By Jamie Drummond
In the second of a second (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.
Last year 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, who at that point was Sommelier at Toronto restaurants L’Unita and Malena but is now working on a super-secret project, a Sommelier who chose a different path altogether, Carolyn Balogh of Abcon International Wines, and a couple of months back Christopher Sealy of Midfield fame.
For this issue we sit down with Mercatto’s Wine Director Ms. Sheila Flaherty.
The story behind this particular interview is uniquely bizarre and involves your interviewer experiencing a surreal hallucinatory episode as the evening progressed due to a little error mixing cold medications… or rather what was thought to have been cold meds but were actually out-of-date Mexican opioid analgesics. Way to go Jamie…
Our sincere apologies and thanks go out to Ms. Flaherty for being such a sport!
The Scene: Cold Tea Restaurant, Kensington, Toronto
Good Food Revolution: So Sheila Flaherty, what are you up to?
Sheila Flaherty: Well, I’m currently the Wine Director for the Mercatto Group of restaurants which keeps me running between the four locations with a laptop slung over my back. Outside of that, lots of travel, followed by a lil’ QT with my apartment.
GFR: Now I have noted that you call yourself a Wine Director as opposed to a Sommelier. What is the reasoning behind this?
SF: Simple. I’m not a sommelier. I have tons of respect for my peers that have gotten the accreditation, however, it wasn’t for me.
GFR: Have you done any formal study in wine, because you certainly know your stuff?
SF: Formal? Nah. I have too many books and have been fortunate enough to travel a ton. For me, that was some honest to goodness education.
GFR: How would you describe your passion for wine?
SF: Obsessive. Lord knows how it happened, but I adore it. To me it always had the charm and class of vintage cars and the cool obscurity of vintage guitars. Ever changing but completely timeless.
GFR: What brought about your passion for wine Sheila? Did you at any time have a mentor?
SF: One of my first significant jobs was working at Down the Street in Stratford. Susan Dunfield was phenomenal at staff training and giving us all the tools we needed to succeed. She would have Billy Munelly come in and taste and chat with us and with his way of vernacularizing wine just made it seem so simple and approachable, right out of the gate.
GFR: Why do you think that Stratford is such an amazing breeding ground for such talented folks in the world of food and wine?
SF: It’s all really centred around the Stratford Festival, as that brought in a certain clientele who demanded a higher calibre of food, wine, and service. Arts, food and wine all go hand in hand and people that appreciate one of the above, usually appreciate all of the above.
GFR: When did you have your first tipple? And what was it?
SF: Budweiser at a house party when I was a preteen. After that night, I didn’t drink beer again for almost eight years.
GFR: *sputters into his beer*
GFR: Can you remember your first wine then?
SF: I have a feeling it was a Cave Spring Riesling. But let’s be honest, I can barely remember what I did this morning.
GFR: If you were to have a child/children, at what age would you introduce them to the wonderful world of wine?
SF: Most likely from the time they were young. I would love them to grow up with the appreciation and respect for wine. Little tastes at the dinner table never hurt.
GFR: What do you think you would be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
SF: I’d probably be back working in international relations in some capacity. Before this wine thing happened, I was quite the activist. Always wanted to be a human rights lawyer.
GFR: How do your family feel about your chosen profession?
SF: They love it and are super supportive. Not to mention I always get saddled with ‘bringing the wine’.
GFR: How do your non-industry friends feel about what you do for a living?
SF: Not to boast, but holy hell, I have a great crew of people around me. I’m super lucky and they’re all unbelievably supportive of everything I do.
GFR: You seem to be a huge fan of the Enomatic system… what do you love about it? And if you could change anything about it’s design or function what would that be?
SF: The fact that it makes my job quite easy gets it a few immediate points. By temperature and portion controlling everything, while preserving the wine with inert gas, I can offer a breadth of wines and not have to worry about moving bottles in less than two days. I can also rest pretty easy knowing that everything is served to my standards; be it an $8 glass or a $30 glass. It’s all fresh n’ cool. As for design and function, I’ve been very happy with them insofar. Our three machines at Toronto Street were the first in the city, and with seven years of age on them, they’re still in mint condition.
GFR: How many Wine Agencies do you deal with?
SF: Four big players and about six that we occasionally work with.
GFR: And what makes a good Wine Agent in your eyes?
SF: Respect, commitment, quality product, and no bullshit.
GFR: What are your favourite parts of your job?
SF: I’m so fortunate to be able to go to Italy a few times a year and constantly be learning and tasting. Not much can trump that.
GFR: And your least favourite parts?
SF: Numbers numbers numbers
GFR: Do you ever feel a little fettered in your creativity as you can only really purchase Italian (and some Canadian) wines?
SF: Not even remotely. With such diverse growing conditions thanks to the extreme geographical and topographical range, you can literally find every style and a home for every grape to show it’s best. Not to mention, there is so damn much to learn.
GFR: Tell me about your decision to list Canadian wines.
SF: I always loved the idea of representing our own wines, but it wasn’t until our Eaton Center location opened that I really had a place to do so. With Chef Doug Neigel’s determination to source locally and sustainably, I wanted to also tie that in to our wine program. With the tourist driven Eaton Center, it only felt natural to exhibit what we have going on here in Ontario. Now we have wines from our home and our home away from home.
GFR: So we are going to do something a little different here…
*At this point Jamie realises that he probably shouldn’t have had a couple of beers as they are SERIOUSLY not agreeing with the DM cough syrup, and the old cold medicine that he took to repress his cold symptoms that were going to make him have to cancel the interview… in fact he is beginning to feel rather odd*
I thought it would be fun to give you a list of different wines and have your pair things to read with them…? and then tell me why you chose such reading materials?
*Sheila looks entirely unphased by this suggestion*
SF: Bring it on.
GFR: 1989 Bruno Giacosa Barolo “Vigna Rionda” Piemonte, Italy
SF: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
GFR: 2009 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir, Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada
SF: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
GFR: 2009 Venica and Venica Sauvignon Blanc “Ronco del Gelso” Friuli Italy
SF: French Vogue
GFR: 2008 Feudi di San Gregorio “Serpico” (Aglianico) Campania, Italy
SF: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
GFR: Ha… I really thought that would put you on the spot, but you sailed right through that. I’m impressed.
Tell me what you feel about the current wine/Sommelier scene in Toronto right now:
SF: It’s pretty awesome to be a part of, what I believe, is a new wave of wine-o. There is this resurgence right now of young people that want to learn about wine and are passionate about the restaurant industry. Although I love the old boys club, it’s pretty rad to sit down for a pint with a twenty-some and yap about Batard-Montrachet and debate the greatest Barbaresco ever produced.
GFR: Do you have many Sommelier friends?
SF: A small handfull.
GFR: Excuse me for a second, I really have to pop to the loo… where are they?
*Sheila points to the East of the dining room*
GFR: Thanks, back in a wee minute…
*Jamie gets to the washroom and looks at his sorry self in the mirror. His pupils are hugely dilated, his eyes like bloody saucers… and he is feeling extremely, extremely strange. Jamie thinks to himself “Hmmmm… I don’t think that Tramacet stuff was for colds after all… I thought it sounded like something one would take for a cold or flu?”. He straightens himself up and attempts to soldier on, wobbling back to the table*
SF: Everything alright?
GFR: Yes, yes… I’m just getting over a bit of a cold and needed to blow my nose, sorry…
SF: No problem!
GFR: I know that you have travelled a fair bit for your work, visiting many wine regions, mainly Italy… is there anywhere that you would really like to travel to in the future?
SF: Burgundy & Sicily. Top two.
GFR: Even in these times the world of Sommeliers is STILL notoriously male-dominated. Do you feel that being a female has been a help or a hinderance for you?
SF: I’m neutral. I’m definitely a tomboy so I don’t think much of it.
GFR: What have your career highs been?
SF: In a one week period I got to share meals with Gaia Gaja, Paolo de Marchi and Lorenza Sebasti. My rock stars.
GFR: And your career lows?
SF: Tough call, but I can tell you… starting to manage restaurants as a 22 year old gal was not always the smoothest road.
GFR: You appear to work a great deal… as in you appear to be a hard worker… What do you do to relax and does it ever involve wine?
SF: I spend my weekends out on our family farm. I need that balance. Walks with the dog, good wine, fires, movies. Without fail, always preps me for the week ahead and calms me from the week passed.
GFR: Sommeliers are often known for being complete lushes… do you have a high tolerance for alcohol?
SF: I’d say it is relatively average. Years of training.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”?
SF: Never. I’m very cautious of my limit.
GFR: Speaking of which… shall we get another beer?
SF: Sure, same again?
*Jamie orders another round and curses himself as it has begun to dawn on him that he has begun to mildly hallucinate… something is going very wrong in the Jamiebrain*
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
SF: Completely depends on the time of year. 0-50.
GFR: When tasting wine do you spit or swallow?
SF: Mainly spit. There are exceptions.
GFR: Do you like to cook?
GFR: So what do you really enjoy cooking?
SF: I love cooking Italian food and good protein. It’s always very seasonal.
GFR: What would you like to be doing in 10 years time Sheila?
SF: Making wine or writing a book. Or both!
GFR: So you would like to make your own wine?
*Jamie becomes suddenly cognisant of the fact that he is now having full blown hallucinations, as just for a second he thought he was interviewing Julianne Moore in a sidewalk cafe in LA… whereas he is actually interviewing one of Toronto’s most talented Sommeliers in a dark restaurant in Kensington, Toronto. *
SF: *puzzled look*
GFR: *regains composure*
So what are your current obsessions wine-wise?
SF: Barbaresco & Burgundy. Major obsessions.
GFR: And what is overrated in your mind?
SF: Hot, fruit bombs. Ugh.
*For a brief moment Julianne Moore changes into Jamie’s little sister Lorna… well, in Jamie’s mind she does*
GFR: Music and wine have always been inextricabaly linked in my world… What kind of music have you been listening to over the past couple of months?
SF: Miles Davis, Townes Van Zsant, Yeasayer, Justin Townes Earle, The Refused, The Wooden Sky, Mariachi El Bronx, Q-Tip. Lots of 50’s tunes. A whole bunch of completely random stuff really.
GFR: Hmmmmmm… interesting… now you program all of the music for the Toronto Street location right?
SF: I was but I’ve renegged a bit. Our bartenders are far cooler than me. They run that show now.
GFR: Let’s get you to match wines with these tracks then…
Track 1: Ready For The World: Oh Sheila?
SF: Oh I’m going to blow at this. Can I say a pint of cider?
Track 2: The Smiths – Sheila Take A Bow
SF: I can see a theme here…
SF: The Munjebel Rosso from Frank Cornelissen. Quirky and silly and completely original.
TRACK 3: Sly and Robbie feat. Sheila Hynton – Bed’s Too Big Without You
I’m thinking some really rad Bierzo.
TRACK 4: Joe – Claptrap
SF: Movia’s “Puro”. Tough to handle, but fun as hell.
GFR: Do you have a dress code at Mercatto… I notoriously turned up at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar a couple of times in full leather gear…
GFR: So what do you wear?
SF: Luckily, I have carte blanche. I once had a customer come in on a recommendation and proceeded to tell me his friend said: “Look for the girl wearing leather pants. She’s usually always wearing leather pants.” That, and blazers. My collection of blazers is a bit silly.
GFR: You have some pretty cool tattoos… have you ever thought of getting anything wine-related inked on you?
SF: I have In Vino Veritas tattooed on my calf.
*Jamie decides that his brain is beginning to melt as he desparately attempts to hold himself together in front of his interview subject… and he is going to have to get home extremely soon… it’s either that or to ER… seriously*
GFR: Outside of work do you drink anything other than wine? Beer? Cider? Spirits?
SF: I’m pretty simple. I keep it to beer and wine.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
SF: Again, simple folk. Classic two step waiter corkscrew. Our Director of Operations and one of my favorite people ever got me the knuckle duster corkscrew from Blood Into Wine for Christmas though. Now THAT is awesome.
GFR: I noticed in a couple of interviews that you have used the phrase “ethically produced” wine… would you mind explaining exactly what you mean by that?
SF: I use it as a bit more of a generic term. Especially when dealing with mainly Italian wines and producers whom function in a very old school manner, sometimes the organic thing doesn’t apply. I simply am very resolute on supporting well made, usually family run operations that produce wine with high standards and are environmentally conscious.
GFR: What are your thoughts on Organic, Biodynamic, and Natural wines… shame to sling them altogether… but you know what I mean?
SF: Quite a dichotomy between them all so I think it’s a shame they all seem to get looped together in the new and hip organic debate. The problem is that organic is overly marketed and it leads people to question the authenticity of the process. It’s a shame really that there are too many examples of things claiming to be organic that in fact aren’t the case. Biodynamic is a completely different story.
I support all facets of these processes, but can absolutely see the cracks.
Organic is like something you don’t do. Biodynamic is everything you do and natural is a whole nother story.
GFR: What are your feeling about food/wine bloggers? Does it annoy you when people take pictures of every dish/bottle that is presented to them?
SF: It doesn’t annoy me, although I try to stay pretty far removed from that world. One of the unfortunate parts of technology and these open food and wine forums is that it has created a critic out of everyone. The message has gotten lost due to the medium. Where has the real and honest information gone from the professionals who have committed their lives to the craft?
GFR: And now the really cheesy question…
GFR: If you were a grape (or a wine) what would you be and why?
SF: Nebbiolo. Total pain in the ass.
GFR: Excellent… Sheila Flaherty, thank you SO much for joining us at Good Food Revolution this evening.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he actually had a full blown “trip”… Hmmmm… it’s been a while… quite frightening if the truth be told.
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. He just recently took over the selection and purchasing of wine for the Pizza Libretto group whilst the wonderful Lisa LaPointe is on maternity leave. Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and it TAKING OVER THIS CITY!
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. Anton is currently ramping up for the “last supper” at his beloved Niagara Street Cafe at the end of March. Get in there while you can.