L’Abattoir Somm Lisa Haley On Making Wine Lists, Lunatic Cats And More

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We often hear the same names of Vancouver hospitality titans in local media. They do very well to represent and have done so for years. We work up thirsts and appetites following their exploits and look forward to trying whatever it is they come up with next, but we seldom consider the individuals who toil in relative anonymity alongside them, and we’re often late in introducing those destined to join them in their starry pantheon. This series of short interviews looks to introduce our readers to this new breed, one blossoming talent at a time.

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Until very recently I only knew L’Abattoir sommelier Lisa Haley by reputation. Mutual friends had described her to me as “tough”, “strong willed”, “whip smart” and “ambitious”, with one of them concluding thus: “I respect the hell out of her.” When we met for the first time on a drizzly May morning it quickly became clear why and how she’d gained this respect — she was very easy to talk to; smart and confident with a simmering sense of humour. What’s more, her knowledge of wine obviously runs as deep as her love of it.

Lisa arrived in Vancouver from Montreal just a few years ago without much in the way of local connections. It’s remarkable how far she has come in such a short time. From helming the wine program at one of Vancouver’s most celebrated restaurants and pairing the 1 Gaoler’s Mews dinners to her recent win of the Sommelier of the Year award (this interview was assigned before that achievement), one gets the feeling that she’s only just getting started. Say hello to…

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So where are you from? Orillia, Ontario.

Why did you become a Sommelier? Ah, for the love of wine, stories, and travel. I was trying to figure out how to build a sustainable career in hospitality as a woman who gets bored easily.

Did you ever have ambitions for anything else? Lawyer, Social Worker, Writer, Academic.

Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training? I learned in Montreal at ITHQ .

If you had to choose to become one, which would you pick to pursue, Master Sommelier or Master of Wine? Master of Wine – I’m still an academic at heart.

What was your first restaurant job and how long did it last? Server at Bayview Wildwood Resort just north of Orillia. It was the easiest serving job ever and coincided with my first eight months of legal drinking. I worked there my last semester of high school and the summer before I went away for university. I did a return shift the first long weekend away from school but by then my sister was working there and we were banned from ever working together again after one night.

Ok, now name every restaurant you’ve ever worked in. Bayview Wildwood Resort (Port Stanton), Viamede Resort (Kawarthas), Pinelands Resort (Muskoka), Nickel’s (Montreal diner where I became a machine), Wienstein & Gavino’s (Montreal – 3 tenures there), Marche 27 (Montreal), Bonny’s (Montreal, only job I’ve ever ghosted on), Tuck Shop (Montreal), Burdock & Co. (Vancouver), Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar (Vancouver), L’Abattoir (Vancouver).

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If you could be a Somm for a week in one Vancouver restaurant, which one would it be? I already work at the one I like the best! I love the idea of region specific lists, so I would probably go work at La Quercia and spend a week immersed in Italian wine. Vancouver needs more lists like that.

If you could be a Somm for a week in any restaurant outside Vancouver, which one would it be? This is an impossible question! Only one? Do I go back to Montreal and visit my family at Tuck Shop? Do I go to Noble Rot in London out of pure greediness? Do I work at a regional restaurant for the same reason as above?

What is the single most important lesson you have learned from your current boss, Paul Grunberg? That building people is the most important part of success. Many people talk about it, but don’t understand how to actually execute. We spend an extraordinary amount of time on development and mentorship at L’Abattoir and it makes all the difference.

Who have been some of your most impactful mentors? Christine Parkinson at Wienstein & Gavino’s and Amelia Stines at Tuck Shop are two women who don’t fuck around. They helped shape my communication style (or maybe just validated the one I already had). Steve Edwards at Boulevard taught me how to get organized and quit procrastinating and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. Paul Grunberg at L’Abattoir is a leader among leaders and always has an ear for me. Bryant Mao at Hawksworth is an endless resource, quiet teacher, and my polar opposite (which everyone needs). My mom taught me to be a boss. She looks nicer than me, but don’t let that fool you.

Describe a wine that you’re most sentimental about. Where did you get it? What’s the story? I’m not a sentimental person. I am a ruthless purger – I don’t keep emails, greeting cards, or gifts from past loves. Wine is always in the moment for me. You can never open the same bottle twice. A great bottle today might fall flat tomorrow. I try not to romanticize too much.

Let’s say you had an unlimited budget to open the wine bar of your dreams. Really, the sky’s the limit. What would the concept be? Ha. I’m not giving away all my ideas!

Congrats on winning the Sommelier of the Year award. Do you foresee your win having any impact on things over at L’Abattoir? I’ve been asking Paul to reprint my business cards with “Empress of Wine” for a year – maybe he’ll do it now? It’s humbling to be so supported by my peers and mentors in the industry. Vancouver has been very good to me since day one. We will just keep working to be better and bigger. Pats on the back along the way are certainly motivating.

With the recent launch of 1 Gaoler’s Mews, what’s been your process for pairing wines there? Do you look to compliment what you’re already doing at L’Abattoir or is it completely different? A little of both. I free myself from the L’Abattoir list when dreaming up pairings. I think of the style first and the wine (or beer, sake, cider, spirit) second. If it’s already in house, then great. If not, then the hunt begins. That being said, the philosophy stands – something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

What current wine trend are you already sick of? You want me to pick a fight? I am over wines that put philosophy before quality. I’ve said this elsewhere, but while I would prefer not to drink chemicals, I’d way rather drink something that tastes good than something that could have used some preservatives.

Do you have any ambition to open a restaurant of your own one day? I know it can be hard to tell, but I am not actually a crazy person.

Have you always love wine or was there a glass specifically that sold you? I’ve always loved it. I didn’t know where to begin for a long time, but I’ve always been intrigued. I try to imagine I am serving myself ten years ago when I am building my service style.

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What are your thoughts on the state of BC’s wine industry? It is very exciting to live and work so close to a wine producing region. I think it has bred a cohort of wine professionals with a great understanding of the process. It is also exciting and sometimes frustrating to be so close to a wine growing region in its adolescence. I look to our neighbours to the south and wish we could focus like they have. I realize we haven’t found our niche yet, but I think there are some grapes and styles we could abandon with only positive consequences.

Any favourite BC producers? I love Blue Mountain and Meyer for their consistency, focus, and value. Sea Star on Pender Island are making some truly special wines. Lock & Worth are pushing the envelope and we really need that. Same with Bella – plus they’ve clicked with two things I love from BC: sparkling and gamay.

What’s your favourite wine region – drinking-wise – and why? A wine importer and I had a “discussion” about the most diverse wine region in the world last year – he argued for the Rhone, I argued for Piedmont. But I think I’d pick the Loire Valley to drink from every day if I could only have one. The only shortcoming I can see would be full whites, but there are a few. They’ve got sparkling, all those amazing whites, light reds, big reds, gorgeous roses, and sweet wines. I’d be happy to write a Loire only wine list. Actually…

As a traveller, what wine region have you enjoyed exploring most? I have visited lots of vineyards in France and in Italy, a few here in BC and some in Quebec and Ontario. I spent a week in the Jura a few years ago and was very taken with the region. They make some of the most unique wines in France but also some of the straightest pinots and chardonnays around. They are small, freed from global expectations and a tight-knit group. Oh, and the cheese.

Name your all-time favourite three wines. I think this is a crazy question. It’s like asking me my favourite book – the books and wines are different every time you visit them. My tastes are constantly evolving and for those of us who are passionate about learning, we taste new bottles all the time. The wines change, we change. I might have three favourite bottles from last week, but not three I return to all the time.

If you could recommend just one wine book for any aspiring Somm, what would it be? I have two – one is to get inspired and the other is to learn. To get inspired, Secrets of the Sommelier by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay. To learn, the Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson. I used to spend hours flipping from entry to entry, being led around by the cross-references.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being a Sommelier these days? We’re having a moment – people are curious about wine, the media is being very nice to us, the film and television industry are making moving pictures about us. It’s created engaged guests and cut down on the “you’re going to school for drinking?” questions. North America has a complicated relationship with hospitality professions but the current interest is helping to validate our career choices. Now we’ve got to use it for good.

You’ve just clocked out and you’re thirsty. Where are you going and what are you drinking? I’m a lucky woman. I often find myself in the Hawksworth lounge with a glass of champagne.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job? I know I’m supposed to say “the people”, and I do love them – my co-workers, my sommelier colleagues, the guests, and the winemakers are all what keep me motivated and excited, but I wouldn’t have to be the Wine Director to have those people. I love the puzzle part of my job. I love placing the wines on the list. Building a balanced pairing menu. Making wish lists and fulfilling them. It’s the process to get me there – the research, the hunt, the kill.

Outside of wine, what are some of your other passions? Literature (my first love), fashion (waiting for my paycheque to catch up), cats (they’re so weird).

Where do you see yourself – career-wise – in five years? I’m still buying wine, but more. Overseeing more revenue and a larger wine team. I’m still connected to restaurants, but not a key member of the floor team. Or I’m a cat breeder. Something big like Maine Coons or Norwegian Forest Cats. Maybe Bengals, but they’re expert level.

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