It’s no wonder that when John Szabo speaks, people feel compelled to listen. His voice contains a well-deserved confidence. As he talks about wine, he jumps passionately between time periods, soil qualities, geographic zones and a whole catalogue of first-hand and textbook experiences that have led him to become a master of what it is to truly eat and drink well.
Of course, his claim to fame — as Canada’s first Master Sommelier — is a title that he admits carries weight in his industry. But it’s the passion for lifelong learning, and an insatiable curiosity for “taste” that has led him to prestige.
And even Szabo will tell you that the path to his current status was far from clear-cut.
“I’m a serial academic,” he admits. After he earned a double major in Spanish and Italian from the University of Toronto, the idea of turning from student to teacher didn’t seem ideal. Though spending more time in academia would have been a traditional route, Szabo decided to go a different way.
While he had been still entrenched in his studies, he had two experiences that proved to be turning points. “During my undergraduate, I lived in Spain for a year and Italy for a summer. While I was there, I was exposed to lots of great food and wine and I was fascinated with flavours,” he says. “I really just enjoyed eating, more than anything else.” So fascinated by flavours, in fact, that he decided to make a career of it.
“After I graduated, I started working in restaurants, in the kitchen, and apprenticed with a nice collection of chefs in Toronto and Collingwood, including Michael Stadtländer, who was one of the first farm-to-table chefs in the country, in the early ’80s. I did everything in the kitchen,” he says, adding, “At Stadtländer’s farm, I would feed the animals in the morning, be chopping them up in the afternoon, and then serving them in the evening.”
As he moved through different work experiences, at a range of establishments, wine began to take over as an area of interest. “I worked in Niagara, at Highland Estates, in the kitchen. When I could, I would wander to the winery and chat with the winemaker because I was curious,” he says. “I later worked in France, in Paris and then in the south. When I moved to Paris, I took a wine course, because I thought ‘If I’m going to eat well, then I’m going to learn how to drink well too’.” Szabo took a six-month course at a Michelin-starred restaurant, which exposed him to French wines from all over the country.
“When I returned to Canada, I opened up a catering business with my partner, who is now my wife,” says Szabo. And even though he was back home, he decided to bring part of his international experience with him — he entered into the wine importing business.
“I was put in touch with a wine importing agent, focused on French wine, mostly Burgundy and champagne. [The agent] wanted to get into the restaurant side with more reasonably priced bottles. So we had samples sent over and held a portfolio tasting with the community, which was well received.”
Afterwards, Szabo became an importer with Vinifera, and that’s when his work in the wine business, and path to becoming a Master Sommelier, truly opened up. He began to write about wines, and acted as a consultant for a few wineries in Hungary. He then embarked upon obtaining his Canadian Sommelier Guild Diploma, through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).
Never one to stop after each certification, when a friend suggested that Szabo also take the Master Sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers, he says “I just decided to do it.”
Perhaps thanks to the passage of time — and popular documentaries such as Somm — many people are now familiar with the sweat-inducing intensity of the test, which encompasses tasting, theory, service, spirits, beer and global wine knowledge.
However, the reward for those who pass is receiving the “highest distinction a professional can attain in fine wine and beverage service.” In 2004, John Szabo became the first in Canada to receive the designation, after passing on his first try. To date only 236 professionals have earned the diploma, and only three in Canada.
“It’s quite intense, and even more intense now,” he says. “You show up prepared and pass or fail. I felt confident, having already completed the course in France and having studied a full two-year program through WSET. I like to take tests to see how much I know. I thought I might get some use out of it and it’s been more useful than I intended. It’s instant credibility, the title sounds grandiose enough.”
So exactly what point of view does someone with such extensive experience hold, when it comes to making wine more accessible for the masses?
“Half of me says ‘don’t make it more simple, because it’s not,’” he says of the tasting process. “Why try to candy-coat it when it’s a beautiful complex subject? The reason why a glass of wine tastes the way it does is an intricate matrix of things that isn’t fully understood. That will always be the case, just to reduce it down to the most basic element is to destroy it.”
“The other half is that I like to share the love and passion you can get out of it,” he admits. “And for that, there has to be a relatively simple starting point. If I were selling wine at the table or talking about a wine to a fresh audience, then I’d start of with just the basics: red or white, dry or sweet. And from there, you enter into other discussions.”
“A great way to divide styles is into fruity or savoury; cleave it into two basic camps. Most are either fruity or predominantly savoury, mushroom type flavours. People can generally grasp that. For instance, they know if they prefer their coffee with lots of sugar and milk, or mostly bitter. If they prefer bitter, then they’re more of a savoury person.”
And as for how to pair food and wine together? Well that, Szabo says, takes some practice. “It requires lots of eating and drinking, which is not such a hardship. Although, specifically, I mean you have to be eating and drinking and paying attention.”
Normally, once someone has taken their first sip, their attention has already shifted, and that can be the same with food too.
“We don’t focus all that much on texture and nuances of flavour. If you want to get the most out of it, you have to stop and think and contemplate it, to assess how your body is reacting. You’ll sooner or later start to pick up on basic interactions between food and wine.”
According to Szabo, the dance that takes place on your palate is not between an equally matched pair. The key is anticipating how the flavours will play off one another.
“It’s context,” he says. “Most wines don’t dramatically affect the taste of food, but the taste of food does profoundly change the taste of wine. For instance, a dish with a lot of sugar in it — and I’m not talking about dessert, but let’s say a basic southeast Asian cuisine — a sweet substance will make everything in your mouth afterwards taste that much more bitter, sour and astringent. On the other hand, if you put something really sour into your mouth, then everything after that seems sweeter, softer, rounder and more mellow.”
But if you’re the kind of person who has the basics down pat, and is more focused on what’s emerging in the world of wine, Szabo has some insight there as well.
“I would say that cool climates are hot, and that’s true, certainly within the trade. And now it’s trickled down to the consumer. It’s not quite mainstream but getting there. Countries like Canada are positioned for success, as are producers who are way out on the far coasts where it’s chilly, or in higher elevation sites like Argentina. And it all comes down to lower alcohol, fresher wines as opposed to high alcohol ‘jammy’ wines. The wines are better balanced naturally.”
However, what really has Szabo’s interest is volcanic wines. After all, he recently published a book on the subject, called Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power.
“Volcanic wines, generally speaking, tend to be on the savoury side of the spectrum — and I take my coffee black and bitter,” he says jovially. “I’m attracted to them for the taste profile, but also for a number of other reasons. In volcanic regions around the world, there are indigenous grapes that have been preserved because of the soil. Many are positioned on steep inclines, which is not good for viticulture, so they were semi-abandoned which preserved grapes from centuries past. There are hundreds of indigenous varieties that have survived … it offers an amazing world of things to discover.”
It’s not surprising, given his journey, that Szabo still possesses the same insatiable curiosity and drive. Not “just” a Master Sommelier any longer, Szabo also now owns a winery in Hungary, and he continues to consult and write.
And perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of all is that Szabo visits London, Ontario regularly. For the past decade he has been a quasi-guest of honour at London Health Sciences Foundation’s prestigious culinary fundraiser, Tastings, where he holds a special pre-tasting event.
This year’s beneficiary is the Impact Fund, which helps the hospital acquire advanced equipment and technology, and advance new approaches to care.
“It’s one of my favourite events of the year,” Szabo says. “Not only is it a good charitable cause, but my mother is also from London. I’ve been going there all my life and it’s like going home.”
is one of London’s premier fundraising events, supported by the best of the region’s chefs and wineries from around the world — and Londoners who enjoy good food and wine for a good cause.
May 4, 2017 Participating Restaurants & Chefs
Black Trumpet: Chef Scott Wesseling
Blu Duby: Chef Graham Stewart & Chef Cynthia Beaudoin
The Church Key Bistro-Pub: Chef Cliff Briden
Craft Farmacy: Chef Andrew Wolwowicz
F.I.N.E. A Restaurant: Chef Erryn Shephard & Chef Ben Sandwith
The Little Inn of Bayfield: Chef Michael Potters
London Hunt and Country Club: Chef Michael Stark
Restaurant Ninety One: Chef Angela Murphy & Chef Kris Simmons
Sixthirtynine: Chef Eric Boyar
All ’Bout Cheese: Rick Peori
Petit Paris Crêperie & Pâtisserie: Chef Nicole Arroyas & Chef Nathan Russell
O-Joe Coffee: Joe Ornato
The Tea Lounge: Michelle Pierce Hamilton
Tastings benefits the London Health Sciences Foundation Impact Fund, ensuring leading-edge care and research continues. These photos are from the 2016 event at the London Hunt & County Club.