In the second of a twentieth 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 and often underexposed stars.
What with the pandemic hitting the hospitality industry like a ton of bricks (and a couple of Young Blood Sommeliers being scared off by the sheer length of the interviews), the series has been on hold for quite some time, but this week we are back with an extended interview with none other than Nabilah Rawji, former Wine Director at Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel.
Good Food Revolution: So Nabilah, what with the world of hospitality being turned upside down due to the ongoing pandemic, what is it that you are doing these days?
Nabilah Rawji: Well, not working nearly as much as I’m used to; it’s all felt a bit like the Twilight Zone. I’m doing a bit a sales with Groupe Soleil and some virtual tastings, as well as writing a bit of the content for Somm360’s educational modules.
GFR: And how has Vinequity developed since we last spoke?
NR: Vinequity is coming along really really well.We’re about halfway through our first year and we have just completed the application and placement process for round one of our mentorship program. We’ve hosted one formal webinar and have others in the works that will be hosted in the next few months.
We have a much clearer picture of the specific needs from our community base as well as a really encouraging amount of practical support from our industry allies. We’re about 60% of the way on our year one fundraising goal so that leaves me feeling really good about the level of financial support that we will be offering with our first round of educational scholarships in March. Shameless plug, if anyone is able and willing to donate, or would like to connect directly to find out how they can support, they can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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…
NR: It’s a whole different side of things, and I’m trying to keep a beginner’s mind as I’m learning the ropes. It’s been a very positive experience so far, but certainly a slow-going process given that restaurants have been in lockdowns since I started out on this new adventure.
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!
NR: I think that our local hospitality industry is under increased pressure from two duelling forces: One side being the status quo we were already operating under where it’s already been about squeezing as much as you can from every resource in your restaurant ecosystem, including your people. The other side being a very people and labor focused drive to re-imagine what a sustainable hospitality ecosystem would look like.
On my pessimistic days, the former wins out and we’re all fucked. On optimistic days, Viva La Revolution. I do genuinely hope we make the most of this opportunity to reset things, but I think a lot of that is going to come down to whether our government supports the industry-wide changes that are needed. I’m not encouraged by Ford or Tory’s actions so far.
GFR: You and me both!
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…
NR: I have worked in environments that run the spectrum for how tips are handled, and who exactly is in the tip pool and who ultimately takes responsibility for managing said tip pool. It always seems to be a matter of well-intended but imperfect systems. Also, what is equitable and fair in the opinion of a team at the outset of a restaurant, may not remain so in the opinion of a team as it naturally evolves, yet there are few effective mechanisms for evolving an establishment’s tipping practices.
Arguments over who exactly deserves to be included in tip pools and what share of it they should get, keep us distracted from addressing the root problems of our hospitality industry. Our current systems don’t serve any team within the restaurant equitably and there are legitimate grievances being raised by all teams, be it FOH servers, support staff, BOH or Management.
On the whole, I think that tipping is a reflection of a broken system and itself is a practice rooted in anti-Black Jim Crow Era practices. Shifting our hospitality industry to a sustainable model needs to include figuring out how to do away with tipping.
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?
NR: In a perfect world I am feeling confident at being a new parent, and am well on my way to working for myself at least half time. I’m not sure exactly what blend of work within and related to wine that would look like quite yet, but I think I’m done with tying myself to a single venture.
GFR: Please tell us a little about your last Sommelier role?
NR: For the two years or so prior to Covid, I was working as the Wine Director for the Shangri-La Hotel. It was an awesome and challenging role that I’m grateful to have held. I spent a lot of my time there as part of the team at Bosk, and wore many hats within that, as you do, but my role also challenged me to integrate with the many different outlets and teams working in the hotel. I appreciated that working as the Somm for the hotel took me from working with our events team, planning for corporate clients, and weddings to front desk and guest relations, to working with the lobby and bar team.
GFR: Do you miss working there?
NR: There are things that I miss about working there, and I certainly miss the connections I had built with a lot of the team and regulars there. I feel that there was a lot of potential for the property and the wine program that we were only just on the cusp of seeing come to fruition and I miss the chance to have seen those things through. At the same time, there were some solid wins, a lot of good memories and I really especially value and miss the creative symbiotic dynamic I had with the BOH team I worked with.
GFR: How did you go about selecting wines for the list there? Was there an overarching philosophy to your choices?
NR: The hotel had this interesting blended identity since it caters to a broad range of international travellers as well as local area residents. It meant the wine program needed to be focused on familiar touchstones and classic wines of the world across the price spectrum to honour our international and business travellers who aren’t necessarily looking for a ultra funky cerebral wine bar type experience, but I also needed to provide a balance of unique and off-the-beaten-path wines for locals and residents who wanted the option to try new things. I tried to put together something that was balanced and approachable and could satisfy the wine collector as much as it could the wine curious traveller.
GFR: And what kind of experience and training wine-wise did you have before taking on that prestigious role?
When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to being a Sommelier yourself? You had a previous career I believe…
NR: I’d been with O&B prior to the hotel, and like many other somms and industry professionals in Toronto, I found O&B to be an excellent training ground. I had both the latitude and support to manage a wine program down to the nuts and bolts. I think the technical experience in managing the numbers and inventory were crucial to being effective in my next role with the Shangri-La.
I had always been wine curious, but I didn’t grow up in a family that drank wine, so I hadn’t really considered that a career in wine was even a thing until I was back in Toronto after some travel and trying to figure out what to do with myself.
My academic training and most of my work through my twenties was in Field Biology and Animal Behaviour. I took every opportunity I could get to work in the field and had intended to pursue a PhD in that, however owing to a bunch of different life things, that became less and less of an option and I needed to adapt. Clichéd, but I watched the Somm documentary and I realized that wine had this similar blend of intellectual rigour and nerdiness, combined with an emphasis on using all your senses and was going to be an industry where I could be on my feet instead of behind a desk all day, and that was when I decided I needed to explore this as a career switch.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
NR: I’m not totally sure exactly what sparked it for me. I grew up in California, so I was broadly aware of wine, but I am from a Muslim family (very liberal and open minded) that didn’t drink save for the rare occasion. I remember jumping at the chance to take the wine tasting appreciation classes in university and I liked exploring and trying wines at Trader Joe’s and Cost Plus since they had shelf talkers and tidbits of info about the wines or regions, or pairings to try.
I kinda always figured that wine, and specifically working in vineyards, would be something I’d explore as functional retirement, after a long happy career as a professional bio nerd.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
NR: Wine with some of our family friends at holiday dinners when I was like 10, 12… something like that. I remember it was red, and it had a bull on the label, but I have no clue what it was or where from.
GFR: Haha… we may have been trying the same wine back then.
When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
NR: Whenever they pick up on the fact that their parents are drinking it and they’re not allowed to have it. If you’re a household of regular wine drinkers, then your kids should have a sense of what it is early on, and a healthy framework for “wine is a cool thing in moderation”. If it becomes forbidden fruit, or they see you having an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, then they’re being set up for bad habits.
GFR: Agreed, wholeheartedly.
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?
NR: Haha… okay, so minor landmines. I think that the phenomenon of Douche-Bro Somm predates the film, but the film galvanized men working in the industry behind a really toxic trope of what it means to be a somm. I think that the emergence of a new Wine Bro culture is moot, because the wine world has several iterations of exclusionary culture already alive and well. I think that as wine professionals, it helps if we keep an open mind, operate from a place of wanting to welcome everyone into wine, and work to keep our language around wine approachable.
GFR: That’s a very fair observation, and something that I fear I had forgotten.
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. See the King Street Food company dumpster fire…
As a BIPOC 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.
NR: As far as what I’ve come across in restaurants, yeah I’ve seen everything from guests behaving grossly towards staff, staff members harassing or being inappropriate with each other, and overall a lot of generalized misogyny coming from male leadership. It’s really upsetting that such a dynamic has become so normalized within hospitality and that senior management and HR teams are generally poorly equipped to tackle the problem.
I think that the issue of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in restaurant settings is tied to larger issues of exploitative and abusive labour practices. Eradicating it from our culture means taking a hard look at how cis-normative standards are ingrained within restaurant culture and how we use those standards to govern how management, staff, and guests relate to each other. We expect women and femmes in general to take on this whole other layer of emotional labour, to perform implied sexual availability and to be unflaggingly polite. That just sets up a terrible power dynamic within the space that lends itself to abuse and harassment.
I am encouraged though by the organizations and individuals who are really leading the push for structural change around these issues such as the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition, The Full Plate, Christina Vieira, Arianne Persaud, and Not 9 to 5.
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. I felt you would be a good person to ask about this…
NR: I like wines of many sorts and don’t ascribe to the dogma of any one school of production philosophy. There are lots of amazing natural wines out there, but I do think that NATURAL wines have become one of these exclusionary sub-cultures that is more concerned with specific language, winemaking techniques, and “stories” as signifiers of a kind of virtuous identity, more than it’s concerned with quality or responsible production I appreciate the natural wine movements stance that certain things are a fault not by sheer presence in a wine, but by dose and whether it dominates the wine or conversely if the same character positively contributes to a wine. That being said, “natural wine” has become too easy a band-aid to slap onto a faulted bottle of crap and sell it for way too much.
I also really wish that the natural wine world would start to reckon with labour equity as much as it’s taken a hard look at viticulture and vinification practices. “Natural” Wine feels like when Dole decided to start producing “Organic” Bananas meanwhile they were still rampantly destroying pristine forests and abusing their workers in the course of doing so.
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.
NR: Oh – I’ve 100% gone the typical route of starting out with big bold fruit jammy reds like old vine Zins and I’ve slowly been drawn to drier and drier, crunchy acid, tannin-driven wines. It’s a wonder that it took me so long to come round to loving acid in wines. Sour is one of my favourite flavours, full stop. As a kid I used to snack on citric acid powder when my mom would cook curry, and I’ve been known to eat lime wedges whole.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
NR: I think there has been a vast and noticeable improvement over the last handful of years and I’m looking forward to seeing our wine regions get better and better. It’s a shame that our producers are not properly supported by our government and that our best wines often price average consumers out.
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Ontario?
NR: We are undeniably cool climate, although our hot humid summers complicate that identity. I think we do best with cooler climate varietals, and in particular I think Loire varietals. I think we do some good Pinot Noir, but I don’t think that grape can be our region’s workhorse. I am very keen on how Gamay is doing, Cabernet Franc, even Syrah to an extent. When it comes to white wines I think we have a better range of options to experiment with and I’d love to see producers taking on some funkier varietals than just Chardonnay, Viognier, and Riesling.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
NR: Cab Sauv, Malbec, Petite Verdot, just stop.
GFR: Hmmmm… I’m rather taken by Stratus’ take on cool climate Malbec, with all those gorgeous floral elements, mainly violets, coming to the fore. And I think that they do a good job with their Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot too; although the two are usually part of the assemblage, I have enjoyed their single varietal bottlings too… niche, granted.
NR: Perhaps I’m being a little harsh… there are definitely a few examples of good Cabernet, Malbec, Petit Verdot etc. however I find them to be few and far between. Even when you do find good examples they are priced too high and from a buyer/consumer perspective we just aren’t doing examples of those grapes that I find are on a competitive level with the best examples from elsewhere in the world. I think we have such a short compacted season and then such extreme heat and humidity spikes during summer that I find our Cabs in particular suffer from being both too green and too… overripe is not quite the right word, but they feel discordant flavour-wise. I can see a Cahors style expression of Malbec working well here, but I’m not blown away by what I’ve had.
GFR: How do you feel about Ontarian’s support of our local wine industry?
NR: I think that consumers are starting to rally around our local wine industry more than I was seeing even 2 – 3 years ago. There are still too many people who just flat out won’t give our wines a chance, and that’s a shame. But hey, more for the rest of us, right?
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?
NR: I understand the sentiment behind that approach, and I get it in the short term, but in the long term I think that blind support of something just because its local ends up hampering progress, damages the region’s reputation on the whole and seeds consumer mistrust.
GFR: Did your job allow you to travel much? That’s one thing that I really miss during this damn pandemic… although I don’t know if I’ll ever want to get on a plane again!
NR: In theory yes, but in practice with very frequently being understaffed etc., not so much.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit over the years?
NR: I have had the privilege of being invited on a few sponsored trips, mostly to Italy and those have all been just incredible trips. Whenever I have had the chance to travel on a trip like that, I try to tack on a few days by myself to check out somewhere new as well. So far I’ve been to Central Italy, Valpolicella, a brief stint in Piedmont, Champagne, and Oporto.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
NR: Haha… not yet.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
NR: The only place I feel particularly tied to the land, and where I think I could spend enough years to do it right, is California – so that’s really a pipe dream.
We spent a lot of time doing weekend trips and such around the foggy bits of North Coast California, like Bodega Bay, and I’ve long dreamed of making wine there. Of course, there are now a dozen or so really interesting wineries in the area and the region’s acclaim is growing, so it’s not quite the pioneer’s dream it was for me at one time. I would jump at the chance to work in production in that area if the opportunity ever came up.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
NR: Managing bottles is easier, but working with a team of people to a common end is more satisfying. I don’t always love the push-pull of being a Sommager (Sommelier/Manager) [Grandpa Drummond had to have this one explained to him], but I think you have to be connected to the overall functioning of a restaurant to have the best effect on the team and the wine program.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
NR: Ooof… career lows, I wouldn’t discuss openly. There have been a couple. Suffice to say we all have ’em, and you just pick yourself up and move forward.
Career highs, I have some treasured memories of individual guests where I was able to really deliver a wine experience that resonated with them, and those are the highs that keep me coming back to service. Also, passing my CMS Advanced on the first time around was a really satisfying win, especially the whole context of how the friends I had at my side also passed. That week in Portland was magical.
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
NR: I have a lot of people I look up to and respect locally, and in the broader North American wine industry, but I hate putting people on pedestals and given recent events, I don’t want to highlight someone as a “role model” based on my experience alone.
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
NR: Kinda same goes.
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!!!
NR: Oh yeah, I have nightmares of I can’t find the wine that I’m looking for in the cellar, or opening the last bottle of a hard to replace wine and it’s off, I’ve had nightmares about dropping a decanter of wine while I’m doing acrobatics trying to reach a guests glass (Short somm problems). So many, and always at like 3am after a long long week where all I need is sleep.
GFR: So it’s not just me who has that one! It’s actually evolved now, and I spend 24 hours looking for the bottle, and the customers are STILL there, looking more and more frustrated.
Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
NR: Morning yoga, really good coffee, late brunch with friends, sunshine and an afternoon walk, a low key dinner in with my husband, capped off with good scotch and the two of us piled on the couch with the cats.
GFR: Where were your favourite places to dine and drink in Toronto… 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?
NR: Most of my local faves are of the cheap and cheerful variety. Lahore Tikka when I’m in the east end, Vit Beo near Ossington and Bloor, also Nazareth Bar when they still did food. I so appreciate Côte de Beouf – I’ve spent many an afternoon off there with a glass of wine, snacky bits, and a book. I adore Alma over at Lansdowne and Bloor – I really hope they make it through the pandemic. For takeout we have a pretty consistent rotation of local spots within walking distance of our place – Gus Tacos, African Palace, Jerk King, and The Rooster are staples in our house.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
NR: Both my husband and I love to cook and we’re kinda all over the place with types of cuisine and what we’re making. Right now all I want is a really good rare steak with roasted veggies, nothing revolutionary, just a fave. I enjoy making ratatouille when I have the time for it.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
NR: I got distracted when finishing up some braised beef cheeks and nearly ruined our dutch oven. Took quite a bit of work to bring that pan back from the charred mess it turned into.
GFR: Oh yes… I’ve been there. I actually left the house and forgot I had left braised oxtail cooking. Not a good thing to return home to all those hours later…
Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
NR: I think so, it may not be perfect, but I think the somm community here is genial and its small enough that we all mostly know each other. Industry here is also small enough that it really doesn’t pay for people to be assholes to each other.
GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers?
NR: Sometimes though unfortunately most of the time catching up with somms is a matter of running into each other at trade events and doing the crash course catch up over wine.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine and cocktail city? Where did you go if you needed to get your wine or cocktail on? And what do you do now?
NR: I think Toronto is pretty good as a wine city, better as a cocktail city, but sadly I rarely went out. For the most part , on rare nights off I would spend the night in with a bottle of wine and hanging out with friends or my husband.
GFR: What do you feel you would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
NR: I’d like to think that in a parallel existence I did manage to make it to my dream of working as a Field Biologist and in that other universe, I’m currently traipsing about the wilds somewhere talking to and studying animals.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
NR: There’s a great moment in Sour Grapes, where some of the Rudy Kurniawan’s “friends” who still can’t wrap their heads around having been duped take a bottle of “La Mouline” they got off him over to a wine store, fully convinced that the bottle is legit. They spend a good bit of time waxing poetic about how amazing and perfect this wine is and having several enthusiasts about the store tasting it and nodding in agreement about how great it is. Then they pass it over to the people working the wine store, and I think another somm, who nose and taste the wine and instantaneously pick up on that its totally fraudulent crap.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
NR: Yup. Most of my friends are outside the hospitality industry. They work in all other manner of industries, but a good chunk of us all come from academia. They all think its pretty cool and a fair few of them are pretty keen on wine so they were an active part of my journey through somm credentialing.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
NR: I think it’s useful as a tool that supports your actual role as a wine professional, say when evaluating wines for purchase, reviewing, or otherwise writing about wine. It’s an important skill to develop and maintain, but I think the standalone value of blind tasting as a skill or as a measure of how “good” a somm is, has been taken way too far.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
NR: I’ve actually never sat a blind hungover. I very rarely drink to the point of hangovers.
GFR: Ha… I certainly cannot claim the same.
Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?
NR: I have never smoked anything in my life. Had lung and heart issues as a kid and I stayed the helllll away from all forms of smoking.
GFR: Coffee or tea?
NR: Both, I tend to go through phases. I actually really, really appreciate tea – it was my first love well before wine. I do love my coffee though. I’m only a 1-2 cup a day person, but I’m an angry bear without coffee.
GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?
NR: A teensy bit of lemon please.
GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?
NR: Neither – I’m South Asian by way of East Africa –Our curries are different… less yogurt and cream, sometimes uses a bit of coconut milk. There’s a coconut chicken curry that is my first request anytime I visit my parents.I love a lot of diff kinds of Indian food, but the curries I grew up with are still my favesies.
GFR: Milk or dark?
NR: Dark all the way.
GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?
NR: ?? on what. This is where I know I’m not white lol.
GFR: That’s me showing my UK roots… chips! AKA fries.
NR: Ahh got it. Neither again – Ranch Dressing – was surprised to find that’s not really a thing here in Canada.
GFR: Crikey! Never heard of that before!
Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal?
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
NR: ooh I haven’t been drinking much of anything lately so I don’t have anything that’s jumping to mind really. I always come back to Piedmont and the Loire valley consistently. I love cooler climate expressions of wine in general (not exactly surprising), but both regions offer a striking diversity of wine grapes and styles.
GFR: In your mind what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
NR: It’s been nearly a full year since I’ve been off the floor and since I haven’t been drinking really, I feel fairly disconnected from the trends of the moment. I think in general that with the success of the natural wine movement that I’m seeing a greater acceptance of Loire Valley wines with a broader base of consumers (which is super awesome), and I feel like dry Alsatian wines are having a real minute.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? Why do you feel that is?
NR: Depends on with which crowd. When it comes to general consumers, I’d definitely seen a decrease in requests for Rioja/Tempranillo-based wines when I was last on the floor and I feel like Rioja has kinda dropped off the front and centre radar of wine nerds compared to a couple years ago when I feel like everyone’s feeds were drowning in Vina Tondonia.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
NR: Prosecco (nervously looks around for daggers and arrows). There are just so many options for sparkling wines all over the place, including Ontario, and don’t get me wrong – Prosecco is good, but I don’t think it’s the be all and end all of every day bubbly. Kinda nice seeing Pét Nat having a minute, but to be honest that’s pretty much just “Prosecco” of the natty wine world and my sentiment above applies there too.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
NR: No pairings for me right now. Womp womp. When I am back to enjoying wine regularly, I am most excited to revisit my fave classics like Champagne and fried chicken or dry Riesling and oysters.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
NR: I do enjoy both beer and cider and tend to gravitate towards sours, APAs, and dry, dry ciders.
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…
NR: Breaking down boxes definitely, or having to reorganize a mess of an empties room. Inventory was one of those tasks that I didn’t love up front, but once you get into your inventory it has a sort of meditative rhythm to it, and it really makes you a better somm when you handle your own inventory.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
NR: The Rabbit 2-step with a push lever instead of a swinging hinge.
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?
NR: I taste plenty courtesy of the job, but rarely drink very much, so my limit is pretty sad for a somm. I’ve seen what unhealthy relationships with alcohol can do to people and I am very conscientious about not drinking to cope with emotions. When it comes to being out and about with people I keep pace slow by nursing a scotch – more socially acceptable as a sipping drink and there’s no wine glass for friends to heavy pour and keep you going.
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!
NR: I think it’s a really messy side of our world that gets kinda glossed up and made to look like its all just an extension of good natured fun and bonding with your restaurant family. While there can certainly be an element of that, I’ve seen alcohol/drug abuse really derail people I’ve worked with and its disheartening to watch people I respect, and young people I have worked with end up on that kind of nasty life detour.
It’s really great to see us an industry confronting the serious frequency with which drug/alcohol abuse comes up and how that’s related to a really toxic work dynamics within hospitality. Again orgs like Not 9 to 5 and The Full Plate are taking on a lot of the work to have open conversations on mental health, drug and alcohol abuse in the industry.
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…
NR: Never been cut off.
GFR: And also, 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…
NR: Sweating it out, hot yoga or a hike, and rehydrating with electrolyte drinks.
GFR: How many wines do you “taste” in a week during the pandemic?
NR: The pandemic has largely been dry for me since I found out I was expecting shortly after lockdowns started.
GFR: When tasting with agents did you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
NR: No house wine for me. I still love to try something new every time I grab a bottle for home. There are too many wines out there in the world to drink the same thing regularly.
GFR: Most-remembered glass of wine ever?
NR: That’s a tough one. A sip more than a glass – I had one bottle of ’85 Borgogno Barolo that I opened for a guest and it was just the most impeccable example. A haunting and completely consuming sip of wine.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
NR: A bone dry, ice cold, high acid, Muscadet, dry Riesling, Grüner, that sort of thing.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Nabilah… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
NR: Nebbiolo – I’m a total nut for the grape in general and aside from name-based similarities, it’s a grape that clearly doesn’t do small talk and embraces its resting bitch face. It resonates.
GFR: That has to be the best answer to that question yet!
Thank you for taking the time Nabilah. It is much appreciated.
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 the Sommelier Pete Hammond, Anton is now selling wine with Banville Wine Merchants.