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This year we put the job of selecting the Sommelier of the Year to a group who knows a thing or two about the topic—our past SOTY winners. We think their choice was inspired.
“See that couple over there?” Robert Stelmachuk says as he gestures to a man and woman enjoying what appears to be a date night… at one in the afternoon. “I’ve served them for over 20 years.” It could be a throwaway line that demonstrates the breadth of his experience, but it’s the way Stelmachuk—proper suit and full Windsor knot, even at midday—says it, with the emphasis not on the “I’ve” but on the “served,” that tells you all you need to know about this year’s Sommelier of the Year.
In a society that uses the word profession synonymously with job, Stelmachuk represents the true nature of a professional—a person who aligns himself with a group of like-minded practitioners, and then not only takes great responsibility with his own performance but also ensures that his fellow professionals likewise learn and prosper.
Stelmachuk grew up in Thunder Bay with fine wine rarely making an appearance in his day-to-day life, but, fresh from hotel management school, he made what turned out to be a fateful choice—he decided to head west to the then-nascent resort community of Whistler in order to become part of the opening of a new Monk McQueens.
It was here that he learned the importance of focus and reliability in making a large operation function. Ultimately, the call of Vancouver was strong, and, as luck would have it, he landed at the William Tell, a legendary fine-dining room run by the ever-more legendary Erwin Doebeli. Even more importantly, he found mentors—Bryan Turner, Trevor Hanna, Tyler Dawson—who were willing to educate him in all thing vinous. He worked the floor at night and studied wine during the day, his goal a modest “making sure I know more about wine than my guests do.”
It was a formative four years, and continuing down his C.V. is like a reading a road map of a classical education in Vancouver hospitality: opened Blue Water Cafe as the sommelier, wine director at Le Crocodile for seven years, opening somm at Market by Jean-Georges, Chambar, and stints at CinCin, Cioppino’s and Cibo thrown in for what has to be the most extensive resumé in town. The one common thread: the level expected for himself and for his team was professionalism.
And then came what was in many ways the proper reward for a lifetime of hard work—a new room with a luxurious budget and a goal of arriving at the top of the food chain. For someone who’d spent decades retooling wine programs, here was a chance to have carte blanche in crafting something with a concept—high-end Chinese—that seemed to be perfect. The one small wrinkle: the independently owned restaurant happened to be attached to a hotel that had a management agreement with the Trump Corporation, and that five-letter word meant that what should have been a coronation turned into something less exalted.
Boycotts were organized, friends wouldn’t stop by—but Stelmachuk responded as he always does: by working his ass off (and patiently explaining the difference between Mott 32 and the Trump Hotel). But the lack of fanfare has allowed Stelmachuk to quietly build one of the city’s great wine programs, deep in insane bottles (he must sell more Lafite and DRC than anyone in town) and backed by a crack team under his tutelage. And he’s constantly using his platform to help the new generation of somms who are just coming up, many of whom don’t get exposure to iconic bottles thanks to stratospheric pricing. Stelmachuk organizes industry tastings, and is always quick to grab a bottle to help fellow pros expand their tasting range or to open the space to help somms prep for industry exams.
But whereas most mentors preach from above, interaction with Stelmachuk is always on the floor. It’s his happy place—interacting with customers, teaching and learning, expanding horizons and vanquishing pretension. It’s tough work, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
What’s one amazing bottle that’s hiding in plain sight at the BCLDB?
Medici Ermete Concerto Reggiano Lambrusco Frizzante ($20)—a MUST wine for any gathering.
Three bottles a wine lover should try at least once in their life?
Wine lovers probably have the chance to taste the obvious great, iconic wines. I think these three should keep wine lovers grounded: Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, Viñedo Chadwick 2000 and Pierre Peters Les Chétillons Champagne.
Best bottle under $50 to bring to a dinner party where they’re serving rib-eyes?
I have two wines I would totally bring and drink! First, a three-litre BIB (bag-in-box) Big House Cardinal Zin Zinfandel from California, chilled for an hour. Then d’Arenberg The Galvo Garage (cabernet/merlot/petit verdot) from McLaren Vale, Australia.
Three unexpected bottles that pair amazingly well with Chinese food?
Querciabella Chianti Classico from Tuscany, Italy—the sangiovese grape is the secret weapon here. The natural acidity makes pairing to Chinese food brilliant. A classic wine, but I also love the sustainable work they do. Then, Weszeli Purus Cru Reserve Grüner Veltliner, from Kamptal, Austria: imagine if Puligny-Montrachet and Sancerre had a baby.
And since there are two unexpected wines to master Peking duck, I have to add a fourth! The white is Russiz Superiore Col Disôre Pinot Blanc blend, from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy—it’s like drinking silk sheets of almond, acacia blossoms and toffee. Ultra-classy. More Mae West than Kate Moss. For red, Decero Remolinos Vineyard Petit Verdot from Mendoza, Argentina. Like cabernet after a yoga retreat, with sassy acidity for the win.