Homefront spoke to Jay Whiteley, sommelier and wine director at several
of Canada’s best restaurants, and most recently, The Chase in Toronto.
Q. What was your first wine experience?
Learning how to say the word Gewürztraminer, then I suppose, tasting it. Or perhaps it was the other way around…
Q. Why did you move from Hawksworth in Vancouver, to join The Chase in Toronto?
I moved for some personal reasons, but also to become well versed in the functioning of the LCBO distribution system. Toronto is Canada’s largest wine market and the third largest in North America. I wanted to learn how alcohol moves into and around the city and province.
Q. How did you become a sommelier?
I was never hired as a sommelier, it was a position I worked into. I started at The Fairmont Chateau Whistler as a breakfast server and over the years, my passion turned me into the wine guy/sommelier. My first job as a titled “sommelier” was in London at The Savoy Grill, a one star Michelin restaurant owned by Gordon Ramsey in the venerable Savoy Hotel. I thought I knew a thing or two about wine. I’ll never make that mistake again! It was a humbling and eye-opening experience.
Q. How did you up your game with wine professionally?
I had a thirst for wine knowledge. After I moved back to British Columbia, I’d drive down to Vancouver every week to take the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) diploma program. In 2010, I started looking into the
Master of Wine (MW) program and realized the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Diploma was the prerequisite. So I enrolled in that program and realized just how much I enjoyed learning.
Q. Did you consider other occupations?
Never. I love restaurants and the people who work in them. But I suppose if I had to choose something else, I’d be a farmer and live off the land.
Q. What advice would you give a young sommelier starting out?
Be humble. Talk to as many wine agents, restaurant guests, other sommeliers, anyone that will help to ignite your passion. Don’t be shy. And never stop asking all sorts of questions.
Q. What are you passionate about aside from wine?
Music, film and travelling.
Q. What techniques do you use that help you to read customers’ level of wine knowledge?
I ask them which wine they last enjoyed, or which one they last bought. Increasingly, I’m also asking them which wine labels are on their smartphone.
Q. How is wine used to differentiate the restaurant?
People are becoming more and more wine smart with each vintage. They are becoming more open and comfortable with what they like and don’t like, so they are willing to branch out and try something new. Wine lists, and particularly by the glass lists, need to change frequently. Most people will stop by, sit at the bar and have a glass or two. They like knowing that they have something different to try every time they drop by, and that after a few visits, they won’t get bored.
Q. How does a wine earn a place on your wine list and how does it get dropped from the list?
If the wine tastes good and has a good story behind the label, it gets on the list. It will go if I can’t get more or it is not selling.
Q. What technological advance in the wine world do you most anticipate?
An accurate, real-time tracking software system that shows a case of wine’s movement from the winery to the glass.
Q. What are your three favourite pairings.
Champagne goes with just about anything, but the ideal pairing for me is popcorn and a good movie. White Burgundy (Chardonnay) also has a wide range of pairings, but butter poached lobster with Montrachet and
Gevrey with mushroom ragout are top pairings. As for Piedmont, nothing beats fresh pasta, tomato sauce and wild boar paired with these robust red wines. Add shaved truffles for extra decadence.
Q. What bottles would be in your dream cellar?
Burgundy from small producers. They are the perfect expression of place and time and are so limited. Same for cru Barolo.
Q. How many wines do you taste each week?
It ebbs and flows, but on average, about 20-35 wines a week. Around 1,700 a year.
Q. How do you pick a wine when he’s having steak and she’s having a delicate fish?
In an ideal world, it would be vintage champagne, but I will always go with the wine that is pleasing to both people. Sometimes, it’s not about pairing wines, but about what the guest is in the mood for.
Q. Beyond the usual pairing guidelines for seafood/shellfish and wine, give me some of your secret tips for pairing them?
Never forget about beer. It can work well depending on the preparation of some foods.
Q. What’s the toughest seafood or shellfish to pair?
Uni is tough because it is such a delicate fish. Most wines overpower it or get lost. For this fish, I like to use a Junmai Daiginjo sake.
Q. What do you say or do when a customer orders a wine that’s really inappropriate for the meal?
Give the guest what they want. Open it as though it is normal.
Q. What’s the strangest food and beverage pairing you’ve tried?
Dark chocolate, cheddar cheese and a stout beer. It actually does work well together.
Q. What’s the best moment of your day?
Post service beer!
Q. If I suddenly won a million dollar lottery, I would….?
Find an overgrown plot of obscure grape varieties in the far reaches of Spain. I’d bring it back to life, make wine and sell it to the hipsters in Brooklyn.
Q. What special bottle is in your personal wine cellar at home right now?
The 1996 and 1998 Krug Champagnes. I’ll drink them side by side…sometime soon.