Rene Wallis, sommelier at the Brookstreet Hotel’s restaurant Perspectives, in Kanata shares, his tips on choosing from a wine list, unusual food pairings and favourite holiday wines.
Where did you grow up?
My mother raised my older sister, Angela, and I on her own in Ottawa’s French village of Vanier, a bilingual community where everyone knew each other. Wine wasn’t on the dinner table, but my good friend’s Portuguese parents made their own wine. At his tenth birthday party, I bit into a large piece of hot pepper on the pizza, filled my glass from a large pitcher of what I thought was grape juice and started chugging it. Yes, it was red wine—they had a good chuckle.
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
I began my career in hospitality when I was 18 at the Hayloft, one of the original steakhouses in downtown Ottawa on Rideau Street. We served what we called “house wine.” My first exposure to good wine wasn’t until I enrolled in the sommelier program at Algonquin College. I was a deer in the headlights learning how to smell and taste all over again, but my university courses in geology and geography, my green thumb and hospitality experience helped it to quickly became a natural fit for me.
In 2003, I was hired as a waiter at Perspectives Restaurant in the Brookstreet Hotel. Although I loved serving in that dining room, I wanted to learn more about wine. The opportunity to manage the wine program came in 2007 and it has been terrific ever since, researching and developing analytical skills about both wine and food.
Other than Algonquin College sommelier certificate I have achieved my WSET Advanced with Merit. My goal is to become an accredited Master Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers in the next three to five years.
What are you passionate about aside from wine?
Definitely carpentry. I also took the Construction Carpentry-Advanced Housing program at Algonquin College as I enjoy working with my hands. I like to reclaim anything that’s made from wood, such as shelves from old barn boards or wooden picture and window frames, and put it to good use.
How do you to gauge diners’ level of wine knowledge and comfort?
I find that most people are very expressive when it comes to wine. If they don’t know much about it, they’re often very open about that. I like to ask some basic questions, such as if they want a wine to pair with the food or if they want to try something new other than what they normally have when they’re at home.
Tell me about your wine program.
Wine is definitely a focus at both Perspectives Restaurant and Options Bar. We have about 3,500 bottles in our cellar, with 30 wines offered by the glass, including sparkling, red, white, rosé and dessert. I’m a huge supporter of Canadian wines and that’s reflected on our list, with about 30 percent Canadian content. I also try to keep our list in the high-value range, wines under $25 ready to drink now account for 85 percent of the selections.
We use iPad wine lists to display the wines with background and tasting notes. In the centre of our dining room, there’s an octagon-shaped glass fridge that showcases our complete red wine selection with almost 500 bottles. We set our tables with a 17.5-ounce Forte titanium crystal glass by Schott Zwisel which has a comfortable stem in the hand and has lots of room in the bowl for swirling.
Tell me about some of the more unusual bottles on your list.
I like to have solid representation from the major regions with some off-the-beaten-path labels. I’m interested in the unlikely, the unknown and the unheard of, and look for characteristics in the wine that bring freshness, pronounced mouth feel, texture and balance.
Some rare wines include Niagara’s Mountain Road Wine Company’s 2000 Vidal Icewine, an outstanding aged icewine. There’s also the 1998 Borgogno Barolo, Italy, the 2000 Château La Clemence, Pomerol, Bordeaux, and the 1997 Grange by Penfolds, Australia, for $700.
What’s popular right now for wine regions, grapes and wineries?
Organic and biodynamic wines are very popular right now. Guests are curious about these methods and ask a lot of questions. Argentine Malbec is still popular and moves quickly. In the white category, pinot grigio is still king, but sales of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are making a comeback.
Canadian wines have improved their quality so much and that’s really helped their popularity; as well as recent successes with solid vintages such as 2007, 2009, 2010 and probably 2012. What’s exciting for Canadian wine producers is the recent passing of Bill C311 that will enable consumers to buy wine out of province and bring it home. The best part is they’ll be buying at cellar door prices. This is also exciting for restaurants that want to carry wine from other provinces.
What’s your opinion of wines made in the Ottawa region?
For my birthday in December 2008, my sister blindfolded me and drove me to Domaine Perrault in Navan. When the blindfold came off, all I could see was rows of leafless vines and the ground packed with snow. I was excited and met the owner Denis Perrault. He was a dairy farmer most of his life, but when he fell for wine in 1999, he decided to plant five acres of hybrid grape vines that do well in cool climates.
I really like Perrault’s Marilyn’s Rosé: it has a great mouth feel and weight on the palate, mildly lending to an off-dry element to the tip of the tongue. There are honeysuckle, strawberry and raspberry notes. It’s delicious at brunch with eggs benedict or even a béarnaise sauce as the tarragon adds an herbaceous note.
Perrault is a pioneer. All wine regions find their place eventually. Wine made from hybrid grape varietals are designed to handle the harsh winters with temperatures in the -30oC range without their vine trunks cracking and dying.
Recently I helped plant a five-acre vineyard in Kinburn, mostly hybrid grapes such as marquette, frontenac and vidal. Alan Kruger, the property owner and I look forward to taste more Ottawa area wine soon.
Describe a memorable experience in the restaurant.
One evening, I was serving Niagara’s Trius sparkling wine that had developed some condensation on the bottle from the chiller. I decided to try a new way of opening the bubbly (showing off a little) by cutting the foil capsule with my corkscrew knife, but leaving it and the wire cage over the cork intact. All the while, I’m chatting with the group of eight diners, but as I started to turn the bottle to ease out the cork, it popped out unexpectedly.
Due to the condensation, the bottle spun and popped out of my hand and then began to flare through the air like a fire hose. It was spraying bubbles all over me, then it hit the floor flat on its bottom and continued to spew wine like a volcano, still all over me. Once it stopped flowing, I wiped my eyes clean of wine and looked at my group as they blinked back at me just as surprised. I asked if everyone was okay—and dry. They were, thankfully. I was the only one who had been soaked. They broke out in laughter and I joined them
Tell me about what you love most about your job.
I love it when customers allow themselves to be fully in my control with the wines and the chef just keeps bringing out the food. You pull out all the stops with the wine pairings for these people. They’re experiencing some wine-and-food-pairing epiphanies and are often intrigued with the reasons the matches work as well as the people and the story behind the wine.
How do you make your wine experience different for each diner?
Just the other night I met a couple that was having a weekend getaway from their five children. We pampered them to the max. A daytime visit to our spa led to an afternoon of wine and dining. They’d been to Italy recently and wanted to continue the trip on home soil so I served them the 1998 Borgogno Barolo. It’s a wonderfully elegant, rustic wine with loads of leather, tar, dried fruit and anise aromas complementing a fine, grippy tannic structure yet coating the mouth with ease as if to say “oh yes, I’m ready for you!”
The couple also enjoyed some hard cheeses with chalky, crumbly textures that went well with the texture of the wine. From there, I had earned their trust and they came back for dinner to have the blind tasting with several flights of wine. This led to lots of storytelling and trips down to our cellar where we’d sample some wines. They left as pleased as could be.
Who’s the most famous person who’s dined in your restaurant?
Roger Waters, the lead singer with Pink Floyd … the group wanted to have a post-concert private dinner gathering for the band members at the last minute. Earlier that day Joe, his lead roadie, gave me two coveted Bordeaux, the Ducru Beaucaillou 1981 and Château Latour 1985, to lie down and chill. We started organizing the gathering for twenty-five people around 3 p.m. and by 11 p.m. that evening, a gorgeous, long hot buffet was set up with a TV hooked up for the England versus Estonia World Cup qualifier that was playing that day. I opened the Bordeaux and decanted them for Roger. It was a spectacular night.
As well, in 2005, we hosted the Bilderberg conference at the hotel and I had the pleasure of serving the Queen of Holland, Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller.
What are your favourite wine-related movie moments?
One is in Sideways when Paul Giamatti who plays Miles starts freaking out with his friend about not drinking merlot. Thomas Church has to calm him down right before they walk into the restaurant to meet their dates. Hilarious.
Another one is in Bottle Shock when Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay loses its brown colour and returns to its golden hue as the character is on one knee asking for his job back. It was a priceless moment when he sabres the top off and shares it with everyone in the office. I love that burning passion and desire.
The final one is at the end of A Good Year when Russell Crowe is talking to his buddy back at the office. He’s going on about how boring it will be sitting around this tranquil setting, eating fine Mediterranean cuisine and sipping wine from your winery, hanging out with a beautiful woman. The friend who is a workaholic agrees and hangs up.
If you could share a great bottle of wine with anyone, who would it be?
Explorers like Christopher Columbus, Cartier, Champlain and Captain Cook. These brave men mapped the world and were the first to cultivate vines. William Wallace would be interesting because the man fought for his home, his family, his country. I’d ask him what was going through his mind when he took on the English. To share a glass of claret with him and philosophize until the wee hours of the morn would be surreal.
Have you ever helped with winemaking?
I was in Hunter Valley at Brokenwood Winery where they allowed me to work with the assistant winemaker. That day he was doing a “rack and return” during which they line up all the wooden barrels to get them ready for pumping the wine into stainless steel vats to remove their sediment. The barrels are then cleaned out with extreme pressurized hot water and refilled later in the day with wine.
I filled the barrel holding a large fireman-sized hose in one hand, and with the other, shone a large flashlight into the barrel, trying to find a reflection off the wine to know when to stop. It filled up far more quickly than I anticipated and I couldn’t find my third hand to turn the hose valve off. I wore the equivalent of a case of wine that day. I was pleased though that it was a lightly coloured Hunter Valley Pinot Noir and not an inky McLaren Vale Shiraz.
How do you pick a wine when he’s having steak and she’s having a delicate fish?
If it’s a bottle of wine that they’re sharing, I ask if they care about matching one dish more than the other, or if they both want to drink say chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, I’m not going to stop them. But I would also suggest a by-the-glass option since this is very versatile and can accommodate different dishes.
Is there a difference between the wine preferences at your restaurant and say one in the east end of Ottawa given your customers are often high-tech, Anglophone, etc?
I find it comes down to culture. If your experiences have lead you to taste French wine, that’s what you enjoy drinking. We do have a lot of French and American high-tech travellers. This leads to having a decent French and American wine selection. Also, those from out of town like to inquire about Canadian wines and so we accommodate that.
What special bottle is in your personal wine cellar at home right now?
My mom bought me the 2008 Cornish Point Felton Road Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand, a couple of years ago for Christmas. I figure it’ll be ready by 2015. I also still have a 2005 Racine de Temps Bouvier Pinot Noir that I can’t wait to open sometime in the next four years.
Which bottles would be in your personal dream cellar?
René Bouvier of Burgundy, France, and their entire collection of pinot and chardonnay. I’ve had the pleasure of tasting with Bernard, son of René, in his cellar and loved the 2005 Racine de Temps Gevery-Chambertin. Plus, plus, plus!
Tahbilk Winery’s Marsanne, Viognier and Shiraz. This producer is in Nagambie Lakes, in the Goulburn Valley of Australia. When you visit this place, as I did, it becomes a part of you and creates a stronger bond than others. I think Tahbilk’s 150-year-story is compelling and the wines age well.
Mitchell Wines’ Shiraz, Riesling, Botrytis Semillon and GSM, a blend of Grenache, Sangiovese and Mourvèdre from the Clare Valley in South Australia. On the second leg of our Aussie Adventure, my wife Laura and I rented a large Wicked Camper Van and drove more than 2400 kilometres through South Australia. We arrived at the winery two hours late for our tasting appointment with Jane and Andrew Mitchell. Despite that, they took us up the hill behind the winery to the house that Andrew was born and lived all his life, and then Jane asked us to stay the week.
Painted Rock, Okanagan Valley, B.C. I love the style of this winery that sits on the eastern banks of Skaha Lake. The 2007 was the first vintage and was so delicious. They just keep getting better. Thanks to John Skinner and his team.
Since it’s a dream cellar and anything goes, I’d also have these French favourites just for fun: Domaine Romanée-Conti, Château Margaux, Château Petrus and Château d’Yquem.
What’s the strangest wine and food pairing you’ve tried?
I was sitting in the cellar one night after service and the sous chef brought me a smoked cod with seared scallops and a buerre blanc with melted leeks. I had already opened a bottle of the Okanagan Valley’s Osoyoos-Larose second label Petales, cabernet-merlot blend with grippy tannins, sharp fruit and great freshness. Usually, fish and robust red wine aren’t a great match, but I thought what the heck. I was blown away! The wonderful smokiness of the fleshy fish and the seared caramelization on the scallops along with the mouthfeel of the buerre blanc and leeks was magic with the wine. I couldn’t believe it.
What wine would you pair with a filet of porcupine?
I have never tried porcupine, but I see it spread out all over the roads out here in the west end of Kanata! I’ve heard though that it resembles red meat, yet has to be cooked thoroughly. I’d probably go local on the wine as well and pair it with an Okanagan red like the red Icon from Painted Rock. With that wine, at least one of the two would taste good. Ha.
What Christmas Cocktail are you serving?
This year’s Christmas Cocktail is the St. Germain White Sangria. For a batch, use one bottle of your favourite dry white wine, one cup of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, ½ cup of triple sec, peaches, grapes, strawberries and raspberries. Allow the flavours to soak for 4-8 hours, occasionally stirring the liquid.
What’s your favourite wine for your holiday dinner?
One of the best pairings I’ve had with turkey and cranberry sauce was a Lingenfelder’s Dornfelder, a pinot noir from Germany. I believe that some beaujolais crus such as Morgon, Moulin a Vent would also work well.
You’ve worked late and missed dinner with your wife/partner. You grab a bottle of wine and her favourite dessert. What are you bringing?
Laura likes sweet wine so I always keep one in the fridge for sipping. Her homemade chocolate cake is perfect with Prince Edward County’s Karlo Estates Red or white ports. I always like to keep a bottle of 2006 Malivoire Cabernet Franc Icewine which we helped harvest the grapes on a cold January night. If it’s warm out, we’d sit out on the back deck overlooking the vegetable garden and the forest and sip away.
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