In our first ever episode of Bottled Up! we’ve got Jesse Walters, GM and sommelier at Bistro Wagon Rouge, a beloved hub tucked into East Van’s port district; before BWR, Jesse led the charge at Burdock and Co., earning two Platinum Wine Awards. With a laid back personality and charming demeanour, he is easy to love, but it is his valiant work ethic and relentless drive to learn that makes him so revered by Vancouver wine lovers and industry professionals. He powered through the full gamut of wine education, including the French Wine Scholar, the Italian Wine Maestro, and the WSET diploma, for which he won a prize for his outstanding performance across the program globally. Oh, and he has a Bachelor of Philosophy. Jesse is a gem, and we love what he’s got to say.
Laura: Alright. Hi Jesse! Tell me about what’s going on in your world these days?
Jesse: Pretty obsessed with rock climbing these days… If I’m not at work or geeking out in a library somewhere, I’m climbing.
L: You’ve worked in some great restaurants in Vancouver, including your previous role at Burdock & Co. where you headed a pretty rad list of “natural” wines. Now you’ve transformed the wine program at Bistro Wagon Rouge. What’s your MO when putting together a wine list for a restaurant?
J: There is SO much exciting work being done in wine right now—regions being reinvented, brave and rebellious winemakers taking all the risks to make something beautiful, classic styles that are better than they’ve ever been—we just want to write a love letter to all these wines with our list. For me, it’s about enthusiasm more than anything. The questions I always ask myself are: How excited are you to present this wine to your guests? Do you feel that little flutter in your stomach? How much of a knockout would it be with that dish? I think that’s so much more important than hitting all the basic styles we assume people want. I want everyone to fall in love with wine the way I did, so I try to present the wines I am sincerely crazy about. Super sentimental, but it’s earnest.
L: What is your favourite sipper on your list at this moment?
J: It makes sense when wines taste like fruit or flowers—because grapes taste like fruit and flowers. But, when a wine starts to taste like graphite, pencil shavings, river stones, earth: THAT is the magic of wine. Minerality. The wine science wavers between not fully being able to explain it (is it yeast stress? some sort of sulphides? a product of low pH?) and outright denying that it’s a phenomenon (minerals are, after all, odorless and flavourless).
But still… I don’t think any wine is more magically mineral than Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley—and the Clos Senechal from Catherine and Pierre Breton is definitely my go to. There are no focus groups in the world that would produce a wine like this: green pepper, earth, pencil shavings, brambly forest berries, not much body, lots of acid, rustic tannins. It is literally a bottle full of elbows and knees. There is nothing soft or supple about this wine. And yet… it is the definition of authenticity and compelling in a way that I don’t full understand. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is, and for that, it’s beautiful.
L: Who has the most underrated wine list in the city?
J: It’s got to be Paul McCloskey at the Arbor. People think it’s hard to write a list that has 300 entries, and to me that’s the easiest thing in the world. Try writing a list that has 6 wines on it. How do you make THAT exciting? And, how is it that every time Paul puts something in my glass, I feel like it’s just exactly what I should be drinking?
L: How does the Vancouver wine scene hold up to other cities you’ve been or worked in?
J: There is so much passion and enthusiasm and talent here; but everything is too damn expensive. We need less tax on the wines. Also, people need to chill out about ‘natural’ wine already. It’s mostly delicious wine, it’s not all faulted, it’s here to stay.
L: What (or who) was the spark that set you on the path of wine?
J: The axe that shattered the frozen lake of my mind was Dinavolo’s Catavela. Alex Thornley poured it for me way back in the day at Homer St. Cafe, and talked me through what an orange wine is, what natural wine is all about, what a ‘wild’ ferment is… I ate it all up. Before that, I always thought that wine was too expensive. (I still think that). But, I didn’t really understand how revolutionary it could be. How heroic and brave wine makers are. How startling and surprising the flavours could be. Suddenly, I had to know everything.
L: Where did you start in the industry, and what was the progression to get you where you are now?
J: I started to take wine seriously at Burdock. I took every wine course I could sign up for, and was lucky enough to do my WSET diploma with the dream team that used to be at the Arts Institute. Barb and Iain Phillip, Michaela Morris, DJ Kearney, Mark Shipway… SO INSPIRING. It took about a year at Burdock before Andrea and Matt trusted me enough to take the reins with the wine program, and I ran with it for a couple years after that. I made the leap to Bistro Wagon Rouge about a year ago, and it’s been awesome working with the owner Brad Miller, serving the community, building a team… some really good times. Some of my biggest wine heroes share the floor with me there—Layla Francis, sommelier at Kissa Tanto, is there on Saturdays—Hussain Askari, a friend and mentor for as long as I’ve been into wine, is there a night a week. I also have a stable of three young up and coming sommeliers who I’m sure I’ll be working for one day. It’s really fun.
L: You host regular blind tasting groups, and it has a reputation for being a very welcoming space. Tell me about your group, and why you decided to host.
J: I started this group maybe three or four years ago already, when I had just begun the WSET diploma. We’d meet at Burdock twice a week, everything was under timed conditions, and it was a lot of fun. Tasting is hard, it’s a great opportunity to laugh at ourselves, learn a few things, and the people who showed up every week started to feel like family. After a couple of years, all the wine education bills started coming in, and I couldn’t afford my own tasting group anymore—so, Kristi took the torch and ran with it, and that group is still thriving and pushing things forward at L’Abattoir.
A few months ago, I just got the itch again. We’re doing things a little differently this time—I’ve been calling on some of the sommeliers, collectors, and other wine pros I know to put together the tastings every week. Taylor at Kits Wine Cellars is still the backbone of our group, but it’s really fun to have a channel for some other people in the community to give back.
L: Are there any particular wines that just consistently baffle you in blinds?
J: YES! Barrel fermented South African Chenin Blanc… When will I ever get you right??? Valpolicella and Malbec are sources of fairly regular frustration as well.
L: Any sage nuggets of advice for someone wanting to pursue wine as a vocation?
J: If it feels like ‘work’—don’t do it. It’s a long, demanding road; do it because you love it.
L: Do you have a go-to wine?
J: I have a hard time ignoring Cru Beaujolais… if there’s Foillard in the house, it won’t last long. I could never cellar Metras. Ever.
L: When it’s not wine, what might we find in your cup?
J: Cider! Preferably Normandy or Basque… Or, Dominion Cider’s Keeve method offering from Summerland, ‘True at First Light’. Have you seen those bottles too!? Gorgeous.
L: What is your most memorable moment in wine?
J: Honestly, I think it was visiting Bella for the first time. In a region with shiny, new, stainless steel, temperature controlled everything—it was such a stark contrast to see barrels in the vineyard and an unfinished garage to make wine in. Jay and his vineyard manager at the time were so candid about everything; I could not believe the level of integrity they operate with. I keep asking myself how I can serve those wines in a way that lives up to their origin? The wines are always so expressive, raw and pure. They’re so damn good on every level.
L: How about your guilty wine pleasure? (Mine is cheap buttery chardonnay, just to set the bar really low for you…)
J: Sometimes… I really like Rioja. I know it’s super conventional, it tries so hard, there’s always so much oak… But, something about that savoury, dill, ketchup chip finish. I dig it.
L: What is the most frustrating part of your job?
J: The BCL. Seriously… It’s the one and only thing that’s made me question my career choice. We pay an additional 15-20% over wholesale to have our wine shipped to a BC liquor store that does absolutely nothing for us except make us wait an additional 2-6 weeks for our order. Why??? Why can’t we just order directly from the warehouse like every other re-seller of wine?
L: Will we see you one day running the line for the MW pin?
J: The thing is… Life is short and wine is long. The MW has been a dream of mine for some time now, I’m just trying to find a rhythm where the 21 hours a week of extra study time feels normal. It’s something I’ll have to maintain for around 5 years once I’m in the program, so I need to make sure it doesn’t feel desperate. It’s a lot to tack on to a 50hr week, but I think I’m getting close to finding the balance.
Dog or cat? Cat. I like that they maintain their freedom. Come and go as they please.
Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni. But, not this 1:1:1 nonsense. 1.5 gin, 1 vermouth, 0.75 campari please.
Most overhyped wine trend? Decanting. Do it to get a wine off sediment or to blow of reductive aromas… otherwise, stop robbing yourself of the evolution in the glass!!! If it’s a wine that needs time, take your time with it. Don’t open it if you only have 30min to drink it.
Most despised wine term? ‘Feminine’ ‘Masculine’ and all of the ridiculous spin-off terms … it’s 2019 people. Let’s let the gendered descriptors go already.
Most underappreciated grape? Melon de Bourgogne. We all need to drink more muscadet.
What grape would your mom be? Gamay. Just endlessly generous and giving and beautiful. It’s really hard not to like her.
Go-to hangover cure? Dominos… or anything that is brought to my door, really.
High school prom song? Like, the entire soundtrack to Dirty Dancing.
Flute or coupe? Just a proper stem please.
WSET or CMS? WSET… I find the CMS crew is exceptional at tasting, I’m just more of an academic and the WSET/MW road suits me.
@ Vitis Magazine