In the first of a tenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario (and occasionally elsewhere).
A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers.
Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising stars.
This week we spend time with a fellow who’ll be a familiar face if you have been attending any wine events throughout the city over the past few years, Mr. Jascha Baraness, who know, once again,calls Barberian’s his home.
Good Food Revolution: So Jascha, what is it that you are doing these days? You’ve been moving around a fair bit as of late… I can’t keep up!
Jascha Baraness: I left Barberian’s Steak House to spend the last 10 months back at Le Paradis as the manager/sommelier. I was hoping that it was going to be an ideal home coming, but turned out not to be quite the right fit. I’m fortunate to be back at Barberians, lucky they took me back.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
JB: My father always had wine with dinner, and I got to taste quite a bit from a young age. I also worked at Le Paradis for 8 years (between the ages of 21-29) so I always got to taste and talk about wine. I also spent a year working in Switzerland in a 1 Michelin starred restaurant (La Grappe D’or) where I got to taste and talk about wine even more.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you typically like to deal with?
JB: I’m not overly concerned about the amount of agents or merchants that I deal with, for me it’s more about the wine list, and who has the best wine to fill that specific hole on the list. Usually anywhere from 6-8 agents.
GFR: What is your favourite part of the Sommelier role?
JB: I really enjoy ‘enlightening’ the guests. I don’t feel that it’s our role to teach, but if we can shine a light on a specific wine or style of wine that the guest wasn’t previously aware of and enjoyed, then I feel not only have I done my job, but that I’ve won a small victory. For me its all about making sure the guest is very satisfied not only with the suggestion, but also with the pairing and the wine.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
JB: A good agent or supplier is someone who knows the list and won’t bring me wines that would be out of place. I had agents bringing me wines (at a restaurant where the list was 100% french and capped out at $80) that were over $60 my cost and Italian. As long as the agent keeps me current on their list’s availability, new arrivals and what’s in stock (I hate reordering a wine and being told it’s O/S) I’m happy. I’m also not a fan of cold calls. When I was managing, my days were full, and agents would just stop in often assuming I would have time to taste. Call ahead, make an appointment and we can gladly taste together.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
JB: I love Canadian wines, and supporting the Canadian wine industry. I’m a riesling junkie (it’s always riesling o’clock at our house). We have good friends who live in PEC and are always brining us great chardonnay and pinots from their ‘back yard’.
GFR: There are so many Ontario wineries now. How do you choose who you are going to work with?
JB: I feel it’s all about personal relationships, as well as who’s wines can walk the line between what I like and what is ‘user friendly’ (quality : price ratio) for the wine list. Some winery owners and wine makers have a contagious enthusiasm and that’s refreshing. Wine is a people business and life is too short to work with people who make you feel lucky for carrying their product.
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?
JB: That’s a tough question. I’ve always tried to get at least one ontario wine on by the glass wherever I’ve made the list. I feel that it’s a two way street. Toronto’s best restaurants should make a point of having a local section (it doesn’t have to be a big offering) – support local! However, I do understand that a lot of people aren’t so keen on local wines, and it’s important to stock what sells. At that point it’s up to the sommelier to ‘enlighten’. I think that supporting restaurants and local wineries should start with the LCBO. They certainly don’t go out of their way to make local accessible.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
JB: I rarely meet an ontario Riesling that I don’t like. I prefer the chardonnay from the county to niagara. Ontario pinot can be good, but I often struggle with that magical price : quality ratio. Cab franc has been a hit around our house over the last few years and I’ve tried a couple gamays recently that I enjoyed.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
JB: Why are we making bordeaux blends, can someone remind me? If you look at the well established regions of the world (with the exception of a couple of outliers) they stick to what they do well. I understand that we’re a very young region, but when you find something that works, run with it. The grass isn’t always greener with the other varietals.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Ontario also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
JB: There certainly is a lot of bad wine coming from ontario. As far as a list goes quality should always come first. Local is a bonus. Why would I buy a local pinot at $35-40 a bottle when the bourgogne at $20 is as good.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
JB: There was always a bottle open at dinner when I was growing up. I remember my grandparents opening a bottle of red from my father’s birth year one summer (I must have been 5 or 6).
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
JB: I can’t remember how old I was, probably around 11 or 12.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
JB: Whenever their parents feel like they’re ready for it. I think tasting at a young age will help remove the stigma of alcohol. As far as having a glass of wine (call it 3oz or so) probably at around 15-16? I’m sure parents will be up in arms about that one.
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?
JB: I got really into wine when I was about 23-24 while working in Switzerland. The Maitre d’ would open a different bottle of wine every night with staff meal and we would talk about it. As far as a career in wine, I’m not sure, I was always aware of it being an important part of any meal (usually not breakfast), I don’t think I did my somm papers to further my career, but more to further my passion of wine and to validate to myself that I actually knew what I was talking about.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
JB: My first eye opening wine experience was playing chess with my uncle. He opened a bottle of 1996 Meursault (it wasn’t oxidized – ha) and I had one of those moments where I thought to myself ‘Wow – wine can be like this?!!)
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?
JB: There is a lot of ponciness in wine (I’m guilty of it too sometimes). My friends and I jokingly talk about and measure levels of ‘Tossicity’. For me the only thing that matters is whether the guest likes the wine, and to make sure that there’s something for everyone on the list. It’s fine to have a list full of ‘interesting’ and obscure wines, but as an example, when my mother goes out to dinner, she doesn’t want to hear about acid levels or how old the vines are or whether they only made 2 barrels of it, the only thing she cares about is whether she likes it or not. The sommelier’s job is to present the wine to the guest in a way they will be responsive to it. Know your audience!
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
JB: My father took me to Burgundy for my 30th birthday, pretty amazing. I’ve been to northern Italy a few times (Piedmont, Veneto) I lived in the Valais in Switzerland, so we would often go tasting on days off. My father lives in provence (lucky me) so i’ve been all over southern France. South Africa was really cool and gave me a new appreciation for those wines. I’d like to travel and visit more regions.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
JB: My friend and I go to Niagara and buy juice every couple of years to make wine. One year we even bought a barrel and had fun with that. We’ve made about 3 vintages.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
JB: I love Burgundy, but that’s really a pipe dream
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
JB: I think it’s a bit of both. I love managing restaurants and I feel that wine is under that umbrella. I think at the end of the day, I just want to make sure that the guest is happy, and anything I can do to get to that final objective is what counts.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
JB: Career high, thats a tough one, I don’t think it’s one specific event. I really enjoy my job and making the connections and friendships I have because of what i do is priceless. I’m fortunate to work with a great group of professionals. I really have great admiration for the people I work for/with and am fortunate to be part of such a strong, like minded team. That’s probably the career high, looking forward to going to work every day. As for the career low, anytime you get let go, for whatever reason, it’s slightly disheartening, however, I’m fortunate that’s only happened once (knock on wood).
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
JB: I have a few friends that I fin present wine to ‘novices’ in such a great, user friendly way. They talk without pretension or assumptions. Bruce Wallner is a good friend of mine and a wealth of knowledge. Peter Boyd and Will Predhomme make wine fun to taste and talk about. You’re not so bad yourself! I would like to see young sommeliers not only focus on knowledge and tasting, but more on service (which is after all, our end goal – to make sure the guest is served what they want)
GFR: And for Wine Agents?
JB: I don’t want to name names, but I have some very close friends who are agents, who call me when something interesting arrives, but won’t when there isn’t. Who will warn me when something on my list is down to one or two cases so that I can reorder before it’s sold out. They’ll invite me to tastings, they won’t cold call. You know who you are.
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!!!
JB: Ah yes, workmares. I haven’t had one in a few years.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
JB: I love cooking. Going to the market with my wife, seeing what inspires us, cooking dinner sitting on our deck with a great bottle of wine (or beer, or cider). Laying low – if we’re not entertaining.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our lovely city?
JB: My wife and I are creatures of habit, we tend to frequent the same establishments. Brunch at Union on ossington is one of our favourites. We have this great little Mexican spot Fonda Lola near our house. Special occasions at Splendido or Edulis. The bar at the Harbord room is one of our staples. Come to think of it, we really need to expand our horizons.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
JB: I love cooking. I’ll try anything. Roast chicken is our comfort food.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
JB: We had a barbecue last weekend (high of 9 degrees and rain all day). Not so much a disaster as it was a huge speed bump. I was drenched. But the food was delicious. I once cooked dinner for my wife’s best friend and put the electric kettle on the gas burner… Melted plastic, fire alarms and two babies aren’t a good combination.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
JB: I feel there’s a great, tightly nit sommelier community in toronto, and the best part is that everyone is willing to share their knowledge and experiences.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
JB: I do, don’t judge me. I’m’ very lucky to have like minded friends. I also have great friends who aren’t sommeliers on paper, but certainly have as good a palette as anyone.
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?
JB: I’m fortunate to work at barberians, so for wine, I’m set. For cocktails, Toronto Temperance Society is as good as it gets, but I also love the Harbord room.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
JB: I’d probably be working in sales. I’m a talker.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
JB: I like it, but believe it should strictly be background.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
JB: The scene at the end of ‘L’aile ou la Cuisse’ where Louis De Funes is identifying a wine with no sense of taste. Brilliant! The entire movie ‘tampopo’ is also near and dear to me.
GFR: I’m know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
JB: Oddly enough they love hearing about restaurant gossip and trends, and consider me their ‘inside man’. They like what i do.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
JB: I love it, and am always very humbled by it. I’d like to get a tasting group going, but time always seems to get in the way.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
JB: I’m not sure, I’ve never kept track of the night before. Probably better when I’m well primed.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
JB: It’ll always be Burgundy, but I’m on a Chablis kick right now.
GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now at Epic?
JB: at Epic? At Barberian’s, California Cabernet is always hot.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour there?
JB: Aussie Shiraz has seriously slowed down
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
JB: I think if wine has value to someone, than it has a place. There are certain things that I’m not a fan of, but guests like them, so they have value.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something from your menu?
JB: Ribsteak and Sangiovese will always play well together.
GFR: What are the advantages and the disadvantages of working as a Sommelier at Barberiens?
JB: Advantages are the depth of product to play with. There is (or should be) something for everyone on our list. Disadvantage is that there aren’t enough guests who come in to take advantage of the amazing white wine collection we have.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with typical some Barberiens guests.
What would you suggest for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1: Doug Ford?
JB: Probably Caymus, he’s big, brash and lacks character. Or maybe diet coke…
2. Alice Cooper?
JB: I’m a huge fan! A rock star should drink rock star wines. Soldera seems like his style – label and content.
3. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor?
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
JB: I do, I love guinness and IPA’s and the ‘peatey’s muddle’ or ‘gold rush’ at TTS.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
JB: Polishing glassware
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
JB: My wife gifted me a Laguiole, it’s all about the auger.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
JB: I’m indifferent. I like the romance of the cork, but i also like the convenience of stelvin.
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?
JB: I’m usually well tempered. I have a little old man who walks down a hallway ringing a bell who says ‘Jascha, time for bed’ I can’t say no to him.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
JB: Never been cut off, several times I should have been.
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
JB: Gatorade and Advil
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
JB: on a good week about 30-40, usually a dozen or so
GFR: When tasting with clients do you choose to spit or swallow?
JB: I usually spit, unless it’s really up my alley
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
JB: Right now, cotes de provence rose, usually village Chablis, Bourgogne Village or Chianti. I’m not picky, I’m open to everything. My wife likes sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, so there’s usually some of that kicking around
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
JB: The first time I tried Chablis from Raveneau
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
JB: Whatever is liquid. But usually Guinness
GFR: And now the cheesy question Jascha… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
JB: I’d probably be Riesling. Sometimes sweet, sometimes dry, but highly acidic. An acquired taste and not for everyone. But those who like me, like me lots!
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Jascha!
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.