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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.