respect that also makes me happy.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
GP: I’d tell you that it’s my forte, but then you’ll hand me a glass of wine and watch me make a clown of myself…. It’s hard. It’s always going to be hard but that’s what makes it so satisfying when you do nail it.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
GP: One or two wines with a hangover is fine but by the third it just comes down to are you having a good day or a bad day. Even the best blind tasters have good days and bad days.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GP: Burgundy (red or white), Champagne, Tuscany, Piemonte, Mosel, Rheingau… I’m naming all Old World and that’s generally the proclivity for me, but I definitely do get cravings for New World Wines too. Australia and California are perennial favorites and are undercredited for their diversity.
GFR: In your mind, as a sommelier what is “hot” in the world of wine right now at Epic?
GP: In and around the city you see a lot of Gruner Veltliner and Albarino these days but Epic has a loyal Old School following. For us, Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet always do well. Once you travel north of $100 a bottle it becomes very different but just under is a very safe place to be for Bordeaux and Napa.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour there?
GP: I hate to say it but Australia has fallen out, which is a pity because Australia really doesn’t deserve that.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
GP: Pinot Grigio, Malbec. Not because they can’t represent great value, they just don’t excite me. One Niagara winemaker who I won’t name once told me that he identifies Malbec in blind tastings based on the fact that he really doesn’t like them… I found this hilarious because aside from it’s inky bluish colour and violet aroma, I employ the exact same strategy.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something from your menu?
GP: Chef Dyer sure makes a mean Squab Ballentine with rhubarb gastrique, sweet pea puree, morels and fern jus. I’d pair this with Stanners 2011 County Pinot with a bit of a chill on it and you may hear angels singing.
GFR: What are the advantages and the disadvantages of working as a Sommelier within a hotel?
GP: Advantages would be learning to focus on the greater good of the guest experience which often does not begin or end at the doors of the restaurant. It’s fun to use other departments to the guests’ benefit and provide thoughtful personal touches to their experience. We rely on each other for this and that’s what makes what we do so interesting. Disadvantages would obviously be the construction that has been surrounding our hotel. This is about to change though and once Union Station and Front Street is fully functional, we will have the best address in town again.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with typical hotel guests.
What would you suggest for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1: A group of wealthy and weather-beaten Canadian seniors kitted out head-to-toe in Tilley endurables?
GP: Man, why don’t you just walk right into my wheelhouse, put on my slippers and recline in my favorite easy chair. I typically asked guests if they have a preferred grape variety or wine style. In this case I would expect to hear a general Cabernet, Bordeaux, Chablis or maybe Soave… I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to ask them how their winter was in Florida either.
2. A has-been Canadian Rock Star meeting with his agent for a meeting that reeks of desperation?
GP: If this is a real occurrence for you, then I’m going to require you to name names with me off the record because that is indeed a hilarious scenario… I’ll say an oaky Chardonnay… Perhaps I’m talking with more Somms about wine than I am non-industry people lately but it really feels as though our profession may have killed that style of wine. Maybe a clumsy-oaky Chard from a Canadian producer that has seen better days but I won’t name names even though I’m clearly comfortable asking you to.
3. A northern English couple who mention that they “love a wee bit of Blue Nun, so nothing too dry”
GP: This sounds like the sort of low-dangling fruit that we promoters of Ontario Riesling thrive on.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
GP: Beer. Although I love the Belgian trappist thing I’m mainly into German and Czech Pilsners and Superdry Japanese stuff. I absolutely love Scotch and Cognac but also have expensive tastes and if you really want character and class in these genres you can really end up paying for it. Japanese Whisky and Armagnac are great alternatives but even these are not cheap.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
GP: Doing inventory would be most Sommeliers immediate answer to this question but I do like the sense of knowing what we have that comes from this. For me, hospitality professionals become so for the opportunity to nurture people and this is a lot trickier when the person you are nurturing is ill-mannered or badly behaved. Having said that, the challenge of turning these people around can be very rewarding.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
GP: I change it up often but they typically come from suppliers. I need a good slim shape, with two-tier handle. I also prefer a teflon worm and serrated blade that snaps in and out of place with authority but not so much authority that it’s scary.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
GP: I certainly am ok with screwcaps as I’ve endured enough heartbreak with natural corks at this point in my life. As for the guests’ perception, I think you’re showing your rust here Jamie…
GFR: Cheeky bastard!
GP: A couple of years ago it didn’t always fly but nowadays I think it’s very unusual for a guest to wrinkle their brow when the see me go to twist off a screwcap.
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?
GP: Working long hours does not allow time for it on a normal day. On my off days I like to try and stay fit so I’m less inclined to drink too much once I’ve got a workout under my belt. I try and not start drinking too early in the day either because then it can just snowball.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
GP: I never have. I try hard not to cross that line but it is infinitely more likely to happen at home than in public.
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
GP: I’ve got a juicer now so I’ve been juicing. Some days it’s more and Blood orange/Beet/Carrot/Ginger kind of day and others are more chlorophyll. The green days, I like to use apple, parsley, spinach, kale, pineapple and lime. The treasures that this juicer has been providing the morning after drinking have been heavenly.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
GP: About 50 would be average. I like to do more intimate tastings nowadays as opposed to the bigger trade events. The more people and the more wine means that it becomes easy to become a social event rather than doing what you should be doing and focusing on the wine and wine quality that keeps your interest and fits your needs.
GFR: When tasting with clients do you choose to spit or swallow?
GP: I always spit at tastings on working days. On my off days (which often include work related wine tasting), I might revisit what really impressed me at the end of a tasting and swallow one for the road, providing that I’m not driving.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
GP: I change it up constantly as I get bored easily but I do like to drink a lot of German Riesling and Italian Reds at home. My life is too short to drink bad wine but my “weekday wines” are typically $14 – $20. For value I like South African Chenin, Portuguese Arinto, Jumilla, Montsant, St. Chinan, Bandol, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Negroamaro, even Argentinian Cabernet.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
GP: It was at one of those Sopexa tastings believe it or not in ’05 or so. Perhaps I had been a bit swayed because I recognized the label from an over-the-top gushing review of The ’02 from a Grand Cru Chambolle by this producer. The wine was a 2002 Clos de la Roche from Boisset and it hit me like a thunderbolt. I may spend the rest of my life trying get that feeling from a sip of wine but I still have a real soft spot for Morey largely because of this. Morey seems to have those super pretty layers of perfume found in Chambolle with a bit of the wild and gaminess of Gevrey and I’m naturally crazy about both of those.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
GP: Depends on what kind of phase I’m in. Mood and weather are always influential for me but if it’s a hard working day I might look for a wine with a refreshment factor. White wines with some acid come to mind. Bubbles, Savenierres, Verdelho, Chablis, and Riesling all fit that mold.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Gint… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
GP: Something with the ability to be comfortable at a black tie and white glove event one moment and a lowbrow dive the next. Perhaps the Cava is a good choice because it can appear flashy but is actually pretty unpretentious and easy. I hate to say it, but I tend to prefer Cava from the noble Champagne grapes better than the traditional styles so I’m going to have to say a non-traditional Cava from Champagne grapes. The fact it’s non traditional makes it a really suitable answer to your question too. After all, this is coming from a Lithuanian/Irish Sommelier with an unusual name, esoteric interests and one blue eye and one green eye.
GFR: Thanks for your time Gint. Some really great answers there!
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.