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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.”

  • 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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