Ottawa Wine Scene

Ottawa has become a city with a passion for the grape.

You see it in the growing number of restaurants offering menus and special dinners paired with wine and the longer wine lists at even small eateries. A record crowd — 26,000 last year — is expected to attend next week’s annual Ottawa Food and Wine Show.

“I don’t know of one new restaurant that doesn’t have a sommelier and the intention to make wine a major part of what it offers,” says Victor Harradine, director of partnerships and outreach for Algonquin College’s sommelier certificate program.

Indeed, it’s that program that has helped to fuel the city’s burgeoning interest in wine. “The Algonquin program has been fundamental in raising the bar for Ottawa wine culture,” says Natalie MacLean, a 1998 graduate and author of Red, White, and Drunk All Over. “Its graduates have a deep appreciation for the field, from the nuances of winemaking to what constitutes good service in restaurants.”

Since its inception in 1993, Algonquin’s program has graduated more than 600 certified wine experts and hundreds more have taken classes.

“Most wine schools find it challenging to fill one entire class,” says Harradine. “Our courses run all year — fall, winter and summer. We fill classes five evenings a week, often a class on Saturday morning, and a class all day Monday.” And that’s without putting out a single advertisement.

But it’s not just sommeliers who are improving the city’s wine scene. Consumers are more knowledgeable and are looking for more than just a standard bottle of red or white.

“More than 10,000 wine lovers from Ottawa alone subscribe to my newsletter (www.nataliemaclean.com), and I hear from them daily via e-mail,” says MacLean. “They’re absolutely passionate about wine.”

From downtown to Kanata and Barrhaven, wine-savvy residents are demanding more from restaurants as consumers and are providing more as business owners and staff. Harradine notes that about 35 to 40 per cent of the sommelier program’s grads work in the hospitality industry. Presumably the rest are applying their knowledge to the other side of the table.

Caroline Gosselin, owner of Restaurant e18teen in the ByWard Market and a 2006 sommelier program graduate, has also noticed more people in the industry are “capitalizing on wine.”

She has developed an impressive wine program with an inventory of 250 labels and 3,000 bottles. Five of her staff have been certified as sommeliers, four by the Algonquin program.

All these sommeliers help Gosselin meet the increased demand for wine advice that she has noticed since opening in 2001. “Exchanges between customers and servers or sommeliers have become much more interactive around wine, and food too.”

Beckta Dining and Wine sommelier and service manager Pieter Van den Weghe, a 2004 Algonquin graduate, notes a similar phenomenon. “Our customers often want to be shown new things, to explore. Many see their dining experience as a learning experience, and they’re excited about it.”

Also gone are the days when a restaurant offered just two wines by the glass — house red and house white. The Algonquin program requires its students to taste beyond the ubiquitous cabernets, merlots and chardonnays. By the time a graduate completes the program’s seven classes, he or she will have tasted hundreds of wines made from dozens of different grape varieties and will have spent many hours studying how to match them with food.

So, it’s no great surprise to find menu standards have been raised.

The desire to learn about connections between wine and food is growing in all segments of the population, even among younger drinkers.

“Wine used to be for older folks who listened to classical music. Now it is the drink of choice for all ages,” observes Tracy Turnbull, a 2008 sommelier program graduate and owner of Trio Lounge in Westboro and the Moonroom, a new wine bar on Preston Street.

This expanded knowledge is changing not only what bars and restaurants offer but what consumers find at the LCBO, specifically in the fine-wine-focused Vintages section. John MacKinnon, who oversees business development for Vintages’ Ottawa market, points to double-digit growth, with last year’s $300 million in sales setting a record for the province.

MacKinnon sees Ottawa’s interest in fine wine and food as part of a larger trend toward living healthier lifestyles and exploring quality beverages, with consumers in their 20s “drinking better, having wider experience with wines and beers, and relying a lot less on brand loyalty.”

It’s not only the downtown heavy hitters like Beckta and e18teen that are answering the fine-wine call but places you might not expect.

Ron Spirito, owner of the Radisson Hotel Tex-Mex restaurant Southern Cross and a 2008 sommelier program grad, is planning food and wine pairing events with the Canadian and Latin American Wine Society. “The Southern Cross is growing up,” explains Spirito. “After 17 years of slinging burritos and nachos, we have begun a slow transition in a new direction — a direction all about wine and freshly prepared foods.”

Ozlem Balpinar, co-owner of Oz Kafe on Elgin Street, discovered that her customers’ tastes in wine were growing up when they began to request “higher end wines” to go with the high-end food prepared by chef Jamie Stunt. A revamped wine list is in the works.

Impressive wine lists are expanding beyond the confines of Ottawa’s well-known eatery neighbourhoods and into the suburbs. Fiamma on Strandherd Drive serves a list of 35 wines by the bottle (including some 10-year-old Barolos). Once you get past the Barrhaven strip mall location and into the hip, warm space, the number of bottles lining the wall is sure to impress.

Fratelli restaurants has expanded from the Glebe and Westboro to Kanata and New Edinburgh, taking its list of nearly 100 wines with it.

And of course one of the area’s premiere fine wine and dining establishments is in Kanata — Perspectives restaurant at Brookstreet hotel. Perspectives sommelier Grayson McDiarmid, who received his training in Calgary, says more than half of the restaurant’s customers ask to speak to a sommelier.

“A lot of my night is usually spent pairing wines with our tasting menu,” says McDiarmid. “This would have to be my favourite part of the job because I get to discuss my pairings with people who really care, people who are there for a dining experience, not just a meal.”

To meet higher expectations, many restaurants are going well beyond the LCBO to procure their wines. Perspectives’ wine list includes more than 200 wines, not one of which can be found at the LCBO.

While Perspectives’ wine list might be somewhat unusual, most establishments want to offer patrons something they can’t get elsewhere, which is where wine agents like Aaron Shaw step in. Wine agents source wine from wineries and navigate the LCBO testing process, selling the wine directly to restaurants or individuals willing to buy a case or more.

“When most people eat out, they want something different,” says Shaw, a former winemaker in France and Australia and a faculty member of the Algonquin sommelier program.

“They want to get food that is not the same as what they would cook at home, and by extension, many people want a wine that is different than what they are drinking at home. It adds to the restaurant experience.”

Several Algonquin graduates have started businesses that capitalize on both the knowledge they gained as students and on Ottawa’s hunger to learn more about all things vinous.

The year 2003 saw the birth of two of the city’s best-known wine-education businesses, the Savvy Grapes and Groovy Grapes. Both aim to make wine fun and accessible by hosting events in homes, workplaces and restaurants.

“We felt there were people out there, who if given the opportunity, would want to know a bit more about what wine they were drinking and pairing with food and why,” says Groovy Grapes co-owner Sean Moher, a 2005 Algonquin graduate. “There’s also a whole section of the market that is just looking to have different experiences throughout their lifetime, wine being one of a thousand and one.”

Debbie Trenholm, a 2000 graduate and owner of the Savvy Grapes, has taken her business’s educational offerings in new and interesting directions.

For instance, she runs a Savvy Supper Series to which “people can subscribe just like they do to the NAC concert series or GCTC theatre series.” Diners enjoy a gourmet meal and fine wine, but what’s special is that they are joined by the winemaker.

The LCBO is riding the wave of interest too, offering a full slate of wine appreciation classes. More than two dozen tutored tastings are scheduled at the Rideau Street and Nepean Crossroads locations this fall.

Well-attended tutored tastings have been happening under the radar in Riverside South for the past three years. “We wish to assist people in trying different wines to broaden their horizons and get beyond the comfort zone of purchasing based upon simple label recognition,” says John McCormick, the Australian Wine Society’s cellar master, of the events he holds in the community room at Moncion’s Grocer’s. Not only Riverside South residents turn up to be nudged out of their comfort zones, but regular attendees include wine lovers from Gatineau, Kanata, Orléans, and even Hawkesbury and Rockland.

Then there’s the innovative DiVino Wine Studio on Preston Street. Modelled on Italian enotecas, where learning and tasting go hand in hand, DiVino has the ambitious goal of helping Ottawans appreciate the wine, food and culture of Italy, and wine and food generally. In addition to serving wine and small plates five nights a week, the studio offers cooking classes, tasting seminars, sommelier-led dinners, tours of Italy, even wine- and food-focused Italian-language classes.

“Ten years ago there was no talk about wine, no knowledge of food pairing,” says owner and Algonquin sommelier program faculty member Antonio Mauriello. “Today we see energy, action, awareness, curiosity, higher standards.”

The Ottawa Food and Wine Show runs from Nov. 7-9 at Lansdowne Park. Admission is $17, food and wine extra. See www.ottawafoodandwineshow.com for details.

BECOMING A SOMMELIER

What: Algonquin College’s sommelier program offers seven courses toward certification as a sommelier:

1. Wine tasting (36 hours over 12 weeks);

2. Grape varieties (36 hours over 12 weeks);

3. Vinification (wine-making) (30 hours over four weeks);

4. Wine and food matching (21 hours over six weeks);

5. Old World wine regions (48 hours over 16 weeks);

6. New World wine regions (36 hours over 12 weeks);

7. Sommelier advanced (duties of a sommelier) (48 hours over 16 weeks).

Cost: $3,085.42 for all seven courses.

Enrolment: Part-time (evenings and/or Saturdays) attendance is semester-based, with acceptance each semester class-by-class on a first-come, first-serve basis. Fast-track (Mondays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) starts in September, finishes in July, with acceptance on a first-come first-serve basis.

Information: Visit sommelier.ca/ or www.algonquincollege.com, or contact Mark Tandan, assistant co-ordinator at tandanm@algonquincollege.com or 613-727-4723 ext. 5151.

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