Food & Drink

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

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

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

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.

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.”

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

The Master Sommelier certification from the grandly named Court of Master Sommeliers is the highest academic achievement a sommelier can earn. Like a post-doc, it signals disciplined devotion to and mastery of an extremely specialized and arcane body of scholarship. There are only three Masters in Canada, all of whom live in Toronto. John Szabo, the first to earn the credential, now writes on wine and serves as a private consultant who designs lists for the new Trump Tower and restaurants like Terroni. The second, Bruce Wallner, is the sommelier at Paese, on King Street West. And the third, Jennifer Huether, oversees the surprisingly large wine collection of the Air Canada Centre and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Huether passed the MS exam last February, conferring prestige to the growing archipelago of fine-dining restaurants and private clubs catering to Leafs and Raptors fans—to the point that they can seriously be considered competition for the likes of Canoe.

“I roll my eyes whenever anybody says I’m the best,” Predhomme told me, but obtaining the MS will put him in an elite group. Growing up, Predhomme spent a lot of time in restaurants. At the age of 15, in his hometown of Windsor, he got his first job as a cook in a family restaurant. A trip to Europe made Windsor feel small, and upon his return, he travelled west. He got a job at the Chateau Lake Louise, where he oscillated between the dining room and the ski slopes until, in a revelatory moment for him at age 20, a guest, studying for her own sommelier certification, introduced him to the profession. The allure was immediate—Predhomme imagined a non-stop life of luxurious leisure—and he took two years of courses through the International Sommelier Guild in Banff and Calgary. At the time, he was living with his high school sweetheart, Jenn Fairlie, now his wife. She wanted to return to Windsor to finish her nursing degree, and Predhomme grudgingly followed. He became a product consultant at the LCBO, tasting a “whack-load” of wine and teaching wine classes. This was enjoyable and edifying. But after a couple of years, Predhomme grew restless again and took a job at the Caesars Windsor casino, where he became the sommelier at the steak house, building its list and cellar. In 2008, the job at Canoe became available, and after Predhomme aced a series of interviews, the couple moved to Toronto. They now live in a condo in CityPlace.

Every week, in preparation for his Master exam in November, Predhomme meets his friend, Corey Ladouceur, the sommelier at the Granite Club, for regimented tastings. They’ll blind taste between four and eight wines. When he entered the CAPS competition last summer, Predhomme was tested on his ability to properly open and serve champagne, correct errors in a wine list and suggest appropriate food pairings. The Master exam is similar, but on a larger scale, with three separate components: theory, service and blind tasting. Kermit Lynch, the famed American wine importer, has said that blind tasting is to wine what strip poker is to love. The Court apparently loves strip poker. In the tasting portion of the exam, Predhomme will sit in front of three Court judges, with six glasses of wine. He’ll have 25 minutes to determine and describe, among other things, the wines’ provenance, varietal, vintage, acidity and alcohol content. When Predhomme was a student, like all aspiring sommeliers he started by using the Nez du Vin smell kit, a set of 54 vials containing synthetic aromas (from vanilla to leather), to train and hone his sense of smell. (What a sommelier can detect in a single wine can sound more than a little far-fetched: when describing the nose of one wine to me, Huether rhymed off notes of peach and unripe peach, as well as other stone fruits.) In the exam this must all be communicated verbally—nothing can be written down—to better simulate real-life restaurant service.

One rule of proper service is that you pour wine with the label facing the guest. But sommeliers, when they’re serving other sommeliers, like to hide the label and make their colleague guess what wine they’re pouring. This blind tasting is both a secret handshake and a competitive wink. Every time I saw another sommelier do this with Predhomme, who always passed the test but seemed uncomfortable with the showiness, I wondered about how much innate talent sommeliers have. In one study of wine tasting and brain activity, the analytical portion of the sommelier’s brain was shown to be dramatically more active than that of the non-somm’s brain; the sommelier routinely associates words with flavours, names with odours. But that refined palate is, for the most part, the result of rigorous training and years of concentrated tasting. Anyone, therefore, could become a somm.

Predhomme usually arrives at Canoe by noon and spends roughly 12 hours at the restaurant. (He’ll also put in time at Jump, doing quick tastings with staff and updating the wine list.) During the first half of his shift, he receives and shelves cases of wine (an average day can bring in $20,000 worth of new wine), assembles more orders and meets with agents for tastings. Canoe’s list, which changes every three weeks and consists of more than 500 labels, is designed by Predhomme to include an array of price points for each varietal and region. The average markup on each bottle is about 36 per cent.

He’ll meet briefly with John Horne, the chef de cuisine, to hammer out pairings for the tasting menus or a private function. This is a quick, intuitive, even jocular process, with Horne sometimes pushing Predhomme or vice versa. When Horne provocatively proposes Predhomme find a wine pairing for the complicated flavours of a trio-of-artichoke soup, he winces at the challenge. Another moment’s thought and he says, proudly, “I’m thinking sherry. A really cool fino.” A server ducks into the office and interrupts to ask Predhomme to remind him of a wine’s flavour profile. “It’s a bit modernist,” Predhomme says, opaquely.

During service, Predhomme wears $1,200 bespoke suits made for him by an Italian-Canadian tailor in North York (Predhomme and O&B split the cost and he gets two a year). One night, it’s a three-piece dark pinstripe, paired with a gold tie, livery that provides a prim façade with a hint of flash. Predhomme appears a bit older than he is—he’s baby-faced but his dark, close-cropped hair is thinning. He looks as if he has shaved just moments before service, his upper lip still dotted with almost imperceptible pinpricks of blood. His bearing is that of a butler, and he glides through Canoe rapidly, especially when en route to the wine cellar (a round trip he’ll make more than 30 times in a shift). The rhythm of the evening recalls Predhomme’s youthful days as a ski bum: each table is like a mogul that must be attacked, requiring precision and quick decision making. Occasionally, Predhomme pauses near the bar and surveys the dining room, scanning the tables as if atop a new peak.

Predhomme points to a bottle of 2005 Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan. “To drink this now,” he says, “would be infanticide”

After a server has made initial contact, Predhomme will introduce himself to a table with little fanfare: “Hi, I’m Will, I’m the sommelier. I noticed you looking at the wine list and wanted to let you know I’m here if you have any questions.” If they do want help, he gently lobs the ball back in their court: “Do you have any likes or dislikes?” He’s confident but disarmingly casual, describing wine in accessible terms more commonly reserved for sports cars or action films; a wine is “sexy,” “cool” or “killer.” The best sommeliers are storytellers. I overhear Predhomme tell several stories—of a recent trip to Italy, of a wedding proposal on another night at Canoe that went embarrassingly awry, of the appeal of malbec—slipping into one companionable guise after another. In one moment, his youth is evident, as if he’s trying to impress the parents of a girl he’s just started dating. In another, he’s one of the guys, joshing around in the locker room after a squash game. His guests eat up the attention. Most of them drink a lot of wine.

One afternoon at Canoe, Predhomme grabbed a makeshift spittoon (an old ice bucket) and two bottles of Canadian pinot noir—one from Tawse Winery, another from Norman Hardie—and told me he wanted to “calibrate” my palate. I slurped (and, unprofessionally, swallowed) the two wines, and Predhomme asked me what I was getting from them. The Tawse was more to my liking, a bit more “approachable,” as Predhomme says, while the Hardie felt somewhat thin and tart, reminding me of umeboshi, a pickled Japanese plum. I took another sip. No, sour cherry. Wait, maybe rhubarb? OK, all three. As I struggled to define just a single wine, to commit that complicated flavour profile to memory, I marvelled, for the hundredth time that day, at how much sipping, slurping and spitting Predhomme had done in his career to build the insanely enormous bank of smells, tastes, textures, place names and dates that his brain somehow retains. Predhomme is a big fan of Hardie’s wines, but, ever diplomatic, passed no judgment on my judgment.

When tasting wine, Predhomme makes more noise than other people, more even than other sommeliers. He sucks the wine through his teeth to aerate it, swirling it in his mouth, his lips slightly parted. “Loud and proud,” he said to me the first time he demonstrated this technique. “Hold your head over your plate, in case you dribble.” (I did.) When’s he not working, Predhomme prefers to drink beer or espresso. But he’s almost always working and thus, almost always drinking, or at least tasting, wine. His favourite wine at the moment is E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Landonne, from the Northern Rhône—“the epitome of syrah,” he says. He’s extremely fond of wines that are, as he puts it, “expressive of place.” Like many other Toronto sommeliers, Predhomme is reflexively, almost defensively, enthusiastic about Ontario wines. Small, artisanal producers are fashionable, as they are in the culinary world, and some of the world’s best small producers are in our backyard. “We’re finally focusing on things that sing in our climate and region,” Predhomme says, like pinot noir and chardonnay. “Cool climate viticulture is where the trend is going.” A group of Canadian wineries—including seven from Prince Edward County—recently held tastings for New York’s top palates at an event called “Seriously Cool Chardonnay.” A similar evening was held last year in London, receiving praise from such renowned wine writers as Jancis Robinson and Oz Clarke. “We all know that chardonnay is a fantastic grape whose time will come again,” Clarke said. Predhomme agrees: “We’re on the cusp of something freaking awesome.”

One night, a table that included Geddy Lee and Jim Cuddy drank $30,000 worth of rare and remarkable bottles

At the end of February, Predhomme takes me on an informal tour of his competition, starting with the Ritz-Carlton. Taylor Thompson, the Ritz’s wine director, is whippet-thin and also 29. (“He likes to say he’s the youngest head sommelier in the city,” Predhomme says, “but he’s only a week younger than me.”) Thompson gives us a quick tour of the hotel’s three drinking and dining spots, its luxurious cheese cave and a glass-enclosed wine cellar whose centrepiece is a golden bottle of Jay-Z’s beloved Armand de Brignac, considered the world’s best champagne. Thompson is possibly even more of a wine nerd than Predhomme, overflowing with passion for his new oeno-empire (he was formerly the sommelier at Reds). “A competitor, not a threat,” Predhomme says of the hotel (though, in fact, Toca, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, did poach chef Tom Brodi from Canoe, where he worked for six years). Thompson pours us a couple of flutes of Veuve Clicquot before striding off to tend to other guests. All sommeliers seem to love bubbles—if your life was largely a non-stop dinner party, wouldn’t you?—but Predhomme sniffs at the mass-produced Veuve: “There’s much better stuff out there.”

He’s delighted when, an hour later, we stop off at Crush and two friendly staffers from Splendido and Nota Bene, sitting at the bar, send over some Blue Mountain Brut­—a sparkling wine from B.C. Predhomme walks over to say hello, and one of them launches into a description of the rock-star table he served the night before, a party including Geddy Lee, a legendary wine collector, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Murray Tawse, the ex-banker who owns Tawse Winery. Still giddy, the staffer rattles off the rare and remarkable bottles the table consumed, about $30,000 worth. Let Me Tell You About Something Cool. Back at our table, Predhomme looks over Crush’s wine list, orders us a $50 bottle of 2006 Falchini Paretaio (“the best value on the list”) and draws my attention to a 2005 Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan listed at $2,500 (“to drink this now would be infanticide”). When I ask if Canoe’s list is somehow better, or even the best in the city, Predhomme seems exasperated. “I like where it’s at,” he says. “It’s not stagnant. But the guests dictate that. It’s not a show-offy thing. A small Italian list, with 10 perfect wines, that could be the best list.”

By the time we get to Yorkville, to visit Steprans, the sommelier at L’Unità and its sister restaurant Maléna, I feel like I’ve already drunk 10 perfect wines. Predhomme, however, appears entirely sober. We take a seat at the bar and Steprans soon joins us. Predhomme lets her choose what we’ll drink. “Bubbles?” she asks brightly, popping open a bottle of Ribolla Gialla. Both L’Unità and Maléna have their own distinct wine lists. “Every list in Toronto should be unique,” she says, “but it’s hard when you’re not a big restaurant with lots of people coming in.” On Good Food Revolution, the website Jamie Drummond co-edits, he singled out Steprans as one of the city’s best young sommeliers, and it’s easy to see why: she’s warm, shyly beguiling and, like Predhomme, a consummate host. We’re both impressed by the quality of the wines she pours. Also the quantity. Predhomme is still at the bar when, near midnight, I stumble out to find a cab. When I email the next afternoon to tell him how unbelievably awful I feel, he replies, hospitable as always, “You put a great effort forward!”

There were moments, usually after our third or fourth glass of wine, when it seemed like Predhomme had the best possible job in Toronto. Whenever I was having too good a time, or when it seemed that Predhomme was having too good a time, he would sigh, smile and remind me that it wasn’t always like this, that the hours were long, inventory was a pain, alcoholism was a very real danger and there were always guests like the account-grubbing millionaire ex-lawyer. I didn’t really believe him. It didn’t look like he really believed himself. He told me another story, of being on a panel at Terroir, the annual hospitality conference, where he spoke about riesling. He looked around at his fellow panelists. These were guys like Szabo and the winemaker Charles Baker. For a moment, Predhomme was overwhelmed by the unlikely fact of his privileged profession and his precocious accomplishments within it. “Why am I here?” he thought. He was thinking about his own remarkable ascent in the wine world, but also, perhaps, the existential absurdity of a life devoted to smells, textures, tastes and booze. “It’s just grape juice,” he says. “Awesome and tasty grape juice.”


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