Royal York Sommelier Jimson Bienenstock Shares His Secrets for Enjoying Wine

In this interview, I chat with Jimson Bienenstock, Head Sommelier, The Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto about pairing wine with cheese and other vinous matters. This interview was originally published in the luxury lifestyle magazine Homefront.

What was your first memorable wine?

In 1990, I went to Paris to become bilingual in French. My first visit to a winery was to the small, artisanal Château Gobinaud in the Listrac Haut Medoc region of Bordeaux. It actually wasn’t a “château” at all—more like a big old shed. We bought one barrel of wine from Jean “Papi” Gobinaud, who then showed us how to manually siphon and fill the bottles, cork them on a converted tractor seat, and seal the capsules. His label machine wasn’t working, so he gave us the labels, and we stuck them on the cleanskin bottles with glue when we got home. The wine was a beautiful introduction to Left-Bank Bordeaux: you could taste that the quality was in the grapes, the experience in the field, the terroir, and the blending skills, but there was nothing fancy at all about this wine. At 25 francs a bottle (about $3.75), it was amazing. Now that I had ten cases of it, I bought a wine fridge, and drank them slowly over about fifteen years and learned how Bordeaux develops with age. I have been a fan of natural, minimalist intervention wines ever since.

Which iconic winery would you most like to visit in the world?

I’m told that the Darioush winery in California is completely over-the-top and I’d love to visit it. Although their Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier are the stars, I think that their Merlot and second-label Caravan wines are wonderful. I’d also love to see the Viognier winemaking close-up: How can a Viognier at such a high alcohol level as 16.2% be so lovely and elegant?

Describe your dream vacation.

I’m a huge fan of New Zealand Central Otago Pinot Noir, so this is another spot I’d love to visit someday. From the photos and what I’ve heard, the scenery is as spectacular as the wines. I just have to wait until my kids are of legal drinking age.

If you could share a great bottle of wine with anyone, who would it be and why?

I’m saving a bottle of the Smith Haut Lafitte 2000 Pessac Léognan, Bordeaux, that my wife Johanna and I bought when we stayed there to celebrate the birth of our first daughter. This wine has an incredible flavour. Sharing this bottle with Johanna would bring back some of my fondest memories—I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be with more than Johanna when we open it.

The Fairmont Royal York Hotel

What’s exciting/new on the Toronto wine scene?

The local movement is perfectly timed. Ontario wines have made exponential leaps in quality and value for money in the last five years. Toronto oenophiles now realize that there are world-class wines being produced in Niagara and Prince Edward County. I find it tremendously exciting to be part of the process—there are now so many amazing local wines that we’re proud to serve Ontario wines by-the-glass, we’re spoiled for choice.

Red, white or rosé? What are your customers keen on these days?

I’m still having a hard time selling rosé. It’s a terrible shame, especially since it pairs beautifully with many dishes. In France, more rosé is consumed than white wine—for a reason! A Tavel for a full-flavoured dish, or a delicate Bandol for lighter fare. Better still, stay local: I love the Hidden Bench and Malivoire rosés from Niagara. As far as the other wines go, good Chardonnay is making a comeback, and Malbec from Argentina is still going strong.

Which wine would you pair with Cheese Whiz or Kraft mac and cheese?

I’d go for a big, full-flavoured, jammy California Cabernet Sauvignon, or maybe even a Zinfandel on the dry side. I have to admit that I tried a Francis Ford Coppola Cabernet with my kids’ leftover Kraft Mac n Cheese just the other day—it worked quite well!

What’s the most surprising wine and cheese pairing you’ve ever tried and why did it work?

I tried the Vin Jaune Savagnin from Tissot in the Jura region of Southeast France a few years ago: Completely oxidized, fully dry and indestructible—more like a dry sherry than a wine. It brought out flavours in the cheese that are completely hidden with a more “typical’ pairing.  I still pour the wine regularly when showing how to pair wine and cheese together. Try an off-dry Riesling, then a big Red wine, a Port, and finally, the Vin Jaune—all with the same cheese: The cheese tastes completely different each time.

Why do you think wine and cheese are natural partners?

Cheese, which can be bitter, salty astringent, creamy, mouldy, and stinky, cries out for something complementary to drink. (My mouth is watering just thinking about it.) Depending on your approach, there are many wines that can work perfectly well with the same cheese. I thought that the cheese and wine pairing app on your site is a particularly good example of this. You have 247 different cheeses with about a half dozen choices for each of the cheeses. I’m no mathematician, but that’s a lot of different combinations that work.

What’s the most common mistake we make when pairing wine and cheese?

Just taking the easy option. Port or red wine—boring! Be daring. Try a local, off-dry Riesling with a blue cheese. Try a Pedro Ximenez, which is a sweet sherry, with a full-flavoured cheese. Have a Sancerre or another type of dry Sauvignon Blanc with a delicate goat cheese. Experiment! It’s easy to do before the guests arrive, just give it a try…

What are your favourite Canadian wine and cheese matches?

Comfort Cream from the Upper Canada Cheese Company with a Pedro Ximenez Sherry. I also love the Upper Canada Cheese Company’s Niagara Gold with a great local Gamay from either Malivoire or 13th Street wineries. Thunder Oak cheese from Thunder Bay is beautiful with a dry aromatic wine, such as Tawse Riesling or Alvento Viognier.

What should we consider when pairing wine with cheddar?

Cheddars are all very different, so don’t treat them equally. For a milder cheddar, I’d try Champagne rather than Spanish or Italian bubbly (Cava and Prosecco). One of the better sparkling wines in Ontario would also work, such as those from Tawse, Flat Rock, 13th Street, Trius Brut or Hinterland. For a more robust cheddar, I love the Silo extra old (up to 10 years) aged cheddar from Brigham, Quebec. I’d pour a big Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blend.

What makes you smile when it comes to wine?

Sometimes there’s a little certain something about a wine that is somehow so right that I can’t help but smile. Some smiles are for the wines that remind me of places or events or people—Hunter Valley reds for a trip in Australia, the Duval Leroy Blanc de Blancs Salmanazar for my wedding, the 1985 Krug for my first big winemaker dinner in Toronto, Domaine Romanee-Conti for the impromptu get together with friends one evening. The other smiles are for the wines that are just so damn good when you absolutely don’t expect it—that Austrian St Laurent from Heinrich, the second wine Gravette de Certan from Pomerol, the Hidden Bench Brunante. Loving wine is a personal thing, and because the wines change all the time, there are many more great surprises in store. I’m smiling now just thinking about the smiles yet to come.


You might enjoy these interviews with more top-notch sommeliers who also share their tips on enjoying wine:

Ritz Carlton TOCA sommelier Lori Sullivan

Canoe Restaurant sommelier Will Predhomme

Want to suggest a sommelier whom I should interview? Email me at





Leave a Reply