In the first of a eighteenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario. 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.
This month we focus upon Melissa Stunden, a talented young woman who has tried many aspects of the business before settling into her current role…
Good Food Revolution: So Melissa, what is it that you are doing these days?
Melissa Stunden: In December 2017 I started my own beverage alcohol consulting company, with my business partner Andrea Backstrom. We started the business after we won the contract to manage the market development of the New Zealand Wine Category across Canada. We work very closely with the trade, media, liquor boards, educational bodies such as IWEG and CAPS and host a series of different events over the course of the year to help support all things New Zealand wine.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training wine-wise did you have before doing what you do today?
MS: I was part of the CAPS 1st graduating class in 2016 where I achieved my Sommelier certification with academic honours. I worked with Le Select Bistro, arguably still one of the best wine cellars in Toronto, as I continued my studies. Following my certification, I worked as the Assistant Sommelier to Jennifer Huether, MS at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Inc. where I achieved the prestigious award of Top 30 under 30. After 6 incredible years with the team at MLSE I decided to pursue a career in wine sales. After some time in the world of spirits with Diageo I moved to Lifford Wine & Spirits where I focused on fine wine sales and moved on to develop their National Accounts Program. It was a trip to Pinot Noir Conference in 2017 that really solidified my love for NZ wines and the country itself!
GFR: So how did the gig with New Zealand Wines come about?
MS: Funny story actually… Andrea and I had been working together at Lifford for 2 years at that point and we often worked side by side. It was our ritual to have sushi lunch on Monday’s to discuss our strategy for the coming weeks on supplier visits and events. It was then that we received the notification that New Zealand Winegrowers was looking for a company to fill the contract once Robert Ketchin retired. We read through the description and between us had experience across all areas, so we decided to apply!
GFR: And how has your first year been? Tell us three things that you have learned?
MS: I don’t know that I have enough room in this article to identify everything we’ve learned so far however what I can say with certainty is that it’s been a dream come true! Firstly, it’s been awesome learning how to run our own business as well as balance the daily requirements of working with New Zealand Winegrowers and our other clients. Secondly, it’s been interesting learning how to look at the wine business from a different perspective, in selling and marketing an entire country. Thirdly, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the markets across Canada, and their intricacies – every province operates in its own unique way! I’ve always worked more with the trade and national restaurant accounts so to learn the national retail side from Andrea has been a great experience.
GFR: And what do you have planned for NZ wines over the next 12 months?
MS: We are very lucky to work with such a great country. New Zealand has always had such a great reputation with consumers and trade alike. One of the things that I have identified over the last year is that although Canada is over-indexed on varieties other then Sauvignon Blanc compared to other parts of the world, there is still so much room to grow! New Zealand is an extremely forward-thinking country and is always thinking ahead of its time in terms of techniques both in the vineyard and the winery. It’s my goal this year to really share everything that I have learned through new and exciting events and educational programs. We have some amazing things planned for our Pure Discovery Wine Fair road show in May so make sure you save the date!! 😊
GFR: And what did you learn from your many roles on the other side of the fence that you can apply to your current position? Are there many transferable skills there?
MS: I truly believe that every experience I’ve had at previous roles has brought me to where I am today. Working in restaurants was always about understanding the guests in short period of time and identifying what they need to give them the best experience. Being able to think on your feet but also juggle a million other things at one time really sets you up for success in future roles. Especially now when we execute large events.
GFR: I’m often speaking to working Sommeliers who are considering moving into the world of ambassadorial or marketing roles. What advice would you give them?
MS: I have also had this conversation with a lot with peers working as Sommeliers. It’s a good transition into the business of wine from the wine business. Once you move into a sales and marketing role it’s important to be able to share the story of each individual winery but to also be able to identify the right client and still provide a decent return! Further, it’s important to remember that to be successful you must sell several different wines, not only the ones that fit with your personal taste profile or interest level. If you are confident and comfortable with that, it can be the best move forward!
GFR: You are also quite involved with CAPS… please tell us a little about that…
MS: Education has always been important to me. Being involved with CAPS is a great way to stay connected and engaged with the trade. It’s also a great way to give back to the community and help the young generation of Sommeliers. I was on the Board of Directors for several years – 7 terms I believe…. I took some time off the last year to focus on starting the business, but I have recently jumped back in and will be helping to execute an exciting event happening during BOSC in April 2019. Stay tuned for more details!
GFR: Do you ever miss working on the floor as a Sommelier? To be honest with you, and for the record, I don’t. At all.
The deadly combination of my bad back and a growing intolerance towards ignorant customers would make me a hell of a liability for any restaurateur. Anyway… enough about me!
MS: HAHA! I really DO miss it actually! I never grew tired of working on the floor. The last several years as a working Sommelier I was lucky enough to only working with wine. Whioch I think is now a days a hard role to find! When I decided to stop it was because I was just really interested in working in sales and furthering my career in the business. I still always jump at the opportunity to moonlight and I often work as the Sommelier during the wine dinners we organize. It’s just in my blood!
GFR: What’s your whole 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.
MS: Wow, tough question. Like you, I was never part of the tip pool either when I was working as a Sommelier. I agree with you about it being broken. A tip should be earned for good service and unfortunately in our industry I feel like it is expected whether there is good service or not. The down side to this however, is that the server minimum wage is only $12.20/hr and it would be next to impossible to support oneself on this wage only thus relying on the tip system.
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 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.
MS: I like good wine! If it’s produced naturally or not. End of story…
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier/merchant in your mind?
MS: The most important part of being a good agent/supplier is understanding your customers. Two ears, one mouth sort of speak… People tell you what they want and if you listen it makes for a harmonious relationship!
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent/supplier/merchant?
MS: Only looking out for your own goals – the key to a successful, results-driven relationship is collaboration.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
MS: I love Canadian wines! Having grown up in Niagara wine country I was introduced to these wines at an early stage in my career. I’m so proud of how far we’ve come. I’ve noticed a huge increase in quality over the last 5 years and I’m excited to see that they are now being recognized on a global stage! They deserve it!
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario?
MS: I’m a big fan of Niagara Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. As a cool climate region, we can really nail these varieties.
GFR: How do you feel about restaurants support of our local industry?
MS: Some do a great job and some don’t do enough. It’s important that restaurants support the local industries in as many ways as they can.
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?
MS: I think there is good and bad wine being produced in all wine growing regions around the world. It’s our job, as wine industry professionals, to support our local producers. With that being said however it has to be good quality! I have similar feelings about this as I do about natural wine.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
MS: I grew up on the Beamsville Bench so I was surrounded by vineyards most of my life. It was a lot different back then though as we’re talking 20 years ago.. Ageing myself I guess… My parents weren’t really that into it though so my first real experience wasn’t until I started working in restaurants at the age of 17.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
MS: I worked with a Brock Oenology student at my first restaurant job and he was determined to teach me everything! It was a lucky introduction 😊
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
MS: It depends on the culture. I don’t have a problem with younger adults tasting wine culturally with their families. Introducing wine young as a compliment to a meal avoids the desire to treat it as alcohol later in life.
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?
MS: I was working at a winery in Niagara. One of my colleagues decided to apply for the CAPS Sommelier program in Niagara. I decided to join him as I had a keen interest. The rest is history really.
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 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?
MS: I think that is changing… Fast! There are so many talented women taking the lead in our industry. Not only here in Ontario but across the country and beyond! Just look at who has taken top spots in global competition. People like Veronique Rivest, Jen Huether, Elyse Lambert and most recently Pascaline Lepeltier winning the Best Sommelier of France 2018.
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. As a woman in the industry 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.
MS: It’s something we need to keep talking about to make it a comfortable place for women to come forward and make these people accountable for their actions. With that being said I’ve been really lucky and haven’t been personally affected but I hope that we get to a place where we didn’t have to worry about it any more.
GFR: Does your current job allow you to travel much? Where have you been lately?
MS: I travel a lot across Canada. Mainly our major markets. BC, AB, ON and QC. We do get the chance to visit New Zealand every year or two and we work closely with our American counterparts, so I expect there will be more North American travel in the near future.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit previously?
MS: Mainly the New Zealand wine regions. Last year we did some deep diving into Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa. This year I hope to do more exploring in the South Island. I will be attending the International Sauvignon Blanc Conference this year in Marlborough and we will be heading down to Central Otago. Another region I’m super excited to see for the first time is Gisborne on the North Island.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
MS: Not yet!
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
MS: Funny enough, New Zealand would be my ideal place. It’s an ideal climate to produce excellent and exciting wines with very low human intervention.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
MS: I like both. I’m strong in operations so managing people in that capacity comes second nature. On a daily I would say I prefer to manage bottles.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
MS: I am biased to Jen Huether as I worked under her for a number of years, but not many people would argue this bias! She is the first female Master Sommelier in Canada and is an amazing person to work with. She has had great success in her career, I am fortunate that I still get to work so closely with her.
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 nine years!!!
MS: No – I only dream about wine!
GFR: Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Oh, wait a minute… you are more of a 9 – 5er now, aren’t you? What are the hours of someone in your role?
MS: Is 9-5 still a thing?
GFR: Ha… I guess it’s not.
Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
MS: Dirty secret – Kraft dinner with truffle oil. If I am being honest, my husband is the chef in the family.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
MS: Let’s just say I have an affinity to garlic.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
MS: Absolutely! And getting better everyday.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
MS: Yes, I have made many great friends and acquaintances through my experiences and love getting together with them. They are the only ones who truly appreciate really geeking it out on a bottle.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
MS: Toronto has a great wine and cocktail scene and can compete on a global scale – I love the list at Le Select Bistro for some awesome wines at great value. There list also has great vintage depth having aged wines for years. For cocktails my ‘go to’ is Pretty Ugly.
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants? And who does it well?
MS: Music adds a great ambience to restaurants!
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
MS: The wine poisoning scene in The Process Bride.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
MS: Absolutely, and most of them drink wine so they are supportive!
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
MS: I love competition by nature, so am a big fan.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
MS: Without a hangover
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
MS: Martinborough – it is the hidden gem of the Wairarapa region making incredible Pinot Noir.
GFR: In your mind, as an (ex?) Sommelier and (current) wine marketer, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
MS: More refined styles of wine, the sommelier community has always been a fan but this trend is moving onto consumers.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
MS: Raclette and Burgundy
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with NZ wines…
What would you suggest to pair with them food-wise… and why?
GFR: Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc?
MS:Raspberry Point Oysters. They both have this delicious umami taste profile that work symbiotically together.
GFR: Ata Rangi Pinot Noir
MS: We recently cooked a Partridge that was caught in the Badlands of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. It was very simply done, grilled with a bit of salt and pepper. The Ata Rangi Pinot would have gone amazingly. Both have very distinct but delicate flavours showcasing their personalities at exactly the right time
GFR: Pyramid Valley Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay
MS: This is a pretty ripe and juicy style of Chardonnay with notes of peaches and green mangoes. I’d tend to lean towards something a bit richer and maybe with a bit of spice. Perhaps a butternut squash ravioli drizzled with a beurre blanc sauce cooked with a fresh jalapeno.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
MS: Local craft beers, not too heavy on the hops. I’m always up for a good margherita but Negroni’s are usually my go to cocktail.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
MS: Pulltap’s Double-Hinged Waiters Corkscrew. Pretty simple.
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?
MS: Everything in moderation.
GFR: 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…
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…
MS: Caesar always does the trick!
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
MS: Anything good!
GFR: And now the cheesy question Melissa… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
MS: Merlot – part of a team, shines when it needs to, good on its own and ages well.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Melissa.
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.