In the second 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.
This month we sit down for a glass with Kendra Ellsworth, a very talented woman running the wine side of things at Elora Mill & Spa, Elora, Ontario…
Good Food Revolution: So Kendra, what is it that you are doing these days? (current position and title)
Kendra Ellsworth: I am currently the lead sommelier at Elora Mill Hotel & Spa in Elora, Ontario.
GFR: Please describe your role at Elora Mill… What does a normal day entail for you? Is there a normal day?
KE: My role includes creating and maintaining the wine list, as well as purchasing and managing inventory, but majority day to day is service focused – wine pairings, tastings and opening bottles for guests.
GFR: Hopefully we are on the other side of this pandemic *fingers crossed*… how did the pandemic impact your professional life? And how have you bounced back?
KE: I was laid off as everyone was but I think the whole pandemic really changed my outlook on so many things. I got to learn more about the cocktail side of things, living through the pandemic with my close friend who is an incredible bartender. I spent hours cooking and obsessing over recipes, and read more than I have in years. I feel like I was able to reset myself, to fall in love with the details and to reignite the passion I have for the industry, which I am still carrying with me even to this day.
GFR: Elora Mill has gone through quite an amazing transformation. Please tell me a little about that.
KE: Under the wing of Pearle Hospitality, Elora Mill has definitely had a complete rebirth but the most exciting part was the creation of the new cellar, which allowed us to not only expand our wine program but to showcase the building in such a stunning 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?
KE: To be honest, it is not very expansive. I was on the culinary side for a while and little glints into the world of front of house kept presenting themselves. I feel like one day I tripped and fell head first into wine, completed levels 1-3 of WSET, got certified through CMS and was given a part time sommelier position, which eventually gave way to my current position at Elora Mill and I am now mustering through my WSET Diploma. I don’t think I would ever look back wishing anything was different, I am very proud of what I have accomplished.
GFR: As you should be!
When did you first decide that you would actually like a career in wine? … and was it with a view to being a Sommelier?
KE: Working around incredible sommeliers at multiple restaurants really sparked that mindset that I could eventually form a career in the world of wine. I was able to see the ups and the downs and decide what kind of sommelier I would want to be. I always wanted to be a sommelier but so many paths keep unlocking that are possible which makes me very excited for my future in the world of wine.
GFR: So who or what gave you your very first insight into the world of wine? Did you have a wine epiphany?
KE: I was doing a culinary program in Italy, and of course, you cannot be in Italy and not be surrounded by wine. I can remember meeting winemakers and there always being bottles on the table during meals, glasses were always full and it was such a positive experience. I think that is when I realized wine was not just alcohol and that there was a difference between drinking for enjoyment and drinking for the sake of inebriation. When I came home, I found a bottle from the region I had been staying in, and when I drank it – it was memory, connection and passion all in one. It was nothing fancy or expensive but it opened my eyes to the world of wine and it made me want to be a part of it.
GFR: How aware of wine were you while growing up there? Were you around wine from an early age?
KE: I didn’t grow up around wine, I don’t even remember any of my immediate family drinking much at all. I think a few aunts/uncles would bring some around but I don’t recall caring much about it.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
KE: Definitely not.. but I am sure it was a gulp and I am sure I hated it haha.
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 recently 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. I saw one of the usual suspects defend Andrew Tate the other month. What is going on there? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
KE: Unfortunately, I think every industry struggles with some version of this. Nothing is going to ever be squeaky clean and wholesome, which is not the most positive way of looking at it, but I think it is realistic. I think that to be able to notice this negative aspect, to acknowledge it and then put your time/energy into minimizing its power is important. And I know so many fantastic sommeliers and industry people who are doing just that, choosing to be more open minded and to stop making this job out to be something pretentious and intimidating when it should just be inclusive and enjoyable.
GFR: Well said!
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.
KE: I have definitely experienced and witnessed sexual harassment in multiple places I have worked.
As with the question above, the existence of this is realistic and ugly and spans across so many industries. I think that, as ugly as it is, we need to shine light on it, we need it to be in our faces, making us uncomfortable and forcing us to stand up or to speak out or to combat it. I think too often situations like these fall on deaf ears or it has existed within our industry for so long that it is too hard for people to untether.
I am just sick of it being considered a situation that falls hand in hand with our industry, we have such an opportunity to speak up and fight against that, myself included.
The fight doesn’t stop at individuals either, I feel like I have witnessed the slow formation of a new era in hospitality that is combating the negative old school practices. Choosing to work in places and for people that are embracing this change is important. I feel that Elora Mill is aligned well with this and that there are many people I work with in all levels that are pushing for this transition and encouraging the conversation to be better.
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 at Elora?
KE: Elora is not a place where we get a lot of people seeking out natural wine and I personally do not find myself doing so either, for no specific reason. It definitely does not have the driving force behind it like in Toronto.
GFR: Please explain a little more about the size and scope of the wine program at Elora Mill, and your overall strategy when selecting wines for your various outlets there.
KE: We have about 450 labels and approximately 4,000 bottles from both old and new world locations, with a focus on the northern hemisphere. There is mix of both classic and emerging regions with attention to forward thinking producers in terms of environment and community. I am a sucker for a good wine story but what is inside has to be delicious too!
Our wine program actually just received a Best of Award of Excellence from the Wine Spectator.
GFR: And I believe you got your picture in there! That’s pretty cool.
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 back… Hmmmm… interesting, but really not for me any more.
KE: Well, it has definitely evolved! I remember when I first started out I loved Sagrantino.. my phases are usually short lived, I am easily distracted. I was a red wine only individual for some time, phased my way through Brunellos, Nebbiolos and Riojas – now I have to be convinced to have something other than a textured white.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
KE: I think there are fantastic Canadian wines out there.
GFR: What do you think we do well here in Canada, and how is the interest for Ontario wines at Elora Mill?
KE: I think we do Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir well.
The interest at Elora Mill is pretty split, a lot of guests have a lot of interest in local wines but that is evenly balanced by those who prefer to avoid anything from Ontario. We do also get a significant amount of people visiting from Niagara and occasionally PEC as well and they are always enthusiastic about the Ontario wines on the list.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
KE: Cabernet Sauvignon
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian support for our local wine industry?
KE: I think Canadians have great support for the local industry but so often you get those who had one bad experience or don’t quite understand certain price points and they write the country off entirely. There should be more open mindedness towards 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?
KE: It is definitely frustrating because, like I mentioned, sometimes that one bad experience can really set people off the entire country as a whole when it comes to wine.
GFR: Has your job allowed you to travel much?
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!
KE: Fortunately, I am able to take the time off to travel a lot and pursue my studies, I absolutely love organizing and planning my own trips – to wine regions and beyond. I’m sorry to hear the pandemic has left you with that feeling! I don’t know if anything could keep me from getting on a plane..
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit over the years?
KE: I have been mostly to central and northern Italy – Tuscany, Umbria, Friuli, Veneto and Piedmont – as well as Napa and Sonoma. Last year I was able to spend a few weeks in Portugal and got to experience Porto, Douro, Madeira, Azores and most recently Bordeaux and the Okanagan.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
KE: Not yet! But definitely a dream of mine!
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
KE: On an island. Madeira, Sicily, Sardinia, Canary Islands..
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles, and why?
KE: I like to be incredibly organized, which comes much more easily with bottles. But I have learnt more from people and it has really helped me embrace better patience and understanding.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
KE: The lows have been significantly COVID related, initially being laid off and the constant stop and go of being able to work again. Like a lot of people in the hospitality industry I found myself really questioning if there was any hope and if I should be completely shifting careers.
My highs would include getting my first sommelier position, getting the role I have now, and the ways in which my career enhances travelling within wine regions.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
KE: This is going to sound very ass kissing of me, and I really don’t mean it to be!
Brie Dema is definitely the first person I think of for this question. Not only is she a fantastic sommelier, she is a great mother, woman, and mentor. I am incredibly lucky to work for her and to have her support me. I have seen her interact with so many people, and that is what I think makes her a fantastic sommelier, she is able to engage with consumers, winemakers, owners and big name vips but never has to adjust who she is. She has an incredible depth of knowledge but does not need to flaunt it, she shares it if needed and genuinely wants those around her to be better. I find that rare in people let alone sommeliers.
GFR: Good call on that one. I have a LOT of time for Brie.
And for Wine Agents/Importers?
KE: Danielle Nicholls from The Living Vine. Again, another strong woman and mother who is such a kind person with extensive knowledge. I admire the way she communicates, manages her time and is very aware of the consumer, but that she still has fun with it and lets her passion shine.
GFR: Ah yes, she is another great one.
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!!!
KE: Every now and then yes.. It always seems to be me pouring wine into someone’s lap. Hahaha..
GFR: Hahaha… I’ve been there.
Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
KE: I actually do work quite a few Sundays but if not.. Wake up late, go for a walk with my boyfriend and his dog, go out for lunch, play video games, or watch basketball, cook dinner for hours.
GFR: I’d be curious as to which video games?
KE: KE: My go to right now is the most current Pokemon game (I will never grow out of it!) and a MOBA – Smite. I am a big fan of RPGs and MMORPGs. I also like co-op games I can play with my boyfriend.
GFR: Oh, I know that Pokemon game! Our son loves it on the Switch.
Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Elora and environs… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of your town.
KE: I admittedly do not go out much in Elora, I don’t live nearby which makes it hard to spend a lot of time there besides work. However, my favourites would be The Evelyn and the Elora Brewing Company.
GFR: Do you like to cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
KE: I LOVE to cook! I am the person who could get home at midnight, craving a burger and I will start to make my own burger buns. I love cooking almost to a fault. My favourite thing to cook these days is larb, I make it once a week.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
KE: I seem to remember an attempt at carbonara in which I used salty bacon, salty cheese, salted the water, and still felt the final dish needed salt… Inedible.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Ontario?
KE: Yes I believe so, very concentrated in Toronto but growing rapidly outside of the city.
GFR: Do you hang out often with other Sommeliers? And if you do, do you only shoot the shit about wine?
KE: Yes I do, but conversations often go beyond wine, but it is always well integrated.
GFR: How do you feel about Elora as a wine and cocktail town? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
KE: Elora is definitely growing in that aspect, it is a small town but there are some great spots.
GFR: What do you feel you would be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
KE: I would definitely still be involved in the industry in some way. Probably working in the middle of nowhere in a rural village in Italy helping operate a small bed and breakfast…
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
KE: My favourite food scene is from Spirited Away, I first watched it when I was 11 and there is one part where the main girl sits down to eat a big steamed bun. I had no idea what it was because my exposure to food as a kid was limited, but it looked so delicious and so squishy.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… How do they feel about what you do for a living?
KE: I do, my boyfriend is actually not in the industry and never has been. He is incredibly supportive and always tells me that I am lucky to be able to follow my passions and make a living doing so.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
KE: I think its fun! I love the idea of experiencing a wine with no preconceived ideas about it, sometimes I will pour wines blinds in my tastings for guests at the mill and I love seeing how it allows people more freedom with what they are tasting.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
KE: I am not a good anything when I have a bad hangover!
GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?
KE: If they can still be great tasters, I can’t knock them for it.
GFR: In your mind, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
KE: I think Sicilian wines have gained great traction – I know that they has been popular in the sommelier community for years but the value and quality (as well as the success of a recent show..) has the island popping up on the radars of all kinds of consumers.
GFR: Aside from these fashions in wine drinking, what’s your current favourite wine style/region? And why?
KE: Traditional method Italian bubbles. They are delicious, complex and great with or without food.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? Why do you feel that is?
KE: Fortified wines – just with the focus on more healthy choices and the trend of low ABV drinks I find that this category is really suffering.
GFR: When it comes to wine, is there anything that you feel is terribly overrated? And why?
KE: Pet Nat, and hopefully no one comes for me on that one haha.. I just don’t get it.
GFR: Well, both John Szabo and I wholeheartedly agree with you on that one!
What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
KE: A bold savoury rosé with a tomato and strawberry gazpacho.
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!)
KE: Ohh, I love inventory! So satisfying.. I would say my least favourite part is when people outside of the industry think my job is just bopping around drinking wine and that there is no ‘hard’ work involved.
GFR: “just bopping around drinking wine”… That’s what I do! (joke)
What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew? And why?
KE: Anything that doesn’t break easily, I don’t know if this is a me problem but I find myself breaking corkscrews consistently. So in that same breath – nothing too expensive.
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?
KE: I have always been very good at feeling out my limit, I don’t like to feel out of control and so that I can maintain a healthy career with wine, I often remind myself to enjoy and not to immerse myself too heavily.
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!
KE: Again, this is an issue that exists across all industries but is more on display in hospitality. All I can really speak to is the fact that I know many people in the industry who do not abuse drugs or alcohol so I hope that stigma can eventually shift.
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.
KE: Actually I have not.
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.
KE: Haha, I wish I could be of help here but when I do have a hangover I typically just stay in bed and ask myself why for hours. Some Advil, lots of water and mental anguish.
GFR: How many wines do you “taste” in a week these days?
KE: I feel like more than usual just due to studying and keeping up my palate for exams as well as tasting for work – most days a few wines.
GFR: When tasting with agents did you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home right now?
KE: Currently just anything I need to be tasting for diploma. Cava has also been pretty prominent for a while.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
KE: Bernard Baudry Chinon, and I think it was Les Granges. I was not a fan of Cabernet Franc, and I went into it anticipating that I wouldn’t like it. But I sat with it and sipped it slowly, and even though I was in a bustling wine bar surrounded by tons of noise, I had uninterrupted attention on the wine. I loved it and I felt like such a fool for having dismissed it before trying it. That really changed my mindset and I do my very best to never diminish something before giving it a chance, no matter the style, price point or reputation.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
KE: Anything crisp and fresh, bonus points for easy drinking. Vinho Verdes are doing the trick at the moment!
GFR: Coffee or tea?
GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?
KE: That depends on how many oysters I get..
GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?
KE: This is an unfair decision to make.
GFR: Milk or dark? And preferred cocoa content?
KE: Milk, lower cocoa – I prefer sweet chocolate to bitter.
GFR: Me too. I’m certainly no masochist when it comes to chocolate.
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 very young fresh-faced Kendra Ellsworth as she was beginning her wine journey?
1. You will never know everything about the world of wine so don’t go crazy trying to.
2. Be humble enough to take counsel from every person you meet along the way, but clever enough to know if it’s worth applying to your own life.
3. Drink the damn wine you want to drink!!
GFR: Thank you for taking the time, Kendra. It is very much appreciated. As this is a hell of a 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 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.