In the fourth 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.
Good Food Revolution: So Julie, what is it that you are doing these days? What is your role at The Oxley?
Julie Garton: I work at the Oxley as both a Manager and a Sommelier, which keeps me very busy. Outside of the day to day managerial duties I’m responsible for curating the wine program, which involves list selection, staff training, and inventory. I lend a hand with overseeing cocktail development and making sure the shelves are always stocked with an interesting and diverse selection of Gins, Whiskies, and digestives. I’m also responsible for the Wine list and staff training at our sister pub the Queen & Beaver, and I’m currently working on the Wine list for a new bar the company is opening next month, The Wickson Social.
Outside of my roll at The Oxley I have been teaching ‘Sensory and Evaluation of Wine’ at George Brown College for the past year.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
JG: My interest in wine really peaked about 5 years ago when I enrolled in my first wine class at George Brown College. I was already a wine enthusiast but I wanted to have a better understanding of, and to be more confident when talking about wine. I was working as a server in the industry at the time. Something just clicked in the classroom and I knew it was something I wanted to pursue further. I continued with my wine education and in 2013 became certified as a Sommelier through The Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers and the Court of Master Sommeliers. In June I sat the CMS Advanced course and I’m hoping to sit the Advanced Exam in 2016.
GFR: How many wine agents/merchants do you typically like to deal with when buying wine for an establishment?
JG: I have about 8-10 core agents that I taste and work with on a regular basis, but there are several others that I will meet with in an effort to always keep the list interesting.
GFR: What is your favourite part of the Sommelier role?
JG: I absolutely love the opportunity to make new connections with guests and to be able introduce someone to a new wine or grape that they never knew existed. It’s a great feeling when you help someone pick out a wine they really enjoy. Not only do you gain their trust but it helps make their dining experience that much more memorable. I’m very fortunate to work at a place that has a large and varied clientele including several regulars. I’ve managed to make some really good connections and build relationships with several of them. I will often make wine selections with specific guests in mind knowing the style of wine they enjoy.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
JG: The most important quality in an Agent is good and effective communication. A great agent will always keep you informed if something you have on the list is getting low in stock, especially by the glass pours. I deal primarily with consignment, so finding out on Thursday that I’m not going to get my wine in before the weekend doesn’t give me any time to get a replacement.
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent?
JG: Exactly the opposite, poor communication. I understand there can be a lot of challenges and limitations with the LCBO, and I’m sympathetic to that, but it’s very frustrating not to be kept in the loop if a wine is low or out of stock. Agents not knowing about your wine program can be another downfall. Great agents will show up with wines that make sense for your list.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
JG: Ontario is a very young wine region in the grand scheme of it all, but we have a really diverse terroir and the capabilities to produce some excellent wines here. I’m a big fan of Pearl Morisette’s Cab Franc, Chenin Blanc from Big Head, Tawse’s ‘Quarry Road’ Chardonnay, and am a loyal supporter of Rosewood’s wines. I love bubbles and Henry of Pelham and Hinterland make some of the best. There are also some great Chards and Pinots coming from PEC. I’m a big fan of Norm Hardie & Rosehall Run.
GFR: There are so many Ontario wineries now. How do you choose who you are going to work with?
JG: I think it’s important to have local wine represented on a list and always make sure we have a few selections available in every category. However, that said it can be a tough sell as there is still a negative stigma within our community that we don’t produce good wine in Ontario. I make my selections based on the quality of the wine itself and try to choose what best represents what we do well. There are several good producers, but with a small list I don’t have the ability to represent them all, and price is always a factor. Finding good quality wine for a price you can sell can be a challenge.
GFR: What could Canadian wineries do to help get their wines onto the wine lists of the best restaurants? Do you think that they give the restaurants enough support?
JG: Price is a big factor as mentioned. I understand wine in Ontario is expensive to produce but it’s also hard to sell if the price is too high. It’s also important for producers to support the establishments who sell their wines. In the spring, with help from the wineries, I was able to take a group of my staff to Niagara to visit Tawse, Rosewood, and Cave Spring. It was hugely educational for them and it gave them a new perspective on the wines they were selling. It’s a win win situation for both the restaurant and the winery.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
JG: I think the grapes that really excel here in Ontario are Riesling and Chardonnay for white, and Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cab Franc for red. We tend to see a little more consistency with these varietals.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
JG: Probably the varietals that take a little longer to ripen. We can have very hot summers but the seasons start to finish can be short. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon can be a little green in character when we don’t have a long warm vintage. Over the past few winters Mother Nature has had a pretty big hand in showing us what we should and shouldn’t be growing here as well. I’ll be curious to see where we are in a few years as far as what we were cultivating.
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?
JG: I think one of the worst things we could do is to promote a wine of poor quality. With all the great local wines we have in the market right now there should be no reason to try and promote something that doesn’t really showcase what we can do here. It just aids in giving people a reason to think Ontario doesn’t make good wine.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
JG: My family has always been good at enjoying a drink. Lol.
I remember when I was a kid I’d always want to taste what my parents were drinking, probably because it wasn’t for kids. They’d let me taste it, and then I’d say ‘gross’.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
JG: Not really, but I do remember telling my family that all wine tasted the same when I was a teenager. Little did I know…
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
JG: Obviously don’t break the law but in an alternate universe the age of 15/16. In France it’s on the table with Salt and Pepper. If you can drive a car surely you can handle a glass of wine. Obviously not at the same time.
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?
JG: I’ve always enjoyed wine, and I loved visiting wine regions when I was on my travels, but it wasn’t until 5-6 years ago that I started to think about a possible career in wine. The term Sommelier was always a bit intimidating. I never thought I’d have the ability to blind taste a wine and know what it was.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
JG: I have to give a lot of credit to my first teacher, Drew Innes. He was the one who saw that I had a gift for it and pushed me to stick with it. I’ve had a tremendous amount of support from my family along the way as well.
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?
JG: Sadly I think there will always be pretentious arseholes within the wine industry; it’s the case with every industry really. That said I don’t think the whole Bro culture isn’t as predominant as perhaps it once was. There are a ton of talented women in the wine community, and kicking ass at it too. But regardless of what gender you are, it’s about being honest and passionate about the wine you are selling.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
JG: I’ve toured through Margaret River & Barossa Valley in Australia, Sardinia in Italy, Maipo Valley in Chile, Luján du Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina, Burgundy & The Rhône Valley in France, and of course PEC and Niagara.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
JG: Nope, but I really hope to be able to help out with a vintage at some point. That is a side of wine I’d really like to learn more about.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
JG: Tuscany or Piedmont. I won’t be picky, either will do.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
JG: Some days bottles, some days people. I especially enjoy staff training and the areas of the job that allow me to be a little bit more wine focused.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
JG: I can’t say I’ve suffered too many lows. I’ve been very fortunate to spend almost 6 years travelling abroad before getting back into things here in Toronto. That’s helped me realize what a great quality of life we have here. I’m lucky to work for a really great company with employer’s who I respect and who respect me.
I recently visited Burgundy and was able to attend the Banée de Meursault, a famous winemaker’s dinner held once a year in the cellar of Château de Meursault. That definitely has to be a highlight!
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
JG: The Somm’s who willingly lend their time and resources to help those who are trying to achieve their goals within this industry. I have to give a shout out to, Pat Orgera, Christina Sharpe, and the folks at Barbarians, Jake Lewis, Will Perdhomme, Evan Savolidis, Bruce Walner and Jen Huther for lending their time and knowledge.
GFR: And for Wine Agents:
JG: Those who aren’t just interested in making a sale and pushing what they need to move, but actively looking out for great wines that would be a good fit for your list. I have a few favourites and they know who they 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 over five years!!!
JG: I used to have a lot of server-mares. It hasn’t been as bad since I moved into management. I have the occasional one, but it usually involves not being able to find a button on the computer, or some obstacle that is preventing me from getting to the table. God, I’m getting anxiety thinking about it.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
JG: Well, if it’s a hot summer day then grabbing a few friends and heading to the island for a little R&R in the sunshine. In the cooler months, hitting Kensington market for supplies and then spending the afternoon in the kitchen cooking, followed by dinner with close friends and a few great bottles of wine.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
JG: A few day drinks on Ronnie’s patio is a favourite. If I’m staying close to home I’ll head to Hi-Lo or Comrade on Queen East for drinks. People’s eatery and Little Sister are great for both drinks and a light meal. For a nice dinner out I’d recommend Frank’s Kitchen.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
JG: I love to cook but sadly don’t get to do it very much. One of my favourite dishes to cook is Beef Bourguignon. I make it when I’m home with my family usually over the holidays, I get my parents to help with prep and we crack a great bottle of wine and spend the afternoon catching up on life.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
JG: Peach Pie. Visually it was a disaster, peach soup actually, but man did it taste good!
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
JG: I feel that there is a great Sommelier community in the city, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it. It’s a very supportive community where people really give back and help each other out.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
JG: I do. I have created some really great friendships through my studies and within the industry. I still have a huge network of friends that aren’t in the industry, and it makes for a really nice mix.
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?
JG: I think Toronto is starting to be regarded as a destination for food and beverage. There are so many neighborhoods with little clusters of bars and restaurants that are of quality. I live on the East Side so Hi-Lo for cocktails, and Skin and Bones and Ascari for vino. If I’m going west, Rush Lane for cocktails, and Archive for vino.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
JG: It’s taken me 15 years to figure this out. I really don’t have a backup plan. Lol. Definitely something travel related. Maybe a tour guide focused on adventure travel.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
JG: So important!! The music should suit the atmosphere, the venue, and the cliental. I’ve left bars before because of the music. The volume level is especially important. I want to hear the person sitting across from me.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
JG: Probably when Paul Giamatti dumps the entire spittoon in his month when he finds out his book hasn’t been published in ‘Sideways’. It’s just the grossest thing ever.
GFR: I know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
JG: I think they appreciate it. I’m usually the one that gets assigned the wine when there is a dinner, which means I don’t have to cook, bonus if it’s been a busy week. There also seems to be some general enthusiasm to taste what I’ve brought. I once described a wine as being approachable in front of a group of close friends. I’ve never lived that one down. Every time we go out I get asked, ‘Jules would you say that this wine is approachable?’, followed by tremendous amounts of laughter.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
JG: I love the challenge of blind tasting. I especially love that for the most part you do it in tasting groups with peers and likeminded people. You can learn so much from other people’s palates and how they perceive different wines.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
JG: Definitely without a hangover. I don’t want to look at a glass of wine when I’m hungover.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
JG: During the summer I prefer to drink mineral driven, crisp whites, so I love Gruners from Austria & Chablis. For reds I love Cru Beaujolais (Morgon & Fleurie are my faves) and wines from the Languedoc Rousillon. You can still get some great value wines from these regions. I’m also a fan of earthier Tuscan reds. I’m not big on wines that have seen a lot of new oak. My true love will always be Northern Rhone Syrah.
GFR: In your mind, as a Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now?
JG: I think Sparkling wine is pretty hot these days. It’s become a day to day drink rather then something mainly associated with special occasions. I think England and Tasmania are two up and coming regions for bubbles, and I’m hoping we will see some coming through the market here in Ontario. Greece is a county that is starting to trend, and producing some great valued wines. However, I’m not sure what their current economic struggles will have on the viticulture moving forward. The wines from Mt. Etna in Sicily definitely need mention.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour?
JG: Definitely oaked-up Chardonnay, though I’m not sure that’s new. Even the warmer New World regions within California and Australia are putting more emphasis on balanced Chardonnay with higher acidity and integrated oak.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
JG: Generally speaking California Cabernet, especially the big ticket ones. Perhaps it’s that they enter the market and are consumed way too young.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
JG: Industry Thanksgiving dinner! Fried Chicken and Champagne!
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but this time with some of some celebrities from the UK who have been known to hang out in Yorkville.
What would you suggest for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
1: John Cleese:
JG: Despite his quirky on screen persona this man is clearly all about the White Burg!
2: Jennifer Saunders:
JG: Stoli-Bolli darling, Stoli Bolli!
3: Ricky Gervais
JG: Definitely a British ale so pint of Cask ESB.
GFR: How open do you find the Yorkville clientele to trying new things? What are a few of their favourite things?
JG: We are fortunate to have a really diverse and loyal following of regulars that I have the privilege of seeing week in and week out. The relationships I have cultivated allow me to steer guests towards more adventurous offerings that I know that they will enjoy based on their individual tastes. It’s a lot of fun!
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
JG: Define “often”? I’ve been known to enjoy a Bourbon Manhattan from time to time. Beer is definitely my drink of choice after a really long day. I’m an ale girl and I tend to prefer pale ales or English bitters. I’m not a huge lover of really hopped up IPA.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
JG: Inventory and printing menus.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
JG: Double hinged pull tab, one with a sharp smooth blade.
GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system… has it changed the playing field?
JG: I only recently purchased a Coravin system for The Oxley. I’m excited to be able to offer pretty much anything by the glass now without running the risk of increased spillage costs. I’ll be able to add some higher end pours to our by the glass list. As to the longevity of the wines once they’ve be used I guess time will tell.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
JG: I think screwcaps are great, especially with wines meant to be drunk young. I haven’t had the opportunity to taste too many aged wines under screwcap so I can’t speak to that side.
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?
JG: Well I don’t think I’m blessed with the increased tolerance the way some have. Days off are days off, and work is business, so a lots of spitting and water when tasting wines in the restaurant or at trade events.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time? Did you get cut off at that pool party during the summer?
JG: Pool party? What pool party? I haven’t been cut off since third year university.
GFR: Do you have a good hangover cure?
JG: G2 Red Gatorade and eggs. When it’s an option, going for a swim, it’s just snaps you right out of it.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
JG: Some weeks just 20 or so, but on busier weeks when there are trade events or I have a tasting group it can be well over 50.
GFR: When tasting with clients do you choose to spit or swallow?
JG: I pretty much always spit, unless it’s just too good to do so.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
JG: Bubbles: Domaine Baud Crémant du Jura
White: Klumpp Riesling, Baden, Germany
Red: Fleurie, Clos de Roilette, Beaujolais
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
JG: When I first began studying, a member of my wine club organized a dinner at The National Club. We had a ’96 Chateau Palmer & ‘98 Alter Ego Palmer side by side. It was one of my first memorable experiences drinking a quality wine with some age. It made me realize how brilliant wine can get as it evolves over time.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
JG: Champagne. If the option is there I will always go for a glass of Champagne.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Julie… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
JG: Chenin Blanc. It can be sweet, it can be dry, it can be sparkling!
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Julie!… and thanks for doing this.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.
Peter Boyd has been a part of Toronto’s wine scene for over two decades. He has taught the Diploma level for the International Sommeliers Guild, and has been the sommelier at Scaramouche Restaurant since 1993. He also writes about wine, food and pop culture and raises show molerats for fun and profit. He’s also one of the most solid guys in the business.Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and is slowly taking over this city. He just celebrated his 67th birthday!
A well-known and much respected figure on the Toronto food and wine scene for almost twenty years, Potvin has worked in many of the city’s very best establishments including Biffs, Canoe, and Eau. In 2004 Potvin opened his incarnation of the Niagara Street Café, a restaurant that has gone from strength to strength year after year, with universal critical acclaim. Anton spends much of his time traveling and tasting wine and has been ranked highly in consecutive years of the International Wine Challenge. Anton is now GM at DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.