In the second of a twenty-first 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 sees the turn of Olivia Siu, an extremely talented woman who works with Nicholas Pearce Wines.
You can find her excellent blog, CrazyWineAsian, right here.
Good Food Revolution: So Olivia, what is it that you are doing these days?
Olivia Siu: I spend most of my week working at Nicholas Pearce Wines, where I run marketing programs and organize events. It’s a good time! In the evenings and weekends, I split my time between Vinequity projects, WSET Diploma studies, and a handful of mysterious side projects.
GFR: Please describe your role there? What does a normal day entail?
OS: Each day is a little different, but they all involve helping Ontario sommeliers and wine lovers engage with the NPW universe throughout their wine journey – from discovery to consumption, and beyond. This could mean getting to know our audience, and coming up with email offers, social media, events, and advertisements that they love. This could also mean diving deep into producers and regions, and turning them into bite-sized, consumer-friendly content… See, it is like being a wine cupid, constantly creating the serendipitous moments for people to find the wines they love. Oh, also, every week I get to meet new and interesting people in the Ontario trade scene (like yourself, Jamie!) The community is very tight knit, and being able to engage with this vibrant group of people has been a great source of joy.
GFR: Ah, the flattery!
The fact that anyone with a licence can now open a bottle shop has changed the booze retail landscape forever, and it’s maybe one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic.
How have you witnessed this new found freedom evolving over the past 18 months? How do you feel about mark-ups and the like? And who is doing it well?
OS: I am so jazzed that bottle shops are finally a thing in Ontario. A few years ago, I went to a restaurant named La CaVe in Montreuil just outside of downtown Paris. It is located behind a bottle shop, where you pick your wine and open it in the restaurant by paying just a little extra. I am a big fan! And I am so happy to see more and more of this concept popping up in Toronto.
The silver-lining is with COVID, this new-found freedom (of licensees being able to sell their special wines by the bottle) has translated into new business opportunities. I am particularly excited for new wine clubs and subscription boxes popping up all around the city!
GFR: Please tell us a little about your Sommelier history? What kind of experience and training wine-wise did you have before doing what you are doing today? And looking back, if you could, would you have made different decisions?
OS: It looks something like this:
Advanced wine knowledge X (Marketing background + writing and design skills) = what I am doing today.
It all started with a burning desire to get a job in wine – any job – and I didn’t care what it was. But to get in, all hiring ads required experience that I didn’t have: experience on the floor, experience in FMCG, or experience with alcoholic beverages… So I decided the only thing I had control over was to invest in my education. I put my head down and completed my WSET 2 and 3 with ITHQ within six months to fast track my foundational learning. I also made a few friends at wine fairs, who ended up becoming my mentors. Isn’t it so gratifying when the universe listens and rewards you for your hardwork?
My successful WSET training and the industry experience my mentor provided had landed me a sommelier job at Mission Hill Winery in the Okanagan Valley. After a summer “somming” out west, I had the opportunity to market global luxury wine brands with Mark Anthony, and completed my French Wine Scholar along the way. What a fabulous course! Then during the pandemic, I gave social media and wine writing a try, and to my surprise, I wasn’t awful at it either. All signs point towards leveraging my B.Com marketing degree, creativity, and wine knowledge to pursue wine marketing in an import and distribution capacity, at an agency that carries a portfolio that I admire. I am lucky to have found Nicholas Pearce!
It has become incredibly clear that the business and academia approach to wine that the WSET offers is the path I should take. I am now working on my Diploma, which I hope I have taken sooner. Hopefully by the time I pursue my MW, my career will start to blossom. This is only the beginning!
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to being a Sommelier? You come from a different sector, right?
OS: Before I made the switch into wine, I was a global tech marketer based in Montreal for seven years, working with products that are very cool and cutting-edge, but I have little passion for. The thing is as a marketer, I think it is pointless to work with products I have limited knowledge in, and have little heart for. Well, you can imagine my excitement when I was introduced to a career in wine for the first time!
Initially, my goal was to become a Sommelier. Unfortunately, my French is rather merde, and let’s be real, without French and any floor experience, it is impossible to land any wine job in Montreal, let alone a Sommelier. I quickly accepted that it is more practical to explore a career in wine outside of Quebec, and in the area of sales and marketing.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
OS: This is the most embarrassing story ever. It all started with – um – a documentary. Many years ago, I found myself incredibly jet lagged at my mom’s house in Taipei after travelling for 36 hours. It was 2am, and it didn’t seem like sleep was going to happen, so I went on a Netflix binge and landed on… well, Somm 2: Into the Bottle. I was totally sucked into it. Jamie… I hate to say it, and I don’t care what other people think: Somm 2 changed my life! The next day, I started reading and studying Wine Folly article by article (the website was still in its relative infancy at the time), and the rest is history.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
OS: My family aren’t wine drinkers. They are barely alcohol drinkers. As far as Asians go, everyone in my immediate family is allergic to alcohol, meaning they get super red after only two sips of beer, and would start spilling their darkest secrets after four sips… with the exception of my grandmother, where I probably got my drinking genes from 🙂
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
OS: My first taste of any wine? Absolutely not. My first taste of something special? It was a 2000 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose.
GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
OS: At birth! Or at least, as early as possible. Wine is culture! I hear French grandparents like to dip their finger into champagne and stick it into a newborn’s mouth. I like to call it the French baptism. “Et, voila! You are French now!” That’s probably what they do. Is it true? Well at least I choose to believe it is.
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?
OS: HAHA OK Jamie I feel attacked! The Somm film, and I am referring to Somm 2, was a big part of why I got into wine. To me, the focus of the film was less about the douchebaggery, but rather, camaraderie, and connecting wine with history, culture, place, and memories. I don’t consider myself pretentious, and definitely not an arsehole. Oh gosh! I really hope not!
GFR: Ha… I had no idea about your personal connection to that film!
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 wine world… big question I know, but I feel it’s a topic that deserves discussion.
OS: I am fortunate to have never experienced any sexual harassment in the workplace, nor have I witnessed it happen first hand. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist though. What I have experienced and witnessed, however, is the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the wine industry. White male dominate leadership positions. People of colour, often women, are often found at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid. The thing is… we are selling wines to Canadians here, and Canada is a mosaic of colourful cultures. The lack of diversity in wine organizations equates a disconnect with the myriad of people we represent, which equates missed opportunities to sell to a broader wine-consuming audience. The George Floyd incident in 2020 was a wake up call for businesses to recognize the systemic issue, and I am excited to see organizations like Vinequity – which I co-founded with Nabilah Rawji, Debbie Shing, Chanile Vines, Nupur Gogia, Carrie Rau, and Beverly Crandon – to evolve the industry into a more diverse, equatable, and inclusive one.
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.
OS: Why yes, I had a “give me natural wine or give me death” phase. It probably has to do with RASPIPAV being the first wine show I ever attended, where I met some influential figures who guided me into the wine industry. Gravner being my “aha” natural producer I discovered there!
I like it when people enjoy natural wines for the right reasons. Not just because it is natural, therefore virtuous, but what it means to the world around us. I like how natural wines take a broader approach to the topic and see beyond what’s in the glass, and I love how people can express their views with their beverage choices. It adds diversity to a market that favours conventional wines.
This said, I do think people who favour natural wines, blindly, and at the expense of quality and taste, are doing it wrong.
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 months back… Hmmmm… interesting, but really not for me any more.
OS: I had a phase where I irrationally favoured orange wines over all else for about a year. Good that I have diversified my palate since.
GFR: Orange wines… *shudder*
How do you feel about Canadian wines?
OS: A cool climate wine freak like me finds Canadian wines irresistible!
GFR: What do you think that we do well here in Canada?
OS: Some of the best wines I have had from Canada are made of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cab Franc.
GFR: And what do you feel we should really give up on?
OS: Rip out all the Baco Noirs already! I’m joking. Don’t ever give up on anything.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian’s support of our local wine industry?
OS: In BC, people are incredibly supportive of local wines, and it is beautiful! In Ontario, it is not quite on the same level as BC, but we are getting there.
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?
OS: There is nothing wrong with this, especially during COVID! By promoting local, it inevitably drives more demand to local wineries, which then creates more pressure for them to up their quality game to impress and retain these new customers. This might actually help improve the quality of local wines overall!
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!
OS: My old job allowed me to travel to other provinces, which helped me understand the different nuances of each Canadian wine market. Now I look forward to travelling internationally when the opportunity comes.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit over the years?
OS: When I lived in the Okanagan one summer, I managed to visit all of its sub-appellations and considered it a huge accomplishment. During my holidays, I did a decent amount of wine travels in France: Loire, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone, Languedoc, Roussillon, and most recently, Provence.
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
OS: I attempted kombucha once, and it was a disaster. Let’s leave it at that.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
OS: In Auvergne, the middle of France.
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
OS: People! As much as bottles are awesome because they don’t ever talk back, managing people is way more rewarding.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
OS: High: made the switch into the wine industry and met all the wonderful people. Low: made the switch into the wine industry and swallowed a big pay cut. I have zero regrets though!
GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?
OS: Pascaline Lepeltier
GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?
OS: Shout out to Nicholas Pearce! Also, mega respect for Le Sommelier and The Living Vine, and That’s Life.
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!!!
OS: Oh yeah – wines not arriving in time for events…
GFR: Wine folks famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
OS: I have only experienced hospitality hours when I worked at an Okanagan winery. A perfect Sunday would involve a nice dip in the lake, a hike on the trails, and visiting wineries with friends.
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?
OS: Le Baratin on Dundas West is a modest little French restaurant I frequent. The chef comes from Auvergne (upper Loire), home to delicious lentils, blue cheese, and saucisson, which you can find on their menu. You can often get seated without advanced reservations. I love their duck magret, and their wine list ranges between $50-$80 a bottle, which is good for my wallet.
GFR: You like to cook yourself, don’t you? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
OS: I am a simple gal, and love to cook up a good, fluffy plain omelette that bleeds a little when you cut it open. Top it up with some Maldon salt and serve on buttered sourdough.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
OS: Corked wine in pan sauce.
GFR: Ooof! That’s gotta hurt.
Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Toronto?
OS: Hell yes! It is pretty tight!
GFR: Do you hang out often with other Sommeliers? And if you do, do you only shoot the shit about wine?
OS: When hanging out with other somms, wine is obviously the common denominator. But I rather spend the time getting to know them outside of wine. Somms are real people too!
GFR: Well, some of them are…
What do you feel you would be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
OS: Probably still working in the tech start-up scene, living a very different life.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
OS: Hannibal Lecter…… this twisted man knows now to live, as much as he knows how to kill. Haha.
GFR: Do you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
OS: All my non-industry friends know how hard I have worked to enter and stay in this industry, and I am grateful to have them cheer me on as I chase my dreams. The question I get the most – which I think many industry friends can relate to – is “So, do you drink wine all the time?” I think they don’t understand the concept of spitting!
GFR: Yes, after all these years I’m still trying to get my head around this alien concept of spitting….
What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
OS: Blind tasting is a great game I love to play! Blind tasting is so humbling, yet incredibly fun, educational, and a great way to bond with my cohorts. There is no better way to test your wine theory knowledge – it keeps you on your toes! I also love how therapeutic it is to devote your attention to the liquid in front of you, and the outcome is always rewarding.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
OS: …and me the latter.
GFR: Some of the best tasters I know are heavy smokers… What are your thoughts there?
OS: Some of the best tasters I know are pregnant… What are your thoughts there?
GFR: Well, all those hormones can certainly impact one’s sensitivities, that’s for sure!
In your mind what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
OS: Wineries (e.g. Terre de l’Elu in the Loire, Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone in Bordeaux) who give a middle finger to the appellation rules and classification systems that were established when the world was way different from the one we live in right now. In an industry so conformed to rules and regulations, it is refreshing to see wineries shaking up the status quo.
Same goes for how the industry is shaking up the systemic structure, where, white male dominate leadership positions in large wine corporations. Many big industry players are now recognizing the need for change. And I am excited to see Canadian BIPOC and women-led organizations like Vinequity and Vineca leading the way to a more diverse and colourful wine industry.
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? Why do you feel that is?
OS: This is probably old news… but blue wine. Why was it ever a thing?!
GFR: Huh? I’ll admit that blue wine had totally passed me by… I had to Google it!
When it comes to wine, is there anything that you feel is overrated?
OS: Well, I find any wine over $300 overrated. Happy to drink them though!
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
OS: Vin Jaune and Comté.
GFR: Now that I can agree with.
Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
OS: I have been into ciders lately, because of its low-alc content and an uncanny resemblance to champagne when done in a certain style.
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… and the resultant papercuts (I have such soft hands!)
OS: I am with you on breaking down boxes. Also, polishing glasses… god bless my wrist grease…
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew? And why?
OS: A high quality two-step corkscrew with a VERY sharp blade. I get mine sharpened routinely!
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?
OS: I don’t think my schedule would appreciate hangover weekends these days! Which is why I like to limit myself to one glass, often a sparkling wine, with a nice meal. In a group setting where bottles are getting opened left, right, and centre, sipping slowly always helps. Also, remember… spitters are not quitters!
OK, who am I kidding, I do like to indulge once in a while.
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…
OS: We all have skeletons in our closets…
GFR: Just some of us more than other… *cough*
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…
OS: Run a 10k! It works magic.
GFR: I DO NOT see that happening anytime soon… my old back and all.
How many wines do you “taste” in a week during the pandemic?
OS: Haha. I plead the fifth.
GFR: When tasting with clients/agents did you choose to spit or swallow?
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
OS: I try not to drink the same wine twice, so the concept of a house wine is nil.
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
OS: Château de Puligny-Montrachet, ‘Clos du Château’ Bourgogne 1990
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
OS: Any high quality bright and leesy white would do.
GFR: Coffee or tea?
GFR: Lemon, horseradish, mignonette, or hot sauce?
GFR: Vindaloo or Korma?
GFR: Milk or dark?
GFR: Ketchup, mayonnaise, or salt & vinegar?
OS: Mayonnaise. Not the shitty kind though.
GFR: Hahaha… even worse is Tartar made with Miracle Whip… someone served that to me with fish & chips last week!
Blue, R, MR, M, MW, W, Charcoal?
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
GFR: And now the cheesy question Olivia… If you were a grape variety which would you be? and why?
OS: Gamay! She can be serious but often not too serious, and always in for a good time.
GFR: Thank you for taking the time, Olivia. Much appreciated.
OS: Thank you for having me!
Edinburgh-born/Ontario-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, educator, and Dad, Jamie Drummond is the Director/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.