Meet Christina Hartigan, a globe-trotting Vancouver-raised hospitality veteran and wine professional, who has an affinity for Americanos, of both the caffeinated and alcoholic variety. She is currently the Wine Director at Wildebeest in Gastown, while juggling sommelier competitions and pursuing her CMS certification. And just to stay extra busy, she’s designing the wine list for the new Bufala, opening soon in North Vancouver. She is the first woman to make it to the top three finalists in the Best Sommelier in BC Competition, and is an all-around inspiration to everyone in the industry, and beyond. Here’s to rocking our wine world, Christina!
Laura: Alright. Hi Christina! Tell me about what’s going on in your world these days?
Christina: Wine! I have had the opportunity to travel recently to wine events—VinItaly in Verona, Pebble Beach Food & Wine in California & Canadian Wine Championships in Prince Edward County. With an upcoming competition and exams, my free time really revolves around wine.
L: You’ve put in some time as a somm at some pretty cool spots around the city (as well as that popup in France!). Now, you are the Wine Director at Wildebeest, and you seem to be more than filling the beloved shoes of your predecessor, Justin. What’s your M.O. when stepping into new shoes in a new restaurant?
C: Just don’t screw it up!
L: Can you tell us a bit about your experience shifting from Sommelier to Wine Director?
C: Shifting to Wine Director is a really exciting move. I greatly appreciate that I had the experience of working as a floor sommelier where 100% of my time revolved around bottles of wine and guests in the restaurant. Without the distraction of being responsible for how the program and business are running, I simply had time to focus on hospitality and service.
As Wine Director I have the chance to spend time creating the wine program and the experience that we share with our guests. I still spend time on the floor of the restaurant, but much of my time is spent on the behind the scenes tasks. I enjoy all of these aspects of running a wine program and am learning so much in this role.
L: What is your current favourite sipper on your list?
C: Reyneke ‘Biodynamic’ Chenin Blanc from South Africa. For me, this is a great food wine—bright acidity and fuller bodied white that can take you through a variety of dishes.
L: Who has the most underrated wine list in the city?
C: My nemesis Matt Landry at Stablehouse on South Granville. It’s adventurous and approachable with great (and very funny) write-ups on the wine. It always features flights—which is a fantastic way to discover new wines. Other than the fact that Matt keeps beating me in competition, I really enjoy everything about this restaurant.
L: How does the Vancouver wine scene hold up to other cities you’ve been to?
C: I love the wine scene and the people involved in Vancouver. The high cost of wine for restaurants makes it difficult for them to be too experimental—but despite that, there are great wine lists all around the city. Pop ups (Apéro & Vino Vancouver) are a great addition to the scene as well.
The type of wine-focused spots that I would love to see open in Vancouver that I’ve seen in Spain, France, and San Francisco are all impossible under BC’s current (archaic) licensing laws.
L: Archaic is an understatement…
What (or who) was the spark that set you on the path of wine?
C: I was backpacking in France and ended up working harvest on a vineyard in Burgundy. The winemaker, David, became a friend and put up with me for a few more harvests, and he answered my questions every day I was there. I became fascinated with everything that happened in the vineyard and how that affected the decisions made in the winery. So much care and attention go into those bottles before they reach my hands at the restaurant.
L: It’s pretty humbling isn’t it? It’s pretty common for people to have no idea the amount of attention that goes into an honest wine. I remember being floored.
Where did you start in the wine industry, and what was the progression to get you where you are now?
C: Following my time in France, I read every book on wine that I could find, but it was just a hobby. My good friend Jeff Parr encouraged me to take WSET courses, and then I was hooked. He included me in some staff wine tastings when he managed the Oakwood, and then brought me on board to help with the wine program for the opening of AnnaLena. I loved being back in a restaurant and left the other jobs behind to make this a full time gig. At that time I was just finishing up my WSET Diploma, and I started on the path toward CMS certification.
L: You don’t mess around! In fact, you also just recently rocked the Best Sommelier in BC Competition, making it to the top three finalists, meaning you participated in the nerve-wracking final blind-tasting and service challenge (sliding in just under your ‘nemesis’ Matt). How do you train for such an intense event?
C: Drink a lot of wine.
I am lucky to be a part of two fantastic tasting/study groups. Each week we meet to participate in blind tastings or to review different topics in wine. Coming up to competition or exams, the group will run each other through mock service exams. They keep me on my toes and keep pushing me forward to improve.
L: Are there any particular wines that just consistently baffle you in blinds?
L: That’s funny. Jesse said that grape too! What a sneaky varietal.
Any sage nuggets of advice for someone wanting to pursue wine as a vocation?
C: Keep reading, keep learning, keep tasting, keep drinking. Learn from others around you in the industry (what to do and what not to do).
I followed the education route of certifications because it keeps me focused and moving forward in my studies. Some people are able to continue a great education without this outside motivation of exams, but it does make it easy in the hiring process to have a general idea of what a candidate’s general wine knowledge is.
L: Do you have a go-to wine?
C: The one in my glass.
In my dream world—it would be Champagne on a daily basis.
L: You and me both. What about when it’s not wine, what might we find in your cup?
C: Americano: either the cocktail or the caffeinated kind. In fact I would take one of each right now.
L: What is the most memorable wine you’ve tried?
C: Going back to 2006, I remember tasting the Muscat Ottonel at Hillside Winery in the Okanagan. It was the first time that I could truly identify the aromas and flavours of the wine and the first time that all those odd tasting notes people said made sense to me. But I have so many special wines connected to turning points or special moments that are cemented into my brain.
L: How about your guilty wine pleasure? (Mine is cheap buttery chardonnay, just to set the bar really low for you…)
C: Moscato d’Asti—Sweet, lightly sparkling, low alcohol—it’s a great summer apéro.
L: What is the most frustrating part of your job?
C: The inconsistencies of service of the BCLDB. It’s hard to plan for your list to be up to date when you order items and sometimes they show up and sometimes they don’t! A small storage space means that you can’t order too much, but when deliveries take 2-3 weeks, it’s very difficult to plan.
L: I think we need to make that last Q&A a larger font, because every somm in the city has the same answer for what frustrates them. Is anybody listening??
OK, letting go of that…
If you were a winemaker, what would you be making?
L: What do you love most about BC wine?
C: The variety of styles that are made in such a small region. There is always something new to discover.
L: Will we see you one day running the line for the MW pin?
C: One step at a time! Currently I’m focused on the fact that I write my CMS Advanced Exam this summer.
L: We’ll be cheering for you. Thanks for your time, Christina!
Dog or cat? Dog
Negroni or Boulevardier? Americano -> Negroni -> Boulevardier (This is the way the evening should progress)
Most overhyped wine trend? Natural
Most despised wine term? Natural
Most underappreciated grape? (Well made) Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
Go-to hangover cure? Americano (see above)
High school prom song? Too long ago… I don’t remember
Flute or coupe? Coupe
WSET or CMS? I started studying through WSET but am now focused on CMS
@ Vitis Magazine