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GLASS ACT: Atlantic Canada's top sommelier to compete at nationals

Lesley Quinn is a sommelier. She tastes, evaluates, researches, promotes and sells wine for a living. For fun, she competes in the extreme sport version of wine stewardship.
Atlantic Canada boasts a large number of sommeliers — wine professionals — for its population. Lesley Quinn, sommelier at The Barrington Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, will represent us at the Best Sommelier in Canada Competition in September. (MOIRA PETERS)

Halifax's Lesley Quinn is the best in Atlantic Canada. In April, she beat out Robert Noël of New Brunswick for the title, and in September, she will compete in Vancouver to be the best in Canada.

"… At the Rogers Arena," she tells me, incredulous. The Rogers Arena in Vancouver seats 19,000 people. We joke that she needs a cape for the competition, and smoke bombs for her entrance and exit.

Quinn, originally from Cherry Valley, P.E.I., is a sommelier. She tastes, evaluates, researches, promotes and sells wine for a living. For those who care ("levels are a big thing for people in wine," says Quinn), she is a Court of Master Certified Sommelier. For fun, she competes in the extreme sport version of wine stewardship.

"I needed to practise for the advanced level (of sommelier certification), so I threw my hat into the ring" for the Best Sommelier of Atlantic Canada Competition, says Quinn.

Which means what? Hours in the wine cellar, opening bottle after bottle, seeing if you can pick out the most expensive wine?

"It's a lot of rote memorization," says Quinn. "It's not glamorous. I focused on sparkling wine, the producers, the little regions. Prosecco is becoming more like Champagne, for example," and Quinn would have to be able to differentiate them in a blind tasting.

The Atlantic Canada competition involved a written exam, followed by a performance portion in front of judges and spectators.

"I had some yogurt, which I find neutralizes the palate," says Quinn, recalling the moments leading up to her turn. "I had a glass of Riesling, to calm my nerves. I did yoga breaths."

Quinn is sitting across from me at a high table at The Barrington Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, where she designed and manages the restaurant's wine list. We lounge on comfy seats at a window looking onto Barrington Street. I like how the relaxed atmosphere of the bar is intimately connected, in a funny way, to the intensity and precision of competition.

"The first station was menu correcting. I was trying to pick out mistakes, but my mind was going a mile a minute. I nearly missed an obvious mistake, and when I went back and saw it, I laughed at myself and I think I said out loud, 'I almost missed that one.' From then on, it turned into a really enjoyable, fun thing."

Next came stations in food and wine pairing, Champagne service — "I wish I'd done what Nicole (Raufeisen, sommelier at Little Oak) did, which was using a white wine glass instead of a flute" — decanting an old red wine (which requires the use of a basket and a candle), making a surprise cocktail, and a blind tasting of six wines, all in a staged service context and with a strict time limit.

"Some of the feedback I got was that I was too casual, too chatty," says Quinn. Not a bad flaw for an Atlantic rep.

Being a sommelier is a great gig. It's not easy: getting qualified is difficult (the failure rate is 60 per cent on average); finding a job is harder. But for a region like Nova Scotia where wine is emerging as a significant economic and rural development opportunity, sommeliers play an important role. They are the interface between new wine and drinker, between new product and sales.

A little-known fact about the award-winning wines of Nova Scotia is that a parallel stream of local sommeliers has long excelled at the craft. The very first sommelier class in Nova Scotia graduated in 2000 under the instruction of Adam Dial, son of Roger Dial, the father of Nova Scotia wine. Six Nova Scotia students wrote the national exam that year, which less than half the country's sommelier hopefuls passed. The top two marks in Canada were awarded to Dial's students.

The Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers-Atlantic Chapter (CAPS-AC) continues to offer sommelier accreditation, and churns out an impressive number of sommeliers into the region every year. The chapter also organizes tastings, seminars and dinners with winemakers. Membership is open to the public.

Quinn has found her stride in the Halifax wine community. "Everyone is so supportive," she says. "I've only been here a year and a half, and I was at a California tasting, and there were so many people I'd run into, who were saying, 'We're rooting for you.' "

The local support goes full circle.

"Maritime wine is coming along very nicely. Sparkling is our sweet spot, without a doubt," she says. "I'm a big believer in supporting homegrown … It's a piece of yourself. There's a pride you take in something made in the same place where you're from, a pleasure."

Quinn's list at The Barrington changes seasonally, and the summer season focuses on Canada, "with a big play on local."

I ask Quinn her honest opinion on whether a sommelier could expect to get a job in Nova Scotia. The long pause says as much as her words.

"The community is there," she says. "If they're willing to put themselves out there, they'll be greeted with open arms. But (employers) aren't knocking down doors for sommeliers; it would require some management experience as well."

For Canada's Best Sommelier Competition in September, Quinn will have to compete in her second language, French — a bizarre but standard requirement in sommelier competitions.

"My preparation is not as fluid," she admits of her training for nationals. "My fears are creeping in. I just want to have fun like at Atlantics."

Quinn, whose wine list is 21 pages long with bottles priced at $30 and bottles that'll run you $2,800, also wants to put the fun back into wine professionalism.

"I would like sommeliers to be seen as less pomp-and-circumstance. In the end, all I want is to help you find a great glass of wine."

She recommends a bottle of Cabernet Franc: Valle Loire 2014 Saumur, $15 at the NSLC.

"I love it. Delicious."


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