Why the world’s top female sommelier chose to come home to Gatineau

Sommelier Veronique Rivest: The great democratizer (Photo by Dave Chan for the Globe & Mail)

GATINEAU — Special to The Globe and Mail

Published May. 20 2015

Véronique Rivest, the Quebec sommelier deemed to have one of the best palates on Earth, says she was one of those horrible children who put everything in her mouth – dirt, grass and discarded wads of gum. “There are photos of me on the beach eating sand,” she says. “Was that the beginning? I don’t know.”

It’s this down-to-earth charm that makes time spent sipping wine in the company of Canada’s most decorated sommelier go down like a bowl of punch at a party. Rivest recently emerged at the top of her game after a decade of self-directed study, interminable training and gruelling sommelier competitions that led her to summit every awards podium she encountered, from Canada to the Americas and finally to the World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Japan in 2013, where she placed second over all. That made her the top female sommelier in the world, a true marvel in this male-dominated domain.

With her new-found celebrity status and nearing her 50th birthday, she took what some might consider an unusual turn. Instead of heading to Paris or Las Vegas to work at a posh hotel restaurant procuring rare, high-end bottles, Rivest returned home to the region of Quebec where she grew up, determined to celebrate wine at a more personal level. Last September she opened a wine bar in a former burger joint in Gatineau, on the northern bank of the Ottawa River across from Parliament Hill. She named it Soif, the French word for thirst.

“This is the business I love – I wanted to be on the floor talking to customers,” Rivest says. “Everyone is paying so much attention to what’s in our food. So why are we drinking so much crap?”

Rivest sought to change that – starting at home.

“We’re so fortunate that she made the choice to put down her roots here. She could have gone anywhere,” says Jennifer Warren-Part, co-owner of Les Fougères, a culinary retreat in nearby Chelsea, Que., where Rivest spent the bulk of her restaurant career. “She is the great democratizer.”

“My No. 1 criteria? It has to taste good,” Rivest says.

It’s a simple philosophy that is echoed in everything from the natural-wood-and-cork motif she chose for the bar to the menu of affordable, food-friendly wines, many of which can be sampled in either two- or four-ounce pours. The menu, too, is unfussy – homemade bread with tapenade, oysters, charcuterie, bison tartare. “I am a simple person. It’s very much who I am.”

She instructs staff to refrain from replacing glasses between tastings since she believes it’s preferable to, as the French say, “rinse with wine” – something she knows some people still see as a major faux-pas. It reveals a more complex side of Rivest, a woman who isn’t afraid to swim against the tide.

During wine-tasting workshops, part of Soif’s raison d’être, she is often asked about foods she considers to be wine enemies; things such as artichokes and eggs are commonly considered culprits. Rivest balks at the notion. “I’ll find you a wine for any food,” she says. “It won’t always be the throw-me-on-the-floor good pairing, but it’s the playing around that is fun.”

Her focus on so-called natural wines follows the same theme. “There is lots of debate around it,” says Rivest, who doesn’t get wrapped up in semantics. “I hate all dogma in food and wine.” She concedes that the term “natural wine,” used to describe wines made with minimal intervention (unfiltered and minimally manipulated), can be polarizing. Rivest advocates instead for real, authentic wines that are able to express terroir – a taste of the place it comes from. These wines have developed a cult following in recent years. “The worst is when some young sommelier goes around defending some faulty wine and goes on and on about terroir,” she says. “That’s where natural wine gets a bad name.”

Thanks to her impressive Rolodex of wine-industry contacts, Rivest has unique access to many small, interesting producers that come through exclusive private importers to Quebec and are largely unavailable elsewhere. As a result, Rivest’s wine list could intimidate even the most experienced oenophile.

“She has a lot of unique stuff that no one else has,” says Ottawa-based wine importer Aaron Shaw. “She’s going for esoteric, eccentric choices.”

Rivest says she chooses the wines she serves based on what she loves, but strives to have something to appeal to everyone. Customers who come into Soif at all points of the wine-knowledge spectrum – from total wine geeks to fans of the fruity, juicy “boardroom” wines reviled by aficionados – will be encouraged by knowledgeable staff to try something they don’t recognize.

“Taste is so individual,” Rivest says. “There’s a gradual way to do it. If a table says they love the wine Ménage à Trois, we respect it. We try to take them somewhere.” In that sense, she has created a friendly, low-risk playground of experimentation that gives any wine enthusiast an opportunity to drink like a world-class sommelier.

“People will go [to Soif] because of her and be willing to take risks,” Shaw says. One can taste wines from a small, organic, family-run vineyard such as Vino di Anna on Mount Etna in Sicily, as well as wines made from extremely rare grapes such as Listan Negro, which is primarily grown on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. “Some of these wines are cloudy, they have higher levels of volatile acidity, and some have funky smells and tastes,” Shaw adds.

Rivest is the first to admit there is good and bad in everything, but she seems determined to help more of us experience the vast variety of wines that are available in Quebec and elsewhere.

Dressed casually in a button-up black blouse and black trousers, Rivest stands in front of 15 guests who have come to a workshop at Soif on a Saturday afternoon. Learning how to taste wine with Rivest is like learning how to ride a bike with an Olympic cycling champion who happens to be standing by with a set of training wheels. She says wine is no different than discussing how you take your coffee – cream, sugar, black – who’s right? It’s whatever makes you happy. She wants us to see how the taste of wine is dependent not only on what foods we are eating but on the places we grew up, the food we’ve eaten over a lifetime, as well as atmosphere, weather and how much we enjoy the company around the table.

Rivest talks about “vacation syndrome” as a way to explain why the wine we adored on a trip to Provence, France, doesn’t taste anything like the bottle we brought home and drank on a Tuesday night in the dead of winter. She flashes one of her famously disarming smiles. “It’s all part of the charm and frustration of wine.”

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