By Jamie Drummond
In the second of a regular 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.
Two weeks ago we put Pizza Libretto/Enoteca Sociale Sommelier Lesa LaPointe through the wringer in one of our most popular articles thus far. This week we approached the Owner/Wine Geek of Parkdale’s Café Taste, Mr. Jeremy Day:
Good Food Revolution: So what are you up to?
Jeremy Day: CaféTaste has consumed me over the past 6 years. It is a wine bar for the masses. My big personal belief is that for thousands of years wine has been the drink of the people, the proletariat, the soldier, so why should it be made pretentious, intimidating, and put on a pedestal? My big push is to focus upon local, and is modelled on a European-style café with local wines, local cheeses, local charcuterie, house-made bread.
I feel Café Taste is a unique entity in Toronto. Inside we have seating for only thirty people and yet we have thirty wines by the glass. Who has that kind of percentages and choice?
Using standard restaurant mentality this would be seen as insanity. The key to managing this inventory is our flight program. We actually offer a 15% discount for those who choose to order “blind” and so I can use up any open bottles that way. Our oxidation rate is well below industry standards. Most customers choose these blind flights, about 8 out of every 10 tables actually, and so as a result I never have a bottle open for more than two days.
GFR: That’s a great way to keep your inventory kinetic!
JD: Yes, through refridgeration and gassing of wines they rarely go off, it’s a fantastic way to move through inventory, and give people a fantastic experience as we go through a little tasting tutorial with them, they get to taste the 3 wines paired with local cheeses, and it is all discounted… so everybody’s happy.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
JD: Not at all actually. Growing up on a farm outside of Holstein (population 80) in rural Ontario, there was no wine or alcohol of any kind around me when I was growing up. The closest town with more than 1,000 people was over 10 miles away. My father thought that money was the root of all evil and so chose to live “off the grid” and be as self-sufficient as possible, with us grinding our own flour for bread, we had our own dairy cows, our beef cows, our pigs, our chickens, and our ducks. We had a 7 acre garden where we grew our vegetables, with the cuttings from the vegetables feeding our animals. We baled our hay. We made our own cheese. Anything we didn’t have was bartered with other farmers as my Father didn’t want to work with money. This meant that upon leaving home at 20 years old I didn’t know the value of money.
To be quite honest I hated growing up like this, I couldn’t stand it and left when I was 20 to go to university… and there I fell in love with fast food. At the age of 21 I started working in the school pub and I was drawn to fast food and commercial food production… and after having grown up in such a natural environment I actually became very ill.
My junk food diet one summer included a daily lunchtime consumption of a 500ml tub of Häagen Daz Ice Cream and a 2 litre bottle of Coca Cola. That was lunch every day.
GFR: That is… *draws breath* pretty disgusting…
JD: Yes, and especially when you consider that is a week’s worth of fat in one of those tubs.
GFR: I’m surprised that you still possess your own teeth after all of that… and you are pretty slim!
JD: I guess I am gifted with a fast metabolism. The irony is that everything has come full circle. I started working in corporate restaurants and over that time I grew to view corporate greed with disgust. Having grown-up learning the value of getting up every day to do chores before school and then coming home from school to do more chores, I had an acute understanding of work and what it should bring you. Then I saw money being bandied about for things I couldn’t understand of as having value.
I have now come back and have this simple methodology of working every day that I have tried to bring to café Taste. We don’t grind our flour any more, but 4 and a half hours each day are dedicated to proofing the doughs and making the daily breads.
GFR: What was the first wine that you can remember tasting/drinking?
JD: Wine… Hmmmm… Well I had my first drink when I was a week away from 19 years old. I was in a bar, and it was illegal, and so I thought “Hahaha, I’m getting away with something.” It was a vodka and orange… a Screwdriver.
L’Epayrie White… a litre bottle… not having appreciation for wine itself I just crunched the numbers… It was up a very basic formula for getting drunk. I can remember being very unimpressed and thinking “Why is wine high society?” I have to say that I never drank it again…
In highschool we had people saying that you had to drink to be cool… and that’s why I was never really cool. There were people saying “Hey, here’s beer…” and so I tried it and thought it was horrific… this Canadian and Blue from the macrobreweries… absolute swill! It’s amazing how much money I made at house parties in high school betting the various jock camps that they couldn’t tell their favourite brew from the other brands that they considered “horse piss.” They didn’t understand that they all tasted the same!
GFR: Who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
JD: My first true epiphany came 10 years ago from sommelier Keith Tyers telling me to blind taste and identify 12 wines. I could speak at length about them, knew their qualities and origins, but as someone who didn’t drink I’d never tasted them. He poured our by-the-glass inventory and said “You’ve never tasted them but you KNOW these wines – you speak about them and sell them every day – identify each.” I struggled through but identified all 12 correctly. I realized that the data I read about on the wines wasn’t just marketing material.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously snooty… has being self-taught helped or hindered you?
JD: A little of column “A” a little of column “B”. It has helped, certainly in that I can press-on with what I need to study and not superfluous details – I self-specialize in Ontario/local so that is what I focus on. The guild requires an international study set. It has hindered in that sometimes people just won’t take you seriously without your pin.
GFR: Do you have to work as a Manager as well as a Sommelier?
JD: Of course… I’m an owner… I work a multi role. You forgot plumber and carpenter!
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
JD: Highs? Well… The opening of café Taste. I first thought about it 12 years ago. One of my interview questions at SirCorp as “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”… I said that I wanted to open my own place… and it ended up taking me 7 years.
It has facilitated me meeting many giants in the industry, and if I can see for miles it is because I am stand upon the shoulders of these giants. Instead of a pin and papers, being self taught involves gaining insight through coaching and teaching from those people, none of this would have been possible if it were not for café Taste.
GFR: And the low point(s)?
JD: The lows have also been Café Taste… Wow, there can be a lot of pressure and stress… but there is one thing… What does it take to get some coverage of the place in the press? That has truly been the biggest thorn in my side… I wonder WHY no restaurant reviewers (besides EYE & NOW) have come in? Perhaps it is beause we are so wine-centric? … And Chowhound… When someone has written complimentary reviews on there for some reason they get deleted! What’s up with that?
GFR: Well… General consensus around these parts is that Chowhound has seriously lost its way, that the moderators of the boards are drunk with power, don’t know their collective arse from their elbow, and have lost all credibility, so I would not worry too much about that… Still, I agree that it must be frustrating for a small business owner such as yourself.
(Note to Chowhound moderators… you know where to find me if you would like to discuss this further… – Jamie Drummond)
JD: Yes… it certainly is.
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
JD: We are closed Sundays and Mondays, however as I am the owner of cafe Taste there are no real days off, especially with the private parties that we do. Sundays are our most popular days for those private functions as it is one of the cheapest days for a private event. We do not charge any fee for exclusive parties, only a guarantee of a minimum amount spent, and Sundays to Tuesdays that amount is $500… so I rarely have Sundays off.
GFR: Let’s speak hypothetically then?
JD: Anything that gives me respite from the business… Spending some time with my girls… in a park, catching a flick, going out for a nice meal, playing World of Warcraft… My character is Dhirk, a steath-specialised Dwarven rogue…It DOES say ‘geek’ on my card, remember!
How do you feel about Canadian wines?
JD: If you were in a café in France, Spain or Italy, how much Californian or Australian wine are you drinking? None, it’s all local … so why can’t that be the norm in Canada? In Ontario we are a fairly unique entity in that the state has a conflict of interest when it comes to local wines as they make more money importing. Even the C.I.C. (Cellared in Canada) wines that are in the Ontario section are more of a moneymaker for them. As a result Ontarians themselves are unaware of the fantastic local wines.
We have some fantastic VQA lists within Toronto, but most restaurants with strong Canadian wine lists have the luxury of being in areas with lots of tourist traffic, if someone was visiting Toronto they would often want to sample the local wine. Ontarians, thinking that what’s on the LCBO shelves represents Ontario, as a general rule want to drink internationally. Every week I have a battle, saying to people “Drink Ontario! Drink Ontario!” and as cafe Taste is well off the beaten track in Parkdale it’s a struggle convincing people to drink local.
Currently my big push is gearing up for our third annual Ontario Wine Fair. We have never had such a good response and this year looks set to be the best yet, with 50% of the tickets already sold.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
JD: I’d be running a local food distribution company, connecting farmers markets w. restaurants. I looked into this for a subsidiary of Café Taste, but I’m too busy running this place.
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I was a Doctor…
JD: She is very proud that I have done what I have.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
JD: Blind tasting as an exercise it is very valuable. I do it on a daily basis.
As a competition I feel that it is unnecessary. I don’t want to devalue the people I think are proficient, but Blind Tasting Competition makes wine more exclusive, more intimidating… the antithesis of my personal philosophy about wine.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
JD: I’m going to have to say… imported wine. I have a weekly battle… I am the first to admit that Ontario makes a helluvalotta plonk but so many people in Ontario think that if it comes from abroad then it is good. The reality is that ALL wine regions produce both bad and good wine, the trick is finding which is best.
GFR: I know that that you are rather skilled when in comes to pairing with wine… What is your favourite wine pairing right now?
JD: Château de Charmes 2007 Late Harvest Riesling and spicy Chorizo from Scheffler’s in St. Lawrence Market.
GFR: Speaking of pairings… I’d like you to do a few for me… although in this case with pieces of music…
Musical Pairing #1: Bauhaus – Bela Lugosi’s Dead
JD: Am I being stereotyped?
JD: Alright! This is Bauhaus… As I have spent probably 3 and a half days of my life dancing to this… We are going to want a Pinot with a blood garnet robe… a rich contrast to the pale white makeup of the goths on the dancefloor… it’s the robe that matters here, and not the wine, as goths are all about look and not substance.
Oh… but then again there was that Transylvannian Pinot Noir with the fangs on the label.
Musical Pairing #2: Britney Spears – Toxic
I have a guilty confession… I quite like the song… and the video… as far as I remember there are two references to wine in the video: sparkling on the plane and red wine in the bedroom scene…
GFR: *looks on in astonishment*
JD: I’m going to choose an Australian sparkling because of all the green apple to match with Britney’s tartness and bubbling effervescence to match her personality. Ahhh… the video… the hi-tech thief bit… that’s sexy… with the red wig and that black catsuit…. Grrrrrrr…
GFR: Moving swiftly on… Track 3?
Musical Pairing #3: Maurice Joshua – I Gotta Big Dick
JD: It’s all about the lyrics… this all about being showy… an ice bucket with a bottle of Cristal flowing over and a roll of 100 dollar bills to light your cigar.
GFR: Yes… I can see that…
Now… what wine would you pair with these situations?
Situation Pairing#1 – Losing your wallet and passport
JD: If locally then a glass of whatever is open that is high in alcohol to surround my brain in a heady cloud of forgetting. If abroad then a low-alcohol aperitif wine so I can giggle about the circumstances while keeping my wits about me to get home.
Situation Pairing #2 -Losing your virginity
JD: None to low-alcohol should be consumed prior to the act – No one should make such decisions while altered in any way. AFTERWARDS a rich, hot-climate malbec, oozing w. machismo and dripping with a sense of victory.
Situation Pairing #3 – Losing your mind
JD: Give me the wormwood-laden absinthe. I want to see the green faerie.
GFR: Do you drink beers or spirits?
JD: Rarely, though my drink of choice @ certain bars is cider. Strongbow is my go-to.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
JD: I think the plumbing and maintenance of the place is least fav, as it comes with being the sommelier here.
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
JD: A 2-step Pulltap from Masi… although I prefer one without a label
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine. What is your limit?
JD: I’m a lightweight. I have an acute understanding of moving from feeling comfortable after one drink to an uncomfortable state of intoxication after more than that, so I generally stick at just one. 3 and I’m GONE!
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
JD: I taste everything that is open every day, just to see how they are faring… let’s say around 55 a week.
GFR: Do you spit or swallow?
JD: At most tastings I spit but with friends I swallow… However it very much depends on venue and what I will be doing afterward.
GFR: What’s your house wine at home?
JD: Café Taste is my home… so anything that is open.
GFR: Now it’s time for some free association… what comes into your mind when I say the following?
Free Association #1 – C.I.C. (Cellared in Canada) wines
JD: Smoke and mirrors. Don’t pretend you’re an Ontario wine.
Free Association #2 – Screwcap closures
JD: A.O.K. The right closure for most popular wines.
Free Association #3 – Old world traditions vs. New World technologies
JD: Why “vs.” when you can combine both for superior product?
GFR: And now the cheesy question… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
JD: Baco Noir: Background of European and local stock, hearty, does well in the cold and at-home at a BBQ!
GFR: And that’s it… it’s been a pleasure speaking with you… Thank you Jeremy Day!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he still cannot understand why Chowhound would delete a fairly objective review of Cafe Taste.
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.