White or Red?

Prince Edward Island native Lesley Quinn to compete in Canadian National Sommelier Competition

Somm. Short for sommelier. Short for wine steward. Short for best job ever. Definitely not a gig my high school guidance counsellor offered up as an option. So when I met Lesley Quinn, I had a lot of questions.

Quinn’s the sommelier at Halifax’s Barrington Steakhouse and Oyster Bar and recently won the distinction of being Atlantic Canada’s Best Sommelier. She will represent Atlantic Canada at the Canadian National Sommelier Competition taking place September 3 to 5 in Vancouver, BC.

First, congratulations on winning the Atlantic Canada competition! What did that involve?

There were 4 other competitors and it started with a written exam then one by one we were taken into a mock dining room that had 5 stations with 45 minutes to complete them all. First up was sparkling wine, then a food pairing station, followed by an aged red wine decant (this involves candles and a certain amount of prayers you don’t light yourself on fire), then a blind tasting of wines, and finally a cocktail station. At each station you are being quizzed on everything from vintages to producers while opening and pouring wine in the proper method.

How does it feel to be representing Atlantic Canada at the Nationals?

It feels amazing, I’m so proud to be from the East Coast. We have a special knack for hospitality and I love that I get to showcase that on a national level.

Have you ever attended the nationals before?

No, never, the YouTube videos are super intimidating. [The Atlantic Canada competition] was the first sommelier competition I’ve ever entered.

How are you preparing for the nationals and does prep involve drinking a lot of wine?

It involves more memorization than anything else. It does involve drinking, but trust me, it more often results in me wanting to pull my hair out then let it down.


Where and how did you discover your love for wine?

I [grew] up in PEI and after I finished my Bachelor of Arts at UPEI I decided I wanted to move to New Zealand. It was there that I caught the wine bug.

What prompted you to pursue a livelihood as a sommelier?

I had been working as a banquet server at the Ritz Carlton in Cayman Islands and the head sommelier saw something in me. He took me under his wing with very little wine knowledge. If it wasn’t for him seeing me I’m not certain I would have ever left the serving realm.

Where did you complete your education as a sommelier?

Contingent on taking the raise at the Ritz I had to pass the introductory level exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers…]in New York. Then I passed my certified level in San Francisco and I hope to pass my advanced level in St Louis In November.

I’ve visited wine regions in California, BC, France, Italy, Austria, New Zealand, and Chile. I don’t take a trip nowadays unless it can enhance my wine knowledge. Next up is Champagne!

The jobs I had in Calgary helped me get to the next level in terms of knowledge. I owe a lot to Willow Park Wines and Spirits, The Nash, and my all-time favourite job ever was at Rouge Restaurant.

Can you share a bit about your connections to PEI and how they’ve helped you develop as a sommelier?

Well the whole reason I have this job is because of the reference I got from Sim’s for the Ritz Carlton after just one summer working for them. The Murphy Group are my biggest supporters and [have given] me the freedom to make a list as incredible as the one we have at the Barrington (if I may be so bold).

One of the biggest influences on my demeanour as a sommelier has been Debbie Smith. She is grace and elegance, and absolute perfection. Debbie now spends most of her time with the [PEI] Liquor Board, [but she] was a huge influence on me at Sim’s. I also can’t imagine who I would have become without my mother’s [Carol Horne] influence. Her work ethic alone is insane, but her hospitality is what really got passed on.

What’s the most common question you get asked in your job as a sommelier?

Is that $2800 bottle really worth the price tag? To which I respond, “I don’t know, is that Picasso really worth that much?”

What are the biggest rewards you’ve experienced working as a sommelier?

Seeing the delight on people’s faces when they find a new wine they really love, but also seeing how much my staff have grown in one year. I am delighted to watch them talk to tables about wine with confidence.

What are the biggest challenges to working as a sommelier?

Handling the wine snobs who not only think it’s a boys-only club, but that they somehow need to outsmart me or catch me in some type of mistake.

What’s your advice on how to truly enjoy a glass of wine, regardless of its vintage?

Temperature is kinda my thing. Red wine’s ideal serving temp is actually no more than 18 degrees, but [average room temperature] is actually 22. But honestly the best tasting wine I’ve had has been enjoyed with good friends or family and great conversation. I know so cheesy, but still true.

Anything you want to share about your experience working at The Barrington in Halifax?

My worry is that the Barrington is seen as too fancy or a special occasion only place. People think talking to me means they are about to get upsold on an expensive bottle of wine, but really I just want to put something in front of you that you will love and that is at a price point that makes you smile too. Yes, we have wine that is $20+ a glass, but we also have $8 glasses of excellent wine ( a Chenin Blanc from South Africa) plus if you come in Mondays you can taste what we opened for wine training that day for oftentimes $7 a glass



Lesley Quinn, Sommelier

Hometown: Cherry Valley, PEI

Occupation: Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers

Current Employer: Barrington Steakhouse and Oyster Bar, Halifax

Favourite bottle of Maritime wine: Mercator Vineyards ‘Sauvage Sur Lie’ is scrumptious

Favourite bottle of white: Bone dry riesling from Alsace or Germany. Marsanne Rousanne blends from the Rhone. French Chardonnay and aged Semillion. Let’s just say I’m a good momma to my wines and I love them all equally.

Favourite bottle of red: See above

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon is the co-founder of Salty and was its editor-in-chief for the publication's inaugural year. When she’s not writing about food, Shannon's either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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