Was wine a part of your family’s meals when you were young?
I grew up in a small farming community on Prince Edward Island, with two older brothers. Wine wasn’t a part of our meals at home. However, my mother worked in the tourism industry, and she was host to journalists from around the world.
She’d take me with her to meals with them, and it was during one of those dinners, that I had my first sip of wine. Apparently, I described it as tasting like sour grape juice.
What was your first memorable wine experience?
During the summer of my first year at university, I enrolled in a program in Spain. While there, I fell head over heels for a young man from Switzerland.
He took me to all the chic restaurants and insisted that I order the wine at each place. It was the first time that I realized how many choices there are in the world of wine, as well as how wonderful the right wine can make a meal.
Why do you choose to work in PEI as a sommelier rather than say Toronto or Montreal?
The deliciously fresh shellfish has a lot to do with it, as do the beautiful beaches, but at the end of the day it’s the people.
My whole family is here, as well as my friends whom I’ve had since grade school. Plus, the staff at the restaurant is the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. You just can’t beat east coast hospitality.
How did you get involved with wine professionally?
While I was working as a banquet server at the Ritz Carlton in Grand Cayman, the head sommelier approached me to take the position of junior sommelier. During the interview he told me, “You have a lot of work and studying ahead of you, but I think your personality is well suited to this position.”
I had to pass the introductory level of the Court of Master Sommeliers to secure the position, but once I did, I was able to start on this amazing path that I am still following.
I am also still working my way up the Court of Master Sommelier exams and levels, which culminate in the Master Sommelier title. I just attended my prep course for the advanced level exam and plan on writing the exam sometime in 2015.
I planned on becoming a professor of philosophy, and started my masters degree before I realized that the academic world was a bit too cut-and-dried for me.
If I weren’t a sommelier, I’d still be in the hospitality industry as I enjoy how fast-paced it is, and the look of pleasure on diner’s faces when they have enjoyed themselves.
What advice would you give a young sommelier starting out?
Don’t just memorize the regions and the wines, approach each region as a unique opportunity to learn the history, geography, and topography of a place. It’s exciting how they all work together to form such an iconic beverage.
What are you passionate about aside from wine?
Travel. I love seeing new things and having adventures. Lucky for me that the two are easily combined.
What techniques help you to read customers’ level of wine knowledge?
I ask them what they are looking for; a red or a white? If they reply by asking for a specific grape variety from a specific country I know I can geek out a bit with them.
How is wine used to differentiate the restaurant?
A good wine list lets people know you can have the full dining experience. I have eaten at some amazing restaurants, but without a great wine it feels like going to the beach without getting in the water. It’s only a half-enjoyed moment.
Describe your wine list.
The list that my fellow sommelier Debbie Smith and I created is perfect for a steakhouse, with lots of big bold red wines.
It’s also great for wine drinkers who are still figuring out what their palate prefers, as we offer 24 wines by the glass, eight of which are in an enomatic machine that removes the oxygen in the bottle and therefore keeps the wine fresh longer.
We offer 145 wines by the bottle, with the oldest being a 1999 Winston Churchill Pol Roger Champagne, and the most expensive, a 2000 Vega Sicilia Gran Reserva priced at $550 a bottle, but worth every penny. I opened a bottle last month for a guest and it is smooth, rich and fresh all at the same time.
What was the most surprising fact you uncovered while researching your wine list?
How difficult it can be to keep a balance of wines in price ranges, and varietals. Plus trying to find wines to represent each country.
How does a wine earn a place on your wine list?
If three or more guests ask for a particular wine, I will look into whether or not I can get it. I will drop a wine if it is in that medium price point at $50 a bottle and is just not selling. A list is for the guest, not what I personally love, so you have to give the people what they want to drink.
What’s your opinion of PEI wines?
I think each of the three wineries here is doing something unique. Rossignol for a long time was the only winery in town, and it produces some very interesting dessert-style wines, while Newman Estate is using a blend of PEI and Niagara grapes, to create some great blends. Matos Winery, on the other hand, is focusing on Burgundian varietals, like Chardonnay and Gamay, with great success.
If you visit PEI, make time to take a tour at one or all three of the wineries, as each location offers beautiful views of the island, personalized tours and, of course, great samples of their wines.
How about Nova Scotian wines?
Nova Scotia is really making a name for itself on the Canadian wine scene, with the Annapolis Valley proving to have excellent terroir (soil and climate) for wine. I love what the Benjamin Bridge winery is doing with sparkling and semi-sparkling wines.
The grape varieties and blends are unique here, and winemakers are experimenting to great success with Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir, Marechal Foch, and L’Acadie Blanc.
What are your favourite PEI wine and seafood pairings?
Rossignol L’Acadie Blanc is just right with a selection of PEI oysters, as it’s dry with mouth-watering acidity and tart citrus flavours, perfect with those salty gems. The Gamay Noir from Matos is terrific with grilled veggies and Atlantic salmon because it’s a light, easy-to-drink red with some irresistible fresh cherry flavours.The Newman White is ideal to sip on its own, especially in hot weather, or with a strawberry shortcake with homemade biscuits. The wine has a silky texture and apricot flavours that goes well with fruit-based desserts.
How do you pick a wine when he’s having steak and she’s having a delicate fish?
A Burgundian Grand Cru-style Chardonnay, that way you get the full body for the steak, but you still have fresh citrus flavours for the fish. I say Burgundian-style because there are producers like Peter Michael of Sonoma or Clos Jordanne of Niagara that are able to make Chardonnay without too much oak influence like the Burgundies do.
What are your secret tips for pairing wine and seafood?
The wines that work best have high acid, and are dry with minimal oak contact. Try choosing from a wine region that is close to the sea, so that you get great salinity in the wine to match with seafood. Right now, I am loving Manzanilla sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a seaside region in Spain, paired with oysters.
What’s the toughest seafood or shellfish to pair with wine?
Red wine is difficult to make work with shellfish, and most seafood. The texture of tannins, with the smooth, often creamy nature of shellfish just doesn’t work. Seafood and shellfish are ideal with white wines because the flavours are so mild and delicate. They are best with white wines that don’t overpower that beauty. If I had to make a red wine and shellfish match work I would steam mussels with a chorizo sausage broth, or go for a meatier style fish like swordfish or salmon.
What do you do when a customer orders a wine that’s really inappropriate for the meal?
I say if you like the food and you like the wine chances are you will like them together, it is not my place to force my views on the guest. I will, however, bring over a complimentary glass of wine that I think may make a better partner and simply say I thought you might enjoy tasting these two together.
What’s the strangest wine and food pairing you’ve tried?
A Baco Noir, a bold, red wine, and poutine. I thought the gravy would overwhelm the wine, and the salty flavour of the food would make the Baco Noir taste flabby. However, the Baco had enough acidity to cut through the richness and deliver some tasty dark fruit notes. It was delicious!
A chef who worked on a private yacht once dined in our restaurant. She got to travel all over the world, and prepare local foods from each place they docked.
The wines that she said they had on board made me contemplate a raid while she was eating her dessert. I even looked into being a steward on a yacht after meeting her, but decided against it.
What’s been your most memorable moment wine-wise in the restaurant?
I worked as sommelier during the Cayman cook-out and in attendance were celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Jose Andreas, as well as famous sommeliers Aldo Sohm and Andrea Immer, plus winemakers from Rebolz, Schloss Gobelsburg, and Tenuta San Guido.
The wine we tasted was beyond incredible, and included a Bordeaux tasting from the 1984 vintage, a vertical of Sassicaia, and many more. It is an experience I will never forget.
Who are the most famous people who have dined in your restaurant?
Regis and Kelly when they hosted their show from the island a few years ago.
Give us an example of a time when you had to work under pressure?
Every winter, I live in Turkey with my husband, as that’s where he’s from. This past winter, I was fortunate enough to be invited by the Canadian Ambassador and his wife to host a lunch featuring Canadian wines at their home in Ankara.
Attending the lunch were ambassadors from the U.S., South Africa, Belgium, and several Turkish dignitaries. I was so nervous.
When the lunch started, the ambassador introduced me and all eyes turned to me to explain the wines. I thought my heart was going to stop, but I found my voice. I started talking about wine which always gets me excited and passionate, then before I knew it I was cracking jokes, and having a great time.
What bottles would be in your dream cellar?
I don’t think there would be enough space in this article (or even an imaginary cellar) for me to list all my dream wines.
When you’re constantly reading about so many incredible wines from all over the world, it is hard not to want them all. If I could only have three, I would want a Vosne-Romanée from Burgundy, France; a Riesling from Austria; and a Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux … ugh, that was hard.
Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are the top the white wine grapes, and Malbec is still going strong for the reds. These days, diners tend to be very patriotic about wines, so I find that Canadians order Canadian wines, and Americans order American.
You get the occasional traditionalist who is looking for something from the Old World, as well as the guest who loves Beringer and only wants that. Rosé wine is a growing trend as well, which I love to see, as it is fresh vibrant and can pair with a wide variety of dishes.
How many wines do you taste each day?
At least one wine a day as I am always tasting the selection of by the glass wines on the list to ensure quality, but I also like to take time to explore and taste one wine a day.
This is of course more difficult to do during the winter when I am living in Turkey, so during the summer I try to make up for it by trying 2 or 3 wines a day.
Which iconic winery would you most like to visit in the world?
The great Châteaux of Bordeaux; Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut Brion, Mouton Rothschild, Cheval Blanc, Pétrus. I have my ticket for Bordeaux in the fall so this is one dream I will soon realize.
To which wine region have you travelled recently?
I recently visited Austria in the fall and the colours were outstanding, the wines so pure, crisp and amazing. I recommend taking a morning boat cruise down the Danube River in the Wachau and biking your way back to your starting point, stopping at any winery you like on the way back. The views in the south can’t be beaten and the Sauvignon Blancs from here will knock your socks off.
Where is your favorite place to drink a glass of wine and why?
On a rooftop patio with just the right amount of sun, and a great view. Between the glowing feeling that the sun gives your skin and the way wine warms you inside, it’s hard not to feel blissful.
Do you have a guilty pleasure wine?
Pol Roger Champagne. Every time I’m in the wine store, I find myself picking it up, but I can really only justify paying that much for a single bottle of wine for special occasions like weddings, birthdays, engagements, babies … hmm, I guess I have found ways to justify buying it every time I go in there.
If you could share a great bottle of wine with anyone who would it be?
I would love to share a classic bottle of Italian wine with Leonardo Davinci because he had the best of both worlds. He was a gifted artist, yet also scientifically minded. I would ask him how he saw the world, and what he dreamed we could become.
When you get up in the middle of the night and dive into the fridge for that sinful indulgence everyone denies having, what do you have?
My late night indulgence is Wheat Thins and goat cheese, which is perfect since there always seems to be a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc open in my fridge. It is such a crowd pleaser I find it handy to have on hand for guests and the occasional midnight snack.
What are you up to in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years from now?
In 10 minutes, I am heading to the beach for a quick swim before service starts this evening. In 10 months, I would love to have passed my advanced sommelier exam.
In 10 years, I would love to be the host of a wine and travel show, or be hosting wine tastings and boat tours off the southern coast of Turkey with my husband.
How do you keep yourself organized?
I keep a handwritten to do list that’s always being updated. I like handwritten because I get such a sense of satisfaction when I can cross an item off the list, it’s just not the same deleting it on your smart phone.
Sim’s Steakhouse and Oyster Bar
86 Queen Street