In the fourth of the twenty-third series (can you believe that?!), we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario and beyond.
A few years back Many years ago 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.
Good Food Revolution: So Jerome, what is it that you are doing these days?
Jerome Christie: My current position is Territory Manager/ Portfolio Manager for Intra Vino but it’s a family business so I do a lot more than those titles.
GFR: Please describe your role at Intravino. What does a normal day entail for you? Is there a normal day?
JC: My days are fairly structured. I try not to get overwhelmed by my job. Even though things can be unpredictable.
On Monday, I’m usually in the office calling clients to see if there is anything needed for the week and updating them on any new products we have added to our portfolio. I will also do research for meeting’s with producers I’ll have during the week.
I’ll visit LCBO stores on Tuesday to see how our products in General Listing and Vintages are doing.
Wednesday I’m on the road doing sales and tastings, Thursday I’m on the road doing deliveries; and Friday I’m eating lunch at one of my clients restaurants, showing appreciation because without them I’m nothing.
Friday and Saturday nights I’m serving at East End Vine, fine tuning my service skills for my Certified Sommelier exam.
GFR: Hopefully we are on the other side of this pandemic. How did the pandemic impact your professional life? And how have you bounced back?
JC: The pandemic was a transition period for me. I was working at TTC and not really loving what I was doing. I was pushing a button on a train underground for 12 hours a day, uninspired and tired.
GFR: How did you find yourself working at Intra Vino?
JC: I officially started working at Intra Vino In 2016, but I’ve been there casually since 2012. I started working there on my days off from TTC, doing deliveries. My father in law needed drivers, so I volunteered my time because I was interested in wine and thought this would be a good way to learn about it. Whatever product I was delivering, I would do research on the variety and winery and learn about wine that way.
GFR: Please tell us a little about your Sommelier history. 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 you have made different decisions?
JC: My sommelier experience is very brief. I’ve been on the floor for 12 months now, working with sommelier Ian Stoddart. After taking courses Wines#1 and Wines#2 at George Brown College, I had the confidence to start studying with The Court of Master Sommeliers after passing my entrance exam. Now I’m preparing myself for the certified exam.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would actually like a career in wine? … and was it with a view to being a Sommelier?
JC: I first decided I wanted to do something in wine when I travelled to Santorini back in 2006. I was invited to a winery my father in law was representing, and they were so gracious with their knowledge and hospitality. I learned so much on that visit about wines, grapes, and terroir that it sparked my interest, and I wanted to learn more. At that time, I didn’t even know what a sommelier was, I just knew I wanted to be a part of the industry in some shape or form.
GFR: So who or what gave you your very first insight into the world of wine? Did you have a wine epiphany?
JC: It was sitting down for Sunday dinners with my in laws and my father in law bringing out these older vintage wines. I couldn’t understand how a wine from the 1990’s could still taste this good 20 or more years later.
GFR: How aware of wine were you while growing up there? Were you around wine from an early age?
JC: I didn’t grow up in a household where wine was consumed. I come from a Jamaican background where rum was the drink of choice. There were a few occasions when wine was consumed, usually during the holidays, and it was usually Wray & Nephew Red Label Wine, which is a fortified wine enjoyed by Jamaicans since the early 1970’s.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
JC: My first taste of wine was at the basement bar at my Uncle Mackie’s house. I asked My aunt Ethlyn, who helped run the bar, for a taste of the red wine she was drinking. I took my finger and dipped it in the drink. I remember it tasting horrible and being very tired after.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
JC: That all depends on your upbringing. I was 9 when I had that taste of red wine, and I think I turned out alright. If you’re raised in Europe like my wife, you’re introduced to wine at an early age. It’s on the table at dinner time, so it’s not really a big deal. The parents are consuming it, and since her father was in the industry, she really had no choice but to learn about wine.
My upbringing was different; my mother drank only on special occasions, and my father is a rum and coke guy, so I wasn’t really exposed to wine as a child.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm a few years ago, I still worry about the emergence of a new Wine Bro culture… Also, I have picked up on a LOT of that vibe from some of the usual suspects in the mixology crowd—full-on Jordan Peterson fans and all that stuff. Believe it or not, I saw one of the usual suspects defend Andrew Tate the other month. What the hell is going on there? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
JC: I’ve been working in the industry for a short time, so my experience isn’t going to be the same as others. I have run into a few of these people in my time as a server, and it’s pretty disappointing.
I think that there are a lot of men who are dealing with trauma, either from relationships they’ve had in the past or from being misguided by other individuals. I was raised by a strong Caribbean woman, so I have the upmost respect for all women. So I could never follow the rhetoric these men are putting out. My wife is a strong woman and a successful businesswoman who has always supported me in what I do.
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 have witnessed yourself during your time in the restaurant world… big question, I know, but I feel it’s a topic that deserves discussion.
JC: The group I currently work with has one female runner, and I haven’t witnessed any harassment. We make sure that the atmosphere is very warm and welcoming. I have heard of owners and managers abusing their power at other establishments, which is a shame.
GFR: So, natural wine is basically the new normal in many places… I’m pretty choosy when it comes to my personal forays into that world. What’s your take? And how do natural wines fit into things for you?
JC: I like natural wines, I think they’re fun and funky. I was in Chile this past June, where there is a huge natural wine movement. Particularly from traditional Pisco producers who are experimenting with native varieties. The other cool thing about natural wine is that they can open up discussions on what “natural wine” is. I think there is a kind of ambiguous aura around natural winemaking. I think there should be more transparency and clarity on what natural winemaking practices are.
GFR: 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 last year… Hmmmm… interesting, but really not for me any more.
JC: When I first ventured into wine, I liked mostly sweet wines with a high sugar content. They were just so easy to drink, especially when chilled. Now I drink mostly Greek wines because I have access to them. Right now I’m enjoying the Agiorgitiko, Tempranillo, and Syrah being made in Northern Greece. I think they’re some of the best wines being made.
I enjoyed Zinfandel for a while as well, but it was not for me either. I remember back in the day when all I wanted to drink was Merlot. I’m good on variety as well.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
JC: I had lunch a few weeks ago with Steve Byfield, winemaker for Nyarai Cellars. And we were chatting about the Canadian wine industry, which he’s been a part of since the early 2000s, and he’s very enthusiastic about the future of Canadian wines.
Winemakers are experimenting with different varieties trying create more dynamic wines. I think Canadian wines are great: Leaning Post Wines, Blue Mountain Winery, Tawse Winery, and Rosewood Estate Winery are standouts for me. But I think Canadians are making great wine that is being consumed by locals and featured on a lot of wine lists, which is important.
GFR: What do you think we do well here in Canada?
JC: I think Canada is making some great Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. I just had a great chilled red blend from Rosewood Estate Winery the other day that was fantastic.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
JC: I don’t think it’s fair for me to say what should be given up on plus I don’t want to anger anyone 😉
GFR: Very diplomatic!
How do you feel about Canadian support for our local wine industry?
JC: I think the support for Canadian wine is good. Many sommeliers are doing an amazing job showcasing some great Canadian wines.
GFR: Just as there is everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Canada (BC, Quebec, Ontario, et al.). How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because it is local and not because of its quality?
JC: I can’t support anything that I don’t believe in, so I don’t understand how anyone can do this. And I don’t think this needs to be; let the quality of the wine speak for itself
GFR: Has your job allowed you to travel much?
JC: This year I’ve travelled to New York, Chile, and I’m currently in Greece working with Domaine Porto Carras and Ktima Pavlidis. I’ve been travelling my whole life, and I’ve been very lucky to travel to these places for work.
That’s one thing that I really missed through the pandemic, going on wine trips… although I don’t know if I’ll ever want to get on a plane again!
JC: What happened, Jamie? Why don’t you wanna get on a plane?
GFR: Acute social anxiety brought about through the pandemic… a long and complex story… I’m good though.
Annnnnnyway… Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit over the years?
JC: I just visited Atacama, which is an up and coming wine Region in Chile. I’ve also been very lucky to visit Santorini, Sithonia, Crete, and Drama over the years as well.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
JC: I’ve never made my own wine, but it’s something I’d like to try in the future. Growing up around Italians my whole life, I’ve had the opportunity to taste some fairly decent homemade wines.
GFR: And where else would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
JC: I’d like to make wine in Drama, Greece. The landscape is so beautiful there. Drama sits at the Bottom of the Falakro Mountains, which border Bulgaria. The mix of cultures makes this area truly special. Plus, it’s a great climate for Chardonnay.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles, and why?
JC: I love people, and I think I’d make a great manager. In the past, I’ve seen people in these positions handle their responsibilities terribly.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
JC: Visiting Drama in Greece and spending the day with Winemaker Thanassis Exrchou. He was so gracious with his time, showing me the process of making wine. His passion made me want to share his wines with the rest of the world. My low point is not getting support from family who still think it would be better for me to be working at TTC than in the service industry.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
JC: The best role models for Sommeliers would be Beverly Crandon, Jaby Dale, Marlayna Ruth, and Renee Sferrazza. All who have been so gracious with their time and helped me get better as a sommelier and as a human being.
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
JC: The best Wine agent in the world is David Rukavina who has helped me in this industry since day one. There is not a better person I’ve come across. He’s helped me in so many ways. He’s given me a lot of insight and knowledge on how to become a better agent and also how to deal with people in the hospitality industry. He’s truly a legend and a great friend.
GFR: Dave “The Rave”!!!
I love that guy.
Back in 2011, I interviewed Christopher Sealy, who at that point had just opened Midfield Wine Bar. I asked him, “The wine world, in Toronto in particular, is notoriously Caucasian… Have you found the colour of your skin to be a help or a hindrance?”
Back then, I remember that the sommelier scene was, for the most part, very much just white dudes.
In your opinion, have we progressed since I asked Christopher that question some 12 years ago? Also, I’d be curious as to your take on the very same question I asked him.
JC: Christopher Sealy…the G.O.A.T. I saw him at a Portuguese Wine Tasting 10 years ago. I was so nervous to approach him because I was a nobody just trying to understand wine, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
Recently, we’ve crossed paths and had some exchanges about the industry. I just appreciate any information he can provide me, and I always tell him that he’s been a huge influence on me, especially coming from a Caribbean background, and he’s one of the reasons I’m in this industry.
For the most part, the majority of people in this industry have been great. There are not a lot of black sommeliers in Toronto that I’ve met, and because of this there’s a bit of a wow factor when I show up at tastings or trade shows.
On the other hand, there have been a few occasions where I’ve done roadwork and shown up at certain establishments/events to showcase wines or do inventory and been told to go change in the back because they thought I was a security guard or part of the food and beverage staff. It’s hard for some people to comprehend that I’m in the wine and spirits industry being a big black guy.
GFR: Do you have nightmares about working with wine? I do it 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!!!
JC: I constantly have nightmares about being asked questions by customers and not having the right information. Like information about a region, winemaker, producer, or the grapes in a blend.
GFR: Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
JC: My perfect Sunday usually consists of spending the day with my wife and son. Then heading over to my parents or in-laws to have Sunday dinner and opening a nice bottle of red Burgundy.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto and environs… perhaps tell us a personal hidden treasure of yours.
JC: My favourite places to dine are Cafe Boulud, Mezes, Santorini Estiatorio, Sur Sur Lee, and East End Vine would be my hidden treasure. Peter McKnight is the Chef at East End Vine. He’s an outstanding chef and a magician in the kitchen, and I think his dishes are a perfect complement to the wine list.
GFR: Do you like to cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
JC: I do enjoy cooking, my favourite go-to dish is lemon pepper wings I serve it with ginger skillet corn bread and homemade macaroni salad.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
JC: I’ve been very fortunate to not have made any blunders in the kitchen lately.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Ontario?
JC: I believe that there is. I have a small group of sommelier friends that I can rely on. If I have any questions or have an issue, they’re always willing to help. They are supportive of me not only as a potential sommelier, but they also give me advice on what wines I should bring into the Ontario market and others I should leave alone.
GFR: Do you hang out often with other Sommeliers? And if you do, do you only shoot the shit about wine?
JC: As I have a wife and young son, it’s hard for me to get time to hang with other sommeliers outside of work. But when I do, we usually chop it up about wine, but we also talk about life outside of wine, current events, travel, and relationships.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine and cocktail town? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
JC: If I’m heading out for wine and cocktails I usually head to Bar Mordicai, Paris Paris, or Bar Koukla
GFR: What do you feel you would be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
JC: Probably driving a train 12 hours a day.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
JC: The scene in Uncorked when the son is sitting at the dinner table and he’s telling his family he wants to be a Master Sommelier and his cousin asks him “You wanna be African?” And then his father asks “Isn’t that a pirate?!”, referring to Somalian pirates I can fully relate.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… How do they feel about what you do for a living?
JC: The majority of my friends are not from the industry, and they’re actually excited for me. With the agency part, they are curious to know what’s coming into Ontario. And the sommelier part is interesting to them because of my knowledge of wine.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
JC: I think it’s a great skill to help you get familiar with different signatures in wine. And can help you develop your own personal [gustatory] library of wines you can use to recall when needed.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
JC: I’m definitely better without the hangover. I put so much pressure on myself with blind tastings. The day before any blind tastings in the past, I always got shitty sleep because I was nervous.
GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?
JC: One of my Sommelier friends is a heavy smoker. I always ask her how she does it. She always said to me that some of the greatest tasters in the world smoke, so it shouldn’t make a difference.
I’ve always heard that smokers exhibit significantly lower taste sensitivity than non-smokers. So I always wondered why some Sommeliers would take this chance. I’ve also read that smokers are likely to experience the taste of wine differently, so they can’t experience the full complexity of the beverage.
Cigarettes also affect the sense of smell, another essential aspect of wine tasting and tasting in general, so I’m confused on this one because my friend is pretty good at blind tastings.
GFR: In your mind, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
JC: I think wines from Greece are making their way onto more wine lists. Especially the wines of Northern Greece. The Malaguzia, Assyrtiko, and Chardonnay from Panagiotopoulos Winery, Chateau Porto Carras, and Filia Gi are amazing! Ktima Pavlidis Emphasis Series wines are all of high quality.
GFR: Aside from these fashions in wine drinking, what’s your current favourite wine style/region? And why?
JC: I love the wines of Sithonia and the wines of Drama. Sithonia has rich and savoury reds and complex whites. Drama has old world wines with a new world finesse and vines planted at elevation to give them great complexity.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? Why do you feel that is?
JC: I guess New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has hit a speed bump. It used to be our number one seller for the longest time but we can’t move it at all right now. They all kinda started tasting the same, and people just got bored of it.
GFR: When it comes to wine, is there anything that you feel is terribly overrated? And why?
JC: I would have to say Riesling. I’m a fan, but not a huge fan. I like a Riesling/Gewurztraminer blend, which is rare, but either way, I think it’s a bit overrated.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
JC: Pinot Noir and a nice oven-baked Pizza
GFR: What is 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!)
JC: Breaking down boxes always sucks. Inventory has to be the worst. Especially where I’m working because the wine list changes every couple of weeks. So if a customer came in 14 days ago and had a bottle of something they loved, I would automatically think we had it and offer it to them without knowing if we had it or not. I hated having to come back and tell them we didn’t have it and then try to recommend something else. It was always a headache.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew? And why?
JC: I just have a used wine key that was given to me from another sommelier that was in the market for a new one. I think it’s from Amazon, and It works great.
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?
JC: I have a family and a young child. I can’t afford to lose them; that’s the only check I need.
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!
JC: I haven’t been in this industry for a long time, but I have seen people get caught up in heavy drinking and hard drugs. That’s not really my scene, so it’s not hard for me to avoid it. I love wine and a good time with friends, and I’m satisfied with that. I have no addictive tendencies, and I’m not into drugs.
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… at the City Café.
JC: No I’ve never been cut off, but I’ve had to cut myself off a few times back in college.
GFR: Which leads rather neatly into the next question… do you happen to have a good hangover cure? None of the cures given to me by previous interviewees have really done the job for me… well, apart from the suggestion about CBD gummies.
JC: Boil a small pot of water, throw in a thumb of ginger and three pegs of garlic. Let it simmer and drink. That’ll cure anything 😜
GFR: How many wines do you “taste” in a week these days?
JC: I’m tasting about six wines a week at the moment.
GFR: When tasting with restaurant clients, do you choose to spit or swallow?
JC: I usually spit.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home right now?
JC: Famille BOUGRIER Vouvray
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
JC: A glass of 1998 Ktima Gerovassiliou Agiorgitiko. It had aromas of baking spice and those tertiary notes I love. It was complex, and the wine kept changing as the night went on.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
JC: A glass of Mclaren Vale Shiraz
GFR: Coffee or tea?
GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?
GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?
GFR: Milk or dark? And preferred cocoa content?
JC: Milk chocolate, it’s not even a debate.
GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?
GFR: Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal?
GFR: Finally… What three pieces of advice would you give to a young fresh-faced Jerome Christie as he was beginning his wine journey?
JC: 1. Practice Creative Visualization it will help you achieve your goals.
- Be humble
- Take your time, there is no time limit on your dreams.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time, Jerome. It is very much appreciated. As this is an extremely long interview.
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