With over 25 years of culinary history, it’s no secret that we’re passionate about connecting people to place through contemporary Canadian cuisine. While food is often front and centre, we can’t overlook the hardworking sommeliers who bring our wine program to life, elevating the entire dining experience to Canoe-worthy heights. As part of our three-part ‘Somm Spotlight’ series, join us in shining a light on the people behind our extensive, highly curated and ever-changing wine list as they detail what it takes to deliver one of the best wine programs in the country.
In part one, we introduce you to our Senior Sommelier Billy Woon whose deep knowledge and persistent passion are undeniable.
What did your journey to Canoe look like?
My journey to a career in wine started at Queen’s University. In my first year, I made a good friend who would later become my roommate. His father was an avid collector, and we would often visit his parents around the holidays. His dad let us peruse the cellar, and we’d sip some amazing bottles while chatting with him. After university, I went abroad to Ireland where I worked at a restaurant. Lucky for me, my colleagues weren’t that into wine and I got to attend all the tastings that our staff was invited to, sparking my interest even further. Later, I moved to New York and studied hospitality management. In tandem, I took courses at the Sommelier Society of America, where I finished top of my class. Back in Toronto, I worked with Cory Tower, who later became General Manager at Canoe. I was travelling through Japan when he called me about a potential role. Not long after my jetlag wore off, I was meeting him for what I thought was coffee (but turned out to be my first interview!). Nine years later, here I am. Fun fact: I’ve remained good friends with my university roommate, who now also works in wine. It’s always a nice surprise to catch up with his father who has visited Canoe over the years when a special occasion brings him in.
Can you walk us through a day in your life?
Emails and phone calls are at the top of the list. You can’t build an exceptional wine program without great suppliers. I am constantly connecting with our existing suppliers as well as those who want to show us what they have to offer. On the floor, I act as a guide and help guests choose a wine I think they’ll enjoy drinking. I’m always happy to hear what they have in mind, lend my expertise, and make recommendations but I don’t force the conversation. Some diners know what they love and others are eager to chat.
What goes on behind the scenes that diners might not see?
Building and maintaining Canoe’s wine program is like managing a restaurant in and of itself. We currently have 300 to 400 labels on the wine list, and it’s constantly evolving. We’re always trying to bring in new product, represent regions that other restaurants may overlook and keep things fresh and exciting. Every item on our list should have a reason for being there. Not to mention, we need to be highly organized when it comes to labelling, storage, costing and staff training. It’s a full-time job to ensure our wine list is world-class. We need a team to do it.
How has Canoe’s wine program evolved over the years?
Because we are a Canadian restaurant, we have a large Canadian section that features wines from Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Ontario and more. As Toronto grows, we’re seeing a lot more international visitors who like to come to explore Canadian wines because they’re not available beyond Canada. We also ensure we’re showcasing the whole world when it comes to wines while paying special attention to less mainstream wine regions and more niche producers. Examples of this include whites from Steiermark, Austria (aka Styria) and reds from Mount Etna in Sicily, the largest active volcano in Europe. Over the years, diners have become more adventurous and are looking to try something new. With that in mind, we are constantly switching things up to meet new trends. We love to spotlight smaller, artisanal producers who focus on telling the story of their land and soil while catering to tourists and regulars alike. Let’s not forget that there have been several talented chefs to grace the Canoe kitchen over the years. Our wine program has certainly changed alongside Executive Chef Ron McKinlay’s cooking style. Both by the glass and by the bottle, we need to offer wines that pair well with his cuisine.
What do you look for when sourcing wine for Canoe?
A few things:
- Specificity of region
- Balance — how it will work with the menu
- Diversity of price point to meet the needs of our diverse clientele
- Representation of lesser-known regions and producers
Ultimately, it all comes back to balance. We try to have something for everyone.
Here’s a fun one: what’s the most expensive bottle you’ve served at Canoe?
We had a group pre-order a couple of bottles of Romanée-Conti La Tâche. It goes for about $4,750 a bottle. They were celebrating something special and knew exactly what they wanted to enjoy for the occasion.
Do you have a favourite bottle under $100?
I would have to go with the 2021 Sattlerhof Sauvignon Blanc from Südsteiermark, Austria ($91). Why? It has a unique profile, unlike any other white on our list. Its qualities remind me of a margarita cocktail with an herbaceous twist: lime zest and fresh cilantro, with an almost salty-mineral finish, enticing you to drink more.
Stay tuned for parts two and three as we continue to uncover the talented team members that play a part in developing and rolling out our celebrated wine program.