Courtney Henderson, sommelier at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Frank Restaurant in Toronto, shares tips on pairing wine with art, finding the gems on a restaurant wine list and the artist with whom she’d love to share a great bottle.
What makes your wine list unique?
We have thirty red wines, thirty white and six sparkling, with six by the glass for red and white and three for the sparkling.
More than 85 percent of them are Canadian. We feature Vintner Quality Alliance (VQA) wines that includes lots of local gems such as Niagara’s 13th Street Pinot Gris, Nyarai Sauvignon Blanc and Le Clos Jordanne, Village Reserve Pinot Noir.
The list is small and focused and changes with the seasons as well as with the major art exhibits in the gallery.
Tell me about two unusual wines on your list.
Stanner Vineyards Pinot Gris – I was recently introduced to this small vineyard in Prince Edward County – it’s fresh and expressive and new to the wine scene.
Vignoble Rancourt Winery Merlot – I was searching for a merlot for a small private event at the gallery.
Winemaker Jean Pierre Colas from 13th Street consults with Rancourt and told me that it’s a boutique winery and most of its wines don’t make it to the Toronto market. I knew I had to get my hands on some right away.
Which wines would you pair with your two favourite artists in the gallery?
I’d pair Picasso’s Dora Maar with Niagara’s Flat Rock Rosé. This particular painting is so vibrant and delicious to look at it needs an equally vibrant and fresh wine.
The 2007 Tawse Meritage would be perfect with Paul Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents as this painting is dark and dramatic and the wine is big and brooding.
What type of wines do you serve at exhibition openings?
Depends on the featured artist – I like to match the art with the wine. Currently, we’re featuring Spanish wines in light of the Picasso exhibit.
It gives our guests a full experience: they enjoy the works of Picasso and then come to Frank for a Spanish-inspired meal and wine.
We toured them in Canadian collection and then in Frank, we created a Canadian-themed, three-course meal with matching wines.
Why is the wine notoriously bad at these openings (at other places)?
I think that most exhibit opening receptions try to keep the cost of the event low so the quality of the wine tends to suffer.
What do wine and art have in common?
Beauty is in the eye is in the beholder – art and wine are based in people’s preferences and biases. I think that both Canadian wine and Canadian art are under-rated and under-appreciated.
Are there any strategies for buying art that can be used when buying wine?
Do your research. Make sure you know what you’re buying, especially if you are spending a lot of money.
If you could share a bottle of wine with any artist who would that be?
I would love to have a glass of wine with Marc Chagall. I love his work—it speaks to me because you can feel the emotion that goes into his work.
What would we drink? Probably an Italian wine from the north, such as a barolo or barbaresco.
Describe two of your favourite wine and food pairings from your menu and wine list.
Sweet Potato and barley risotto with Cave Spring CSV Riesling: It is a locally driven dish with Ontario field-picked vegetables. The riesling elevates the dish beautifully.
Duck Confit with beluga lentils and 2027 Pinot Noir: This is a traditional pairing between duck and pinot. The earthiness of the pinot and gaminess of the duck go well together.
What’s the strangest wine and food pairing you’ve tried?
Champagne and truffled popcorn, but it worked really well.
What is your favourite part of the job that’s wine-related?
Having access to taste and purchase a wide variety of wines.
What’s been your most memorable moment wine-wise in the restaurant?
Pouring the Cave Spring CSV Riesling from Niagara for the American actor Morgan Freeman. I had heard he loved riesling, so I offered one of my favourites.
He said he was impressed with the wine and that he liked it. We talked about the Canadian wine scene—I told him about Niagara and VQA.
I asked him if he had an opportunity to visit our wine regions. He had not at that time, but planned to. We ended up having a great conversation about wine.
What’s your opinion of Canadian wines these days?
I can’t say enough about them – they’re great. We’ve come so far, our wines are very impressive. Investment and technology have made a big difference.
Which province would win a wine showdown with you: Ontario or BC?
I have a soft spot for Ontario – I love both BC and Ontario – but I find Ontario lives in BC’s shadow – we’re a different climate and produce different wines – it’s not fair to compare the two.
To which wine region have you travelled recently? Any tips for going there?
Italy – I loved everything: the food, the wine, the culture. We travelled through Tuscany. The most memorable meal was in Florence at a restaurant called Cibreo that had a seasonal focus.
We were celebrating my birthday so we had the chef’s tasting menu and were treated to many different Florentine specialties such as tripe salad and a white fish ceviche that had been caught that morning. The Tuscan wines were as delicious as the food.
Tips? Bring lots of money.
What tips would you offer diners for choosing wines from a restaurant list?
Talk with the sommelier. Nobody knows the list better than sommeliers do. They are there to help you choose a bottle suited to the occasion.
Art Gallery of Ontario
317 Dundas Street West