This month's 2B & 2Q is with John Szabo, Canada's first and currently only Master Sommelier, earning the title from the Court of Master Sommeliers in London, England in 2004.

Master Sommelier is quite the title, but even as much as John knows about wine, I'm sure he'd be the first person to say that learning about wine is an endless and lifetime pursuit.

John has been working in the hospitality business at home and abroad for over 15 years and is
based in Toronto. He manages an education and consulting firm, the Centre for Vine Affairs, specializing in trade seminars, restaurant wine program design and management and server staff training and winery consultation services.

Notably, John
was recently appointed Contributing Editor for Wine Access Magazine and Editor-in-Chief for the First In Line eReport highlighting new wine releases in Ontario. John is also Wine Editor and columnist for Toronto’s City Bites Magazine and the national trade publication, Your Foodservice Manager.

To add to his qualifications list, John also owns a small vineyard in Eger, Hungary.

We've learned plenty about wine from John and he serves as a great role model for us and the industry.
Enjoy his insights!

2007 Santorini, Sigalas, Greece $20

Kolonaki Wines, Steve Kriaris

I discovered the white wines of Santorini a couple of years ago, and the quality from this stunning volcanic island in the heart of the Aegean Sea almost defies description. The grape variety is called Assyrtiko, and the wine made from it has an uncommon minerality that I liken to the flavour of volcanic stone, if you could grab a piece and squeeze a few drops from it into a glass.

Another unusual feature is the brilliantly crisp acidity allied to full body, a rare combination, especially for a generally hot island on the 34th parallel. I believe these are some of the most singular wines on the planet, and at just around $20, an unbelievable value as well. Given that average yields are minuscule and the pressure on land development from tourism is at an all time high, I think it’s our duty as consumer to support these wines to ensure that they don’t disappear forever. Having tasted a range of 2007 Santorinis recently in Greece, I can say that the 2007 vintage is also of exceptional quality.


On the home front, I’ve found that Cabernet Franc seems to be finally living up to most winegrowers’ belief that it is one of the most well suited varieties for our cool climate. While the range of styles and quality levels is still quite varied, the top producers are making wines of fabulous elegance and spicy complexity.

After a recent horizontal tasting of an wide array of Ontario producers, one of my favorites was the Château des Charmes 2005 Cabernet Franc St. David’s Bench Vineyard VQA St. David’s Bench, ON $27.75 The nose is a little tightly wound at the moment, with intriguing clay-mineral notes, light herb, fresh violet, vanilla bean, abundant fresh black fruit and excellent complexity. It’s Dry, firm, highly extracted and concentrated; full-bodied. At $28– I think this wine is great value and is worth keeping in the cellar for a decade or more if the fabulous 1995 vintage, recently tasted, is any indication.

1. "Green" is quite the buzz word these days - even in the wine industry! That being so, is there a country, or wine region, or producer that is considered a leader in the green wine movement?

The movement towards organic winegrowing is pretty widespread across the industry, especially in the dry, warm climates that are most suitable, like many parts of Chile and Argentina, California, southern Europe and the Mediterranean basin, among others. That said, I would say that two of the epicenters of the organic/biodynamic movement are in Burgundy and Alsace in France, where internationally renowned estates like Leroy, Comtes Lafon, Zind-Humbrecht and Marc Kreydenweisse lead the way not just with philosophy but with sheer quality as well.

2. There are thousands of restaurants in Toronto alone, and that means thousands of wine lists. As a wine list and tasting expert, can you give some insight into what makes a great restaurant wine list? And could you recommend a few local wine lists that stand out as being exceptional?

A great wine list is more than a great wine list, it is a “wine program”. It is simply not enough these days to pile a bunch of wines, however good, on a piece of paper and call it a wine list. Making a great list involves more mundaine steps like choosing the right physical format (typeface, paper size, binder presentation, etc.) that is most suitable to the type of establishment. Then there is the selection of the products that go on the list, which are in part dictated by the type of restaurant, theme/regional focus, median price points on food, location, and obviously compatibility with the specific items on the menu.

A much lesser consideration is the sommeliers personal preferences – a mistake many make when starting out. It is not just about what the sommelier likes, but rather what works for the cuisine, the staff, the reliability of the agent who represent the products, the availability of the wine vs the predicted reprinting schedule, inventory turnover goals, underlying all of which of course implies taking revenue and profit margins into consideration. Although it must be said that one must also be passionate and convinced about the wines one sells.

The last and perhaps most key element in the wine program design process is staff training. The staff must be continually trained on wine service and updated on changes to the list, additions and deletions, food and wine recommendations. This is an on-going process and one which costs money, but there are ways to minimize expense. In any case the whole program is for nothing if the front line servers can’t deliver the right experience.

Regarding the specifics on a successful restaurants, aside from the above, in my experience strong by-the-glass programs with a good dose of creative and cutting edge selections that allow customers to discover something new with minimal risk are doing amazingly well. Also local wines are increasingly hot and well-supported by the city’s best sommeliers. Customers are increasingly savvy and price-aware, so with few exceptions, the days of 400% mark-ups are coming to an end. For my client restaurants I would rather sell twice as much at half the margin. I make the same but it keeps people lining up at the door and increases the number of ‘regulars’, the base clientele of any establishment.

Check out for example Crush Wine Bar, Jamie Kennedy’s, Eight Wine Bar, Niagara Street Café, Chez Victor, Ruth’s Chris, Starfish, Treadwell’s in Port Dalhousie, The Indian Rice Factory and Terroni (full disclosure: the last two are my lists), among many others. Having traveled around the world a fair bit, I can say that Toronto is truly a great place to eat and drink.

Check out our interview with John at last summer's Canadian Wine Awards. You'll learn about the wine judging process, and what it means to be a Master Sommelier click here.

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