Wine & Spirits

WINE WIZARD: A Q&A with Steve Robinson, Atelier’s sommelier and dining room manager

This story appears in the October edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.

He’s a sommelier on the rise. At just 26, Steve Robinson placed second in April’s highly competitive Best Sommelier in Ontario Competition. The impressive showing came just weeks after he was included in the Ontario Hostelry Institute’s prestigious Top 30 Under 30 list. Robinson studied chemistry at the University of Ottawa before completing the sommelier fast-track program at Algonquin College and being certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2011. He pairs his passion for science and wine perfectly as the sommelier and dining room manager at Atelier Restaurant, renowned for its molecular cooking and innovative wine pairings. By Natalie MacLean

Bottle opener: Steve Robinson, who pairs his passion for science and wine as the sommelier and dining room manager at Atelier Restaurant, talks about wine and life with fellow oenophile Natalie MacLean. Photo by Miv Fournier.

What was it like vying to be Ontario’s top sommelier?
Nerves are the big X factor in these competitions. This year my biggest fear was not qualifying for the finals, since I had made it there in my first competition [in 2010] and wanted to prove to myself that that wasn’t a fluke. The service exams are straight-up ridiculous — like being on the television show American Gladiators: The Wine Edition. I tried to view it as a pleasurable experience for both me and the judges, more like a normal dinner service as opposed to jumping through the hoops of the competition. I used to be a competitive figure skater, so I have experience in these stressful situations. I go into my own world prior to the service portion: pop in my earphones, rap to myself, and focus. If there’s a question you can’t answer or if you make a mistake, just keep going as if nothing had happened.

What did you enjoy most?
I’ve always done well with the wine and food matching portion of the competition, which is a result of my experience at Atelier. I have the opportunity to taste about 75 new dishes each year: that’s a lot of wine pairing. If a judge is asking for a food match to a specific wine, I’ll try to come up with some molecular influences on the dish I recommend — it always confuses the judges. Also, it was amazing to see two contestants from Ottawa place in the top three this year. Lucie Trepanier, who also used to work at Atelier, came in third. There were 16 sommeliers in the competition, and all but Lucie and I were from Toronto. I’d love to see more representation from Ottawa in the future. It’s an enriching experience, both personally and professionally.