Young Guns: Meet the New Generation of Vancouver Sommeliers

The servers, managers and wine nerds who'll be uncorking your vino in the coming years have knowledge to spare but little time for pretention.

The servers, managers and wine nerds who’ll be uncorking your vino in the coming years have knowledge to spare but little time for pretention.

“We’re tasting Northern Italian wines today, and with so many indigenous grape varieties, there’s likely to be a lot of humble pie, too.”

The warning is coming from 31-year-old Kristi Linneboe, a manager/sommelier at L’Abattoir, who’s assembled the challenging bottles. Linneboe began serving at chef Angus An’s Maenam restaurant in Kitsilano, and with a clear enthusiasm and solid knack for all things food, beverage and service, she quickly moved up Maenam’s ranks while taking U.K.-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in her spare time. Her ascent to becoming one of our local industry’s best was quite rapid, but, while she had a good gig, she felt there was more learning and growing to do. In the spring of 2016, she headed to L’Abattoir to work under Lisa Haley (this magazine’s 2017 Sommelier of the Year) while continuing her wine education.

She’s here at L’Abattoir (on a day off, no less) setting up a weekly tasting group she runs. The group is populated by a fluctuating dozen to 16 local restaurant and wine trade, many of them also chasing their WSET diplomas or advanced certification by the U.S.-based Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). These aren’t the bold-name sommeliers or wine directors who get all the press in town—some are servers, a few are assistant managers, and some are sommeliers hoping to eventually get to those top gigs. But they’re all wine nerds hell-bent on honing their palates to a fine edge.

The set-up is similar each week, with Linneboe pre-organizing a half dozen-odd wines under a certain varietal or regional category with a local retailer, who will then brown-bag the wines, labelling them numerically. In other words, though she’s at the helm of this group, she does the tasting just as blind as her colleagues do. Tasting wines blind, particularly among one’s professional peers, is a good way to keep the palate sharp and become a better taster. It can also be tremendously humbling.

As she sets up glassware and pours wine for the group, her fellow morning imbibers arrive. Most of them are more bright-eyed and bushy- tailed than one would expect industry players would be early on a Monday morning. They take their seats with smatterings of chatter, each one in front of six filled glasses. An egg timer is set for 30 minutes, allowing five minutes to assess each wine, and, aside from the noises of swirling, sipping and spitting, there is suddenly a half hour of absolute silence. All are writing or typing extensive notes, and I’m at once taken aback and impressed by the lack of chatter, expressiveness or even glances toward one another. They are all In. The. Zone.

One of the faithful is Peter Van de Reep, 31, who acts as both bar manager and wine director for both Campagnolo and Campagnolo Upstairs on Main Street. While he is now CMS certified, he was self-taught when he joined this group, something that happened while getting a degree in geology and honing skills in the coffee trade. Being self-taught made him lack confidence back in those earlier days when he was beginning to get into wine and the industry in general.

“Really, attending anything where there would be trade I always felt too green to engage, but then sommeliers like Bryant Mao and Jason Yamasaki were so welcoming and encouraging, introducing me not just to other somms and agents but to wines I hadn’t experienced before.”

The buzzer goes off and the group begins to talk through the wines. One person will rattle off his or her tasting notes, going through the wine’s characteristics, ticking the boxes of appearance, aroma, acidity, sweetness, flavour profile and finish. As they speak, the others look at their notes, some nodding in agreement, some looking mildly perplexed. I think I spot occasional eyes darting around, trying to catch glances at others, that seem to imply sharp disagreement.

And then, the humble pie is served.

This is the moment when the speaker, in a room full of colleagues, takes a stab at the wine and region in question and is sometimes—or often—proven incorrect when the wrapping is pulled off the bottle. In one case today, a 2016 arneis was pitched as a 2015 vermentino. While the difference could be barely discernible for most palates, there is blushing and shattered confidence. When this kind of thing happens, there is no chuckling or eye-rolling by others. It’s seemingly taken in stride by all, and they move to the next one. No drama that I note, but there’d be no benefit in being the guy or gal publicly calling someone out for a perceived obvious error.

“Do I beat myself up when I make a wrong call? Yeah, I’m sure we all do in one way or another,” I’m told later by Kelcie Jones, 26, a sommelier at Chambar. “But I learn from it because I can see where I went off course. And when someone else nails a wine, it inspires me, and it pushes me further.”

Like Van de Reep, she was also initially intimidated when joining Vancouver’s wine industry upon arriving here two years ago, even though she had plenty of experience working in Toronto restaurants and had even done a stint toiling in Provençal vineyards. “But everyone was so welcoming and supportive,” she told me. “I mean, I’d barely met Kristi and she was so insistent I join this group and be a part of their community.”

As everyone goes through the wines, I look over, noticing that Jiaying (Tifa) Wang, 25, hasn’t said a word, even though she is obviously very engaged, tasting and taking notes diligently. She’s the cellar master at Legacy Liquor Store and takes care of their premium wine category, so she obviously knows her stuff. When I reach her by phone a few days later and bring this up, she laughs.

“Oh, when I moved here from China in 2011, I hadn’t even had alcohol! It was only while taking culinary courses here in Vancouver and it was recommended that we take WSET wine courses to learn about wine and food pairing that I began to appreciate it.”

She spoke to an earlier incarnation of this tasting group that was led by Jesse Walters at Main Street’s Burdock and Co., where he is sommelier. (He simply got too busy for the weekly hosting and the group shifted to L’Abattoir; apologies to those hoping there’d be some industry drama here.) “Of course I was afraid of saying something improper when I started with the group, but I tasted as much as possible, and I learned plenty. In fact, I’m not even intimidated to blind-taste and speak in front of everyone these days, but I feel I learn most when I’m listening to others rather than speaking, so that’s what I do most of the time.” 

These points were all echoed by Ian Wharton, 42, a veteran server at Blue Water Cafe and a group habitué. “I’ve realized I’m not afraid to be wrong in this tasting group, because everyone supports each other. In fact, I almost learn more, because I see where I took a wrong turn in the tasting process, and I think that’s what makes me a better taster.”

The tasting wraps up and members of the group begin to go about their respective days. All in all, it was a good morning—some right guesses, plenty of wrong ones, but all delivered with passion. It’s that kind of passion that will guide the next generation of sommeliers in this town, who’ll be smart, humble and note-perfect in helping you select your next bottle in the years to come.

The Next Gen

These new-wave somms are popping corks and taking the wine world by storm.

The Ringleader

Kristi Linneboe ran the wine program at Maenam before moving to L’Abattoir, where she works with VanMag’s reigning Sommelier of the Year, Lisa Haley. Linneboe is the chief organizer of these tastings.

The Wine Architect

Ian Wharton took architectural studies at Carleton University before hearing the siren call of a life in wine. His tip-top resumé includes stints at Campagnolo, Coast, Hawksworth, and now Blue Water Cafe.

The Retailer

Jiaying (Tifa) Wang is the cellar master at Legacy Liquor Store, specializing in premium wine and sake. While attending culinary school to enhance her kitchen skills, she took a sudden turn down the wine road and hasn’t looked back since.

The Gentleman

Peter Van de Reep is the beverage director at Campagnolo on Main and Campagnolo Upstairs. After studying geology at UBC and toiling away in Vancouver’s coffee scene, he’s now set his sights on the world of wine and spirits.

The Transplant

Studying English literature at the University of Toronto and getting hands-on experience in French vineyards has made Kelcie Jones well equipped to wax on about wine in her role as a sommelier at Crosstown’s buzzy Chambar.

Check back for more—best buys! Okanagan gems! Smart investments!—from our 2018 Wine Issue!