Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.
As head sommelier for Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment, Anne Martin oversees a team of certified sommeliers and beverage programs at fine-dining establishments in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena and associated restaurants. Last March, they were bracing for another hectic month. The Raptors were preparing for marquee matchups with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. The NHL playoff race was heating up. Pearl Jam, Elton John and other luminaries were slated to perform. That was before everything changed.
“We had been getting some catering party cancellations, but when the NBA announced it was suspending operations, that was it,” Martin says. “We were done.”
Since then, Martin says she continually adapts as her role evolves. MLSE and partners turned Scotiabank Arena into a giant kitchen producing meals for front-line health care workers and their families as well as community agencies and shelters. When the weather warmed and restrictions were lifted, al fresco events and dining opportunities were organized and orchestrated. The NHL has returned in a reduced capacity, with a chance to tend to smaller numbers around the table. Preparation is underway for more outdoor activities and dining experiences come spring and summer.
“We always have so much going on. Like any good restaurant person, you have to be willing to put your hand up and pitch in,” says Martin, an industry veteran whose résumé includes being one of the first female sommeliers in Toronto, at Prego Della Piazza, and serving as head sommelier at Canoe Restaurant and Bar.
As professions go, sommeliers are a widely misunderstood lot. Not only do they have to fight against the perennial stereotype of the self-important waiter who sneers at those who don’t know their Bordeaux from their Burgundy, sommeliers need to put guests at ease. It’s not their job to push expensive bottles. They’re there to assist clients to find a wine that works with their meal, preferences and budget. They want you to have a sensational experience. They want you to come back.
The restaurant and hospitality industry has been in turmoil, facing greatly reduced numbers for indoor dining or completely empty restaurants, depending on local restrictions. Restaurants Canada reports that since March, 2020, 10,000 restaurants have closed across Canada, and almost 50 per cent expect to permanently close their establishment if conditions don’t improve. The advocacy association for Canada’s foodservice industry also estimates hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost along with as much as $31-billion in sales in 2020 due to the impacts of COVID-19.
Even in the best market conditions, few restaurants can afford an employee whose sole function is maintaining the wine cellar and managing its sales and service; it’s typical for sommeliers to also serve as general manager, floor manager or bartender. Without a conventional restaurant and tables of guests to serve and define them, what is a sommelier to do?
A good place to start is to be aware of their mental health. “We don’t talk about mental-health issues enough,” says Pier-Alexis Soulière, one of a handful of Canadians who have attained their master-sommelier designation. Having worked at prestigious Michelin-star establishments including Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London and the Modern in New York, Soulière, who is based in Quebec City, has been active in international competitions, earning the title of best sommelier of the Americas in 2018 and a Top 10 placement in the 2019 best sommelier of the world competition in Antwerp.
Being a successful sommelier, he says, requires networking with guests, co-workers, winemakers, agents and others to create meaningful connections. “We thrive on these great interactions with people, sharing information and giving birth to great memories for our guests. It’s super scary right now for people whose raison d’etre is serving and interacting with people to be living in isolation,” he says.
Successive lockdowns, coping with transition and overall uncertainty of the situation has spelled increased anxiety and depression in an industry that already grapples with mental health challenges.
In response, the Toronto-based organization Not 9 to 5 created an educational platform called Primary Concerns, which offers mental-health support to the hospitality, food and beverage community. It’s available with other resources, including ways to access free and low-cost programs in Canada and the U.S., at not9to5.org.
Sommeliers who are still active have turned much of their attention to running bottle shops and compiling food-and-wine kits to offer a restaurant experience at home to people who cannot enter their dining rooms.
A number have taken their passion for wine online, conducting tastings or information sessions. Lights, microphones and Zoom accounts are now as essential to the trade as corkscrews, decanters and ice buckets. There’s a new way to work and convey the passion that made them dedicate hours of training, studing and tasting to perfecting their skill set.
At the onset of COVID-19, Brie Dema was working as head sommelier at the Fogo Island Inn, located off the north coast of Newfoundland. An internationally acclaimed luxury resort, the inn relies on tourists to operate. She returned home to Ontario in September to work at the Elora Mill Hotel & Spa.
Dema says during her time living remotely on Fogo Island, she depended on social media, reading journals and online chats to stay in touch with sommelier colleagues and keep abreast of current events in the world of wine. “Now we all connect that way,” she says.
Serving domestic tourists from Kitchener, Guelph and surrounding regions, Dema has been gratified seeing how guests are coming to the table looking to enjoy themselves. As long as there’s an appetite for dining out, there will be a role for sommeliers to play, she says. “The desire for that meaningful experience hasn’t gone. If anything, we’re craving it more than ever.”
Gabbiano Cavaliere d’Oro Chianti Classico 2017 (Italy), $18.95
From one of the larger Chianti Classico producers, this always-reliable red offers characteristic red fruit, floral and savoury notes. Its nicely balanced and flavourful style is made for the dinner table and has the structure to age. Drink now to 2024. Available in Ontario at the above price, $19.99 in British Columbia ($18.99 until March 6), $19.99 in New Brunswick, $21.77 in Newfoundland.
Oyster Bay Pinot Grigio 2020 (New Zealand), $19.95
Produced with pinot gris grapes grown in the Hawkes Bay region, this fruity and enjoyable white offers nice yellow apple, citrus and melon notes with subtle spice notes. Its well-balanced and refreshing style makes it easy to appreciate. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price, $19.99 in British Columbia ($18.49 until March 6), various prices in Alberta, $20.99 in Saskatchewan, $18.99 in Manitoba, $19.75 in Quebec, $23.79 in New Brunswick, $22.49 in Nova Scotia, $21.99 in Prince Edward Island, $22.50 in Newfoundland.
Vollereaux Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne (France), $52.95
This is a surprisingly rich and complex style of Champagne from a family-owned operation located outside of Epernay. Made from 100-per-cent chardonnay, this offers nice apple and toasty notes with a rounded, creamy texture and flavourful finish. Drink now. Available in Ontario.