My story about Steve Robinson was originally published in Ottawa Magazine, the sister publication of Toronto Life Magazine.
Ottawa sommeliers are proving to be among the best in the province. Steve Robinson placed second in this year’s Ontario’s Best Sommelier Competition, and was named one of the top 30 under 30 in the province’s hospitality industry by the Ontario Hostelry Institute.
Robinson studied chemistry at the University of Ottawa, then completed the sommelier fast-track program at Algonquin College and finally became certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2011.
The 26-year-old’s passion for science and wine pair perfectly for him now as the sommelier and dining room manager at Ottawa’s Atelier Restaurant, renowned for its molecular cooking and innovative wine pairing.
What’s it like vying to be Ontario’s top sommelier?
Nerves are the big X factor in these competitions. This year my biggest fear was not qualifying for the finals since I made it in my first competition and wanted to prove to myself that that wasn’t a fluke.
The service exams are straight-up ridiculous, like the television show American Gladiators: The Wine Edition. I tried to view it as a pleasurable experience for both myself and the judges, more like a normal dinner service as opposed to jumping through the hoops of the competition.
I used to figure-skate competitively, so I have experience in these stressful situations. I go into my own world prior to the service portion, pop in my earphones, rap to myself and focus. If there’s a question you can’t answer or if you make a mistake just keep going as if nothing happened.
What did you enjoy most about the competition?
I’ve always done well with the wine and food matching portion of the competition, which is a result of my experience at Atelier. I have the opportunity to taste about seventy-five new dishes each year; that’s a lot of wine pairing. If a judge is asking for a food match to a specific wine I’ll try to come up with some molecular influences on the dish I recommend—it always confuses the judges!
Also, it was amazing to see two contestants from Ottawa place in the top three this year. Lucie Trepanier, who used to work at Atelier, came in third. There were sixteen sommeliers in the competition, and all but Lucie and I were from Toronto. I’d love to see more representation from Ottawa in the future. It’s an enriching experience, both personally and professionally. If there are any sommeliers interested in competing or who want to tackle a certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, please drop me a line via the Atelier web site.
What’s the wine list like at Atelier?
Our list has just under 140 wines with about 25 percent Canadian content. We offer about 20 wines by the glass, if you include the dessert wines. I try to keep the optional wine pairing by course to about one third Canadian content. We try to keep some higher-end offerings on the list that add intrigue.
I have a soft spot for uber-obscure wines, such the Italian sparkling Ribolla Gialla by Villa Rubini in Friuli, as well as a white Corbieres by Domaine Saint Marie des Crozes. I hope those are wines that make people scratch their heads and think “What the hell is that?”
What makes molecular cooking different from “regular”?
Our style of molecular-influenced cooking means complex dishes, with varied textures and dramatic presentations. They present a familiar flavour through a new physical texture. For example, when you see pickled ginger on a plate of sushi, you know what to expect. When our chef presents it as an airy, crunchy, dehydrated foam, your brain can’t predict how it will impact your senses. That mix of new experience with nostalgia is very compelling.
In what ways is pairing wine different with molecular dishes than others?
Typically our plates are very complex, with many ingredients used in small amounts on a plate. It can be difficult to predict which flavours will be dominant on a dish so experimenting with different wines is a must. I try to find wines that work with the entire plate as well as those that will highlight a few flavours throughout.
With a 12-course menu the dishes are necessarily smaller than typical, which means you can match some pretty intense wines with each, as the pour size is smaller. I like wines that have something to say; no wallflowers on the pairing. I also don’t hold to the standard progression of serving wines from dry to sweet; lighter to full-bodied. I prefer to find the best match to a particular dish, even if that means serving a sweet wine in the middle of the menu.
Tell us about a couple of your favourite food and wine pairings from the menu.
A dish we call “And In This Corner” is a cold octopus salad with barbecued eel, orange, fennel, and olive flavours, among many others. I pair it with the 2008 Chateau des Charmes Old Vines Riesling from Niagara because the wine pulls out the salty, oyster flavour from the dish.
“Smoke” is a bison striploin plate served under a cloche filled with applewood smoke, and a spiced prune puree. The 2008 Seppelt Chalambar Shiraz from Victoria, Australia works well because it’s a fantastic example of ripe, generous Aussie shiraz that maintains balance and has just 13.5 percent alcohol. The combo transports you to a cottage or campsite, with bison coming off a fire.
What’s the strangest pairing you’ve tried?
I had Burgundy (pinot noir) with sautéed duck testicles. It was a pairing that resulted from pure chance as the duck “poppers” (that’s what they’re called) have a bit of a metallic flavour, so the wine’s minerality meshed well with it. I can’t say where I was or who else was there as it was a private supper club, but damn it was good.
What are the most popular wines on your list?
Prosecco by the glass is always a lock as it’s easy to enjoy—it’s not a wine that demands attention or analysis. And yes, pinot grigio is still as popular as ever because it’s consistent and you can enjoy it throughout a meal.
If you could share a bottle of wine with anyone who would that be?
Einstein, no doubt. The actual wine is irrelevant, so long as we had a clear night sky to act as the canvas for what I hope would be an enlightening conversation.
What is your favourite part of the job that’s wine-related?
Whenever I experience a wine that gives me that “Oh wow, there’s something special going on here!” feeling. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like. Most recently, I enjoyed the Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 and the Zind-Humbrecht L17M Gewurztraminer 2009.
What’s been your most memorable moment in the restaurant?
We had a bottle of 1982 Domaine Romanée-Conti Richebourg open itself in the cellar! The cork went inside the bottle and the foil somehow managed to hold about 4/5 of the wine in the bottle. It was hard to break the news to the owner since this Burgundian pinot noir was $1,600 on our list, but a good excuse to try one of the world’s famous wines. All things considered, it was drinking pretty well.
What’s been the most memorable wine you’ve ever tasted?
It was the 2004 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain au Rangen de Thann Pinot Gris. The wine was a whopper, almost 16 percent natural alcohol, yet balanced and nuanced. I was at the home of my best friend in Toronto a few years ago and he made an Asian-inspired fried sweetbread dish with an orange/ginger sauce to accompany the wine. To this day, it is my most memorable wine and wine pairing.
What’s your opinion of Canadian wines these days?
I’ve been in the wine field for about six years now so I didn’t experience the darker days of the Canadian scene. There have been great wines coming out of Ontario, B.C., and Nova Scotia the whole time I’ve been studying and tasting. There has also been a proliferation of small wineries across the country. I’m still pushing for someone to really blow the lid off the sparkling wine industry in Ontario as I feel there is a lot of potential there.
To which wine region have you traveled recently?
I haven’t had much opportunity to travel since Atelier’s opening. Niagara was my last trip, but that was still a few years ago. Portugal awaits in the fall.
What tips would you offer for choosing wines from a restaurant list?
The blind menu format at Atelier makes it intimidating to choose a bottle to span the entire meal. I typically recommend that diners find a wine style that they enjoy and not focus on what will be best with the menu. If in doubt though, go with riesling!
Gorgeous riesling with lime vibrancy and mouth-watering refreshment. The old vines lend depth and complexity. This is a steal at this price. Food matches: oven roasted halibut with a lemon butter sauce. Drink: 2012 – 2017 277228 12% D 750 ml $16.95 Score: 89/100
Pleasantly bitter and juicy with big, black brooding fruit: cassis and blackcurrant wrapped in cedar smoke. Food matches: roast leg of lamb off the barbecue rotisserie. Drink: 2012 – 2015 29488 13.5% D 750 ml $24.95 Score: 89/100
Sommelier & Dining Room Manager
540 Rochester Street
Ottawa, Ontario, K1S 4M1
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