In the third of an fifteenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario (and occasionally from further afield as is the case this month). 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.
As promised, we again focus our attention upon our talented friends out west…
This time around we speak with self-professed “wine whisperer”, Laura Starr, Sommelier at Vancouver’s Chambar restaurant.
Good Food Revolution: So Laura, what is it that you are doing these days out in Vancouver?
Laura Starr: The bulk of my life is spent at Chambar Restaurant, where I work as one of three Sommeliers running a very large and very fun wine program in the heart of Vancouver, BC. We are a team of women who work collaboratively and laterally, which tends to go against the grain of the traditional, structured, and hierarchical tier of positions (aka Wine Director, Sommelier, Assistant Sommelier, etc.).
To categorize it lightly, Kaela Augustine manages International purchases, Kelcie Jones juggles the BC side of the menu, and I manage all staff training, media, and communications. Each of these roles is fluid to some degree, and we share responsibilities based on the demands of the approaching week.
On the side (translate: my passion), I am the National Wine Editor for Vita Daily, which allows me the whimsical freedom to discuss, sing, scream, slur, and grasp at all things grape related. My voice is playful and my intention is approachability. Wine is astoundingly complex, but in the end it is just grape juice. So drink up.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
LS: I have two degrees, one in French and the other in Education, with experience in sales, marketing, and teaching. Most importantly though, I have been working in restaurants for almost 20 years (ack!). I thrive in situations of constant change, and connect with people swiftly and naturally. I happened into the world of wine through a colleague and mentor, Jason Yamasaki, a beloved wino in the Vancouver scene… and beyond. Despite having to play catch-up with my formal wine education (I am just finishing my WSET 3), it has been a collective mash up of all my experiences and skillsets that landed me where I am today, with this vast and ever-expanding road to my future.
GFR: How would you describe your role at Chambar?
LS: I am a wine whisperer.
GFR: You have worked in a number different types of places… how does Chambar compare? Tell us a little about the place for those who are unfamiliar…
LS: Chambar is unlike any restaurant I’ve ever worked at. Civilized Debauchery is our motto, and we take that seriously. Fine dining with food fights. Champagne sprayed on golden walls. Ball gowns and sneakers. Food with ballsy personality and branded rolling papers for grabs on the way out. Our parties are epic. But it is our staff who steal the show. Spirited is an understatement. And our restaurant is loud.
GFR: How open do you find the clientele to trying new things when it comes to wines? Is there a specific style of wine that the demographic crave? And just what is that demographic?
LS: I mean, you always need to read the guest, and know whether they really want an adventure, or if they just want a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. But the vibe here really encourages guards to drop, and if you are excited about the wine, the people will follow you anywhere. Wine is scary to a lot of people, so it’s about letting them know that wine can be unfamiliar and still wonderful, and getting them engaged with the journey.
We actually tend to remove wines from our list that make people comfortable. For example, we had a really yummy, reasonably priced Malbec blend that sold through three cases in one weekend without a single conversation from us. People just saw Malbec < $70, and ordered it. So we are taking it off the menu because it is blinding people to look outside their comfort zones. It has nothing to do with making money off that wine. We take pride in taking you on a successful wine journey.
As for demographic, people who are curious about wine are generally curious about life. If you are open minded, you likely naturally gravitate towards new styles of wine. We are lucky to attract those people at Chambar.
GFR: What’s the size and scope of the wine program that you run?
LS: We have 300+ bottles, 28 which are available by-the-glass. We serve a lot of wine.
GFR: Does your job allow you to travel much? Where have you been lately?
LS: There is potential for a lot of travel in the wine industry. That said, this team dynamic at Chambar is quite new, and we have been insanely busy as a restaurant (AKA vacation what?). My goal this year is to get to know the Okanagan wineries and become better acquainted with my own backyard. That said, I get squirrely and often find myself booking last minute trips with my person. We were in LA in February. The next adventure depends on our mood, and will likely happen on a wine induced whim.
GFR: What sets Vancouver apart as a wine and food city?
LS: Vancouver has a lot of angles, and with food, you can appeal to an assortment of demographics based on what drives your passion. There are a lot of trends – being fancy, dive-y, vegan, hipster, green, off-the-wall, retro, or whatever – and there are a lot of people who think they can do “it” better than everyone else. What makes you successful is if you are genuine. And I don’t mean successful off the bat. Successful in Vancouver means you’ve lasted past your first year without rendering yourself obsolete. People here can sniff out a fraud before the menu is in your hands. But if you run your restaurant with a vision, and that vision stays focused on the experience rather than the profits of the restaurant, you will secure a following of loyal and habitual Vancouverites who relish in the continued fruition of your business.
GFR: Now, how do I word this? Have you drunk the “Natural Wine Kool Aid”? I’m just kidding, kind of… I’m sick fed up of “natural wine” zealots to be quite honest. How do you feel about the scene?
LS: The process of making good wine is a very long endeavour, and so we are only just now seeing some of the best creations hit the market in the realm of “natural wines”. No one likes zealots, but they have used their passion to give voice and attention to interesting wines rooted in the most ancient ideology of wine as authentic. It’s really not a new idea anyways, rather just a bounce-back from all the sketchy profit-driven commercial shortcuts that have saturated the market.
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
LS: Someone who plays the long game. Pay attention to our needs, and bring us good wine. And for the love of god please let us know when vintage changes happen!!!
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent/supplier?
LS: Those who think $$$ > vino.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Do you ever see anything but BC stuff in your market?
LS: Canada makes some incredible wines! I think this last International Vancouver Wine Fest, which featured Canada, opened up a lot of West Coast eyes to the hidden gems of the East. Nova Scotia in particular blew a lot of minds (Benjamin Bridge!). The scope of Canadian wines here are mostly BC, but we get a trickle of Ontario gems and a sneaky Nova Scotian treat here and there. Private stores have more to offer in this regard, as per usual. And the more we try them, the more we are likely to see more of them.
GFR: Have to had the opportunity to try much from Ontario? I’d love to hear your thoughts…
LS: I am fortunate to have a close friend, Cecile Roslin, who works in wine and sake at Ki Restaurant in Toronto, and she keeps me in the loop on some tasty Ontario treats. Her last mention was Tawse Winery and Closson Chase (she pointed out that their Chardonnay is available in BC, but not in Ontario…).
Nicole Campbell of Lifford wines is another contagiously passionate advocate for some great Ontario wines; she recently got my brain hooks tangled up in Pearl Morissette wines.
GFR: Yeah, that inter-provincial protectionism is a bitch when it comes to wine. Can you see a way forward here?
LS: Bruges pipe line!!
GFR: How open are your customers to Canadian wines?
LS: Very receptive, and I’ll give credit to our lovely, curious guests for that. Particularly in Vancouver, there is huge emphasis on buying local, and that extends to the wines we make in our backyards. At the end of the day though, Canada is just making some stellar wines, and our list at Chambar showcases some of our favourites, and the guests are following suite.
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?
LS: You have to be able to get behind a wine, and selling subpar wine is unacceptable at Chambar, local or not. There are too many great wines (in my case, from BC) to ever have to push something local that falls short of the plate. That said, that’s where our job off the floor comes into play: finding these secret gems as they pop up into the wine world, and getting them on your list!
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
LS: My parents didn’t drink much while we grew up. I remember drinking sparkling apple cider out of flutes for Christmas, so my early memories of wine were positive: celebratory and socially engaging. Adding to that, in my teens my Mom owned an on-premise winemaking store, and although I was entirely disinterested in wine until my early 20s, I remember my Mom’s customers absolutely loving her and the experience of making their own wine. Again, social and exciting.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
LS: I just remember YUCK.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
LS: What do you mean? You don’t think this cultural standard of keeping kids completely in the dark about all taboo things like alcohol until they turn 19, at which point we encourage entirely inexperienced and irresponsible binge drinking, is a perfect system?
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?
LS: I have been in several relationships with people who struggled with substance abuse. I have always been drawn to wine, but avoided engaging in it as a career seeing it as reckless and selfish when my other-half was struggling to stop after one drink.
Riding life solo these last few years has given me the liberation to put myself first. And when wine reappeared as a potential career move, I woke up to how interested in it I actually was. And then the cards just started fall down in my favour.
GFR: I understand where tiy are coming from there.
So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
LS: I approached Jason Yamasaki (ex-Somm at Chambar) last year about dabbling in wine at Chambar, and his mastermind puppeteer skills entangled me in this web of opportunity, and I owe this whole life path to him, and the faith he had in me to just hit the ground running.
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?
LS: The world is full of assholes, so you can’t blame that on wine. But in regards to what you’re calling the “emergence” of a bro culture, as a female, Somm really just reinforced my previous perception of dudes doing wine (dare I say white?)… it did not come across as a new hat.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
LS: I’ve been to France and Spain, but I was young and didn’t appreciate wine properly. I did wander the vineyards in St. Emilion and drink a bottle with a crew of travel buds at the train station… I wish I could better remember what I was actually experiencing.
I also lived in Nova Scotia and have visited several wineries out that way. Luckett was my favourite to frequent, but I’ve also wandered to Benjamin Bridge, Sainte-Famille, and Blomidon.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
LS: My mother owned her own on-premise wine-making store. I’ve witnessed her make wine, and tasted it… but that’s when I was utterly disinterested in wine.
Recently, and excitingly, our team at Chambar has collaborated with Laughing Stock and we have a red and white blend coming out soon! They are SUPER yummy, and it was the coolest experience to get a behind-the-scenes understanding of how the tiniest amount of blending will affect a wine. And how different vineyard sites of the same grape are vastly different. I get that seems obvious, but playing with your own juice is still mind-blowing.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
LS: Spain, Argentina, Chile, or Portugal. I just want to be hot.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
LS: People for SURE. I mean, it’s all intertwined, but I need social stimulation or I get squirrely.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
LS: When I was 23, I was the youngest sales person to be hired at Canada’s largest information company. I was making boatloads of money with lots of perks, but I hated it. So I quit. It was an impressive role to acquire. And then it was a pretty shitty time to be jobless (hello 2008). No regrets though, I would do it all over again.
This last whirlwind of wine career blast-off has been the most thrilling ride of my life though. It has combined my love of social circumstance, wine, teaching, and writing. All my strengths converged into one power position. I am in my prime.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
LS: DJ Kearney sets the standard for me, of someone who is incredibly knowledgeable but so refreshingly playful with wine. She is also a leader who NURTURES leaders below her. It is empowering and inspiring.
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
LS: Jessica and Marisa at AmoVino! These two extremely talented and passionate friends collaborated and worked their asses off to start an import business in Vancouver with COOL and QUALITY wines of integrity. I find their wines to be off the beaten path, and they are always Chambar-worthy being focused on sustainability, often being organic, biodynamic, or natural. These girls sniff out some of the best wine gems available in BC. Fun fact: they speak like, 40 languages between them. OK, not 40, but a lot. It’s impressive, and very useful in the world of wine.
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… in fact I had one last night!!! And I haven’t been in the role for over six and half years!!!
LS: WORKMARES! I got them relentlessly when I was a server. They stopped when I started working in wine… perhaps you just need to drink more wine….
GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
LS: Sunday is inventory day. Who the hell gets Sunday off?
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of your city?
LS: I had one of the best dining experiences of my life at Kozakura (Kappa style Japanese) in Gastown. Kissa Tanto kills it with Italian/Japanese fusion. And then, being vegetarian, Meet is my heart. But the best little gem in the city is New Town for some authentic Chinese.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
LS: I do cook, but to be honest, not much these days. My roommate, and my best friend, both named Shawn, are incredible cooks and make sure I’m well fed. I’d say I’m spoiled, but I’m pretty sure they just think I’ll forget to eat entirely otherwise. Survival feeding, I guess?
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
LS: That is a question for one of the Shawns.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Vancouver? On my recent trip I was made to feel most welcome there!
KL: The wine culture here is LOVELY. They are just a bunch of social wine nerds who will take advantage of any chance to sniff/talk/drink wine. The more the merrier it seems.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
LS: A lot. That said, I have a group of friends and a social life that is separate from wine, and I like it to stay that way. They are two different veins in my life and I rely on them both for different purposes and different feels.
GFR: How do you feel about Vancouver as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
LS: Vancouver is great because there are many different neighbourhoods, so you can seek out any vibe at any time (except Monday nights, which are embarrassingly dead all over). I find myself stuck in the Gastown/Chinatown circle, but I love it. Keefer Bar or the Diamond for great cocktails and solid staff. The Warehouse for white noise.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
LS: If there was something else I wanted to be doing, I’d be doing it.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
LS: Music is the bloodline to good vibes, and a restaurant without music is incredibly unnerving. But no two restaurants should yearn for the same ambience. Our restaurant is really loud, and the owners insist upon that. It is vibrant and upbeat. I also really enjoy chill, quiet restaurants, for the right moments. The key is in the intention. Don’t bend for your guests. Own your room.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
LS: No, but Tom Robbins wrote, “There are only two mantras: yum and yuck. Mine is yum,” and this is pretty much my life.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
LS: Most of the people in my life live the same industry-type hours, even if they aren’t in food and beverage. The rest are my family. And they are very supportive of what I do, something I am very fortunate to have under my wing.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
LS: It’s fun when it’s fun, and it’s egotistical when it’s egotistical. It is the best way to hone your senses though, and to evaluate wines. So keep practicing.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
LS: You’re better with?? I need to hear more about this. How do I get like that? I hate wine when I’m hungover.
GFR: I just find that I am so much more sensitive, especially with the olfactory.
What’s your current favourite wine region?
LS: British Columbia, and Chile!
GFR: In your mind, as a Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
LS: I don’t want to say it’s “hot” but wine on tap seems to be popping up more and more, and not just in a TGIFridays island bar. I ate dinner in Whistler a few nights ago at Alta Bistro and they had Synchromesh Riesling on tap (which was a special mashup of 4 of their Riesling blends) and it was fantastic. I repeat: FANTASTIC. I imagine the cost of offering it by the glass from the bottle would have rendered it previously impossible, but now it’s plausible from a business perspective. That is a huge win, and it allowed me to have a lovely interjected half-glass pairing with my congee soup app (which would have been horrific with Chateau d’Arlay Corail that I was drinking).
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? Why do you feel that is?
LS: Jura is not “out of favour“ (I love Jura wines, see above) but people get really annoyed with trends, and I’ve heard countless people reference how “last season” Jura wines are, or they will avoid ordering it or having it on a wine list because it seems out-of-style. I don’t say this to imply Jura is not hot. I say this to impress upon people how silly it is to assume something is not “hot” anymore. Make your own impressions, and stick with good wine, end of story. And never stop drinking Jura.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
LS: Serving Champagne in a burgundy stem. I understand the argument behind the aromatic augmentation…but snap, crackle, pop, those bubbles die, and flat Champagne is just the pits. I mean, it’s sour and scathingly acidic. Those bubbles are IMPORTANT, and they should be treated with respect.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
LS: Sake and cheese! Now GO and have fun with that.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… Hmmmm… rather tricky customers
What would you suggest to pair for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
A customer who would like a wine with “no acidity” ? Gives them a “runny tummy” apparently. Too much information, but… whatever…
LS: I probe for more information because wine language is complicated and oftentimes descriptors for acidity, sweetness, dryness, etc., are misunderstood and misused. Figure out what they’re really trying to say. Then still ask more: do they want red or white or do they want it to pair with their meal, etc. They should never be made to feel stupid though, even if they are falling victim to a myth or urban legend.
GFR: A customer who wants a red wine but tells you that they are allergic to both sulfites and tannins?
LS: Beaujolais. Again, after a conversation.
GFR: A host who wants to show off to his guests but is a real, real cheapskate… asking for the wine to be decanted so nobody knows what it is or how much he paid for it?
LS: If we’ve done our jobs right, we’ll have excellent bang-for-your-buck wines on the list that will impress the host and his/her guests. Checking people’s egos is not part of my job. I also don’t want to recommend a wine here and have that winery think I’m calling their wine a product for “cheapskates.”
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
LS: I love gin, Fernet, and amaros. Not together…but maybe?
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier?
LS: The fucking cardboard!!!
GFR: Hahahahaha… I had actually forgotten about that bit!
What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
LS: I am looking for a double-hinged waiters corkscrew with an un-serrated blade, which won’t fall apart at the seams after a week of work at Chambar. WHY IS THIS SO DIFFICULT??
GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system?
LS: Fantastic! It has marked new landscape in the world of wine, from restaurants being able to offer premium pours by-the-glass, to reps being able to offer fresh tasters without bankrupting small businesses by giving away bottles of wine. The argon capsules are expensive little suckers though.
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
LS: Screwcaps are proving to be very useful in protecting the integrity of the wine, but there is still a lot of debate about wines that are age-worthy, and how a screwcap might interfere with developing characteristics… Some wineries use both now based on the style of wine… I don’t know, there is too much unknown information, and it seems silly to get stuck on one idea or the other (I’ll save that stress for the winemakers). I do know that screwcaps have gained a lot of respect, or at least the stigma behind them has greatly depreciated.
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?
LS: This one is actually tricky. There is no shortage of alcohol around at all given times of the day, and a single “drink” frequently results in someone’s cellar being raided, especially since I entered the world of wine. You need structure in your life, particularly for your mornings, which are easily wasted away.
For myself, I signed up with Aprons for Gloves, a non-for-profit ‘Restaurant Rumble’ that encourages food and beverage industry peeps to trade in their restaurant skills for skills in the ring. I have to raise $2000 by July and follow an extremely intense and regimented training program to learn to box. I am put off by violence, but boxing preaches self-respect, self-love, and intense discipline. And this program is keeping my life in line. Cheer me on!
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
LS: I do not like to lose control, and despite being able to drink quite a bit for my size, I’m usually the one to slow myself down, or take myself home, before any further bad mistakes are made.
If you just jinxed me, I promise I will update this interview.
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure?
LS: There are two avenues. The one that feels good (Fast food! Diner breakfast! Coffee! Ceasars!) and then the one that actually works (Water! Tea! Veggies and lean protein! And of course, EXERCISE!!). I choose based on my mood.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
LS: Probably upwards of 50-100.
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
LS: Spit. Always. There is a time to drink. This is not that time.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
LS: Catherine & Pierre Breton Sparkling Vouvray Brut. Not that I drink it all the time, but if I make dinner or have someone over, this is what I scoop up. It makes for great conversation and it’s versatile with food.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
LS: I treated myself to a $100 bottle of 1998 Tahbilk Cab Reserve, and it was the first time I got to drink through a whole bottle of aged wine, and experience how much it can change and develop just in that moment, and really understand the coveted effects of aging. It really opened my eyes. $100 is a funny amount too, because it is an outlandish amount to me, but pocket change to others.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
LS: Depends on the day, the weather, my mood, time of the month, and what my hair is doing that day. To be honest, I hate choosing. Gimme something new! Surprise me!
GFR: And now the cheesy question Chambar… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
LS: Well I just took a wine quiz and it told me I was Frappato, because I’m the life of the party. But I’m a Leo and I’m saying the link is weak and that’s not the grape I want to be. So I deem myself GRENACHE because I’m crunchy and rugged but pretty and charming and elegant and powerful and traditional but adventurous and playful. And damn delicious.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Laura.
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.