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The sipper club: meet the city’s competitive cabal of top sommeliers

Will Predhomme belongs to a competitive cabal of top sommeliers who sniff, sip and spit their way through hundreds of bottles a week. They do this to help you decide what to drink with your dinner, while making you think it was your idea all along

One hundred and fifty-one people have reservations at Canoe tonight. Among these are many Bay Streeters, a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, dozens of people on dates, including the bar manager from Crush, and a young woman who plans to propose to her boyfriend over dinner. The two private dining rooms are fully booked.

Canoe, part of the ever-expanding Oliver and Bonacini empire, is routinely considered one of the finest restaurants in the city. Last summer, in a rigorous competition held by the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers, known as CAPS, Canoe’s head sommelier, Will Predhomme, was proclaimed Ontario’s best. Predhomme has devoted a third of his life—he’s 29—to wine scholarship. He now knows more about wine than almost anyone in Toronto.

Just after 5 p.m., the bar area begins to fill up with commuters sipping cocktails as they wait for the traffic on the clogged Gardiner, 54 floors below, to dissipate. One of the restaurant’s first guests, a retired trial lawyer, arrives. As a young female host escorts him to his large corner table, he puts an arm around her shoulder. “I don’t like to pay bills,” he says. “I want a fucking account. Last time I was here, I offered those ladies”—referring to the hosts who greeted him at his last visit—“$300 and told them to set up an account for me. And I still don’t have one.” He and his three dining companions, Canoe regulars, have brought in several bottles of their own wine, including a cabernet franc from the ex-lawyer’s private vineyard in Tuscany. When Predhomme arrives at the table to discuss the wine, the ex-lawyer, captivatingly bratty in a way that only the rich and sort-of-powerful can be, repeats his complaint. “Look, I spend about $50,000 a year at Bymark, and I’d do the same here if I had a fucking account.” Predhomme is unmoved, but gracious. “If you give me your contact information,” he says, “I’ll make sure that it gets to the right people.”

“You’ll get me an account?”

“I’ll look into it.”

Despite how much money this guy has (several million dollars, apparently), no matter how many times he insists Predhomme join him at their table (a half-dozen) or extends an invitation to his 55-room Italian villa (at least twice), he’ll never get an account. Canoe doesn’t set up accounts. Predhomme’s job is to make him feel special while also saying no. So he allows him a few indulgences. He decants the party’s wines with extraordinary patience and precision, holding the bottles over a flickering candle so he can better spot sediment. And later, he will invite the ex-lawyer and his friends into Canoe’s wine cellar, a very rare privilege, to select a 2001 La Spinetta Barolo Campè, priced at $500, that the foursome purchases after draining their own stash.

Predhomme is an expert performer of a complicated, occasionally absurd dance of enlightened hospitality. It requires that he convince the ex-lawyer, no matter how inebriated and insufferable he becomes by ten o’clock, that he is in capable, caring hands, so that this particular gathering will be one of the best nights in a long life presumably full of great, boozy nights—while making sure the 150 other guests in the dining room also feel special and this night is one of the best nights of their lives. This is not an easy job. But Predhomme is earnestly obsessed with the idea of service. It’s a weirdly self-punishing thing to be preoccupied with—like obsessing over being the best, most professional shepherd on the tallest, toughest mountain—but it’s also kind of nice when you’re on the receiving end. In the several days we spend together, I don’t think I ever put on my own coat or refilled my own water glass.

Just beneath Predhomme’s modest affability is a bracing current of ambition. If the chef is the engine of a restaurant, the sommelier, at least at high-end establishments like Canoe, is increasingly the drivetrain. Predhomme is keenly aware of his importance to the restaurant and of how much more important he could become. And not just at Canoe; Predhomme is also the sommelier at Jump, the O&B bistro next door, and while there is currently no such thing as a wine director at the company, Predhomme is strategically building such a role for himself. He teaches a weekly wine class to the O&B staff, is grooming his lieutenant, assistant sommelier Ben Shillow, to take over elsewhere, and is further augmenting his own credentials—in the next year, he’ll take the Master Sommelier exam, which, if he passes, will make him one of only 180 Masters in the world.

  • ughhhhh

    Lawyers are idiots!
    Don’t give him an account
    Stand up to the pompous idiots of Toronto
    Take a stand!

  • fred smith

    all lawyers are not idiots…and i am not a lawyer.
    but, it is good to know this is where some idiots go to shake their tiny world.
    and then they get in the car and drive home.

  • Travis McFarlane

    Congratulations on the article Will, you are an inspiration to many, and O&B is lucky to have you. Good luck with MS exam.

  • CP48

    Good for them for not setting up an account – for anybody. I’m sure the only reason this fellow has friends is because he has money – that’s the only reason some people will tolerate such rudeness – says a lot about them too. Anyway unfortunately that wasn’t what the article was about but did it over.

  • Darlene(Dessario)Brill

    Fantastic Article! – Great Job Will!! Dan had posted it on FB and I enjoyed it very much!. Sounds like you have a FAB job and you put in long hours and work very hard. The pompousness you have to deal with is a slight downside.

    Good Luck with the MS Exam and all the best!

  • David

    I am a lawyer, and some are self-entitled idiots. Just as are some doctors, financiers, dilettantes, etc. This sounds like such a one, but worse, that he is “enabled” by Canoe.

    If, as the article says, Canoe never sets up accounts for anyone, and the sommelier knows it, don’t lie to the guy. No wonder he keeps on asking for an account, because no-one ever tells him he can’t get one!

    What impresses me most is pleasant service when I’m NOT spending a huge amount at a restaurant (and similarly good service for everyone else; Pangaea and Bistro 990 stand out for me in that respect, when I’ve been to Vertical or Reds likewise, in Montreal Les Halles), not obsequious service when I am. If I heard someone at a neighbouring table being indulged the way this lawyer was, I’d be annoyed at the restaurant just by comparison.

  • Mike

    David, It is naive to think that they have never said no to this individual, they most likely did the first twelve times he asked. The service industry is a constant negotiation. From a restaurant managers point of view, it surprises me you would be annoyed with the restaurant for providing a demanding guest their small indulgence. That type of guest, if not appeased, will likely complain loudly for the entirety of their three hour dining experience. Consequently ruining the evening for neighbouring tables…I have seen it happen. It’s not fair to the other guests who may only have one opportunity to eat at Canoe in their life, not to keep this person happy. Remember, what is a reasonable dinner to you as a lawyer may be 6 months of saving for another.

  • David

    @Mike,

    If a restaurant considers indulging people like this who are big spenders and frequent diners, that’s a legitimate business choice. But that choice may annoy other lower-spending diners, that’s one of the consequences (if few people share my views, not a big economic risk!). I’ve eaten at North 44 a few times, and won’t go back, after my second visit only because a family members wanted to go, the food was still good, but it wasn’t good enough to make up for two experiences with cold, unfriendly, pretentious servers.

    Part of my annoyance may be because (especially because I am a lawyer, or despite it?) I dislike pretentious, stuck-up lawyers. Maybe I’m being unfair to the “captivatingly bratty” retired lawyer, I recognize that some people who are full of themselves can still be charming, kind, friendly and entertaining.

    I also saw no reference to how Canoe knew (if it did) that none of the party who were drinking so much were intending on driving afterwards. Did they know that everyone lived within walking distance or would be taking taxis or limos? Did the lawyer have a chauffeur? Something else? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been at dinners and other events where I drank copious quantities, but I made sure I wasn’t driving.

    That aside (risk/danger), I am peeved less by the lawyer and more at Canoe NOT because it’s granting the lawyer a small indulgence – that would be fine – but because it’s lying to him (because no accounts are ever offered). Is it lying to him to keep him happy or to encourage bigger tips (reference to his having offered $300 on a prior visit?) and to retain his business? Lying about restaurant policy is not as bad as lying about the ingredients of a meal to keep patrons happy (even if they end up eating e.g. religiously-proscribed food!), but it’s somewhere along that spectrum.

  • mike

    David
    I’m sorry to hear you had poor experiences with pretentious servers. I usually try cracking a joke if I run into one and get them to loosen up that way.

    With regard to consumption…I’m sure that Canoe knew how the party was getting home. It was probably not mentioned because it is assumed; as law now dictates (as I am sure you are well aware) liability is placed on the establishment.

    I will not speak for the canoe staff but when I encounter a guest of this nature it makes my teeth grind. As you mentioned it is a business and when you capture it, you must retain it in a competitive market.

    I do not think that the “Look into an account” is lying because I’m sure by this time it is a game that is played every time he comes in(the answer will remain the same, and the refusal will not be in front of the rest of his party). The answer is a foregone conclusion, but he persists. Offering 300 to a hostess is not uncommon; people try to buy reservations, specific tables and so on. He was probably trying to impress a young attractive hostess. A hostess would not have the ability to set up an account anyway…

 

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