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

Toronto is on a wine binge. According to International Wine and Spirit Research, a U.K.-based market research company, wine consumption increased 22.5 per cent between 2005 and 2009 and wine sales are expected to grow 19 per cent by 2014 (the global average increase is only three per cent annually). We’ll also be sipping (or guzzling) a lot more of our own, ever-improving vintages—the report predicts that between now and 2014, consumption of domestic wine by Canadians will increase 26 per cent. The sommelier (or “somm,” as many refer to themselves, with a slightly blustery inflection) has been instrumental in this evolution.

The sommelier must adopt a unique role that’s equal parts psychotherapist, fishing buddy, performance artist, real estate agent, magician and private eye. If a guest is particularly knowledgeable, the sommelier becomes more of a confidant, and the conversation can take on an air of swagger, not unlike the exchanges you might hear among comic book collectors or vintage car buffs. On the part of both parties, it’s not so much Look What I Know as Let Me Tell You About Something Cool.

In theory, a sommelier can take a glass of wine and determine after a sip, or even a single deep sniff, the type of grape it’s made from, where those grapes were grown and by whom and in what kind of soil and upon what age of vine, when they were harvested, how they were processed, and myriad other properties too esoteric to describe here. In the restaurant business, sommeliers must also possess many other talents. At Canoe, Predhomme designs the wine list and purchases those wines from agents, wineries and the LCBO. The restaurant sells about $2.5 million worth of wine a year. Its wine cellar is valued at a quarter of a million dollars, though it’s not much bigger than a walk-in closet. Depending on the type of restaurant and the range of responsibility, Toronto’s sommeliers earn up to $110,000 a year.

The history of the sommelier in Toronto has been brief. In the early ’90s, there were only a handful; by 1995, however, the city’s finest restaurants—Canoe, North 44°, Centro—all had their own in-house wine gurus. Better travelled, better educated and more adventurous diners demanded more adventurous wine lists. Wine grew more important to the city’s foremost chefs: Jamie Kennedy and Brad Long became certified sommeliers. In the early 2000s, with the brash, charismatic likes of Jamie Drummond at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar and Anton Potvin, himself an O&B grad and now the owner of the Niagara Street Café, the sommelier’s role grew larger, becoming more managerial and influential. In 2006, before the recession put a damper on the high-end restaurant industry, Barberian’s steak house built a two-storey wine cellar, considered the most lavish in the city, valued at roughly $6 million.

The third generation of sommeliers has come of age during the recession, a more competitive era in which cost-cutting restaurants have pressed new and varied responsibilities on their somms. The new wave includes Predhomme as well as Mark Moffatt at Crush Wine Bar, Lesa LaPointe at Enoteca Sociale and Zinta Steprans at L’Unità and Maléna. More and more, these sommeliers also manage the floor, ensuring that service runs smoothly. There’s only one trick to being a good sommelier, Predhomme says: “Listen to the guests and give them what they want.” This is a somewhat disingenuous sound bite, especially when so many guests really just want what a sommelier tells them they want. The real trick to being a good sommelier is to convince them it was their idea.

There’s some truth to the stereotype of a sommelier: that he (the archetype is male) is a wine god who imperiously imparts his rarefied knowledge while bullying you into buying bottles you can scarcely afford, and that, worse even, that rarefied knowledge is itself specious.

It’s also true that some restaurant wine lists are the lazy product of graft and bribes from agents and wineries. The province forbids wine agencies from offering discounts to restaurants, but it still happens. Jamie Drummond told me he has seen how the multinational companies, which own the majority of the wine world, buy the loyalty of sommeliers. “It doesn’t take too much skill to look at a list and deduce which corporate teats they’re suckling at that particular year,” he says. Drummond has been offered a free Caribbean cruise and hockey tickets; Predhomme has had at least one agent offer him cash. Both refused those gifts, but they do regularly accept trips around the world to vineyards and châteaux, where they’re wined and dined by agencies or national wine boards.

A couple of days after I first met Predhomme, he flew to Italy for a 10-day “familiarization” tour of wineries all over the country, sponsored by the Rogers and Company wine agency. It’s fair to assume that such trips influence wine lists. Predhomme admits as much, but claims he was already listing the wineries he was visiting on this particular trip—the very reason Rogers and Company invited him. “Agents have different ways of thanking the restaurants,” says the wine agent Howard Wasserman, whose company B&W Wines has flown clients to Spain and Australia. “I thank them by taking them away. It’s important for them to see the vines and the soil, to understand where wines come from. I’m not ashamed of bringing education to people.”