James Muir, is the sommelier and maitre d’ at the 360 The Restaurant at the top of the CN Tower in Toronto. James manages the world’s highest wine cellar and has served many celebrities from Michelle Obama to John Travolta.
What was your first wine experience?
It was likely some low-end import wine from the depanneur, the corner convenience store where I lived in Montreal. I also tried Baby Duck at some point back then. However, more interesting wines were those from British Columbia in the 1980s.
At that time, I experimented with pricier, imported bottles when I went out for dinner. My first bottle of the coveted Italian wine, Sassicaia, had some age on it—a friend brought it with him on a camping trip to have with our barbecue. I had my first Château Mouton Rothschild in Regina, where the prices were cheaper than in Ontario. We drank it too young.
How did you get involved with wine professionally?
In the 1980s, I worked at a B.C. hotel as the banquet supervisor, I ordered the wines. That was the first time I focused on wine, but it was very basic. Kressman bottled under a screw cap was the big seller. After that, I worked in a restaurant that had an elevated focus on the wine program, which allowed me better insight and access into the world of wine. Then I completed the courses with the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET).
Did you consider other occupations?
At one point I wanted to be a stock broker and then a recording engineer. However, I then travelled extensively and worked at restaurants and hotels to facilitate longer stays in different regions. Those experiences led me away from my earlier career ideas.
What advice would you give a young sommelier starting out?
Travel to the different wine regions while you still have the freedom to do so. This is such an easy way to understand them and to learn about their wines. Also, spend a few weeks helping with the harvest at a winery. There’s no faster way to appreciate hands-on what’s going on.
What’s the best piece of wine advice you have ever received?
Pair Amarone with the person, not the food. Amarone can be such a big wine that sometimes takes a fan to appreciate it, no matter how good the pairing might be.
Who are the most famous people who have dined in your restaurant?
During the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in 2010, we served a group that included Michele Obama, Lauren Harper, Pamela Wallin and Jeanne Beker. Each course was matched with Ontario wines. We’ve also had a lot of politicians, actors, musicians and corporate executives.
Paris Hilton’s sister, Nicky, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ving Rhames, Peter Munk, Bob Rae, Jim Balsillie, Jim Pattison, Will Smith, John Travolta and Robert Plant. We’ve had hockey stars, race car drivers, theater performers, TV news personalities, corporate titans. Newt Gingrich stopped in to look around a few months ago and asked if we had any wines from the state of Georgia.
Solid wine programs require a certain focus and financial commitment from the restaurateur, whatever the size of the establishment. You can glean insight into the restaurant’s commitment to food and beverage by the quality of their list, large or small.
However, I wouldn’t read anything into a Japanese restaurant not having a good wine selection, since wine has not been a traditional part of their culture, but a Greek restaurant with a small selection of interesting quality Greek wines would seem to be setting itself apart from the other guy whose is offering just Gyros, a Greek dish of meat roasted on a spit, with fries and has pedestrian wine choices available.
Our wine list has about 570 labels. We present a wide selection of wine across many price points from a broad reach of the wine making regions of the world.
Our oldest bottle is a port-style 1947 Massandra Cabernet Sauvignon. We also have a 1955 Warre’s Vintage Port. We have had one of each of these wines open in the last five years and they were both very sound, very good. We acquired them at auction.
As the Ontario and British Columbia wine industries continue to mature and gain wider recognition, we dedicate space for Canadian offerings in each category where selections are available.
Our leather-bound paper list has three main sections: the first section lists wines progressively, first by varietal and then by flavour profile, from lighter to heavier. Each listing in this section has a tasting note.
Section two lists our rarer and more costly wines: the Tower Treasures. This is a collection of fine wine from the classic regions of the wine world grouped primarily by region, with vintage, classification and producer to provide additional context.
The third section contains dessert wines, ports, eaux de vie, grappa, armagnacs, cognacs and single malt scotches.
How do you use technology to differentiate your list?
We also offer an electronic iPad wine list. This is an interactive searchable database of wines. Diners can customize their search and sort the results in various ways, such as by price, producer, region, grape and so on, view wine labels, and peruse expanded wine notes and industry ratings.
The results can also be displayed in list format, or as a grid of label shots. The iPad doesn’t give diners the instant and tangible feel for the size of our collection the way the paper one does, but it allows for longer tasting notes, label shots and customized searches. Some people like books, some like tablets, so there is choice.
Both the paper and iPad lists are managed in-house, allowing us to revise them in a timely manner to provide the most complete and current information at all times.
How do you use technology to preserve your wines?
We use the Enomatic argon gas preservation system that allows us to serve premium wines by the glass. It’s great. The argon gas fills the space in the bottle as the wine is poured out via a spout in the machine, which prevents oxygen from getting into the bottle and spoiling the wine before it’s fully consumed.
We also have four temperature-controlled bays of four wines. It allows us to open more expensive wines than would be otherwise profitable due to spoilage risk. A well-structured red will last six weeks, each glass being as good as the previous one, a white, about three weeks. This is more than enough time to sell a bottle. Too-slow moving wines are rotated out. It also allows us to experiment with offering eclectic wines.
How does a wine earn a place on your wine list or get delisted?
We have a mature list, so our new buying is judicious. If successive vintages of a wine continue to be good, and within the original price range, we’ll keep it, unless for some reason it didn’t sell well or there is a strong competitor or compelling reason to list another similar wine. As wines and trends change, we rotate in and out. Depending on what we’re looking for, it comes down to what is in the glass, and the price that is relative to its genre.
Trends also prompt listing and delisting. For example, when we started listing Malbec, we found increasing sales as we listed more. However, it’s very difficult to sell a Greek white. We listed one for fun, but have found it hard for us to sell.
At one point, we couldn’t keep Merlot in stock. Pinot Noir sold very slowly. After the movie Sideways, that reversed completely. Merlot sales stopped dead in their tracks and we couldn’t get enough Pinot Noir from our agents. Now it’s more balanced, with Pinot Noir up overall. So we had to choose some Merlots to de-list as they ran out, and new Pinot Noirs to list as we found them.
What are the challenges in having the world’s highest wine cellar?
There aren’t any unusual challenges, though it is a little farther to carry the wine from the receiving door. Ours is a fully open restaurant, with big glass windows, so we make the extra effort to ensure we have full ultra-violet screening on the windows so as not to damage the wines.
Does wine taste any different at 351 metres above ground?
No. Nor in a plane at 30,000 feet. Unless, of course, you consider the general gaiety one has being up here – that may make the wine taste that much better.
What’s the most surprising trend among Canadian wines in the last few years?
For us, it’s the increased number of local guests who want us to find a good Canadian wine in order to impress their out-of-town guests. A decade ago, few would choose to try to impress with a Canadian wine, now it is common.
As well, there is a definite overall increase in general acceptance to the idea of having a Canadian wine suggested to diners from a plethora of international options.
Name your three favourite Canadian wines with some food pairings.
2007 Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay, Henry of Pelham Family Estate, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
This wine comes from older vines with lower yields. A crisp minerality supports a full expression of white-fleshed fruit. Clean, medium-bodied, well balanced, long finish. Pair with cream soups, white fish with light sauces, scallops with wine sauce, white meats with light sauces.
2007 Cave Spring Winery Pinot Noir, Estate Bottled, Beamsville Bench, Ontario
This wine offers aromas of earthy forest floor, sour cherry, molasses and charred oak aromas. Red and black cherry, toasted oak and tobacco leaf. Pair with chicken broth-based soups, pork, lamb, cured meats and cheese.
2007 Nota Bene Cabernet Sauvignon, Black Hills Winery, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
A rich, very well-balanced Bordeaux blend with excellent structure. Aromas of blackcurrant, blackberry, chocolate, tobacco, cedar. Pair with steak tartar, mushroom and old cheddar tart, lamb, steaks, cured meats and cheese.
Ever serve a young couple for which there was a marriage proposal?
Yes, and she said yes. It’s interesting that people enlist the help of restaurants to propose.
What are you passionate about aside from wine?
I have three children. They are a very big focus for me.
What is the toughest challenge of your job?
Gauging how much to buy of any wine that I get one shot at. I want to balance having it on the list for as long as it might show well and not run short too early, but I don’t want to buy too much and not sell it. It’s a balancing act of age-ability, approach-ability and sell-abililty.
What bottles would be in your personal dream cellar?
A lot of the top Italians and Californians, of various types. They seem to be the most consistently reliable and are interesting overall. Some from Oregon, southern France and whites from Austria, Alsace and Germany.
What’s popular right now for wine?
Pinot Grigio from Italy sells like crazy, but if it’s from other regions, not so much. There is a lot of interest in Argentina for Malbec and Portugal is getting more interest commensurate with their wines becoming more available. I’m surprised at how well Bordeaux in the $20 price range sells. Anything organic is well received, and Pinot Noir from New Zealand is popular. We sell a lot of Ontario wines, always have, from all grapes and wineries we list.
Which iconic winery would you most like to visit in the world?
Burgundy’s Domaine Romanee-Conti (DRC) and I’d like a few flights of older wines and some barrel tastings.
What are your secret tips for pairing wine and food?
You can’t forget the person who is having the wine. Someone who doesn’t like Chardonnay won’t give a wit about it being paired with anything. You have to listen to what your guest wants. Wine and food pairing has a lot of latitude so the person who is experiencing it has a vote.
What are you up to in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years from now?
10 minutes from now, I’ll be looking at wine shortages, if any, as I’ve been off for a week. 10 months from now will be the busiest time of year here and my daughter’s birthday. In 10 years, well, that’s a surprise for all of us right now.
360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower
301 Front St. W., Toronto, Ontario M5V 2T6.