By Jamie Drummond
In the third of a regular (and very popular) series we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario. A few months 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.
A few weeks ago we put Pizza Libretto/Enoteca Sociale Sommelier Lesa LaPointe through the wringer in one of our most popular articles thus far. We followed this with an interview with the Owner/Wine Geek of Parkdale’s Café Taste, Mr. Jeremy Day. This week we look into the mind of the lovely Zinta Steprans, Sommelier at Toronto restaurants L’Unita and Malena:
Good Food Revolution: So what are you up to?
Zinta Steprans: I’m currently the Sommelier for L’Unita and Malena restaurants.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
ZS: My Dad always made wine… he started off making beer and moved into making wine… you know, buying the packets at first and then buying grapes from California. It’s my Father, a mathematician, another mathematician, and a physicist who do this together… and for the last eight or so years they have been buying grapes from the Laileys in Niagara.
I always used to help him make the wine, smelling the bottles to make sure they were clean and they didn’t smell of bleach after he had cleaned them
GFR: So was your Father’s wine the first wine that you can remember tasting/drinking?
GFR: Did you actually enjoy it?
ZS: Yes, I always liked my Father’s wines… at dinner my parents always had a bottle of wine on the table and I used to taste it and guess what the varietals were… it was kind of part of dinner.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
ZS: Well I did one year of university where I studied Philosophy and Photography, but I never really knew what I wanted to study, so after one year I decided to just live life and travelled, living in Vancouver, England for a bit… I travelled around Europe and Asia…
At one point I came back to see my grandparents and decided to good back to school to do something that I really loved… and that was going to be Scuba Diving… or Wine…
GFR: I see…
ZS: Rather than go out to BC to Scuba Dive I started taking some evening wine courses at George Brown… and my teacher, Mark Donaldson, was really passionate… and these courses led to the Sommelier program.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
ZS: I hear about all of these people with their epiphanies with a glass of wine… I never had that. I have always loved food, and I have always seen wine and food as being hand in hand… part of the same thing… and I just always wanted to make that experience more complete.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously male-dominated… has being a member of “the fairer sex” been a help or a hindrance to you?
ZS: I definitely feel that people treat me differently. Yesterday I was serving a table and a gentleman had ordered the last bottle of a wine on the list, and so I recommended another bottle to follow, stating that it was very similar in style to the previous wine they had enjoyed. He looked at me and said “How old are you?”
GFR: Now was that not more of an age thing?
ZS: Yes, but I think that it was a combination of my age and my sex… He was NOT going to take me seriously. I told him that I was 27 years old and the Sommelier and so he accepted my selection… and they really enjoyed it, they ended up having another two bottles!
I do feel that I have to prove myself… but I don’t mind that… it can be very satisfying in the end.
Men are often shocked when they find out that I am a Sommelier, but women tend to be more accepting and even excited about it… I don’t think that it is a hindrance at all… a challenge sometimes, but not a hindrance.
GFR: Do you have to work as a Manager as well as a Sommelier?
ZS: I get in there early to do all my Sommelier stuff… reprinting the list, organising the cellar… since Malena opened I really just work as a Sommelier on the floor. I am considered a Sommelier/Manager so when they need an extra pair of hands on the floor I help out, but but I don’t have to deal with any of the closing duties… I can relax and focus upon the wine side of things… it’s pretty cool. The owners really understand the role of a Sommelier in a restaurant. The customers are so happy to see that there is a dedicated Sommelier on the floor.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
ZS: Creating the wine list for Malena from scratch was a definite high. Having pretty much free reign to build my very own list and try and create something unique was incredibly exciting. Having all of the wines arrive and getting to unpack and organise was like Christmas day!
GFR: And the low point(s)?
ZS: I cannot say that there have been any yet… knock on wood!
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
ZS: Well, for the last few weeks I have had Cheese Class, which is great… but a perfect Sunday… Hmmm… I like to wake up and go for a MASSIVE three hour brunch with lots of friends…
GFR: Does that include alcohol?
ZS: Certainly… I think that it must be a Canadian thing to have drinks with brunch… sparkling wine… no need for a Mimosa… just straight up sparkling wine.
GFR: So how does the rest of your perfect Sunday pan out?
ZS: Well… some Bocce Ball in the park, hanging out on a patio… it’s a shame that more restaurants aren’t open on Sundays as I just love to gorge myself… and drink… you know, all of the things that I can’t do during the week.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
ZS: I’m a huge supporter of Canadian wines… I think that there is a lot of great stuff from Ontario and from BC… just yesterday a friend of a friend said he’s taking me to Nova Scotia to drive around and taste wines there.
Riesling and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir… they can all be great… but I think that we are still growing a few things that are not really suitable for the Niagara climate… things like Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz.
At L’Unita we sell very little Canadian wine, at Malena a lot more… but I think that is because on my list at Malena people have to try things that perhaps they don’t already know… they’ll see the Californian Pinot Noir section but then ask “Where’s the Cabernet?” As long as they are trying something different I’m happy, be it Canadian or otherwise.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
ZS: Remember the Scuba Diving thing?
GFR: Oh yes… Whoops… What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I was a Doctor…
ZS: My parents are both very happy with what I am doing. They are happy that I am doing something that I love and that I am passionate about. They support me fully.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
ZS: It depends upon what you are doing it for… It’s good to evaluate a wine with no preconceived notion. As a competition to judge Sommeliers I don’t really think that it is that important as it’s not really a big part of a Sommelier’s role.
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
ZS: Certainly Greece, as I am just learning about it… I went to a great tasting just the other week and that got me really excited.But then just yesterday I went to an Oregon Pinot lunch with St. Innocent and some other wineries from Oregon… I enjoyed that… I fell in love with those wines. I’m loving Piemontese whites at the moment too.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
ZS: It’s hard to say. I don’t try that much New World wine right now… I very rarely taste Australian… I find that the majority of Californian wines are overpriced for what they are.
GFR: I know through working with you that that you are rather skilled when in comes to pairing with wine… What is your favourite wine pairing right now?
ZS: That’s a tricky one… Everyday at the restaurant I grab a glass of wine and try to have different experiences… I guess when you have that perfect piece of tuna with that perfect glass of Pinot Noir… that to me is just… Ahhhh… You know I go up to the Chef and say “You just HAVE to try this! You just HAVE to try this!!!”… He was putting artichoke as a side with a dish and I said “You know that you are KILLING my wine?” and he asked me if it was really that bad, so I asked him to have a sip and taste the food. Then he understood…
I love pairing wines for people… when they say “Ooooooh that was so good Zinta”… it’s the best feeling.
GFR: I remember you being bloody good at pairings when we worked together at JK WIne Bar… Would you do three pairings with me on the spot?
ZS: Three pairings on the spot? *Zinta sounds slightly apprehensive* You are going to give me dishes?
GFR: No, I’m going to give you pieces of music.
ZS: And I have to pair wine with them?
GFR: Errrr… Yes! How do you feel about that?
ZS: Okay! I’m game… Let’s do it!
ZS: That’s awesome… that’s a beautiful song… it starts off with this French thing and I was thinking that it’s going to have to be a French wine, and then it gets into Bonnie and Clyde and I start thinking that it’s going to have to be a bit quirky… but I think that the Marcel Deiss Pinot d’Alsace would be a perfect pairing… you know, it’s French and quirky, but it’s round and mellow with some beautiful fruit to it… a kind of chilled out wine. Hmmm, that’s really interesting… I love this idea… this is very cool.
Musical Pairing #2: LCD Soundsystem – Drunk Girls
*Three minutes pass as Zinta gets very serious*
ZS: I was torn there… I’m thinking about the Gaia Assyrtico from Santorini, Greece…
GFR: Hmmmm… an interesting choice… I would almost think of that wine as being a little too austere for a raucous track like that?
ZS: Yes, but it does have some oomph… some… what’s the word?… it had different levels to it… yes it has racy acidity, but there’s something else that rounds it out… the song had that as well. That was a tricky one though…
GFR: It’s called Drunk Girls… Does that make you change your mind?
Right, I’m changing it to cheap Pinot Grigio then!
GFR: Sure… Now… Track 3
Musical Pairing #3: Fleetwood Mac – The Chain
*As she listens Zinta looks even more serious (if that is possible)*
ZS: It’s tricky… because at the beginning you think that it has to be a Zinfandel or a Baco Noir as it’s very American and has a kind of Country feel, sitting around a camp fire… but then it’s a heartbreaking song… it has a really Western, twangy feel… people going across the country in buggies, but lots of hearts being broken… but then it’s kind of soft and mellow… so I would go for a Pinot Noir… the heartbreak grape… but then the finish rocks out again… Hmmm… I’ll have to think about that bit.
GFR: Yes… I can see that…
Now… what wine would you pair with these situations?
Situation Pairing#1 – A cozy Monday night at home watching a film
ZS: Probably a Nicholas Potel Santenay
GFR: Is that the kind of wine you just have hanging around?
ZS: Errr… No… but that would work… Crane Canyon Mourvedre… that would be more realistic. Although I only have a few bottles left and it’s no longer being made.
Situation Pairing #2 -A crisp Fall day
ZS: A cider to be honest… A Waupoos from Prince Edward County.
Situation Pairing #3 – A nice hot bubble bath
ZS: I cannot remember when the last time I took a bath was, perhaps when I was a kid! I don’t sit and soak and read a book, I’m not that kind of person.
But I do like having a beer in the shower…
ZS: Yeah, just any old beer that’s in the fridge, a simple lager, I often have a beer in the shower, you know, putting the bottle on the side.
GFR: Shower libations aside, do you often drink beers or spirits?
ZS: Spirits not so much, but I love beer. (See pic above for evidence of this – JD)
After a long day of work there’s nothing better than a cold beer.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
ZS: I was thinking about this yesterday… I can see the inventory thing… but for me it is breaking down boxes!
GFR: Oh Yes… I had forgotten about that… Good call.
ZS: I do have one pet peeve though… Why do delivery guys always leave the wine in the hallway/kitchen/middle of dining room… I mean they take the food deliveries into the kitchen, why can’t they take the wine to the cellar! I guess it keeps me in shape though.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
ZS: The double hinged one… I had one that was all white and I loved it… but someone took it!
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine. What is your limit?
ZS: Well, I can handle my alcohol… I’m no lightweight… I’ve probably calmed down a bit over the past two years though.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”?
Emmmm… A couple of times… but it’s also been a couple of years.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
ZS: It depends upon the week… well it’s Wednesday and I have already tasted 40 wines… and there are still another couple of tastings this week.
GFR: Do you spit or swallow?
ZS: It depends… for me the whole tasting experience involves swallowing the wine and so I probably tend to swallow wine more often than spit.
GFR: What’s your house wine at home?
ZS: Right now I have two cases of the Ciu-Ciu Oris Falerio… I bought it for the list at Malena… but then thought “Summer is here!”
GFR: Now it’s time for some free association… what comes into your mind when I say the following?
Free Association #1 – Fancy stemware
ZS: First thing that comes to mind is the word ridiculous. Depends upon the situation though… and in all honesty there is a difference in flavours!
Free Association #2 – Screwcap closures
ZS: Forward thinking… I think that corks are a little overrated.
Free Association #3 – Château Mouton Rothschild
ZS: Interesting labels… errrr…. I’m filtering myself here… dated?
GFR: And now the cheesy question… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
ZS: I always imagined that if I was I wine I would be a Zinfandel, but I’m not that old or gnarly… yet! If I was a varietal I’d probably be an Albariño, loving life on the coast of Spain – easy going, thick-skinned and slightly bubbly!
GFR: And that’s it… it’s been a pleasure speaking with you… Thank you Zinta Steprans!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he feels that Zinta is a true rising star.
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.
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. And he looks a bit like the Mad Monk himself… Ra, Ra, Rasputin. Ah, those crazy Russians.