In the third of a twentieth series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario (and beyond!).
A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers. Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising and often underexposed stars.
With the pandemic still ravaging the hospitality sector, and a third lockdown looking more and more likely, we sit down with Kristen Pickett from Noble Estates for a good old blether about all manner of topics… and her answers definitely cheered me up!
Good Food Revolution: So Kristen, what with the world of hospitality being turned upside down due to the ongoing pandemic, what is it that you are doing these days?
Kristen Pickett: It has, indeed! I’ve found some fun ways to occupy myself during the lockdowns. I bought a hula hoop! I started playing the violin again and make good use of my library card for Ebooks. I also spent a lot of time studying; I’m in the Diploma program with WSET, so it was good to have something to work towards. I bought a bit of Sake as well, so I participated in some interesting seminars over the last few months.
GFR: How are you finding working in the sales side of things? I tried it once only to discover that I was utterly crap at it…
KP: Well, the past year hasn’t been easy! I love the sales side of things because every day is different. You get to meet so many talented somms and bartenders… and it’s a perfectly legitimate excuse to go out to dinner often!
GFR: When we come out the other side of these dark times, how do you feel hospitality will have been forced to change? I feel that our business had so many broken systems that I’m hoping that this is the opportunity for a big reset. For example, I’m very much against the whole tipping system… don’t get me started!
KP: This past year has been horrible for everyone and given the chance, we’d all love the tragedies associated with Covid to have never happened. To find the positives, however, some lovely little patios have popped up across the city that would have just been wasted space before the pandemic. Then, there is the fact that restos are now able to sell consignment wine, giving consumers access to a greater selection. You can also get fantastic bottled cocktails now, which is great because I make terrible cocktails!
GFR: And as for you… where do you see yourself in, say, 12 months? What would you like to be doing in a perfect world?
KP: In 12 months I hope to be on a plane! Or to have at least travelled somewhere further than the GTA. Japan is the dream. I have an epic trip planned for when it’s safe to travel again.
GFR: Please tell us a little about your last Sommelier role?
KP: When I moved to Toronto, my first gig was as a Sommelier. I worked with the CIBO team in Yorkville. It’s an Italian restaurant so the list was a heavily focused on the wines of Italy, but there were some other unique regions as well.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training wine-wise did you have before taking on that role?
KP: I got my CAPS certification in Halifax in 2012. That year, I moved to Australia and worked in wine telesales – which was a big shock! Aussies love buying wine over the phone. I was spoiled in that role, having my first tastes of the First Growths, Krug, Salon and Vega Sicilia. I was a lucky girl!
Then I moved to New Zealand and worked as the Wine Communications Director and Hospitality Manager at a little spot called Cloudy Bay Vineyards. New Zealand is a magical place and despite it being a globally recognized brand, CB felt very small and intimate.
I moved back to Canada in 2015 and worked my first vintage at Inniskillin in the Okanagan. That’s where I learned just how dirty and physically demanding winemaking actually is! After that I managed the Sales Office at Burrowing Owl Vineyards for a year before packing up and moving to Toronto.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to being a Sommelier yourself?
KP: It wasn’t until I had actually passed my Sommelier certification that I considered a career in the wine industry. I started down the food & wine path with a food blog, With Bite, in 2008. From that platform, I started receiving freelance offers for wine features and realized that you could get paid to taste and write about wine! I figured that if I was going to write about it, I should educate myself properly, so I enrolled in the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers Program. That’s when I caught the ‘wine bug’ and knew that food would be taking a backseat to wine moving forward.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
KP: Shoutout to Mark DeWolf who was my instructor at CAPS and went on to become President there! He was the one who recruited me to write for Occasions Magazine; the Atlantic Provinces’ version of the LCBO’s Food & Drink Magazine.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
KP: Definitely not! My mother only started buying wine when I became interested and talking to her about it in my 20’s. Until then, the only alcohol in our house was a bottle of Crown Royal for entertaining. Now, both of my parents enjoy sharing a bottle and I place orders for them through the Newfoundland Liquor Corp.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
KP: I can’t remember my first taste, but I do remember the first one that intrigued me enough to start paying attention. It was in 2011 and it was a 2007 Margan Hunter Valley Semillon. It was on clearance rack at Halifax’s Port of Wines store – probably because no one was drinking Hunter Valley Semillon!
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
KP: I’m not a parent – that would be up to them!
GFR: So, have you consumed the “Natural Wine Kool Aid.”
I’m just kidding, kind of… I’m sick fed up of “natural wine” zealots with nothing but derision for those who feel otherwise. Saying that, I do feel that there are some astounding “Natural” wines out there, so don’t get me wrong. How do you feel about the scene? … perhaps I just have a very low tolerance for volatile acidity, I don’t know… but there is some right old crap out there.
KP: I think every wine has its place. There are some consumers who only drink natural wines, which is a shame in my opinion, because it limits the possibilities for enjoyment. There are thousands of delicious wines that may be made in a more conventional way, but from quality conscious producers that grow their fruit in a sustainable and even organic/biodynamic manner. Personally, I think natural wine is really cool because it has a different set of aromas and can often be quite textural on the palate. There are definitely some duds out there though!
GFR: And how would you say that your palate has evolved over the years?
For example, I went through an old vine Zinfandel phase. I revisited such wines a few weeks back… Hmmmm… interesting, but really not for me any more.
KP: I drank heavier reds when I was younger: Shiraz, Cab-Merlot blends and Malbec for example. Now that I know about the various regions and unique and indigenous grape varieties, I tend to gravitate towards heavier whites, lighter reds and bubbles. I don’t often enjoy anything above 14%. Unless it’s very well made, I find that the alcohol takes all the focus at that point.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
KP: I love them! There are wonderful wines coming out of Canada. I spent 7 years in Nova Scotia when that wine industry was really blossoming. Then, when I worked vintage in BC, I explored all the sub-regions and producers in the Okanagan. I only moved to Toronto a few years ago, so I haven’t fully immersed myself in the local market, but I have a few reliable producers that I support.
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario?
KP: I’m a big fan of Ontario Gamay. I love the fact that I can buy a tasty one here for under $20.
GFR: You and me both!
And what do you feel we should really give up on?
KP: I don’t think we should give up on anything! There are so many facets to making good wine. I don’t think we can blanket Ontario wine country as “not being good at xyz variety”. One vintner’s soil and mesoclimate might be just right for a grape variety that no one else can really pull off.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Canada (BC, Ontario et al.) also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
KP: I think that depends on your definition of quality! There are some consumers who think bulk wines from Australia or California are great quality, while others would turn their noses up at it. It works the same way in Canada. The VQA program in Ontario provides a level of confidence for the consumer when purchasing local wine because it holds the producer to certain standards of quality. The beauty of the wine industry is that there really IS something for everyone and price points don’t have to be prohibitive. If you want a bottle for $10 or $100, you can find it.
GFR: Did your job allow you to travel much? I know that you have made wine all over, right?
That’s one thing that I really miss during this damn pandemic, going on wine trips… although I don’t know if I’ll ever want to get on a plane again!
KP: I’ve been really blessed in being able to travel with work. That is definitely a part of what drew me to the wine trade. I think travel is necessary to be a good sommelier or wine agent. Since starting this career, I’ve been able to travel to regions and meet the suppliers that I represent, which is so important for the sales aspect of my work. Another element that makes this industry so amazing are the unique, passionate people you meet along the way.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit over the years?
KP: I moved to Australia in 2012 and travelled throughout, meeting so many incredible producers. It’s a shame that Canada sees such a small percentage of the amazing Australian brands available. When I moved to New Zealand, I was able to visit all the wine regions on both Islands. Through my wine studies I had incredible opportunities to visit Bordeaux and Portugal. Before the pandemic, I worked with Moet Hennessy and had the dream trip visiting all their Champagne houses, ending with Krug. I’ve never been to Italy but have had my eye on the Truffle Festival in Alba for years!
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
KP: Yes, and it was horrible! My girlfriend and I used to make those wine kits in Uni. It was palatable for a while and then we threw in the towel. I’ve never been the “winemaker’”in a reputable winery, but as a cellar hand you do everything from fruit sorting, to punch-downs and pumpovers, fining and filtrations all the way to the bottling line.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
KP: If I did make wine, it would be somewhere in the Mediterranean; Greece or perhaps even Provence. I would swim in the sea and eat olives and drink rosé in the sun… When I’m not making this ‘hypothetical wine’, that is!
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
KP: Bottles, because they’re great listeners. 😉
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
KP: In my wine studies I had an incredible trip to Bordeaux where we were hosted by Cos d’Estournel and Chateau Palmer. I was also hosted by Taylor Fladgate in the Douro that same year and really fell in love with port. I already mentioned my dream trip to Champagne with Moet Hennessy. That was absolute heaven!
I wouldn’t say I’ve had any real lows in this career though, that’s how I know I’m in the right one!
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
KP: Jancis Robinson. Because she’s a boss in a world dominated by men and she’s respected by them.
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
KP: Why, Noble Estates, of course! 😉
GFR: Do you have nightmares about working with wines? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar… and the clock is ticking away… I have them all the time, and I haven’t been in the role for almost eleven bloody years!!!
KP: I do, but I’m a rep now so my nightmares tend to focus on “out of stocks”.
GFR: Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
KP: A long run followed by a really good takeway coffee to start. Then a (moderately) boozy brunch and a stroll through one of TO’s fun neighbuorhoods. In the evening, it would be cooking dinner with good music and a nice bottle of wine.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
KP: I do! I experiment throughout the week if I have time/energy. But I try to make something fun on Sunday nights to pair with a nice bottle of wine: risotto, curry or veggie stew.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
KP: Somehow, I always manage to burn popcorn. I make it on the stove with coconut oil. It’s a work in progress.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
KP: Of course! I’ve got a nice crew of classmates that were with me in the WSET Diploma program. I haven’t been able to gather with them recently, but we always drink well when we’re together.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine and cocktail city? And what do you do now?
KP: I really love Toronto as a wine and cocktail city! Pre-pandemic I would often find myself unable to decide where to go because there are so many options. Unfortunately, I’m now forced to make my own cocktails, so that’s painful! However, there are a lot of bars and restaurants offering takeaway cocktails with some really interesting blends.
GFR: What do you feel you would be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
KP: I studied opera for a year in music school but quickly realized that I didn’t want a career in performance. I think it was late-onset stage fright. After that, I moved to Halifax for the Tourism & Hospitality Management program offered at Mount Saint Vincent. I suppose if I wasn’t in the wine industry, I’d likely be managing a resort in the Bahamas. Which doesn’t sound too bad right about now…
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
KP: I don’t have a favourite scene, but I always loved watching Nigella Lawson on the Food Network. She has an incredible way with words and manages to make whatever dish she’s cooking sound like the best meal you’ve never had.
GFR: Ha… yes, my colleague Malcolm feels the same way about her… kind of…
Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
KP: Plenty! Despite me assuring them that I actually ‘work’, they all seem to think I just drink wine all day. I’m always getting random texts from someone in an LCBO (or NSLC, NLC, BCLDB) asking for recommendations. My friends also know they’ll drink well when they come to my place.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
KP: Blind tasting is like pulling teeth. I know a lot of sommeliers and wine students get really excited about blind tasting, but over the years, I’ve found that it takes the joy out of wine. I’d rather sit and ponder what’s in my glass than have to do a grid and analyse it.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
KP: Oh, that’s a hellish thought! Without?
GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?
KP: I’m now 5 years smoke-free and my tasting skills are way better for it.
GFR: Coffee or tea?
KP: Both – coffee in the day and tea and night.
GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?
KP: I’ll take one of each, please!
GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?
KP: Neither, Palak Paneer with plenty of naan.
GFR: Milk or dark?
KP: Dark, always.
GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?
KP: Ketchup on french fries but salt & vinegar potato chips.
GFR: Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal?
KP: MR with a side of fries.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
KP: My favourite region now, and always will be Champagne.
GFR: In your mind what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
KP: I would say the trends that I’ve seen from consumers these days are new-to-them varietals: Albarinio, Viognier, Furmint, Zweigelt, Blaufrankish. Delicious!
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? Why do you feel that is?
KP: I haven’t had anyone request an Aussie Shiraz in a while. I think the alcohol levels of wines in warm/hot regions are becoming prohibitive.
15 – 16% ABV is too high for a table wine – at least for my palate.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
KP: I would say overrated to me, but it might be someone else’s perfect drop! I’ve never been into Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wines. From Bordeaux, it’s austere, from Napa, it’s boozy, and the better-quality ones from both regions are well beyond my price point! I like a Cabernet Sauvignon from Western Australia, but generally, I avoid them. I much prefer lighter reds; Pinot Noir, Gamay, Blaufrankish…
GFR: I hear you!
What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
KP: My ultimate wine pairing in any season is Champagne and potato chips. Coming into the Spring, I would say a crisp rose and…well, potato chips.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
KP: Absolutely! Not so much cider, but I do love trying out various brews from some of the amazing local breweries around the GTA. And since I became a rep, cocktails are just as much a part of my life as wine now.
GFR: What was your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier? For me it was the f****** inventory. Oh, and breaking down boxes…
KP: I would agree with those two points, absolutely! I liked lugging wine boxes because it kept me in shape. I loved the customer interaction aspect, but also the staff trainings that I used to do. I set up a “Wine-Ed” station by the food line so that servers could read about a wine from our menu while they waited for their orders.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
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?
KP: That’s a funny question because I’ve never managed to increase my tolerance despite giving it a solid effort! A pre-dinner cocktail and a couple glasses of wine give me a nice buzz. I drink a lot of water when I’m drinking alcohol. And I rarely drink anything without a salty snack.
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!
KP: I live a pretty healthy lifestyle, so I also don’t miss that side of the business. I enjoy early mornings and the 9-5 grind that leaves room to enjoy all of Toronto’s amazing bars and restaurants in the evening. Fortunately, there are some great advocacy organizations to assist people in the restaurant industry to work through the pitfalls of drug and alcohol abuse.
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…
KP: When I was about 16 years old on George Street in Newfoundland. I had a really good fake ID!
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure? None of the cures given to me by previous interviewees have really done the job for me…
KP: I take 2 Advil Liquid Gels before bed with at least 2 big glasses of water. If it was a big night, I crave a Veggie Sub with Diet Coke, Doritos AND cookies.
GFR: How many wines do you “taste” in a week during the pandemic?
KP: It ebbs and flows – sometimes 10, sometimes none.
GFR: When tasting with agents/clients did you choose to spit or swallow?
KP: Spit, of course! I’m a tiny person, so if I swallowed, I’d have to manage the logistics!
GFR: Yeah, that’s always my downfall…
What’s your “house” wine at home?
KP: I always have plenty of wine at my place from work or school, but I would say my go-to, delicious, not too expensive wine would be
Malivoire Gamay. It’s local and tasty and hits just under $20.
GFR: Agreed… what a truly crushable wine.
Most remembered glass of wine ever?
KP: Unreleased 2009 Krug Clos de Mesnil, IN the Clos de Mesnil.
GFR: Jings! That’s pretty special.
What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
KP: That all depends on the day! Could be Champagne, beer or a Martini.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Kristen… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
KP: Riesling – Because I can be sweet, or bone dry.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Kristen.
KP: Thank YOU, it was a pleasure.
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 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.