In this interview, I chat Sheila Person who at the time was sommelier and manager at Eight Wine Bar in Toronto. Sheila has since moved back to Calgary, Alberta, where she shares her passion for wine at Crowfoot Wine and Spirits. We chat about spring and summer wines, including great bottles for the cottage and pairings for her favourite books. Fun!
What first got you interested in wine?
Growing up in small town Alberta, I wasn’t exactly immersed in wine culture. Sure, my parents drank it, and my dad even made fruit wine, but it was actually the tools that intrigued me. My dad’s corkscrew was a locking top double-action brass corkscrew—you could practically open a bottle of wine with one finger! Especially during holidays, my dad would show us how cut crystal stemware “sings”; I was hooked. Anything with such neat rituals had to be explored further.
Can you describe your first memorable bottle?
My first memorable bottle of wine was a 1975 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino. I was in heaven! I hadn’t taken a formal wine course yet, but I was bartending at a wine bar and some regular guests came in with the bottle and asked if they could open it, as it was a special occasion. (This was before bringing your open bottle became an accepted practise.) The manager allowed it and went to get a decanter. When I saw the bottle, I said, “Wow, that bottle is older than I am!”
They poured me a glass and went through a tasting with me. The aromas and flavours flew out of the glass—chocolate, mushrooms, licorice! I couldn’t stop asking questions, “How can a wine last this long?” “Did you know it was going to be this great?” I think it was the longevity of it that surprised me the most, as well as learning it’s just chance as to whether it will be corked or not.
What’s the difference between the wines we drink in the winter and in the spring/summer?
I find I drink more white wine in the summer, because I like it cold and refreshing. Also rosé wines are favourites for me, because they pair beautifully with cheese and charcuterie, which, not coincidentally, require no cooking. A few favourites of mine are Gazela Vinho Verde from Portugal, and Cattail Creek Serendipity Rosé from Niagara. When I drink reds in the summer, they tend to be lighter in body, like Malivoire Gamay, and I usually put them in the fridge to chill them down.
I also find that the wines I drink in the summer are lower in alcohol – the higher alcohol wines don’t help much when it comes to cooling you down!
Are there wines that are particularly suited to the cottage and/or beach?
I really wish we could get better wines in tetra paks and cans, because I think they’re ideal for the cottage and beach. I love being in the United States and buying the little cans of Francis Ford Coppola’s Sofia Blanc de Blanc. They’re the perfect size, and they’re not glass, so they’re great for the beach.
I would also say screw caps are better for the beach, because you don’t have to carry a corkscrew. When you’re at the cottage, meals are generally done on the barbecue, so you don’t really want a complex red wine. I would suggest Chateau des Charmes Cabernet Franc or Peninsula Ridge Cabernet, both from Niagara.
Any tips for serving or storing wine at the cottage and/or beach?
With storing wine at the cottage, keeping it out of light would be critical, as there are few things worse than cooked wine. Temperature is the key when serving wine – warm whites tend to taste flabby and don’t quite quench your thirst. If I’m on the beach and need to keep my wine cold, I don’t mind dropping an ice cube into it for 10 seconds, then scooping it out. It doesn’t dilute the flavours and chills it down nicely. It works for red wine, as well.
What are your favourite food and wine pairings for spring and summer?
I love a chilled seafood salad with a glass of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc. Calamari, scallops and shrimp are light-tasting, so you don’t want to overpower their flavours. Sauvignon blanc has a high acidity to stand up to the citrus vinaigrette in which I usually toss salad.
Grilling lamb burgers with goat cheese and roasted red peppers is a perfect summer barbecue meal. I love to pair it with the Chateau des Charmes Cabernet Franc. I find the spiciness of the wine mirrors the tangy notes in the red peppers, and it’s not too big to silence the lamb’s flavour.
Lastly, one of my favourite summer activities is having a picnic with friends. Some cheese, charcuterie, mini quiche, fresh fruits & veggies, and a few salads, like a cold pasta salad and 5-bean salad thrown into a few backpacks with a couple bottles of off-dry riesling is absolute perfection. I find riesling my go-to wine quite often, because it is such a diverse wine that can go with almost anything.
What would be your top three wine and book pairings and why?
I’m a huge fan of Canadian litature, so my wine pairings would naturally be Canadian as well. My first pick would be Pilgrim by Timothy Findlay, and I would pair it with Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay, because it’s a timeless book with the protagonist as an immortal and what is more timeless and immortal than “Perpetua”?
My second pick would be Carol Shields’ Larry’s Party, and my wine of choice would be Flat Rock Cellars Twisted, because her book is all about labyrinths.
My third pick is a little off-the-wall: the Princess and the Whiskheads by Russell Smith with which I would drink a favourite cocktail of mine: Icewine & Bubbles (a little icewine in a flute topped with Canadian sparkling wine, like Trius Brut). Something fun and flirty to go with a fun read!
In what ways is a good bottle of wine like a good novel?
There are many ways a good bottle of wine is like a good novel, the biggest one is that it’s memorable. Wine can create great memories: who you were with, what you ate, and the occasion on which you enjoyed it. Further, you always want to share and recommend a good novel to all of your friends, and a good bottle is the same – do you keep a great find to yourself?
Many book clubs are borne out of friends sharing their favourite books, and I know many of them now include sharing their favourite wines, as well. Lastly, a good bottle of wine can evoke emotions just like a good novel. I’ve seen people practically weep when they’ve been blown away by a wine, and I know there are many books out there that have done the same thing for me … Flowers for Algernon, anyone?
What’s your best tip to diners in a restaurant when they’re choosing wine?
Don’t let the wine list intimidate you – you’re choosing a wine for your dinner, not making a life or death decision. Speak with the sommelier: gone are the days of sommeliers trying to intimidate you into buying an overpriced wine. Point to a wine that’s within your budget and ask your sommelier if she or he has a better recommendation. Also let the sommelier know how adventurous you are to try something new.
Sommeliers know their wine list intimately, and there are always a few favourites or “hidden gems” from atypical regions which show much better value than the mainstream regions like California or Australia. I say better value because the sommelier may revel in telling stories about the region, the funky grape variety, or even the crazy antics of the winemaker.
What do you like most about being a sommelier?
Ahhhhh, where do I begin? There are so many things I love about my profession, but I think the biggest is opening people’s eyes to new wines and wine regions, especially the greatness of Ontario wines. Being the sommelier at a hotel wine bar gives me the perfect platform to show the world this greatness and to share my passion for Ontario wines.
Guests from all over the world are amazed that we even make wine, and then they taste it and they’re hooked. I’ve also never been a 9-to-5er, and working in the hospitality industry is never 9 to 5, so that works well for me, as well as every day bringing me something different. Whether it’s a wine recommendation for a table, a question from the staff regarding my wine list, or sharing a quirky piece of trivia with a guest, it’s never the same day twice. I like that.
Anything else you’d like to add?
A sommelier knows more than just wine. We’re trained on spirits and liqueurs, as well as coffee and tea – even water! Ask sommeliers what their favourite drinks are, and you may discover it’s not always wine. I love wine, but I love to sip great bourbon, too.
Eight Wine Bar
8 Colborne Street, Toronto
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