By Jamie Drummond
In the fourth 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, then with Zinta Steprans, Sommelier at Toronto restaurants L’Unita and Malena. Today we look at a Sommelier who chose a different path altogether, Carolyn Balogh of Abcon International Wines.
Good Food Revolution: So what are you up to Carolyn?
Carolyn Balogh: I sell wine for Abcon Wines here in Toronto.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
CB: I wasn’t very aware… At the age of 10 my Father took me back to the old country, Hungary, to visit his family, and they essentially lived like peasants, with chickens and pigs, but the strange thing was that they had their own vineyard and their own cabin with casks for making wine. This seemed so odd to me that people who were so poor would have this luxury. It was amazing to me to see these rows of vines… it was very exotic.
I wasn’t around wine from an early age, it was definitely a rye and coke or rye and ginger household.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
CB: I’ve always wanted one, probably since my early thirties… but it always seemed so rarified, so exotic… almost unattainable… It was as if Sommeliers were people who were doing something incredibly special.
I started selling wine around three years ago, and I took my first Sommelier course then. The minute I sat down and took my first class I absolutely fell in love with every single aspect of it… I loved the tasting. I loved the learning and from then it was just a fast forward to becoming a Sommelier.
GFR: So how did you fall into the wine sales side of things… or as many would call it “The Dark Side”?
CB: It was completely by accident. I was working as a bartender at Sotto Voce and the owner of Abcon Wines, Mark McFadyn, would come in to taste wines with the owner of the bar. I would always partake in the tastings. Mark discovered that my palate was pretty good, he couldn’t trick me with bad wines, I could identify good wines… So I asked him to leave me a product list and I found a wine that I had enjoyed in a restaurant before, the Bogle Petite Sirah. I ordered a case of it.
I was so enthusiastic about the wine with my friends that they ended up tasting the wine and wanting cases for themselves. Then I started ordering a number of other wines from Mark for a friend who had a great wine cellar. The delivery driver couldn’t understand why I had these wines that were coming to my house and I explained that I was stocking a friends wine cellar. So I was essentially selling Mark’s wine without being a salesperson. When the driver worked out what I was doing he told Mark and minutes after the delivery I received a phone call offering me a job to sell wine for Abcon, and I took it!
*At this point Jamie has a random sneezing fit and has to rush off to the washroom*
GFR: After completing your Sommelier program did you ever think about working within hospitality?
CB: No… absolutely not. I have spent many years working in restaurants and the hours are just too demanding… and late. I’m incredibly sports-minded, and everything I do is first thing in the morning… I need to get up early. With sales I have a certain amount of freedom, but I still get to be in restaurants.
GFR: So you don’t miss that restaurant camaraderie?
CB: I still have that camaraderie as you end up making friends with the wine buyers, the servers who are pouring the wines through presenting staff tastings… you learn their names and you become friendly and familiar with them… so at each restaurant there is a certain amount of camaraderie each time you go in and I still feel part of it.
GFR: I’ll be quite honest with you, one of the reasons I had to leave the restaurant scene was because I couldn’t live that lifestyle any more… Restaurant staff, at all levels, are notorious drunks and partiers, and there is that whole culture that revolves around afterhours and the like… and I wasn’t getting any younger
CB: I lived that lifestyle as well… I managed restaurants and bars and I familiar with all of those afterhours… I was General Manager of The Left Bank when it first opened, and then I moved to Atlas, where I managed the disco Satellite, the nightclub upstairs.
I actually have a degree from Ryerson… a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Commerce specialising in Hospitality and Tourism Management…
GFR: I didn’t know that Carolyn… Where did you originally wish that to take you?
CB: When I started on that program I wanted to work for Ontario tourism. I wanted to design ways of getting people to Ontario.
GFR: So how were these dreams shattered?
CB: Well… I became a Model!… and didn’t want to finish school… but I DID finish it… and I just wanted to travel around the world and not worry about bringing people to Ontario… so it flipped very quickly….
You see Jamie… we are learning things about each other…
GFR: That’s good, I like that…
GFR: The wine world world is notoriously male-dominated… although there are a lot of very successful females in the wine sales side of things, which I have always felt was something to do with the number of creepy old men purchasing the wines… has being a member of “the fairer sex” been a help or a hindrance to you?
CB: I think that successful female wine agents are successful because they know their stuff… You need to be able to combat what they know [the buyers] because you need to be equals when selling wine, I find… and that to me is what has helped me more than anything, that’s why I like having my Sommelier Diploma behind me, because it gives you a certain sense of confidence no matter the situation you walk into, you’ll be able to answer the questions that they throw at you… sometimes they want to throw you off your game… to dismiss you… and some of them only want to deal with other men, but when you know your stuff, you know your stuff, and you can’t argue that.
Old school wine buying is a bit of a boy’s club… they are just not interested in adding another person to the mix… I don’t know if it’s specifically because I am female, but sometimes I seriously feel that it is a boy’s club and I am not being admitted into it.
The younger Sommeliers in the city are much more open to everything; tasting, trying, and then settling upon agents that they really enjoy dealing with… but it’s a waste of time to fight that boy’s club when they are so many restaurants opening, new places to sell wine to.
GFR: Strangely enough, although there are many very talented female wine agents in the city, very few of them were sent to sell wine to me… I always got all the old crusty guys! Wine companies very rarely sent their pretty young ladies to court me… I have always wondered about that…
CB: I have a funny story to tell you…
GFR: I’m scared… I’m very scared where this may be going…
CB: Well… is this off the record?
CB: Well, I took your account [Jamie Kennedy Restaurants] off Mark Mcfadyn because of our history together… and before I went out to see you for the first time Mark pulled me aside and said “Now it’s Jamie Drummond… don’t be afraid of him, okay?”
*Jamie and Carolyn break into fits of laughter and then regain their composure*
It had never occurred to me that I would ever need to be afraid. I mean, there are a lot of Sommeliers out there with a lot of ego…
GFR: I’m blushing… you know I’m not like that!
CB: No, not at all… I just said “Thank you Mark, don’t worry, I won’t be scared of him!”
GFR: Well, we were friends… you were actually one of the first friends I met when I moved to Toronto from Edinburgh 15 years back… I still remember foisting upon you all of those damn mix CDs I made especially for you!
I considered wine sales for a while and discovered rather quickly that I was utterly arse at it. I couldn’t handle the possibilty of rejection… How would you rate yourself as a sales person and did it come naturally?
CB: I would have to say yes… I have had a long history in the modelling business, and so essentially I was selling myself, or rather my image for the past 22 years. I never really thought of that as a skill… I never thought of that as “sales” until I started selling wine… and then I realised that it was exactly the same thing. When you are walking into a new restaurant you are walking in cold, as you would if you were going into a casting… you are introducing yourself and trying to set up a sale.
I’m also really familiar with the rejection too… because in the modelling business you are rejected all the time, and so the rejection in the wine business was nothing to me… one “no” didn’t mean that there wasn’t a “yes” somewhere behind it
GFR: What do you see yourself doing in ten years?
CB: I would like to have my own wine importing business… focusing upon finding great wines at a good price… there are a lot of undiscovered wineries out there that haven’t made it into our market, and I would like to be the one who introduces them to that market.
GFR: Do you have a working title for this agency as of yet?
CB: It changes all the time… But right now it’s Model Fine Wines.
GFR: Right then… What have been your career highs and lows?
CB: My career high… Well, I was instrumental in bringing one wine into the Abcon portfolio… and to see the success of that one wine throughout the city felt FANTASTIC… and we continue to reorder and reorder… and to me it proved that my palate and my feeling about pricing were spot on. I just knew that this was going to be a winner… and I was proven right.
GFR: And your low point?
CB: Any one of my accounts that go bankrupt.
Because you end up becoming friends with the Restauranteurs and you see how much they put into the business, it’s very upsetting to me to see them lose everything… you see them going into a downward spiral and it is so painful to watch. You want things to work, you want things to be successful, but sometimes these places just don’t make it… It’s a tough business, a really tough business…
GFR: Working in sales I guess that most of the time you have your evenings and weekends off? What do you do to relax and does it involve wine in any manner?
CB: It involves a LOT of wine… I love to cook… my boyfriend likes to cook… my friends like to cook… and we all love to eat, drink, and be together… it’s fun.
After working for so many years in the restaurant industry and not having my nights to myself, I still feel that this ability to get together with people at weekend is incredibly decadent… I love pairing with with food, talking about the, and introducing them to my friends… and it’s weird because I remember going to dinner at your house YEARS ago, and you would have all these interesting esoteric wines and you were pairing it with… hmmm… I think it was some lovely lamb… I thought that what you were doing was so special and so unique… and now it’s great as I am doing this for my own friends and it feels great! I can still remember you introducing me to Malivoire’s “Ladybug” Rosé… Ontario
GFR: Nice segue into the next question… How do you feel about Canadian wines?
CB: I like Canadian wines… For the most part I think that they are, dollar for dollar, for quality, overpriced… What I would like to see happen is the Ontario government lower the taxes on local wines making them more affordable for everybody… so the Winemaker can then sell more wines and reinvest and make everything better.
GFR: Well, there are inherent costs to producing wines in a cool climate…
CB: I think that what Ontario has been doing has been fabulous… I LOVE Canadian Rieslings… but then I’m also a huge Riesling fan… Ontario Riesling can be fantastic… and I really love Ontario Chardonnays.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not in the wine business?
CB: I don’t know… *pause*… I’d probably be managing a restaurant…
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I was a Doctor…
CB: My Mother is not happy with what I am doing… no… she’s never been happy with what I am doing… my parents would like me to have a steady paycheque… and a place to go to work five days a week, eight hours a day… the uncertainty of the business causes them stress… so they have seem a lot fo ups and downs in my life, and would love nothing better than for me to become a nurse… and I think that it was only three or four years ago my Mother stopped saying that it wasn’t too late to go back to school to become a nurse.
GFR: Now… with this in mind… you are the only Sommelier I know who has been on a stamp… and strangely enough… you portray a nurse on this stamp!
CB: Well… here’s a funny thing… since I was a child I have always wanted to be a nurse…
GFR: I can remember you coming into the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar just before your Sommelier exam and I set you up with an extensive blind tasting to get you in shape for the test… What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
CB: I love blind tasting… and I know that’s not the normal answer… but it allows you to pick out similarities in wines… and there’s often something that you can’t pick out… and then I love doing the research to figure out why that thing you couldn’t place makes the wine the way it is… and then it gets filed into the memory banks.
I’m good with whites… less so with reds… I enjoy competition… I thrive in competition… blind tasting keeps me on my game… it helps you to learn and evolve as a Sommelier.
GFR: I can remember you went through a phase in your life when you took a polaroid photograph every single day for many a year… how long did you do that for? Are you this anal about your wine tasting notes these days?
CB: I did that for over seven years… *laughs*
When I was studying wine I took notes like crazy… I had everything organised in a notebook… and when I was tasting and I couldn’t make the connection, I’d remember the day I had tasted a wine and then flip back in my book and compare tasting notes. I love making tasting notes… but everything is so scattered… notes at home… notes in the car… it’s not cohesive any more…
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
CB: I don’t have a favourite wine region… but I am into rosés at the moment… and there are so many different rosés on the market right now that I am having a great time tasting my way through them… and they are all so different!
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
CB: I think that Malbecs are completely overrated… I think that there are so many mediocre Malbecs in the market right now that it makes me sick.
GFR: When I am in a restaurant I often choose the wine first and then order food to fit the the wine. Where do your priorities lie here?
CB: I’m always food first… and I can always find a wine to match… when I’m in a restaurant I get lured by the food, and it’s generally my hunger that’s guiding me.
GFR: Being in the wine sales business I would imagine that you spend more time pairing wines with clients than with dishes… so let’s pair some wines with music…
Musical Pairing #1: Bad Manners – The Can-Can
CB: I remember this from my years in Europe…
I’d go with a Beaujolais Nouveau… it’s kinda got that cheesy, poppy flavour… not too serious…
Musical Pairing #2: Omar Souleyman – Leh Jani
CB: Ahhhhhhh… that’s a tough one… I’m thinking of something really deep and rich and intense… it has to come from an odd wine region… I had a bottle of Pinot Noir from Morrocco… and it was so odd… that’s what I would pair with this track.
Musical Pairing #3: Erik Satie – Gymnopodie No. 1
CB: I love this… I would go with an ephemeral Riesling from Germany… a Mosel… Kabinett level… I love the lightness, the delicacy… that would work well with this music.
GFR: Now… what wine would you pair with these situations?
Wait a minute… that’s rubbish… scratch that!
CB: I love Porter!
Situation Pairing #2 -Finishing a marathon in record time
CB: Champagne! I had just bought a bottle of rosé Billecart Salmon champagne when I ran the Boston marathon… it ended up not being my fastest time and so the bottle didn’t get drunk. It’s still at home!
Situation Pairing #3 – Reminiscing with old friends
CB: It would depend upon who the friends were… I pretty much love all wines and so I generally cater to my guests’ taste profile…
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
CB: Its funny you should ask that question… I remember when I first met you as a Sommelier I thought that it was interesting that you drank as much beer as you did… and now being a Sommelier and drinking/tasting as much wine as I do I find that there really is such a thing as palate fatigue, and you get tired of drinking wine… and you want the bubbles… and so I have started drinking beer… but no spirits.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
CB: I have very flashy corkscrews… right now I have a very hi-tech designer corkscrew given to me by my boyfriend… prior to this one I had the beautiful Alessi “Parrot”… I also just like having an interesting corkscrew… it can be a good icebreaker, a conversation starter.
GFR: Folks in the wine trade often have quite the increased tolerance for wine. What is your limit?
CB: Two glasses, that’s it…
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”?
CB: No, but I probably should have been.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
CB: Probably 20.
GFR: Do you spit or swallow?
CB: Spit… pretty much… I learned the hard way…
GFR: Now it’s time for some free association… what comes into your mind when I say the following?
Free Association #1 – Sommeliers with alcohol issues
CB: They shouldn’t be selling wine.
Free Association #2 – Sommeliers who smoke
CB: They are doing a disservice to themselves.
Free Association #3 – Sommeliers with huge egos
GFR: And now the cheesy question… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
CB: I’d probably be a Riesling… I like the way that Riesling is a bit of a chameleon everywhere that it is grown… I think that I have the ability to be transplanted and survive wherever you drop me.
GFR: Wow… that was cheesy! And that’s it… it’s been a pleasure speaking with you… Thank you Carloyn Balogh!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he would like everyone to know that Carolyn was one of the first friends he made after moving to Toronto some 15 years ago!
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.