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August 18, 2021 Comments (0) Views: 553 Young Blood Sommeliers

Young Blood Sommelier: Heather McDougall

The notoriously camera shy Young Blood Sommelier Heather McDougall.

The notoriously camera shy Young Blood Sommelier Heather McDougall.

 

In the first of a twenty-first series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario and beyond.

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 and often underexposed stars.

This month sees an extra-extended interview with the one and only Heather McDougall.

Seeing as we last spoke about doing this interview JUST before the pandemic hit, so it has been a long time in the making, but oh so worth it…

 


 

Good Food Revolution: So Heather, the last time we spoke in person was at a wine tasting up on Dupont around a year and a half ago, and I had mentioned to you (and the assembled audience) that this COVID thing was going to get really serious, really quickly.

How we all laughed when I said this may be the last time I hug you goodbye for a while!

Heather McDougall: Dude, like holy shit… right?

GFR: Now… what with the world of hospitality being turned upside down due to the ongoing pandemic, what is it that you are doing these days? 

I founded Sips Toronto as a make-work project, and it has since become a hustle and a half! I offer a full menu of wine experiences; from guided tastings, private education, virtual events, cellar management, hospitality for hire, corporate gifting, wedding registry services, retail wines sales and event executions services for anyone who needs back end support / fulfilment assistance. Additionally, I partnered with my dear friend and fellow sommelier, Allison Vidug for a retail shop / catering operation in Muskoka… Sips At The Lake!      

How has the pandemic impacted you both personally and professionally?

Personally, the pandemic gave me space to look at everything that I had been allowed to ignore. It really held a mirror up for me to fully see the extent of advantage my socio-economic, cis gender, white privilege allows me. I can confidently say that I am racist, sexist, ableist, and have a ton of unconscious biases. Guess what? You. Are. Too. If reading that makes you mad, call me… let’s talk.

Pre-pandemic, I wouldn’t not have had the awareness to recognize or the maturity to start addressing these facts within myself or starting discussions with those around me. Seeing how all of the -isms were so deeply interwoven into the fabric of hospitality was also not shocking but a huge eye opener.   

Professionally, oh boy! The pandemic allowed me space to step back and objectively see where I was at and where I was going. I realized how deeply my burnout reached and how much I didn’t love what I was doing… I was just going through the motions. It also allowed me space to fall in love again. I love wine; selling it, teaching about it, and being immersed in the details great and small. I knew that the path down which I had been walking would take me further away from it, so I had to find a way back to what sparked joy for me.         

GFR: How is it working in a deli/restaurant/wine bar with all of the necessary COVID regulations? Do you feel safe? And how do the customers respond? Any COVIDiots?

HM: The restaurant I was working out of wasn’t open for takeout, and the sales were mostly online so my actual interaction with the general public was limited. I rarely felt un-safe, but when someone did, I called team meetings and we used our words.

GFR: When we come out the other side of these dark times, how do you feel hospitality will have been forced to change? I feel that our business had so many broken systems that I’m hoping that this is the opportunity for a big reset. For example, I’m very much against the whole tipping system… don’t get me started!

Has it though? Has any change really happened? I still see friends working 60-80 hours a week, while expected to be leaders of cultural change, deliver on time, take on extra responsibilities due to short staffing all while trying to provide seamless guest experiences to people who have forgotten how to act in public. I would hesitate to call the current situation changed. 

Hospitality is just reaping what is had begun to sow years ago, just at an accelerated pace. Even before the pandemic there were labour shortages, and everyone was bemoaning the lack of talent. You have to ask, what did we do to nurture and retain them? Did they feel safe, recognized, rewarded, included? Yes, not all restaurants… but too many restaurants.  

I can confidently say that hospitality has been my longest running and most abusive relationship. I had been harmed and then perpetuated systems of harm because that is what I was taught, and I know that I’m not alone there. Breaking that cycle is going to neither be easy, nor fast. My need to change started a few years ago when I was a living zombie, coasting from burnout to burnout with no end in sight…again. As a work enthusiast, that was a really tough time for me. I was dreading going into work every day knowing the struggle that was waiting so, I put on brave and cheerful faces to hide my increasingly weary soul. I knew that the changes needed to come from me, so I had to think differently. Doing the same thing for another year was not an option. I needed a new framework around how we made decisions, centering systems of sustainability (see attached) and if I couldn’t change my people, I needed to change my people. I was tired of the two steps forward, six steps back dance we had been doing. 

To create a better restaurant ecosystem, I started with the management teams. They set the tone for every shift, and are in direct communication with all of the hourly employees. I thought that if I could make their lives easier, they would pay it forward to the hourly team. My initial focus was how much time everyone was spending at work…myself included. Nobody is at their best working 60-80 hours a week and getting pestered on their days off. Rest is equally as important as work and expecting people to lead with empathy and motivate others is impossible when they are exhausted. Through this process we started to create better work life balance (for both salaried and hourly colleagues), a more reasonable work week (by overhauling needlessly complicated systems and adjust scheduling), and by sharing the workloads more evenly. We were constantly evolving to try to make them work the best for the greatest number of people. Was it perfect? No, but we were making progress and lasting change takes time. 

Hospitality needs to address sustainability in every area. Every decision needs to be examined through the financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable lenses. We have spent too long abusing resources (people especially), that it’s going to take more than “service included” to right that ship. We need owners that see the value in great managers, and work with them to develop the skill sets to create lasting changes. We need GMs and Chefs that have capacity (energy, time & ability) to run better operations. We also need to stop promoting the last person standing into supervisory/managerial positions and then act surprised that without training, mentorship or the proper tools they fail, and then quit. This never-ending cycle of desperation hiring/promoting has come back to bite us in so many ways. The sooner we realize that we did this to ourselves, the faster we can address and correct it.      

But other things will have to change, right? I’m wondering if the days of a sommelier looking solely after a beverage program are over? 

I remember working during the 2008 financial crisis, and definitely had to wear many hats in addition to my sommelier’s pin. What I hope to be different now, is the ability of a sommelier to show the impact of their work. Sommeliers directly impact the financial health, aesthetic, and guest experience in the restaurant during every single service. 

I have always been a numbers nerd; I love stats and was actively tracking mine for a long time. I know what personal presentation (skirt length, heel height, hairstyle), which phrases, and which mannerisms led to consistently strong sales everywhere I have worked… and they were all slightly different. Selling the big bottles is great but a sales approach that also builds relationships is ESSENTIAL. You can shear a sheep 1,000 times, but only slaughter them once. Sales are very important, but ensuring efficiencies and having a strong understanding of your numbers is key.

Are you selling the whole program or re-ordering the same ten bottles? Do you buy against a budget or just place orders? Do you buy what you like or what the restaurant needs? Do you know how to figure out how much you should be spending? Can you cost a balanced program? Make money and friends with your list? What about guest recovery wines, is this a panic pull or a planned eventuality? 

Be a somm that manages and tracks all the metrics (sales, relationship building, efficiencies) and you will be a somm that just gets to do wine.    

Do you think that people will still want that one-on-one sommelier experience?

HM: Great follow-up question… yes, on their terms.

People want to be taken care of, but as a savvy sommelier it’s up to you to make it special for them. This is your opportunity to demonstrate the fineness side of our craft. Stop selling every table the same bottle, don’t recite the same pairing spiel to every guest, and for the last time, turn down the hot air machine. 

The average guest is becoming more engaged in the wine world and is more comfortable in conversations with us, and I love it! It is actually the thing I miss the most about being out of active service. So engage with genuine hospitality and make them feel welcome in the world of wine. Yes, even if they drink wine you don’t like, or take recommendations from an app or critic. We all start somewhere. Also, don’t assume that every guest has the same relationship with / interest in wine that we do… know when to stop talking. Anyone who is curious will ask for more.     

GFR: Okay… I guess we can talk about tips…

Coming from a restaurant background, and spending some time in management, what’s your take on the whole tip argument? 

I’ve never been part of the tip pool as I have always been in management, or in a private club with no tips. In my mind, the tip system in north america is completely broken… and then we have the minimum wage aspect! 

A veritable knot of vipers. A huge subject, I know, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts as I have a great deal of respect for your opinions…

HM: I have worked in and administered tip pools for almost my entire career, and have some strong thoughts. But first, a dad joke… how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We have to start where we are and build the pathway to good, better, best practices when it comes to tips. 

Good: Pooled resources, transparent, traceable. Money coming in should be able to be tracked from start to finish, by everyone who participates (contributes and draws) from the pool. 

Better: Fair distribution, clear expectations for advancement, ever evolving, no salaried management drawing from the pool.

Best: With the data collected from the better practices, roll those numbers into the operations budget, adjust menu pricing / service charges to create a financially sustainable restaurant operation, burn tipping to the ground. Your people deserve better than to have their livelihood tied to the whims of your patrons. 

GFR: And as for you… where do you see yourself in, say, 12 months? What would you like to be doing in a perfect world? 

HM: To be perfectly honest? More of the same. I love that I am immersed in the world of wine again; it really brings me joy. I want to host more, teach more, sell more and keep sharing space with cool people. I have some fun projects coming up and am excited to share what I’ve been working on behind the scenes. Sips Toronto continues to evolve in its offerings and that is really exciting. I do however need to figure out how to scale without it crushing my life, so if you have any reccos for a great VA, I am all ears. CVO seeking COO for fun times, tasty sips and empire building.

GFR: Please tell us a little about your Sommelier history? 

HM: Like my origin story? I certainly don’t think of myself as a superhero… but now that you mention it… I worked in a variety of restaurants while attending university, and quickly learned that I had to learn something about wine to move up in hospitality. My dad and I took Wine 101 classes together (even thought I really didn’t drink) and it was quite fun. The further down the path towards my chosen profession I walked, the more miserable I was. I missed being at a table. The turning point for me, was my dad getting very sick. Being confronted with the reality of life changing on a dime coupled with the urgency to live and not just exist precipitated a bunch of major changes. I broke up with my boyfriend (I probably should have done that sooner tbh), gave away most of my stuff and moved to the city that had the soonest start date for sommelier certification. It was one of the best impulsive decisions I have ever made.     

GFR: I first bumped into you many years ago at one of the Charlie’s Burgers events. How did you get involved with that great bunch? And how was your experience with them?

HM: Those fellas… what can I say… my nights with them serve as a constant reminder of the fun side of hospitality. Franco always asks me two questions, usually after the first or second course drops. Am I having enough fun and did I find the Champagne he left for me. When he asks the former, I do the latter. An evening spent revelling in the joy of service, is one of the most restorative experiences. Footloose, fancy free, free pouring killer wines, and joining tables to make friends is soooooo much fun!!!! 

I came in to assist with a dinner as part of a visiting chef’s team shortly after moving to Toronto. A couple courses in got pulled outside (there was no walk-in 😉 ) by the chef and was clearly instructed to sort shit out, because it was going sideways. Much to nobody’s surprise, I grabbed the clipboard, a Sharpie and started telling everyone how things were going to go. 

GFR: Now, over the years, Charlie has diversified into a private wine club (as well as foodstuffs!). The wine club market is pretty crowded these days due to the changes brought about in alcohol regulation during the pandemic. What are the greatest challenges in establishing something like SIPS? What are the secrets of your success?

HM: The secret to my success is undoubtedly my village. I have some of the kindest, most generous, incredibly supportive humans around me, and words would fail to adequately describe my gratitude for them. 

I am cautiously reckless by nature, but am hesitant to put too many eggs in one basket… wine clubs included. Every agency, side hustling somm, bottle shop has their take one and I’m sure if it wasn’t working for them…they wouldn’t do it. In the same breath, I doubt that my personal marketing reach, conversion rate and personal brand awareness has enough impact to make one a pillar of my business. I like what we do now…we get to know what you like and build custom mixed packs monthly based on those preferences. It is very labour intensive, but it also aligns with the role of a sommelier; suggesting the perfect bottle based on what you like. 

My largest challenges are scalability, cashflow, and the uncertainly of what comes next from the pandemic box of horrors. I am taking classes in digital marketing to better understand that world and after that will be learning about brand building/marketing. I can confidently say that most people who are reading this know who I am, but have no idea who I am. Lol. In order for me to grow Sips Toronto, that has to change.  

GFR: The fact that anyone with a licence can now open a bottle shop has changed the booze retail landscape forever, and it’s maybe one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic.

How have you witnessed this new found freedom evolving over the past 18 months? How do you feel about mark-ups and the like? And who is doing it well, apart from you?

HM: I am happy to see so many strong retail voices in this market, and I fully support what everyone all have to do to make the math work. Your markups need to be what sustains and then grows your business. Full stop. I am over people complaining about wine markups right now.  

Dude! Nick from Peter Pan is KILLING IT. I am so excited to have that shop in my neighbourhood. 

GFR: In your current role, how do you go about selecting wines for your list? Is there an overarching philosophy to your choices? (Maybe mention the menu, ambience, clientele, membership etc.)

HM: My approach hasn’t really changed over the last decade. I buy a diverse selection of what the budget allows, in the profile my clientele wants, plus what I can hand sell quickly to keep it fun for me. I am in the wine sales business, not the wine storage business.  

GFR: Let’s go back to the beginning, as we got off with a jolt talking about pandemic stuff… what kind of experience and training wine-wise did you have before doing what you are doing today? And looking back, if you could, would have make different decisions?

HM: I did the usual western Canadian mix of ISG and WSET, but was lucky enough to jump into the fire early on with a wine director’s position in a tasting menu only restaurant. I was hired as a captain, but quickly promoted after the wine director left, because I knew the next most about wine. At the time, it truthfully wasn’t much. I didn’t drink wine, didn’t have a pin, and am still shocked I made it work. I figured most of my job out on the fly, got great at sound bite somm-ing, and had flash cards hidden in most bins in the cellar so I could quickly refresh while pulling the bottle. Luckily, the opening list was built by an amazing sommelier that had great taste in classic and quirky wines. The chefs were really great at letting me try every component and the completed dish multiple times. It really helped me build a solid understanding of their food’s structure so eventually, I could almost taste a dish without tasting a dish. By the end of my time there, I was unflappable but getting there was intense. I had three solid months of getting my ass handed to me daily, until one day I didn’t. My “muscle memory” kicked in and I went from donkey to duck. Surprise extra course after I had marked and poured? No problem. Major garnish change on the main mid service? I got it.  

Different decisions? Honestly? I spent too much time working. I didn’t attend enough tastings, take enough appointments, and didn’t say yes to enough trips and dinners. I should have made more tasks wait or declined the work that came by way by default. That said, working retail during the day and on a floor at night was pretty f-ing awesome. I tasted so often and loved every second. I also had the best pipes; hauling cases, doing deliveries, sorting the warehouses…good times, and hualing and sorting are still my most favourite tasks. 

I also sometimes wonder if my switch from beverage to operations (I have been a GM for the last six years) was the right call.

 

The notoriously camera shy Young Blood Sommelier Heather McDougall.

The notoriously camera shy Young Blood Sommelier Heather McDougall.

 

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? 

HM: When I left the excited world of actuarial sciences wanting to come back to hospitality, I picked the job of the person that seemed to have the most fun. Late lunches, travel, making guest experiences extra special, you know, the fun stuff. I truthfully had no idea what I was getting into (and didn’t drink) when I picked being a sommelier out of a hat. 

GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine? 

HM: My first real look behind the curtain was at wine 101 classes with my Dad, hosted at Banville & Jones in Winnipeg. Gary Hewitt led both sessions and encouraged me to follow my nose so to speak. I also had the pleasure to join him for a trip to VinExpo and really fell in love with the world of wine.

GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age? 

HM: Almost zero percent. My Dad bought the same two wines, once a year and they landed on the table at Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Father’s Day.

GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?

HM: I remember the one that changed me, does that count? It was an ounce (that was a lot for me, remember that I didn’t drink) of 2000 Domaine Grand Veneur CNDP. I remember exactly where I was standing, what I was wearing, all the things happening around me, and when I swirled the glass and stuck my nose in; I had a full body sensation of falling backwards into a field of lavender. Even typing this now, I have gooseflesh! It was magic.

GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?

HM: As a non-parent, I would say whenever the parents feel it is appropriate? I think that introducing children to the culture of eating at the adult table is essential. I remember my parents taking my sisters and I to fancier places for dinner when I was growing up. We would sit down, order (they made us order our own dinners) and then my Dad would take us out to run around the parking lot until our food was ready.

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… also, I recently picked up on a LOT of that from the mixology crowd, full-on Jordan Peterson fans and all that stuff.  I’d love to hear your thoughts? 

HM: Are you hoping that I present a counter argument? Insist that there is no douche-baggery in our communities? Ha! I think a lot of time the problem with the world of wine is wine people.  As I transition to elder statesperson in the world of wine, I can definitively say that the old boys club is waaaaaaaaaaaay better than the new brah club. Those fellas were definitely misogynistic, incredibly handsy, and had gatekeeping down to a fine art, but it was all in your face. I ate shit, worked hard, took my beatings ,and was eventually welcomed at their tables. In my experience, the same is not true of the new brahs.    

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, and perhaps what you witnessed during your time in the restaurant world… big question I know, but I feel it’s a topic that deserves discussion

HM: Having worked in nightclubs, casual restaurants and fine dining, I can say that every time I took a “step up” in the prestige of the restaurant the protection afforded to me diminished. Read that again. When I was cocktailing and then bartending in the club, I could point a patron out to a bouncer and with no questions asked, they were removed. I just came to accept that being dry humped while making coffee, getting my ass grabbed by patrons and staff alike was part and parcel of working in restaurants. 

I came up with cheeky (no pun intended) ways to deal with it. I would say “I don’t understand” if someone told me a lewd joke or made a suggestive comment… making them explain it to me was a pretty effective, and friendly cessation tactic. I would always respond with a smile, say ”Cute!”, flip my ponytail and leave. That worked like a charm! If handsy behaviour was the issue, I would quietly say either “Sir, that is not included in the price of your meal. ” escalating to “Is there a reason you are touching me?” The sassiest thing I did when I was young and bold was adding charges for “top round” or “bottom round” to guest cheques, and if questioned about the charge, announced to the table that was for the X’s add on order, packed to go for his dog. I would then quickly apologize for not presenting it on a separate bill. What can I say? They had been warned. Dick move? Probably. Fast forward a few years…

A group came in and wanted to have a lot of fun, spend a lot of money, and sexually harass everyone on staff. We moved the group to a private room where myself and a captain took them over. We sent everyone else away and I assured them I could handle it. I thought I was doing to right thing by taking one for the team. For the rest of the evening, I was groped, kissed, and licked all in the name of hospitality. There was no secret what was going on, and as it got progressively worse, I became more numb to what was happening and it became like a bad dream. The entire group saw what was going on, and nobody acknowledged it. The next day, the owner asked this group not to return. A few days later, one of them reached out and wanted to gift me something as a gesture of gratitude for my excellent service. I was sure that a reward would make the gross feeling so away, so used his money bought the bag I was coveting. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t. I sold the bag and donated the money; having it around was a reminder of a night I would rather forget.  

In my last sommeliers position, I asked the owner for help with a guest who refused to approve bottles unless I sat in his lap while I opened and served them. I had exhausted all of my sassy, witty and direct techniques, and needed a stronger voice behind mine in refusal. I told him that the guest didn’t even need to be corrected; he could have come over and reprimanded me for behaving in too familiar a way; I just needed help making it stop. I was told that I had a decision to make, because that very wealthy guest spent a lot of money on wine. I had to decide if making my sales targets was important to me or not. Oui. Understood. 

As a manager and then GM I had zero tolerance for that nonsense in my buildings. I stepped in every time there a problematic guest or staff member was brought to my attention, retracted job offers, asked guests to leave, had guests removed. I wanted no part of an operation where you feed your team to the predators that dine or work with you. Having a zero tolerance policy is useless unless you actually tolerate zero of the behaviours.   

Fast forward to now… I get dick pics, graphic descriptions of what almost strangers what to do to me… and I to them, sent on the regular. I usually ignore them in the moment and then follow up a couple weeks later with a simple note that a wine they liked was back in stock or a I found something I thought they would like. A month ago, a guy who has already sent me a dick pic, decided to share what he wanted to do with a bottle of Champagne. I was livid when I saw the texts, so I went for a walk to blow off steam and I caught myself mid thought “What right does he have to send this… he had barely spent any money with me…” like spending more would make it any better. Sales over safety, right? *cringe* We all speak of our training; and I have learned some f-ed up sh*t. 

GFR: So, have you consumed 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. 

HM: I was hoping you would ask this! I think it is waaaaaaaaaay beyond the time where the wine world is divided in such a binary way. Can we not just be a “yes and” wine community already? 

Do I drink natural wine? Sure. Do I drink classics? Yup. Am I over the insistence on picking a team? DUUUUUUDE. We have common language enough to discuss the structures and elements of the wines we like and don’t, so let’s use those words about specific wines instead of broadly sweeping statements about such diverse categories. I am also not here to yuck anyone’s yum. I truly don’t care enough about what you put in your mouth, as long as it’s a consensual good time. In the ever-wise words of Terry Theise “If you prefer your cognac steeped with sardines I will not stop you, but I will also not join you”. Stop drawing lines where there need not be any. Your experience in wine can be, and should be fluid. Drink what you like but don’t be insufferable about it, one size never fits all, and always have a no thank you sip. 

I think the great wines of the world have complexity, balance, persistence, charm and the ability to evolve (and improve) with age, regardless of how they were produced. Most wines however, are not meant to be a great wines, just good ones. Arguably, good wines are more useful and we all have to drink something while we wait for the wine in the decanter, right? My issue is when we conflate them. I have a hard time paying top dollar for overhyped good masquerading as great. In the same breath, spend your money as you wish.     

One thing that I would really love to see is a bit more of is honestly on tech sheets, in tasting notes and tableside. If it’s volatile AF, say so! If there is mouse, share that! I have to buy on spec now more than ever, and often shy away from wines I don’t have experience with because I cannot trust what’s been written about them. I am however not shy about asking agents where on the spectrum certain wines land, so I can measure that against what I’m looking for. 

GFR: And how would you say that your palate has evolved over the years? 

For example, I went through an old vine Zinfandel phase. I revisited such wines a few months back… Hmmmm… interesting, but really not for me any more.

HM: I am now tolerant of fruit and flirty amounts of RS. I still struggle with oxidative qualities, combined with elevated VA but enjoy both in small doses… sorry Sherry…I’m really trying. I only used to drink the driest wines I could find with the highest acidity possible. While I still insist on freshness, it no longer needs to be bracing. I will always have a no thank you sip of almost anything I am offered. I think it essential to check in on things to see if what you feel is still a true fact or just an old opinion in need of an update. 

GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? 

HM: I love some, like a lot of them, don’t care about others, and think that some should just stop. I would love to have better access (and pricing) to BC wines here, but that’s a larger  conversation.

GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Canada?

HM: Compare ourselves to every other wine growing region in the world? We consistently do this, and it drives me crazy! Why can we not lead with “This is a great example of *insert Canadian region here* Chardonnay, it’s very elegant (or not) in style”. When you point away from you, that’s where the focus goes. We have so little undivided attention from our guests, why spend it directing them away from where we are?    

GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?

HM: See above. Lol.

GFR: How do you feel about Canadian’s support of our local wine industry? 

HM: Having worked on both sides of the country, I have to say the enthusiasm and support is entirely different. In Ontario, there is still a guest perception that Ontario wines are expensive and mediocre. I still have a hard time selling local wines… until my clients taste them. On premise, I can only think of a few places that prominently feature Ontario wines, but many that don’t have any. 

While working out west, local wines were such an easy sell! My guests already had a good familiarity with what was in their backyard, and were happy to dig deeper. I don’t think that BC producers make better wines, but their relationships with the sommelier community was stronger, especially in Vancouver. They are tied together in a way that we are not here. Sit down, put your pitchfork away and hear me out! If you have ever purchased wine through the BCLDB, you will know the chasm between ordering and delivery that exists. BCLDB orders are coming soon, later, possibly never or at the worst possible time. Sommeliers have enough to worry about without adding that extra layer of stress. What is it worth to me to have an order arrive? As promised? Every week? Truthfully, almost everything. Drinking local is so normalized there, maybe as a result of the BCLDB challenges and I’m here for it. Additionally, I love the work that The Wines of British Columbia does with the Bootcamp, Ambassador programs and events. They really do a great job of keeping the conversation going.

GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Canada (BC, Quebec, 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?

HM: I think we suffer from the opposite problem. We dimmish the great wines we grow here because they suffer from local-itis.

GFR: Has your job allowed you to travel much? 

That’s one thing that I really miss during this damn pandemic, going on wine trips… although I don’t know if I’ll ever want to get on a plane again!

HM: Yes, and no. I have had so many perspective changing trip (James Busby Travel is at the tippy top of that list), but have declined too many because I felt that I couldn’t be away from work. I treasure my annual California trips and can’t wait to get the f outta here once it is safe to do so.

GFR: Have you ever made your own wine? 

HM: Start to finish, no. Blending for glass pours, yes. It is on the list, but my inability to commit keeps me from seeing it all the way through. 

GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?

HM: I would start in Niagara, and have my eye on a partner in crime already.

GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?

HM: Bottles. I am still medium-minus on people. 

GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?

HM: Highs? All the strangers that have become friends, that I now count as family that live all around the world. Lows? Forgetting that wine is a life affirming beverage, and not just a line of text on a list or a column of numbers.  

GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?

HM: Another tough one! I think my accountant is a great role model, and more somms should aspire to a higher level of financial literacy? Jokes aside, that’s a super tough one. 

I was for the most part self-taught on the floor and didn’t really have a sommelier mentor while I was coming up. A lot of my fave wine peeps here have come through Treadwell, so James is on that list. Bruce gives of his time abundantly on the education side, so he’s on there. Jen makes time and coordinates tasting opportunities with verticals / great wines from her clients’ cellars so she is definitely there. Those opportunities are invaluable, and I wish more somms with access would follow suit. I would be remiss not to include DJ. I learned SOOOOOO much from being at a judging table with her a couple years ago, and I cannot wait to learn the competition side from her this fall. I would be making the most grave of omissions to not mention Richard and Al from Metrovino. From them I learned that unabashed enjoyment could go hand in hand with deep understanding, and that neither had to be performed on demand. That is training that I speak of so proudly that I have the logo tattooed on my wrist.  

Chewing on this question a little more, I think we are failing to recognize and address the evolving role of sommeliers in hospitality. We are being called upon more and more often to take on supervisory, managerial, and leadership roles. Where is that training and mentorship coming from? Where do we learn conflict de-escalation? How to address mental health and wellness? How to create healthy work environments? From the school of “figure it out on the fly”? As a career long attendee, I have to say that that is a shitty, lonely and frustrating place to learn because the space between intention and impact is too great. It’s odd that the skills that could collectively benefit us the most are the ones we focus on the least. They are also the ones that could create environments that could entice people back into our industry.    

GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers? 

HM: I do business with those that make it easy to do business. It was a curious year for service, that’s for sure. Some great experiences, some clown behaviour, and a whole lot in between. I have certainly discovered on whom I can depend. There are a too many agents I love working with to name, and I would carry great guilt over missing a name. 

Recently, an agent failed to place my standing orders for a high-volume wine before going on vacation, and the “guaranteed to not stock out wine because I will send five cases a week” wine stocked out. Their Wednesday morning text definitely didn’t leave me time to try anything and make a good decision, but just blindly pick so there was something in house in time for a busy weekend. They did send “apologies” so I can glass pour those to offset the cost of my time, stress and the now missing profits from having to use a more expensive wine. 

A couple months ago, an agent texted me and let me know that I wine I wanted was back in stock and asked if I wanted some. I replied quickly saying yes and adding a couple more things on to make it worth the delivery charge. I also reached out to the clients that I know were keen to buy more to let them know it would be back in stock. A few days later, the client arrived to buy more and I realized that the order never arrived. After finding the same wine at another bottle shop for my client, I reached out to the agent. I was told that they didn’t accept orders by text and that the wine had stocked out already. 

I find there is a lack of understanding about what happens when wine doesn’t arrive as ordered. I work on tight budgets, tight timelines, and am in a lot of ways an army of one. If you offer me a case of wine, I’m going to try and sell it before it arrives. We are all on COD, plus who can afford to sit on product? Not me! If I successfully pre-sell that wine and place the order only find out that it’s not coming because your boss sold it, your dog ate your emails or you now have a ordering policy etc., I lose my shit. I hate looking like a chump going back to a client hyping a plan b, right after selling the dream of plan a, but hate even more I am forced to scramble. I work hard enough without having to do work twice and on the fly.  

A few years ago, I started to post to IG stories when I was looking for specific things. I was tired of wasting time asking for lists, asking for stock levels, asking for arrival dates etc.. It was a super-efficient way to not only fill the holes but give business to my friends. Without fail, fellow somms would also respond with reccos and I got introduced to a new agency or wine as a result.

 

The notoriously camera shy Young Blood Sommelier Heather McDougall.

The notoriously camera shy Young Blood Sommelier Heather McDougall.

 

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 eleven bloody years!!!

HM: My only fear is held inventory. Say it with me… cashflooooooowwwwwww!!!!

GFR: Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday? 

HM: Champagne instead of coffee, breakfast eventually, strenuous physical activity, market walk to grab mise for dinner, nap time, more strenuous physical activity, leisurely dinner, cheeky nightcap and early to bed.

GFR: Where were your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city? Do you think they’ll still be there post-pandemic? And what do you do now? Any good takeout/delivery you have been using?

HM: For takeout, I eat chirashi from Yuzu No Hana, congee from House of Gourmet, and lettuce wrapped cheese burgers from Burger Priest most often. Dining out is still a bit of a crap shoot for me as I have food allergies and frequently get served dishes that contain the allergen. I’m sure (hope) that it’s not malicious, but I don’t always have time to be sick. I recently had dinner at Crosley’s and it was delightful, and will always make time for Noce. That place feels like home to me.  

GFR: You like to cook yourself, don’t you? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?

HM: I am chaotic good in the kitchen. I usually have a very loose plan of what’s for dinner, but let the wind blow me; where I start is very rarely where I end up. Over the lockdown, I dabbled in Northern Thai, and Goan cuisines, and stared to make dim sum. What do I eat most often? Raw veg and green goddess dressing, usually standing in front of the fridge.  

GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?

HM: Well, I recently moved into a condo with a gas cooktop… so my neighbours hear when I’m hard searing. Sorry not sorry, but I have learned to open the patio doors to prevent the smoke alarm from going off.    

GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
 
HM: I feel that there are a lot of great groups of sommeliers in Toronto. Read into that what you will.

GFR: Do you hang out often with other Sommeliers? And if you do, do you only shoot the shit about wine?

HM: Yes and no, and yes and no. Lol.

GFR: What do you feel you would be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?

HM:  I have no idea! On second thought, see below.

GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?

HM: I see sooooooo much cringe worthy film / television wine and food content. Would it kill them to hire a professional? Who knows the people to hire people for such roles? Put me in coach!   

GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?

HM: I have a few and really like engaging outside the echo chamber of hospitality. Most are astonished at the hours + workload compared to the compensation package. Almost everyone in my non-industry friend group has become a more aware and sympathetic diner. I think more   

GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?

HM: I think it’s good to learn, but is only one part of the larger skillset. It trains typicity, but not necessarily context. Great job! You nailed 1er Cru Chassagne-Montrachet. Now, how does it stack up against wines of the same pedigree? What’s the market price for it? Is that appropriate given what’s in the bottle? Finding the wines that over deliver at all price points is the artistic side of our discipline; the applied training, if you will. You need to develop a solid mental Rolodex of what *insert price* *insert grape* tastes like from around the world, and what xxx wine tastes like. I don’t think that training can happen blind because the list of classics testable is too narrow.  

GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…

HM: I am a shell of a human while hungover. Zero wine please.

GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?

HM: To each their own!

GFR: Coffee or tea?

HM: Lighter roast coffees, that drink more like tea.

GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?

HM: Lemon & horseradish or naked

GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?

HM: Vindaloo

GFR: Milk or dark?

HM: Dark

GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?

HM: Mayo!

GFR: Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal?

HM: NY-MR, FM-R, RE-M

GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?

HM: I refuse to commit to a region, how about a style? Salty whites, and high acid reds 4EVA!!!!!

GFR: In your mind what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?

HM: Enjoyment! Look at the year we have had! Aren’t we all looking for pleasure?

GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?

HM: I truthfully don’t drink a lot at home. I will finish wines from virtual tastings, and maybe have some mezcal or tequila at the end of a day.

GFR: What was your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier? For me it was the f****** inventory. Oh, and breaking down boxes… and the resultant papercuts (I have such soft hands!)

HM: Entering inventory. I loved the cellar work part! 

GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew? And why?

HM: I use a Laguiole single step with a long worm. Comfort? Familiarity? Would I consider changing? Possibly, but not probably.  

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?

HM: My happy limit is a bottle, over an extended period of time, in the company of food. Honestly, having a dog to walk at home that night and the next morning is a great incentive to play within my limits. 

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!

HM: We are almost set up to fail here. When we finish work at midnight (or later) what activities are available to us to blow off steam? Exactly. There are no yoga classes, bowling alleys, art galleries open so we all default to the path of least resistance. I wish there were better options, that we taught healthier way to decompress, and that we normalized not drinking.     

GFR: Speaking of which, have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time? I think it happened to me back in Scotland once… hazy memories…

HM: My haziest times have definitely been at Barberian’s and Opus… like how did I get home and did I pay my bill hazy. Good times.

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…

HM: Sushi and Coke Classic from a can but not together. I only drink Coke when I am devastatingly hungover.

GFR: How many wines do you “taste” in a week during the pandemic?

HM: Maybe 10 – 20? 

GFR: When tasting with agents did you choose to spit or swallow?

HM: Both?

GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?

HM: I actually don’t drink a lot of wine at home. At best, I finish the wines from my virtual tastings.

GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?

HM: 2009 Liger-Belair La Romanée. I remember every detail. 

GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?

HM: Something simple, cold and refreshing.

GFR: And now the cheesy question Heather… If you were a grape variety which would you be? and why?

HM: Duh, a high acid red from a cool climate! I am clearly neither meant to be in the sun or the heat. My Nanna would say that I got sunburnt by moonlight.     

GFR: Ha… great answer.

Thank you for taking the time Heather. And sorry it took so long!

 


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Edinburgh-born/Ontario-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, educator, and Dad,  Jamie Drummond is the Director/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 seriously knows his shit and just celebrated his 85th 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. After working as GM at DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu and Sommelier Pete Hammond, Anton is now selling wine with Banville Wine Merchants and explores the world of mycology in his spare time.

 

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