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Restaurateur and sommelier Vanya Filipovic, in the wine cellar of her Montreal restaurant, Vin Papillon. It opened in 2013 and recently expanded. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Restaurateur and sommelier Vanya Filipovic, in the wine cellar of her Montreal restaurant, Vin Papillon. It opened in 2013 and recently expanded. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

How Montreal sommelier Vanya Filipovic is changing the way an entire city thinks about wine Add to ...

‘Wine all day, wine all night.” Montreal sommelier Vanya Filipovic’s Twitter bio isn’t a glib throwaway line – it’s her timetable. No two days in a week are the same, but each day, and night, involves wine. If she’s not tasting it, she’s buying it or selling it; if she’s not talking about it, she’s tweeting about it or reading about it.

Wine is in her blood. Her mother was a wine steward and her father a chef. They owned, as Filipovic puts it, “a very, very French, very fine-dining, white-tablecloth kind of place,” in Quebec’s Laurentians and later in Vermont, where their young daughter helped out in the kitchen. Family trips were always to vineyards and food destinations – in France, in California. Now retired and based in Montreal, her parents are her “toughest critics by far,” but, she insists, “in the most loving way.”

Filipovic is locked-in on the positive. Her speech is peppered with words like “trust” and “encouragement” and “nice” and “fun” and yes, “positive,” but she’s no Pollyanna. Serious even when smiling, the 33-year-old is efficient and driven. In 2005, she started on the floor at Montreal’s newly opened Joe Beef – the restaurant largely credited with turning the city’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood into an epicurean destination – and took over the wine program four years later. So when Joe Beef owners David McMillan, Frédéric Morin and Allison Cunningham were kicking around the idea of a wine bar, they turned to Filipovic, as well as her boyfriend, chef Marc-Olivier Frappier.

They figured that either she would open a spot on her own, or they could open one with her.

“Vanya was at Joe Beef from day one,” says McMillan. “She should have been a partner from day one too, but we didn’t know which way was up back then. With Vin Papillon, Vanya has pushed the boundaries – more wine, more customers, just more! The rest of us try to be conservative and hold her back, but it’s useless. She loves the business and constantly pushes. She's not always easy – some days I think of strangling her – but we’re family.”

Pushing boundaries has made Filipovic a managing partner at Vin Papillon, which opened in 2013 and recently expanded. She’s also the general manager at Joe Beef and the wine director for both places. That is why, shortly before 3 p.m. on a Saturday, she’s updating the chalkboard offerings at Vin Papillon against a soundtrack of Bob Dylan, clattering dishes, a whirring meat slicer and the constant vibration of her cellphone. It’s why, during the never-ending dinner rush, she’s gliding from table to bar to table, providing friendly suggestions to customers, then slipping out the back and down the lane to do the same a few doors over at Joe Beef, earning her the nickname the Lady of the Alley.

When morning comes, the Lady turns into a Dame. A year and a half ago, Filipovic founded a wine agency, naming it Les Vins Dame-Jeanne, a nod to an old term for glass vessels used to ferment beverages. She currently collaborates with 40 winemakers, the majority of them based in Champagne, Burgundy and the Loire. She also imports from a few places in Italy, Spain, Germany and the United States; the sole Canadian winery on her roster is an Ontario one, Prince Edward County’s Norman Hardie.

All the wines, without exception, are organic or biodynamic. Some are certified, some are not. Some have added sulfur for preservation, some don’t. The end goal for Dame-Jeanne is that the product be as healthy as possible and be made by conscientious vintners Filipovic likes and respects.

“I believe deeply in the people I work with,” she says. “I thrive on exchange, on building relationships.” Over the past decade or so, she has done harvests, completed an apprenticeship in the Jura region of eastern France, and spent four months in Burgundy. She now travels 40 days a year on average, forging connections with winemakers such as Athénaïs de Béru, a thirtysomething Chablis producer who took over her family vineyards despite having zero experience in winemaking.

“To be a young blond woman in France in the middle of nowhere and to be battling to work as naturally as possible in a highly industrial region is really hard,” says Filipovic of de Béru. “And when I see the jump in quality from vintage to vintage and how great the wines have become since 2006, I want to cry. It’s awesome.”

Filipovic’s enthusiasm extends to the rest of her portfolio, especially products that weren’t previously available in Quebec: Vermont’s Hill Farmstead Brewery, which are the only beers she carries; the luminous wines of Jean-Pierre Robinot; Coteaux Champenois, which is Champagne made into still white or red. She currently distributes to more than 25 restaurants across Montreal, all spots where she loves to eat. Norman Hardie is a perfect fit for Maison Publique’s Canadian-centric wine list; Dieu du Ciel, Vices & Versa and Loïc opt for Hill Farmstead; Maison Boulud snatches up the Champagnes.

But the first and best testing ground is Vin Papillon, where Filipovic offers newbies wines by the glass to get everyone tasting.

Vin Papillon’s program is in constant movement. Filipovic rarely orders more than 24 bottles of one wine, so two to three fall off the list each day and are immediately replaced. Light, fresh, simple and low-alcohol rule here, where white outshines red, a testament to the restaurant’s vegetable-heavy menu. Filipovic wants to leave customers feeling good in their bodies – and win converts in the process.

“People are buying organic food more than ever,” she says. “With wine, however there seems to be two main groups: those in complete ignorance who eat organic vegetables but drink the wine equivalent of Kraft Singles, and those who buy something because it’s labelled organic or biodynamic without knowing if the product is delicious.” She admits that natural wines can be imperfect, but cautions against writing them off. “The answer isn’t to say these wines are flawed so let’s go back to the chemicals, things were better that way. In 2016, that kind of thinking isn’t pertinent. We need to encourage and we need to educate.”

It’s that ambitious attitude that caught the attention of Joe Beef’s founders a decade ago. “Wine is like computers: Many people know just enough to install the software,” says Morin. “But Vanya knows coding. She hasn’t jumped on the natural-wine bandwagon – she’s pulled the bandwagon. She’s gone to France, met with producers, created a network. She’s not the type to sit in the restaurant and wait for wine reps to drop by.”

From the vineyard visit and the barrel tasting to the selection and importation, from opening the bottle on the floor of Vin Papillon to watching clients’ expressions as they take a sip, Filipovic loves it all. “The full circle, that’s the reason why I do this,” she says. Wine all day, wine all night.

Five essential questions for Vanya Filipovic

Favourite wine?

Nope.

Let’s try again.

I can give you a very vast top 5. If I walk into a place and there’s no list, I will ask, “Is there German riesling? Is there grower champagne? Is there a Côte de Beaune white, Saint-Aubin ideally? Is there cool-climate pinot noir?” Or “Is there old nebbiolo?” Those are my favourites – maybe. Because if then the person says, “We have none of those but there’s an amazing Poulsard,” I’ll say, “Wow, yes.”

Best/worst wine trend?

Best is definitely the healthful beverage, whatever that may mean. Worst is the healthful beverage, whatever that may mean.

The key to good service?

Flexibility.

The ideal customer?

The kind that comes in and says “Feed me and wine me.” As British wine critic Jancis Robinson has written, if a customer walks into a restaurant and requests a particular bottle, mind made up, they’re missing out on everything.

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