In Pursuit of Holy Grails with Vij’s Award-Winning Sommelier, Sean Nelson

We often hear the same names of local hospitality titans in the media. For years we’ve worked up thirsts and appetites following their exploits 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 interviews looks to introduce our readers to this new breed, one blossoming talent at a time.

Sean Nelson’s big dream is to become a Master Sommelier. The title is a Holy Grail of sorts for wine professionals, but it can only be claimed by passing what Forbes called the “world’s toughest test”. Currently there are only 236 of these dedicated individuals in the world, so achieving this goal would put Sean in some very exclusive company. He’s very nearly there. Just a few weeks ago, the Vij’s Somm competed against some of the province’s brightest winos and was victorious, earning the title of BC’s Best Sommelier for 2018. Say hello to Sean…

Where are you from? I’m a local boy. I was born in White Rock and grew up in Langley.

Did you ever have ambitions to do anything else? When I was younger I really wanted to be an actor. I went to an arts-focused high school and then did a film program in college.

Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training? I started with the WSET 2 and 3 before transitioning into the Court of Master Sommeliers program. The Court is more certification than education but the Guild of Sommeliers, which operates parallel, is the best resource for informal training and education.

What was your first restaurant job and how long did it last? I started at The Keg Steakhouse as a dishwasher when I was 17 and worked my way up to serving. I was there for a little over 5 years.

Ok, now name every restaurant you’ve ever worked in. Oh jeez…okay: The Keg Steakhouse in Langley (KITC whaat), Pearl on the Rock, Onyx Steakhouse in White Rock, Onyx Steakhouse in Port Moody, Galini’s, La Terrazza, Plant 13 and Vij’s.

If you could be a Somm for a week in one Vancouver restaurant, which one would it be? I think it would be Hawksworth. The breadth and depth of their wine selection is incredible, plus I really admire Bryant and the passion he brings.

The wine industry is constantly changing and evolving. It gives me the opportunity to continue to learn for my whole life. I love that.

If you could be a Somm for a week in any restaurant outside Vancouver, which one would it be? Element 47 at The Little Nell. Can it be more than a week?

What is the single most important lesson you have learned from your current boss? Relationships, whether they’re with suppliers, staff, colleagues or guests. There is nothing more important than the people.

Who have been some of your most impactful mentors? Nicholas Popoff of Gem Hospitality showed me the true impact of hospitality. Mike Bernardo for giving me the opportunity and freedom to make Vij’s wine program my own. The members of my tasting group: Todd Prucyk, Robert Stelmachuk, Shane Taylor, Mark Shipway, Alistair Veen and many more. We are always pushing each other to be better.

Describe the wine that you’re the most sentimental about. Where did you get it? What’s the story? I have a bottle of Wendouree Shiraz Malbec from Clare Valley. I bought it in a wine shop in Sydney after living in Australia for 8 months and it was the only bottle I brought home with me. I asked the shop owner to show me something that I would almost certainly never see anywhere else and so far he’s been right.

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? Unlimited budget? Sparkling Wine. People don’t drink enough sparkling wine! It’s often overlooked as just a celebratory beverage when it really is the best pairing for so many things and since we have an unlimited budget, lets make it an underwater wine bar with a glass roof haha.

What’s your process in building the wine program at Vij’s? We have guests coming in to an environment where they may have no idea or pre-conceptions about what to drink with our food. We’ve created a list that is approachable, easy to navigate and offers a diverse selection that matches the diversity of our clientele while staying true to styles that work best with our dishes.

You’re one of the few to pass the Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced Exam, and on your first try no less! Can you explain what that experience was like? Honestly, I didn’t think I was ready. I was in the middle of some challenging personal issues and when I went down to Portland to write the exam, I approached it as a learning experience. I was just glad to have the opportunity to learn from the Masters that were there, to come back stronger the next year but my training and study supported me, even when I couldn’t support myself.

You’re aiming to become a Master Sommelier. What’s your weekly routine like? How much do you study and taste? A group of us do a weekly blind tasting practice that occasionally will also include service practice and theory practice examinations. I spend about 10 hours a week studying outside of that but I’m slacking right now and should get back into a heavier routine.

How much did the documentary Somm affect your decision to pursue becoming a Master Sommelier? I had already completed the Introductory Exam when I saw the film for the first time but it certainly stoked the flames. I joined my tasting group shortly after that because I realized I was never going to be able to do it alone.

What current wine trend are you already sick of? Blue Wine. Yes, it’s a real thing. No, you don’t want to drink it.

Do you have any ambition to open a restaurant of your own one day? I won’t say that the thought has never crossed my mind but it’s not my focus right now.

Have you always loved wine or was there a glass specifically that sold you? I didn’t grow up in a household that drank wine; I only started drinking wine so that I could sell it in the restaurant. The more I learned though, the more I wanted to learn.

What is your favourite type of wine to drink? I don’t restrict myself so tightly. I love wine of all kinds; it depends on my mood, the food, and the atmosphere. As long as I can share it with the people I love, I’m happy.

What are your thoughts on BC’s wine industry? We are so lucky to have a local wine industry. I think we’ve just scratched the surface of our potential here and I’m excited to see the growth and change over the coming years.

Any favourite BC producers? Absolutely. Synchromesh, Meyer, JoieFarm, Blue Mountain, Le Vieux Pin, Laughing Stock, Lock and Worth, Orofino, Clos du Soleil, Little Farm — I could continue but I’m not sure how much space you have for this article.

What’s your favourite wine region and why? I guess I can’t say Earth, eh? If I’m forced to pick one region then it’s the Willamette Valley. I’ve met so many incredible people doing incredible things there. I don’t think you can find the diversity of styles and such a wealth of quality-minded producers anywhere else.

Have you visited many vineyards and if so, what’s been your favourite? Back to Oregon! My favourite vineyard is the Stoller Family Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. I’ve visited a half dozen times and even had the opportunity to stay there last year. Drinking my coffee and looking up that hill…it just makes me smile.

Where do you see yourself – career-wise – in five years? Having passed my Masters exams and from there I don’t know. A passion for hospitality has always been my driving force but what doors will open in the future I couldn’t say.

Name your all-time favourite three wines. Picking favourite wines for me is all about who I was with and where. 1986 Château Haut-Brion that my best friend Todd and I drank for our birthdays 2 years ago. Krug Rosé that I brought to celebrate with my friend Paul in Seattle when he passed his Advanced Somm exam and Elk Cove Vineyards La Boheme Sparkling Rosé that my friend Shirley from Elk Cove opened for us. We drank that bottle in the vineyard in Oregon in the afternoon before receiving our Advanced Somm exam results.

If you could recommend just one wine book for any aspiring Somm, what would it be? Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being a Sommelier these days? Sharing new discoveries with guests. The world is changing so fast, we get to be on the leading edge of that!

You’ve just clocked out and you’re thirsty. Where are you going and what are you drinking? Honestly I’m kind of a homebody! When I do go out after work, I’ll often end up at Biercraft, the Cascade Room or Rangoli, and I’m usually drinking a local brew and a whisk(e)y.

Why did you become a Sommelier? The wine industry is constantly changing and evolving. It gives me the opportunity to continue to learn for my whole life. I love that.

Outside of wine, what are some of your other passions? I love cars, I used to do street legal drag races when I was younger and I still love getting my hands dirty and fixing things. I love cleaning and tinkering, building things around the house or making things more functional.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job? The people I’ve met in the industry that inspire me to do better and learn more. The staff I work with who look up to me and who I love sharing my passion with. The guests who trust us to give them the experience that they have heard so much about. There’s nothing that compares to that.

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