Spotlight: Toronto

Toronto. To offer up a quick comparison, we’re about the same size as Chicago (actually, Toronto is slightly larger) and considered Canada’s financial center. Far from the stereotypical image of Canadians you might be expecting (eh!), Toronto—or what we like to call the “GTA” (the Greater Toronto Area)— is quite cosmopolitan, with an impressive 49% of its population hailing from outside of Canada… 

And that, my friends, provides a brilliant diversity of places to go for drinks!

Lately, Toronto has emerged from the long culinary shadow of Montreal, exploding with small, innovative, chef-driven restaurants and incredibly thoughtful wine programs. Of course, the weather here is absolutely miserable for most of the year… but that just provides us with the impetus to seek shelter and develop our fantastic restaurant and bar scene! Inside the establishments, we’re still a bit plagued by “the slash” (sommelier-slash-manager), but a new acceptance of the true, dedicated sommelier role is materialzing—it is a crucial part of any restaurant deriving a significant portion of its sales from beverage!

As for the sommelier community specifically, it’s a very tight-knit one—and we’re growing fast: Widespread support for younger professionals in our industry is now a given; local sommelier competitions are rapidly expanding, and if you check out any trade tasting or educational session, you’ll notice a thirsty and curious mob gathering...Bruce Wallner MS

Featured below are a few from that clan. These are some of Toronto’s most exciting sommeliers, sharing their thoughts on the GTA: Stephanie Guth (sommelier, Montecito Restaurant), José Luis Fernández (sommelier, Quatrefoil), Jake Lewis (sommelier, Momofuku Daishō), Emily Pearce (wine consultant and former sommelier of Oliver & Bonacini’s Canoe), Christopher Sealy (sommelier, George Restaurant; and owner, Midfield Wine Bar and Tavern) and Mark Moffatt (sommelier, Shangri-La).

What are the most exciting wine and beverage trends hitting Toronto now?

Emily: Just like many places across North America, Toronto is experiencing a boom in both craft beer and classic cocktails. But the most noteworthy trend in terms of wine and hospitality occurring in Toronto is within the community itself.  We’re seeing a “coming together” of professionals looking to elevate the industry as a whole. The Sommelier Factory, run by Bruce Wallner MS, is a great example of a place focused on fostering education and training while propelling the Toronto wine community toward a higher level of professionalism and a more cohesive group.

Mark: I’m noticing a re-introduction of great vermouths being enjoyed as aperitifs. In wine, I’m seeing really smart buying from regions that were often overlooked in the past—places like Toro, Montsant, Patagonia. 

Jake: Craft beer and cocktails are finally getting a strong foothold. It’s taken longer than in cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston, but we’re starting to grab hold. Local wine is always a trend here, and I’ve seen some great quality recently.

José: Supporting local is a definite trend, be it a winery, distillery, brewery or cidery. Organic and biodynamic producers are trendy, too. And there is an obvious Spanish wine trend—specifically Sherry. Also, quality Tequila and Mezcal.

Stephanie: I think Toronto is starting to discover artisanal herb- and botanical-based spirits. Absinthe fountains are also popping up behind many bars, and I’m seeing a great selection of pastis on lists and Chartreuse in cocktails. I have high hopes that Sherry will become more popular. 

Christopher: I feel that the wines of Spain are really bubbling under the surface here in Toronto. In my heart of hearts, I hope that the wines of Portugal will follow suit. There’s also been a great awareness towards higher quality natural and biodynamic wines—wines that have correct typicity and character without simply “being dirty” for dirty’s sake. I’d also say: Vermouth, vermouth, vermouth… There are so many coming into the market, adding finer detail to the way we consume wine and beverages. 

How does the Toronto restaurant scene compare to other big cities/metropolitan areas in both Canada and the world?

Christopher: Toronto is coming into its own, and I think it’s doing so on its own terms. We do not have pressure from our public to always be the cutting edge and the best—I don't think we have the density of population to take those risks... yet. What I do think we have is a public that is paying attention, is committed to a continually growing scene and to being loyal to those. There are many restaurants that are pushing the envelope. Restaurateurs, chefs and sommeliers are continually training, travelling and collaborating with each other to create our own new standard. Toronto also has so much to offer on the regional, multi-ethnic side of things. The food culture of every nation under the sun can be found within a short bike ride from any point of departure in the city. I don't know many cities that can boast such diversity and richness of choice. 

Emily: As a Torontonian, I am of course biased, but Toronto is an exciting place to both dine as well as live—the city is one of the most multicultural in the world, and that’s reflected in the food and dining experiences we offer. We’re very comfortable experimenting and experiencing new cuisine and wines while at the same time strongly valuing fine dining and classic service. Comparatively speaking, this is a huge advantage that makes Toronto the premier city in Canada in terms of a restaurant scene. Again: biased.

José: The diversity here is incredible—as is the quality of the restaurants. It is definitely smaller in scale in comparison to other international cities, but the market is booming and has attracted a number of international chefs: David Chang, Daniel Boulud, Scott Conant, Jonathan Waxman…

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the Toronto restaurant/wine scene?

Emily: Luckily the strengths of Toronto greatly outweigh the weaknesses. Toronto has the sophistication of a major metropolitan city, with diners open to quality, ingredient-driven food. Further, the multicultural elements create openness to exciting and new cuisine from many of the ethnicities represented. If I had to pick a weakness, it would have to be access to wine. At times, our smaller market and provincial government can be challenging. That being said, Toronto is full of creative and intelligent sommeliers building brilliant lists in spite of it.

Jake: Toronto’s restaurant and wine scene is fairly focused on local products—in fact, there are loads of wine programs that only have Niagara and other Ontario wines. Whether that’s good or bad I can’t say; it’s really about what the guest wants.

Mark: The strengths: passionate chefs and sommeliers; great suppliers who provide quality ingredients. Weaknesses: a rise in chain restaurants, which I feel devalues the city as a true dining destination.

Stephanie: A definite strength is the diversity of our population. Toronto may well be THE most multicultural city in the world, and as a result we have many restaurants offering authentic cuisines; Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Filipino, Caribbean, etc. You name it. 

The LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) is a definite weakness.

How does the LCBO work? What’s its purpose? Does it restrict your buying? Are there any advantages to it? 

Stephanie: The LCBO was created in 1927 to control the sale and distribution of alcohol in Ontario after prohibition. Its purpose today is to collect taxes for the government. They have a minimum pricing policy (for resale) which, according to their website, is “designed to control alcohol consumption, generate revenue for the provincial and federal governments, and to support the domestic alcohol beverage industry.” 

From my perspective, the system restricts my buying by making it difficult for wine agencies to import wine. Every new wine and new vintage that comes into the province is tested by the LCBO in their lab for contaminants and packaging standards. The wines can be rejected for incorrect alcohol levels, varying bottle weights, etc. Also, some organic and biodynamic certifications that are recognized across the EU are not necessarily recognized here and need to be covered up on the label. On the selling side, uniform pricing means that a product will cost the same in any store across the province—though the price is often too high because of all the added taxes. 

Without the system, I think agents would have an easier time importing products, which would probably result in a larger selection of wines to choose from. Delivery of wines to the restaurant might also be quicker because we wouldn’t have to wait for the LCBO depot to process an order. And different agents could import the same wine so that competition among them might lead to lower prices.

José: LCBO’s main purpose is to have total control of all imported alcoholic beverage sales and revenue for the provincial government. The system restricts our wine buying choices because we can only choose from a set list established by the LCBO. It’s not like you can check a producer’s website and choose from their portfolio; if you are really interested in a specific product, private ordering through the LCBO is another option, but it’s expensive, somewhat complicated and time consuming. The only benefits I see to the LCBO system are for their employees, not for the consumers. If the LCBO system wasn’t in place, we could have access to many more interesting, competitive and affordable options for our wine programs.

Jake: The LCBO, in its simplest interpretation, acts as the government-owned second and third tiers of the alcohol industry for the province of Ontario. There are no privately owned liquor stores or bottle shops, nor can grocers sell alcoholic beverages. It’s a control state. Think about the situation in the United States: we all know the privately owned shops that we avoid because their selection is terrible, boring, or even lacking in a proper selection of “classic, testable” wines. The LCBO helps mitigate that type of situation by ensuring that each store is at a certain standard. For those of us looking for fine wine, they have a section called “Vintages,” where you can find your grands crus, Super Tuscans, and so on. There are stores in Toronto that have become destination stores for wine folks because their Vintages selection is large and particularly well-curated. 

As far as buying for the restaurant, the LCBO becomes a one-stop-shop. You can order your Amaro, vodka, beer, and ten cases of your by-the-glass wine (or your entire selection) in the same order. There are other agents/importers in Toronto, but their product still goes through the LCBO before it gets to you. Restaurants that want a variety beyond what the LCBO carries can go through these agents to get products that don’t make the LCBO shelves. Buying from the LCBO is easy, and I’m sure there are plenty of restaurants that only order through the LCBO, but at our restaurant, we go beyond that. In my mind, they’re just another distributor. That being said, they control what’s in the market. Many producers will not come to Ontario because they find the LCBO too restrictive, expensive, or simply too much paperwork. On the other hand, you can preorder your DRC on a yearly basis and not pay third-market prices for it. 

Is it always freezing cold in Toronto, and what do you drink to deal with it?

José: It's not always freezing cold in Toronto! I would call it nice and fresh. During the cold days, I usually drink soul-warming, complex and value-driven red wines from Chile with a high level of deliciousness.

Emily: Most people don’t believe that Ontario extends more to the south than the most northerly part of California, but it’s true. Although latitude obviously isn’t the only factor in climate, it does remind one that Ontario isn’t a perpetual, desolate ice field. (However, for those times when winter weather is bracingly chilly, I enjoy a finger or two of single malt Scotch._

Christopher: It’s all about being prepared. To deal with it, I drink Portuguese reds from the Douro, Dão or Alentejo, or Piemontese wines. And there’s always a bottle of Barbados Rum in the cupboard.

Stephanie: It’s true we do have some cold days in the city. When the temperature starts to drop I crave a rich, honeyed Savennières like Domaine des Barres "Les Bastes" or a nutty Chardonnay from the Jura like Domaine Tissot. Or, if I’m eating heartier winter dishes, a spicy Syrah from the Rhône.  

Jake: It doesn’t seem to bother me as much as the rest of the population, but I tend to transition into brooding reds and brown spirits. Sometimes I just want to tuck into a tauntaun and call it a night, but a hot toddy is really helpful after a cold bike ride home.

Mark: Is it cold in Toronto?? HA! I drink Talisker to stay warm.

What's the most popular category of wine on your list?

Mark: By far the most popular category on my list is California Cabernet. Toronto still loves California.

Christopher: Our Midfield Wine Bar lists just 20 wines, all by the glass or by the bottle, and I would say the most popular category is… everything. Anything new and different sells: Greece, Portugal, Southwest France…. For the George restaurant list I manage, Pinot Noir from both Burgundy and the US West Coast are hot commodities.

Jake: In very general terms, mineral-driven whites and Old World, lighter-bodied reds.

Emily: Polished, luscious, New World wines continue to be very popular; however, more and more I see guests looking to try new things and rediscover the classics of the Old World. 

Stephanie: In line with our restaurant’s inspiration, California wines are most popular. I have fun seeking less obvious choices from that state, like Sangiovese from Jonata in Santa Ynez, Sauvignon Blanc from Peju in Napa and Viognier from Thomas George in Sonoma. 

José: California. However, local Canadian producers are gaining some popularity.

How do you approach selecting wines for your program?

Stephanie: I always keep our clientele in mind. The list has to appeal to such a wide range of people. I hope to strike a balance between what people might be expecting when they come to the restaurant as well as introduce some less familiar grapes and regions. 

Jake: We look for a number of things when we buy for the restaurant—price point, classic styles (but generally from lesser known regions), and most importantly wines that capture our attention.

Emily: Ultimately, a list should be made with the guest in mind. I look to create a list that provides guests the opportunity to enjoy a classic wine they know or one that is a little outside their comfort zone in terms of unfamiliar regions and grapes. The essential component when it comes to service is understanding what guest wants which option. Further, understanding the food—and what the chef wants to communicate with it—is a great way to guide wine purchases, as I believe food and wine should be enjoyed as one contiguous experience.

José: My first thought is to select wines appropriate for the menu. Then I need to find value and a high degree of balance in the wine. Last but not least, the wine has to taste good.

Mark: For our program, I look at value first. Bottom line: will my guests pay for it? Then I look for the story—having a story to tell really helps sell the wine. Next I look at holes in the list to see if I have an area that needs strengthening. And lastly, I consider supply. I need to ensure we won’t run out of product at the wrong time. 

Service-wise, what's most (and least) important to you? What about to your guests?

Emily: For me, the devil is in the details. There is no detail too small to make a guest feel truly special. And by details, I don’t mean fussy service; I mean taking the time to treat every guest like a VIP and every bottle as something special.

Stephanie: I think it’s vital for your staff to be knowledgeable about the full menu (both food and drinks). Servers should get the opportunity to sample almost every wine on the list. How else can they be expected to genuinely make recommendations or answer questions? I like to offer blind samples to guests who are not quite sure what kind of wine they want. This way they feel 100% sure of their choice. My fear is that a guest will tell me he loves the wine when he really doesn’t and drinks it only because he is too afraid to tell me otherwise. I guess in the end, what’s most important to me is making sure our guests leave happy and satisfied.

Jake: The most important part, for me, is ensuring that the guests enjoy themselves. The least important is formality. I may not be wearing a suit when I serve you premier cru Burgundy, but I can still definitely talk clearly about that wine and answer any questions you may have. 

Christopher: We make sure service is comfortable, informative, and that the small details are taken care of at all times. I think guests want to feel and know that they are being taken care of—no matter what level of formality the restaurant boasts.

José: The most important part of service for me is timing. No matter how busy the restaurant is, having a guest receive his or her wine on time is crucial for a complete dining experience. I think pretentiousness in service is the least important thing for our guests.

Mark: Humility. You need to be humble. But that’s followed very closely by confidence. It is a tricky line to straddle.  Those who can do it, do it very well. For our guests, I think the confidence is number one. If a guest is going to give you $100 for a bottle, he or she wants a somm who’s confident in the selection, knows the wine well and makes the guest feel at ease and excited about the choice.

What is the value of certification (through the CMS or other bodies) in your market today?

Stephanie: Certification is not necessary to get a job as a sommelier in Toronto… but it definitely does not hurt. The wine world here is incredibly small and tight-knit, and many people meet while pursuing their studies through the Court.

José: I think being certified is a definite advantage and sometimes a requisite in order to get a job. It also shows your degree of care and passion for your career, as it allows you to test your knowledge and skills.

Emily: I believe certification is viewed as an asset yet not necessarily a complete barometer of one’s real-life effectiveness as a sommelier. 

Mark: Certification is getting very important. Guests recognize the value as well. I would say, however, that while passing a test is great, we need to ensure that people studying to be a sommelier also understand inventory, cost controls, profitability... To know wine is great, but sommeliers need to know the business side, too.

Christopher: Certification is a requisite for any wine program position. The CMS is now gaining a massive following thanks to the Somm Factory and the Intro and Certified CMS exams coming to Toronto. We as a community in Toronto recognize that this is the next step in knowledge, expertise and service—not to mention access to a like-minded community. 

Jake: I think the CMS is the most valuable program in our market, and the CAPS (Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers) program does a good job at preparing students for the intro and certified levels. There are lots of sommeliers in Toronto, and some of the best haven’t gone through the Court… but there seem to be a growing number who are going for higher-level certifications. The WSET program is more prominent than I’ve seen in other cities, too.

Best wine list besides your own in town? Best cocktail or beer program?

Christopher: Best wine list: Momofuku, Ascari Enoteca, Archive. Best cocktail program: Bar Isabel. Best beer program: BarVolo.

Emily: A nearly impossible task... if I were to pick just one wine list it would be Opus Restaurant. The comprehensive selection is unparalleled in the city. As for beer, BarVolo tops the scene. I adore the rooftop bar at the Park Hyatt—the grace and dignity of old-school style and service, classically made cocktails enjoyed fireside in winter or overlooking the city in summer… it cannot be matched.

José: Best wine list in Toronto has to go to Scaramouche, although Canoe is a very close second. Bar Hop is the place for beer.

Stephanie: Barberian’s Steak House has one of the largest cellars in the city. Archive wine bar offers many great Canadian wines by the glass. Geraldine has a great classic cocktail list, and BarVolo has a constant rotation of cask-conditioned ales.

Favorite spot to grab a bite or drink after work?

Christopher: 416 Snack Bar or Peoples Eatery. 

José: Momofuku noodle bar.

Mark:  Carbon Bar is a great industry place.

Emily: Bar Isabel and Fonda Lola. Fonda Lola is an amazing Mexican restaurant that makes Aztec recipes inherited from one of the owner’s aunts; they serve their cocktails with daring ingredients such as tamarind, chili peppers and fermented tea. 

Stephanie: Bar Isabel serves their full menu late, and it reminds me of the tapas bars in San Sebastián.

Jake: Bar Hop. 

Any great local producers the rest of us haven’t (yet) heard of?

Emily: I had the opportunity to work at a local wine bar that only stocked VQA wines. I was able to experience a myriad of fantastic local wines, but my personal favorite is County Chardonnay made by Norman Hardie in Prince Edward County. The complex, supple texture of this wine—with striking minerality running through the palate—is brilliant.  

Jake: Ontario Riesling is certainly unique (think almost cider-like levels of lean, green apple character), and I find Five Rows’ Riesling to be a little more complex than others. They’re my favorite producer in Niagara; their whites are all killer (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc), and their Syrah is tasty, too. Oh, and Pearl Morissette makes some really cool juice.

Stephanie: Pearl Morissette in Niagara is a favorite producer. François Morissette, the winemaker, is on a mission to discover the true terroir of the region. His Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay are especially exceptional. Also worth seeking out are Pinot Noir wines from The Old Third and The Devil’s Wishbone, both in Prince Edward County.

Christopher: Hinterland Wine Company.

José: Pearl Morissette, Five Rows and Tawse Winery.

Mark: Norman Hardie, Cave Springs Cellars, Southbrook Vineyards.

Any stereotypes from the frozen tundra you’d like to banish?

Jake: Well, when I moved here from the US I thought there was only mass-market Canadian beer and Inniskillin available. I’ve learned that I was absolutely wrong. We’ve got some great producers in PEC (Prince Edward County), Niagara, and out west in the Okanagan (go to the Guild Study Guide if you need to reference it). And yeah, Canadians like their light lagers, but there’s some serious craft beer up here, too.

José: From the “frozen tundra,” I’d like to banish the bad image of Canadian whisky in the U.S. We have some serious whisky distilleries in the country!

Stephanie: I would love for people outside of the country to realize that we make more than just icewine in Canada. (Or maybe not… we’ll just keep all the good stuff at home!) I spent some time working with wine in London and loved explaining to people that the Okanagan has desert-like growing conditions and can properly ripen Bordeaux and Rhône varietals—blew their minds.

Mark: I would say our Chardonnay and Riesling wines are world-class and need to be tasted by more people. Also, there is a stereotype that Canadians only drink beer, but we actually drink more wine than beer. The other stereotype is that Canadians drink a lot. That one is true!

Stephanie Guth

José Luis Fernández

Emily Pearce

Jake Lewis

Christopher Sealy

  • How wonderful to see my home town featured on The Guild! I have lived in the US since the mid '90's but my heart is always "back home in  TO". I was one of the early sommeliers along with Norman Hardie and others that wanted to open the eyes and palettes of Torontonians. Programs offered at George Brown and WSET were the only certifications available. I have fond memories of Jacque Marie and David Lawreson that have made a lasting impression on me. When home I always take a trip to the Vintages in the LCBO to look for something Canadian to bring back for my fellow Somms. My latest find was Norman Hardie's Pinot from "PEC". Bravo to the all the Canadian Somms! Patricia Elliot Wamhoff