In the fourth 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.
This week we check in with Quebec City sommelier, Marc Lamarre… what a gent.
Good Food Revolution: So Marc, what with the world of hospitality being turned upside down due to the ongoing pandemic, what is it that you are doing these days?
Marc Lamarre: So yes, this pandemic has changed a lot in our industry! I’ve been out of work for nearly 16 months.
Our restaurant (Le Clocher Penché) did a little take-out during those times. Also, we did some major renovations to the restaurant.
During the pandemic, I had the chance to find a job for an educational internet platform oriented for sommeliers called Somm360.
It was a blessing because after being in the business for 18 years, throughout the pandemic I’ve questioned my future as a sommelier… but now we’ve been reopened for four weeks, so the feeling is great.
GFR: You told me that you really enjoyed being (temporarily) back at work on the floor. How was it working in a restaurant with all of the necessary COVID regulations? Did you feel safe? And how did the customers respond?
ML: It’s not too bad for me, but for the revenue of the restaurant it’s a little bit hard.
I feel really safe, I don’t stress a lot for these things for myself but we took the necessary precautions for the customer to feel safe in our restaurant.
But frankly, I really look forward of working without a mask! Right now, with a temperature of 35 C, it is hard!!!
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!
ML: Well, I’ll touch wood, but I have always been in restaurants that have a high ethical standard for their workers and customers. Because of the shortage of employees in our business, the “good” restaurants that provide good conditions will prevail, and the restaurant sthat don’t provide a good working environment will just disappear…
GFR: Okay… I guess we can talk about tips…
Coming from a restaurant background, and spending some time in management, what’s your take on the whole tip argument?
I’ve never been part of the tip pool as I have always been in management, or in a private club with no tips. In my mind the tip system in North America is completely broken… and then we have the minimum wage aspect!
A veritable knot of vipers. A huge subject, I know, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts as I have a great deal of respect for your opinions…
ML: Ah! Tipping! I’m a little bit old fashioned and I think that it’s up to the customer to choose their appreciation. BUT, the restaurant must have a sharing system that is equal for all.
Tips must be distributed to cooks, dishwashers, servers, bar staff, and busfolks! Only then can one have a unity among the staff.
Again, I have only worked in restaurant that have a “Tip Pool” system. For me it motivates everybody to give the best of themselves during service. Servers that have an included tip, I think, will sometimes cut corners.
But, at the end of the day, no system is perfect, and we, at our restaurant, Le Clocher Penché, try to elevate the quality of our employees with the best measures possible.
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?
ML: Well, after thinking during the pandemic, I still have something to give to the hospitality world. So I still see myself at the Clocher Penché in Quebec.
GFR: Please tell us a little about your Sommelier history?
ML: I’m from Montréal, and I arrived in Québec city in 2003. I was looking for a job and one of my friends was working in a brand new gastronomic Japanese restaurant. They were looking for a busboy, so I applied. It was my first job in a restaurant. One of my jobs was to transport the wine bottles from the downstairs cellar to the one in the restaurant.
I’m a very curious person, so I was wondering about all of those wine bottles that I didn’t know a thing about! So I went and bought Le Larousse des Vins to learn about the subject. I fell into the rabbit hole!!! It was everything I loved! Geography, history, politics, agriculture, and alcohol! I became obsessed with the subject!
In 2004, my boss told me “You’re really into that wine stuff!! Ok you’re meeting your first sales rep in one hour! I don’t have any more time for the sommelier job!!!”
Just like that I was in charge of a wine program!!!
In 2005, I did a 400 hour wine course at l’École Hotelière de la Capitale, but from that onwards I did all my learning on my own. I also did two years as a sales rep, but didn’t like it. Since 2012, I’ve been the head sommelier at the Clocher Penché in Quebec City. And throughout the pandemic I’ve done some consulting and quiz creation for the aforementioned web platform Somm360.
GFR: In your current role, how do you go about selecting wines for the list? Is there an overarching philosophy to your choices?
ML: My wine selection is influenced by my personal taste, the history and style of the restaurant, and the respect of the customers. I work in a bistro, so we have all types of wine drinkers, so it’s important for me to have a wine list that reflects that and not just a wine card that represents only my taste in wines.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training wine-wise did you have before taking on that role?
ML: I’ve been building wine lists and buying wine for the past 18 years and it was a natural fit with the philosophy of the Clocher Penché ,that been opened since 1992 in Quebec City.
GFR: It’s often said that when it comes to wines the general Ontario palate is half North American and half European. In my experience the general Quebec palate is almost wholly European, and I’m often rather envious of the wines available in your market. I’d be curious as to your thoughts around this topic.
ML: Indeed, Quebec drinkers are really influence by the European styles of wine. But the drinkers are very curious and knowledgeable about wine culture. Right now, the younger generation demands dry, low alcohol, and organic wines. But, I still have my customers who like big Cahors… or only drink Italian wines!
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?
ML: I’m a little bit of an outsider… it’s really more the hospitality world that chose me! Before that I didn’t even know about the existence of sommeliers! I didn’t go through the traditional paths to become a sommelier. Even today, I will say that I work in the restaurant business before saying that I’m a Sommelier.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
ML: My first job in restaurants! My mom drinks cheap sweet Riesling and my dad likes red like the Corvo (an inexpensive Sicilian wine common in Quebec).
Seriously, they have since improved (lol), but wine culture was not a thing in my family.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
ML: My only contact with wine in my youth was the homemade powder wine made by my dad in the basement. Not good memories.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
ML: It’s was in my “CEGEP” (after high school in QC) years to impress girls and it was mostly Valpolicella.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
ML: Well, for parents that have a wine culture or a passion for that subject, I think that the smell of wine should be introduced at a young age.
Smelling the environment to memorize scents.
After, well wine or alcohol must be explained and slowly introduced. Education is important and one must be careful not to demonize those products.
For me, if children are exposed [to alcohol] it will make them more aware of their responsibilities.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm a few years back I still worry about the emergence of a new Wine Bro culture… also, I recently picked up on a LOT of that from the mixology crowd, full-on Jordan Peterson fans and all that stuff. I’d love to hear your thoughts?
ML: I’m a down-to-earth person, so I don’t feel the need to get all those certification and honours. I try to get away from that kind of Sommellerie. It’s only wine… we do not save people.
For me, the essence is humility and not just in the wine business… as a human being.
GFR: Speaking of which, we are having some really important conversations right now about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, and what can be done to eradicate it from the culture.
I’d be interested to hear your take on the topic, and perhaps what you witnessed during your time in the restaurant world… big question I know, but I feel it’s a topic that deserves discussion
ML: It’s terrible! And bad people will always be around. That is why I have always chosen a restaurant that has had high ethical standards. For that reason, I never witnessed bad things. But, toxic work environments must stop, and those responsible punished and be denounced.
That business is already tough at it is so no place for a******s!
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.
ML: I don’t like categories. I’m only looking for wines that are authentic, artisanal, organic, and without or with little faults. After that, if it is biodynamic, organic, cosmodynamic, natural, or what ever, I don’t care!
I agree that some wines out there are pretty sketchy but if some people like that good for them, I won’t buy them!
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.
ML: I pretty much drink the same things that I did 18 years ago. Early, I chose my style of wine for my own drinking, but I am obviously more open minded when it comes to buying wine for the restaurant
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
ML: Canadian wines are great. To be honest, I don’t really know the wine scene in the west of the country, although the wines that I have tasted were not for my palate. I really enjoy wines of Ontario and Quebec. The wine scene in Quebec is exploding and they are more and more awesome products.
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Canada?
ML: I like the fresh, authentic style of wines from Ontario and Quebec. In Ontario, I really like Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Gamay. In Quebec, there some pretty funky stuff made with hybrids likes Marquette, Petite Perle, and La Crescent.
GFR: Funny, I’ve just been raving about the potential of Marquette!
And what do you feel we should really give up on?
ML: Why give up on something? There’s wine for everybody. I don’t love Icewine but if those wines sell then who I am to say “Stop making Icewine” ?
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian’s support of our local wine industry?
ML: I don’t really know much on that subject, but I think that the LCBO is doing a nice job of promoting Ontario wines in their market. In Quebec, there’s more and more support of local product and that’s maybe a good side of the pandemic.
GFR: Do you see much Ontario wine in Quebec City? I’d be curious as to your thoughts…
ML: Yes, Ontario wines have a nice place in the Quebec market. Personally, I always have Ontario wines on my wine list.
GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Canada (BC, Quebec, 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?
ML: I’m a defender of local products. I’ve been buying Quebec wines since 2006, when it was not popular. Again, I really think that if you produce a bad product it will eventually die on is own. People are becoming more and more connoisseurs ,so they demand quality. Every winemaking region has that problem. There are some pretty bad Saint Emilion Grand Cru out there too.
GFR: Has your job allowed you to travel much?
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!
ML: Yes a little bit, but more when a was a sales rep. The restaurant takes up a lot of my time, so, I visit on a regular basis the local vineyards and breweries to keep in touch with our local artisans.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit over the years?
ML: California, Ontario, Quebec, and I’ve had the chance to visit the Loire region and Burgundy.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
ML: No, but like I said, I’m visiting Quebec wineries more and more, so in the future I would like to maybe do some winemaking with those estates.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
ML: In the Chenin paradise of the Loire region.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
ML: Good question! Bottles are easier, but customers are the heart of a restaurant, so I manage both.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
ML: Building a wine program that is respected is a pretty good sensation.
The lows… well hospitality is pretty darn hard on the body and mind but it is what makes the work so fascinating.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
ML: Veronique Rivest of the Bar a Vins Soif in Gatineau is a wonderful person and Sommelière.
GFR: Agreed! Although once she almost broke my back… seriously!
And for Wine Agents/Importers?
ML: In Québec, there so many awesome importers, we are very blessed with the diversity and quality of those agents.
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 over eleven bloody years!!!
ML: Over the years, I have become more wise, so a good cellar “planification” will put all the stress away! It’s the key of a “Zen” service.
GFR: Ahhhh… I meant bad dreams…
ML:It’s always the same: you only have one task to do, you can’t accomplish it and meanwhile there are more and more customers and the restaurant is getting bigger and bigger and that initial task is still not done!!!
GFR: Oh yes, I know that one.
Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
ML: Outdoors with friends, BBQ, great wines or beer.
GFR: Where were your favourite places to dine and drink in Quebec City… perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city? Do you think they’ll still be there post-pandemic? And what do you do now? Any good takeout/delivery you have been using?
ML: Buvette Scott, Hono Isakaya, Battuto, Sardines.
GFR: You like to cook yourself, don’t you? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
ML: I love cooking! The mushroom season has started, so everything with wild mushrooms.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
ML: Anything that involves dessert…
GFR: You and me both, although I’ve been having some success with fruit fools recently… because they are so easy.
Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Quebec City?
ML: The Sommelier community is great and not only in Quebec City. The wine industry is really amazing all over the province.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
ML: They are my only friends…
GFR: How do you feel about Quebec City as a wine and cocktail city? Where did you go if you needed to get your wine or cocktail on? And what on earth do you do now?
ML: I think that both can coexist. But I leave the cocktail department to a more qualified person lol.
GFR: What do you feel you would be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
ML: I really don’t know. I like to look at the present and future. For example, I didn’t even know I would become a sommelier!
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
ML: There’s a French movie that a really liked called “Le Délicieux” It tell a little bit the story of how the “gastronomie” when from the noble castle to the normal people in the form of “restaurant”
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
ML: Yes but I don’t really know what they think… I never see them.
Seriously, it’s pretty cool with them but indeed we have to book in advance lol.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
ML: Between friends we always blind taste for a couple of minutes. We work with the “3 strikes method”. We call and if you are wrong three time then the wine is revealed. I think is a good way to keep your mental reference. But I’m not in to that really structured blind tasting, I’m more freestyle
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?
ML: I’ve never smoked! And I’m not bothered if someone does.
GFR: Coffee or tea?
ML: Coffee .
GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?
ML: Hot sauce.
GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?
GFR: Milk or dark?
GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?
GFR: Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal?
ML: Medium rare.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GFR: AH yes, I knew that!
In your mind what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
ML: Authenticity. Every country is getting back to their roots, local grapes, local vinification, and they are stopping trying to make 96 parker points with some Bordeaux grapes.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? Why do you feel that is?
ML: I think that trying to make wine for “the market” is out. Produce original and authentic product.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
ML: Treating wine like price or like trophies! Just drink the damn wine and enjoy all the culture and knowledge behind it.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
ML: Crab and Lobster with Chablis. But my all time favourite is Pigeon and Pinot Noir.
GFR: Mmmmmmnnn… pigeon.
Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
ML: Wine is now very expensive, so I drink a lot of beer. The beer scene in QC is awesome.
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…
ML: Everything that involves a computer and numbers.
GFR: Funny, I kind of liked that part.
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?
ML: I had my wild years, and ironically they are the years that I tasted and discovered so many wines and estates, but I’m ageing so I have a no-alcohol regime throughout the week and only drink on weekends.
GFR: I wish I could do that…
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!
ML: The restaurant world is a crazy place indeed but it’s no excuse to fall in drugs and alcohol. I think if you want to make it a career you have to instil discipline or your body will not resist to the world of restoration.
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…
ML: Tylenol and a lot of water before bed and then junk food for lunch.
GFR: How many wines do you “taste” in a week during the pandemic?
ML: 2 or 3.
GFR: When tasting with agents did you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
GFR: Funny, that would be my answer too.
Most remembered glass of wine ever?
ML: Château Latour 1955.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
ML: Fresh, youthful, and yummy.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Marc… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
ML: Mourvèdre. Rustic at the beginning but ageing gracefully.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Marc. Some great answers there.
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.