NOUS SOMMES NEW SOMMS
They're hip, they're happening – and they're overwhelmingly women. A new wave of sommelier is reshaping the restaurant landscape, pushing the stereotypically snooty and stuffy old wine expert out the door. The next generation of wine professionals – the ones responsible for Toronto's most exciting wine lists – are focused on the guest experience, don't care how much you spend, generally learned the trade on the job, and are willing to drink wine from little-known regions
Montgomery's, 996 Queen St. W.
At Montgomery's, the tight little wine list is food-driven, super-casual and more global than we might expect, given the restaurant's hyper-local cuisine. Bar manager Ellen Shrybman loves Ontario wine, but says that, because of the esoteric flavours, she needed to cast a wide net to create food and wine pairings.
"That's part of the fun of it," says Ms. Shrybman, who previously worked with Montgomery's owner and chef, Guy Rawlings, at Bar Isabel. "We found a Yamahai saké that was so savoury, mushroomy and earthy and worked perfectly with a steamed custard dish. It tasted totally different with the saké. They really needed each other."
Ms. Shrybman's adventurous spirit extends to plum wine, sherry and Madeira, but she also has 20-plus offerings – all available by the glass – that will appeal to the traditionalist. It's heavy on Old World picks, especially Italians, which are her first love, having spent a year studying food and wine in Piedmont. It's easy to spot frizzante, moscato and Lambrusco (which pairs nicely with the housemade lardo) on the list most of the time.
"I try to make sure there's nothing crazy expensive," she says, "which is tough in Ontario, where you can spend a lot of money on a bottle that would be table wine in Europe. And that's just for a drinker, not a thinker."
Bar Raval, 505 College St.
Bar Raval's cocktail program and Barcelona-inspired snacks need no introduction. Even its baristas are well-known. But, with sommelier Lexi Wolkowski at the helm, it's understated, tiny wine list deserves more love than it gets. It might be a small list but she does a lot with it.
"The size allows me to really tightly curate what fits the most with the food and forces me to keep rotating," she says. "So we buy a few cases of something and then it's gone."
That's perfect for the adventurous wine-lovers that frequent Raval, since there's a burgeoning new demographic of oenophiles who crave novelty the way that craft beer drinkers do – always wanting to learn, and always wanting to try something new.
"There are a lot of weird things on there that might not look very accessible," she says. "But we're always happy to talk with anybody and hopefully find something eclectic and new that is similar to something they've enjoyed in the past."
Ms. Wolkowski is excited to be pouring a lot of low-sulphur wine from Spain's Conca de Barberà, a region close to trendy Priorat, as well as the high-end Spanish sparkling wines that have recently emerged. About one-third of her list is devoted to bubbly but, if you really want to taste her passion projects, look to her picks from France.
"We love Spanish wines, obviously, and it would be off-theme not to have a lot of that," she says. "But my heart is also really drawn to wines of the Loire Valley. I just think they're so interesting, so food-friendly. There's such a range of expressions from that one particular place, so it's a favourite for me."
La Banane, 227 Ossington Ave.
It's almost impossible to walk into the disco-themed, playful-yet-classic French restaurant and not crave a glass of spritz. From traditional Champagnes to under-the-radar sparkling mauzac from Limoux, the restaurant is serious about its fizz.
"We love, love, love to see people drinking bubbles," says sommelier Christopher Wickens. "We have a small but well-curated list of Champagnes and we try to provide an immense amount of value. I think all too often restaurants have Champagne as show pieces, so it's been really refreshing to see Toronto coming out and buying proper Champagne and enjoying it with the cuisine."
Guests who don't want fizz can count on a solid, reliable list that honours classic appellations and regions of France, with the occasional nod to Ontario, since Mr. Wickens has some hometown pride for the region's world-class wines.
As the restaurant settles into itself (it's only a few months old), he may add a few wines from other regions but, for now, it's dominated by hidden gems from France, which is a natural fit for both the cuisine and this somm, who has spent a lot of time in the vineyards of Burgundy and Chablis. Having worked at Momofuku Shoto, with its adventurous wine lists and complicated pairings, Mr. Wickens loves the contrast of confining himself to Old World wines.
"This level of restraint has been a really positive thing," he says. "It's a really focused approach. And it's refreshing to not have to be all things to all people."
Actinolite, 971 Ossington Ave.
Life moves fast at Actinolite, where seasonality is the prime directive and, as such, specific dishes have a short life-span. "Freshest-at-the-moment" is great for patrons enjoying the restaurant's acclaimed tasting menu, but it presents a challenge for head cork dork and general manager, Merrin McHugh. She always has to be two steps ahead of the harvest and remember from year to year which wines pair best with everything from fiddleheads to late-harvest butternut squash.
"We tend to be fairly vegetable-focused, heavy on the fermentation and really fresh flavours, so the wines are the same," says Ms. McHugh. "We don't carry a lot of big reds and, instead, feature lighter-to-medium body, food-friendly, high-acid wines.
"And because the food is so focused on organic farms, the wines reflect that, too. They're all smaller producers using organic, bio-dynamic and indigenous grapes."
Ontario wines dominate her summer list but are balanced with her personalized, high-concept and complex choices that dabble in volcanic, orange and natural wines from regions such as Sicily, the Canary Islands, Jura and Slovenia.
"Just come in with an open mind," she says. "I feature a lot of stuff that people aren't going to have tasted before, so I recommend people just let go of those walls and trust us and come in and drink."
Byblos, 11 Duncan St.
"My favourite thing is when someone who comes to the restaurant is just very honest with me about what kind of wines they like and how adventurous they're feeling," says Krysta Oben, who is in charge of the cellars at Byblos. "Because my job is really to interpret what they're telling me and get them exactly the wine they want."
Ms. Oben, who previously worked at Geraldine and Edulis, makes this as easy as possible for the guest, since her list is broad and "diplomatic"– balanced between "classically delicious" California cabs and Bordeaux, as well as wines from up-and-coming regions such as Lebanon and Greece, which don't get a lot of airplay.
"It's a Middle Eastern, Mediterranean restaurant and our chef, Stuart Cameron, pulls traditional recipes from Lebanon, Greece and Israel," she says. "So Greek wine is a natural fit. And you can get some great stuff made by some very cool, young and inspired winemakers now."
Although an ardent fan of French wines, she advises people to watch for salty reds from Etna, sparkling wines from the Loire, and any assyrtiko from Santorini.
Cava, 1560 Yonge St.
There's a lot of wine at Cava, so much, in fact, that the overflow is stuffed into the bench seats. Diners are literally sitting over cases of wine as they enjoy their tapas and pinchos.
"I've never counted, but I think we have three- or four-hundred labels," says Jeffery Williams, who took over the wine program three years ago. "It's been a very exciting project. Bigger than I thought, but, hey, it's a lot of fun."
In that time, Mr. Williams has been honing his "modern approach," which involves stocking up on the next generation of wines, many of which are a little lighter, the new style of wines being made by younger winemakers – often from old winemaking families.
"The shorthand is these wines are more like Burgundy and less like Bordeaux," he says. "Spain has been getting away from the bold reds conditioned in heavy oak, which is good, because it's more flexible for food."
Mr. Williams calls the large stretch of coast from Catalonia to Jerez de la Frontera the "spiritual locus" of the food program and, to honour that, tries to stick closely to products from that region, including, of course, sherry, which he loves to pour.
"People don't think about it right away, but it makes for a great pairing for our food," he says. "Almost every single one of our dishes has a sherry that we can match."