In the fourth of an fourteenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario (and occasionally from further afield). A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers. Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising stars.
This month we have a chat with Jennifer Bolton, the lady behind the wine selections at Toronto’s top Oyster destination, Oyster Boy.
Good Food Revolution: So Jen, what is it that you are doing these days? (Your position, and what that role entails)
Jen Bolton: Right now I guess I’m considered the Front of House manager at Oyster Boy. I have the distinguished role of scheduling employees, ordering product, and keeping the peace
GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?
JB: I’ve worked in the service industry my entire life, starting with Swiss Chalet when I was 18. I’ve been a hostess, bartender, server, manager, manager trainer, I run food, I bus tables, I’ve subbed in for the dishwasher; everything but cook your food.
GFR: How would you describe your role at Oyster Boy?
JB: Oyster Boy is a balancing act of personalities; Back-of-House, Front-of-House, owners, and guests. I think of us as a little family. We take good care of each other. I would definitely be considered the mom. For one, I’m the oldest and have been there the longest, but I’m also a nurturer of sorts.
GFR: You have worked in a number different types of places… how does Oyster Boy compare?
JB: We are all so tight at OB. There is no division between Front-of-House and Back-of-House. We all just work together to help each other out. The staff have all been there for years because no one wants to leave because of the relationships we’ve built. Guests comment all that we all work so well together and that they can feel the love. And the guests are beyond amazing! I think 80%-90% must be regulars or return clientele. It really proves that we’re doing something right.
GFR: How open do you find the clientele to trying new things when it comes to wines? Is there a specific style of wine that the demographic crave? And just what is that demographic?
JB: Oysters are obviously the showpiece at OB and people often step outside their comfort zones by experimenting with new varieties or taking our recommendations. I think they use up all their sense of adventure on the oysters and when it comes to wine, they want something they know and trust. We have a very hard time selling anything remotely esoteric.
GFR: I’m aware that there does seem to be a lot of love for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at Oyster Boy? What’s the story there?
JB: Oh my goodness, the Astrolabe has been a cult favourite for years. So much so that when we attempted to list another Sauvignon Blanc from a neighbouring region there was an uproar! It wasn’t worth the grief we encountered so we switched it back on the next list. Who knew people would be so passionate about a producer?
GFR: Yes, I have to admit, that Sauvignon Blanc thing is a bit of a mystery to me!
Now, how do I word this? Have you drunk the “Natural Wine Kool Aid”? I’m just kidding, how do you feel about the scene?
JB: I have tried many ‘natural’ wines but I think there must be something about those pesticides that I prefer.
GFR: With Oyster Boy obviously being an oyster place, how much of your sales end up being white wines?
JB: White wines comprise the majority of our beverage sales. It’s such an obvious pairing but you still have those die-hard red drinkers. Red wine sales also jump as soon as the weather cools.
GFR: And are there many customers who insist on reds? I know that the proprietor enjoys red wine with everything?
JB: Ha! Yes, we offered Malbec on our list once and it was the best selling red ever. I definitely wouldn’t consider it an ideal pairing with oysters, but who am I to judge. Typically we offer light-bodied reds like pinot noir and Beaujolais but the odd customer requests a big, in-your-face, jammy red and I’m grateful for Adam’s wine on the shelf because I have an option for them!
GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?
JB: My favourite suppliers seem to know what I need. They also don’t harass me! They reach out when they know something I might like surfaces. I appreciate their time because they’re not wasting mine.
GFR: And what makes for a bad agent?
JB: I hate when one of our wines is running low and there’s no communication. My agents always seem to have a good substitute in these cases, which I appreciate.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Any current favourites?
JB: I love to support Canadian wineries but struggle sometimes with the reds. That’s why I’m happy to say right now I’m loving the Pinot Noir by Pearl Morrissette. It is quite honestly my favourite Canadian Pinot ever.
GFR: And how do the Oyster Boy clientele find Canadian wines?
JB: Our clientele are quite open to Canadian wines. I guess it doesn’t hurt that our décor screams Canadiana and we support mostly Canadian fisheries. There’s a local vibe happening for sure. I find the biggest help is when the wine rep comes in and educates the staff. The servers seem to have a better understanding of the product and a greater appreciation for it, and they’re more comfortable recommending it.
GFR: What do we do well in Ontario, in your mind, and for your palate?
JB: Sparkling wines for sure! There are so many beautiful options from so many wineries I can’t imagine why someone would drink a cheap, import bubbly when they could have a superior local product.
GFR: And what do you feel we should give up on?
JB: I hate to say it, but Cab Franc. I just find the ones I’ve tried to be too jammy for my taste.
GFR: I guess I know what you mean… there are quite a few from Ontario that I find to be really over-worked and extracted.
Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Ontario also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?
JB: That’s a dangerous slope. Just promote the best and your integrity will never be called into question. People constantly tell me that last time they were in I took good care of them and they loved my recommendations. I’m also a really crappy liar so I might as well just be honest.
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
JB: My parents don’t drink very much and supposedly don’t appreciate fine wine. Although my dad always wants to drink what us kids bring at family dinners because he knows it’s likely delicious. My brother in law used to work in fine dining and always joked that I skipped the basic drinking steps and went straight to good red wine.
GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?
JB: Unfortunately, no. I do remember my first taste of Durango coolers though.
GFR: I don’t actually know what those are!
When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?
JB: We have to teach kids to respect alcohol and we want them to appreciate fine things so it shouldn’t be made to be a big deal if they want a taste of something when they’re growing up. I don’t think there’s a right age, but when my teenagers ask for a sip of what I’m drinking, I always let them try. Most times they scrunch up their faces in disgust anyway.
GFR: When did you first decide that you were kind of into wines, and choose wines for the list at Oyster Boy?
JB: I realized I was into wine after my trip to Europe when I was a teenager. I took my wine courses with the International Sommelier Guild and enjoy the wine education and culture. The wine buying job at OB started organically because I was interested, but I also had input into what the guests were asking for and what wasn’t selling.
GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?
JB: Honestly, I’d say my brother in law. Although he’s an Amarone drinker and I like a Pinot… it’s good for family dinners though. We bring the wines we like and don’t drink each others.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
JB: Ontario and Sonoma are the only ones I’ve explored to great length. It’s top of my bucket list to spend time indulging in every region though!
GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?
JB: No. I figure I can buy a decent wine for under $20 so I’m satisfied leaving it in the hands of the professionals. I’ve made my own Lemoncella, beer, Baileys, ginger beer, shrubs and syrups, and now I’m into kombucha so I’d never say never though.
GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?
JB: In Burgundy, for sure
GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?
JB: Well, bottles don’t have emotions so they’re easy to manage, but the answer is definitely people. I love my crew at OB so much and I know they love me back. You don’t get that from a Cab.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
JB: It was very cool to win ‘Server of the Year’ in the 2015 Now Magazine Reader’s Poll.
A low would be when I was bartending in my early 20s. It was a lot of fun but could probably be considered wasted years. When you’re running late for work and it’s 2pm, that’s a problem. And stumbling out of booze cans into the sunshine in your work clothes every weekend. Not a crowning moment.
GFR: In your mind, who does a great job when it comes to Wine Agents?
JB: I love Maya from the Vine and Leslie from Rogers & Co. Both amazing ladies and excellent at their jobs.
GFR: Do you have nightmares about working with wines? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar… and the clock is ticking away And I haven’t been in the role for over seven years.!!!
JB: No, never. I sleep like a baby. I have a clear conscience. Ha!
GFR: Sommelier/Wine Purchasers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
JB: Oh, I’d love a sleep in; then a coffee and a crossword; then putter around in the garden and kitchen the rest of the day. Make a big meal and sit down to eat with my family
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of our city?
JB: I have always loved Union on Ossington, even though it’s not a hidden gem. It’s so cozy and has delicious food, great wine and service Another place I love is Roux, in the Junction. The steak frites jus and the collard greens. OMG, to die for.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
JB: I love to cook but I’m always in charge of veg because my husband takes care of the meat. There are only so many ways to roast vegetables. Right now my favourite recipe is a marinated flank steak. Oh, I also made a deep dish pizza in the cast iron skillet the other day that took pizza to the next level in our house.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?
JB: If I’m cooking the meat there’s always the chance there’ll be a disaster but I think I have it mostly under control. I have two active teenage boys that need to consume calories on a massive scale, so even if the meal is not so great they’ll eat it anyway.
GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier/Wine Purchaser community in Toronto?
JB: Yes, from my experience I’d say it’s a strong community
GFR: Do you hang about with other wine business folks?
JB: No. Not that I wouldn’t but most of my close friends aren’t in the industry
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?
JB: Toronto has an amazing variety of wines and cocktails. We’re so fortunate to have so many cultural influences and inspired mixologists and sommeliers leading the scene. When I want a great wine I head to Bricco. Eric, the owner is a great person and a fantastic sommelier.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?
JB: I would be living on a farm, growing my own food and hanging out with my chickens. Not too far from the city though. I couldn’t live without rotis, and pho, and tacos, and ramen, and…
GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants?
JB: I like music as long as it’s not too loud. We always have good music at OB, thanks to Steph who curates our playlists. People are always complimenting her choices. Don’t tell her, but sometimes when she’s not working I put on a really cheesy playlist. One time there was a whole restaurant sing-a-long to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. That was the best.
GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?
JB: Nope. Don’t get to watch movies unless its an action/adventure. So is the life with teen boys.
GFR: I can imagine!
I know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
JB: I think they’re in awe a bit. The industry seems like it’s a constant party and I think they wonder how I can still run around for 12hrs and keep the hours I keep (because I’m old). Mostly a pain in the arse to them because we need to book everything two months in advance so I can book a weekend night off.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?
JB: Fun! As long as you’re not with one of those pretentious arseholes you were referencing earlier. No one likes a know-it-all.
GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…
JB: Oh God, I cannot look at a drink if I’m hung over. Unless it’s a chocolate milkshake, of course
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
JB: Right now I’m favouring Tuscany, Italy. Only because I’m loving a 2014 Rosso di Montalcino that is fresh and delicious.
GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier/Wine Purchaser, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?
JB: In my life, apparently it’s still Astrolabe from Awatere Valley NZ. Ha
GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? I why do you feel that is?
JB: I’m going to have to say Pinot Grigio. For years it was the go-to wine because it was easy to drink and consistent. But, I find guests requesting it less and less these days. Maybe people are getting a bit more adventurous.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
JB: I still can’t wrap my head around the fuller styles of Chardonnay. I’ve honestly tried but I can’t do it. People still love those big buttery Californian Chards.
GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?
JB: Lamb, grilled veggies and a nice Merlot. Mmmmm…
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… Oysters!
What would you suggest to pair for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?
Colville Bay Malpeques?
JB: Colville Bay oysters (my fave) have a firm flesh, they’re briny with a hint of sweetness on the end. I’d love to drink this with a crisp, acidic Muscadet. It’s a classic pairing for a reason. It’s works!
West coast Kusshi?
JB: Kusshis are creamy and sweet with a hint of cucumber. They’re small but there’s a lot to chew. This oyster needs a wine with a bit more heft so it’s not lost on the generous flavours of the Kusshi. Actually, I might do a Hendricks martini with a fresh cucumber garnish.
3. Eel Lake specials?
JB: Balanced salt with a hint of earthiness. I might go with a stony, minerally Sancerre.
GFR: Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?
JB: I prefer vodka and gin mostly. I had an amazing grapefruit tonic from East Imperial out of New Zealand which pairs perfectly with both spirits and now I’m hooked. I need to figure out how to get more since they haven’t cracked the Canadian market just yet.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier/Wine Purchaser?
JB: I feel bad that I can’t support everyone. There are so many good wines out there and only so much room on my list
GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
JB: Classic restaurant grade. It’s all I’ve ever used.
GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system… has it changed the playing field?
JB: I think it’s a genius advancement in technology and has hopefully improved the lives of all those hard working agents schlepping around the city
GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?
JB: I hate to say that I still think that screw caps are a bit cheap. I need to get over it. I honestly don’t think our customers even care because screw caps are so common now. We’re not a fine dining establishment and they just seem excited to be drinking and eating oysters.
GFR: Due to us being around alcohol, many people in our industry often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze, or they develop issues. What is your limit and how do you keep yourself in check?
JB: I try not to drink too much anymore. I had many dumb years but now I’d hate to lose a day because I’m suffering from a hang over. Not that I don’t go nuts every once in awhile but maturing has helped me find a balance
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?
JB: I haven’t been cut off but I should’ve been! Last year I was in Dallas on Canada Day and all the mixologists had a contest to see who could make me the most Canadian cocktail. Fun that night but I was nursing that chocolate milkshake the next day.
GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure?
JB: Sleep is the only true thing that works for me.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
JB: Personally or professionally?
GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?
JB: I swallow the ones I like and spit the ones I don’t. No need to waste good wine!
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
JB: I usually drink the Famille Perrin Cotes de Rhone Reserve. It’s versatile and yummy and only $16.95 a bottle!
GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?
JB: I was in Italy when I was 20 and my friend and l bought a magnum of ‘house red’ and sat down on a bridge with some new friends from the hostel and passed the bottle around and watched the sun go down over Rome. There were no glasses to drink from but the memory is so sweet.
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?
JB: I like white at work. I love the Muscadet. So crisp and delicious. It’s almost refreshing after the marathon we run every night.
GFR: And now the cheesy question Jen… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?
JB: I’d definitely be a Sauternes; sweet like honey 😉
GFR: Thank you for taking the time Jen.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.
Peter Boyd has been a part of Toronto’s wine scene for over two decades. He has taught the Diploma level for the International Sommeliers Guild, and has been the sommelier at Scaramouche Restaurant since 1993. He also writes about wine, food and pop culture and raises show molerats for fun and profit. He’s also one of the most solid guys in the business.Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and is slowly taking over this city. He just celebrated his 67th birthday!
A well-known and much respected figure on the Toronto food and wine scene for almost twenty years, Potvin has worked in many of the city’s very best establishments including Biffs, Canoe, and Eau. In 2004 Potvin opened his incarnation of the Niagara Street Café, a restaurant that has gone from strength to strength year after year, with universal critical acclaim. Anton spends much of his time traveling and tasting wine and has been ranked highly in consecutive years of the International Wine Challenge. Anton is now GM at DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.