Eating & Drinking

Master sommelier certification — a brutal process few pass. Atelier’s Steve Robinson on what it takes & wines he looks for

Meet Steve Robinson, general manager and head sommelier of Atelier since the restaurant was born nine years ago. In addition to managing the front of house and finding wines to match chef Marc Lepine’s tasting menu, he is working on his master sommelier certification, a brutal three-part process that very few pass. (There are only five master sommeliers in Canada.) Here, Anne DesBrisay talks to Robinson about his career path and what he looks for at the LCBO:

When did the wine bug bite a kid from Pembroke, Ontario?

The summer before I started working with chef Marc Lepine at The Courtyard, I was making pretty bad wine from Costco kits.  It was the cheapest way to get booze. My mom brought home Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, a tome published in the ’60s. It was a freebie from the library. I glanced through it. Then read it back to front. Twice. I dropped out of chemistry at University of Ottawa and started thinking about winemaking school at Brock or Niagara College.

How come a somm?

I was a busboy at The Courtyard, and [then executive chef] Marc was teaching at Algonquin College’s sommelier program. We started quizzing each other. At first it was a joke — five trivia questions a day — but I was nailing them. I loved studying the wines at The Courtyard and started acting as floor somm, interacting with guests. I was getting more and more comfortable with the winespeak. Shortly before Marc left The Courtyard to open Atelier, he offered to put me through sommelier school if I agreed to come be his somm.

And the rest is …

Yup. That was 10 years ago, and I’ve been at Atelier ever since.

I understand you continue to study?

In 2010, I entered my first sommelier competition. I made it to the finals of the Best Ontario Sommelier Competition and ended up fourth. But that was like phase two for me. I realized I loved the challenge of competing. Two years later, I placed second. In 2014, I was first. I went on to place second at the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers’ Best Sommelier of Canada event. That was in 2015. I’m now working on my master sommelier certification. My goal was to be tackling my masters by the time I turned 30. I made it by three months! If I can work my way up from knowing next to nothing 10 years ago to master sommelier, all through the vehicle of a tiny little Canadian restaurant, I figure that’s a pretty neat thing.

What’s the dish on the current Atelier 12-course tasting menu you have most loved finding a wine match for?

The newest dish, a strip loin of beef that has been aged with koji [used in the production of sake to convert rice starches to fermentable sugars], is complemented with acidulated apricot, goji berries, black pepper jam, green beans, duck fat, celery root, and a sauce of caramelized onion and roasted bone marrow. I loved pairing this one because matching was a piece of cake. It almost demands a Syrah, and we’ve been using a 2011 Yves Cuilleron Côte-Rôtie from the northern Rhône.

Steve Robinson, general manager and head sommelier of Atelier. Photo: Miv Fournier
Steve Robinson, general manager and head sommelier of Atelier. Photo: Miv Fournier

You have a wine club. What’s that about?

I help organize a weekly blind-tasting group. It’s a small group focused on preparation for high-level Court of Master blind-tasting exams.

Do you have a role model or a person you truly admire in the wine industry?

Jon Stewart is my role model, but I guess that doesn’t count. Vero Rivest at Soif Bar à Vin was instrumental in helping me develop my skills to a higher level. Go to Soif now, you cannot get better wine at a better price anywhere in Canada. And I have to mention my friend, sommelier Jake Lewis, who I’m certain will be a master sommelier soon enough. Whenever in doubt: what would Jake do?

How much does your knowledge of the winemaker and his or her philosophy impact your purchasing?

It’s certainly important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all for me. I tend to gravitate to biodynamic wines in general, but not by philosophical choice — biodynamic wines just seem to be better on average. I wouldn’t buy a wine simply because it’s biodynamic, but if I purchase a good wine and I later learn that it was farmed biodynamically, that’s a bonus. Natural and low-intervention winemaking is fascinating, and the wines can provide an uncanny ease of satisfaction, though I find that they often lack a varietal precision that I look for. They also require more TLC for proper service and storage, and that can be challenging in a restaurant setting.

How do you keep a love for wine?

Beer.

Steve Robinson’s LCBO picks

Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2013
$35.20, Vintages 241182
“The best Riesling in Canada as far as I’m concerned.”
Available LCBO Vintages or from Stratus Vineyards

Réva Barolo 2012
$59.95, Vintages 490045
“I’m very much a Barolo fan and this is a relatively new product for our market and it’s delicious.”
Represented by Nicholas Pearce Wines

Flat Rock Cellars Riddled Sparkling 2010
$29.95, Vintages 383315
“Traditional-method Chardonnay/Pinot sparkling from Niagara. Serious value here.”
LCBO Vintages or from the winery