She might be sweet as Megpie, but man, can she dominate a room with her knowledge and passion for wine. This is Meghan McDowell, and Vancouver is a lucky city to have adopted her five years ago. Having whet her wine lips at the Vancouver Urban Winery, and accumulated a few years of mentorship alongside wine maven Jesse Walters at the recently closed Bistro Wagon Rouge, Meghan has deservedly stepped into a new role helping to open Say Mercy! and taking control of the creative works behind their wine program. She adores wine for the stories, and can stealthily fill hours of your time sharing tales about winemakers or bantering about the politics behind the bottles, and her voice is proudly braced by a constant desire to push, grow, and educate herself on all things wine. Meghan is a sparkling addition to our beloved culture of Vancouver winos.
Laura: OK! Hi Meghan! Tell me about what’s going on in your world these days?
Meghan: Hi! LOTS! I have joined the team at The Collective Hospitality (best known for The Mackenzie Room) with opening their second restaurant Say Mercy! Alongside General Manager Cody Dodds, I will be running the creative for the wine program. This month has been busy with tasting through tons of portfolios during the day and then working the floor at The Mackenzie Room for dinner service in the evening. It’s essential for me to gain a well rounded understanding of how the team works, their ethos on hospitality, and of course, the conversation behind Chef Sean Reeve’s food.
L: Fun! I can’t wait for the new spot to open! Where exactly did you start in the industry though, and what was the progression to get you where you are now?
M: During university I worked in nightclubs bartending, as well as in the university’s conference services department. This is where I began to understand and nurture my growing love for hospitality. Flash forward through all the pubs, breweries, and restaurants I worked over the years till five years ago when I decided to move to Vancouver. I was excited about the Okanagan as a wine region and wanted to be closer to what was happening here in B.C. So, I bought a one way ticket to Vancouver and landed a job at the Vancouver Urban Winery. At this time in my life I knew very, very little about wine.
L: Well you’ve certainly gotten your share of wine experience since the move! You’ve put some serious time in some fun roles in wine around the city, including Vancouver Urban Winery, as well as getting to work alongside Jesse Walters at the recently closed Bistro Wagon Rouge. How did these different roles contribute to your experience with wine?
M: At VUW I offered a program to guests to learn how to taste deductively. Essentially it was an hour-long Wine 101 seminar. I was learning so much about B.C. wine and was really focusing on my studies. VUW has a strict all B.C. wine program and I felt in order to learn more I needed to work with more wine. Jesse and I were Instagram friends and we had met a few times at different wine events in the city. I was always a massive fan of his program at Burdock, so when he offered me a job I accepted immediately. I feel like I learned my foundations at VUW, including using my voice and growing my confidence. I also think it is essential to continue growing, and I feel I have a good grip on when to move on professionally to achieve that.
L: And now you’re heading the wine program for the soon-to-open Say Mercy! What is it like starting a wine program from scratch? Any hints as to what we can expect to see?
M: Building a list from the ground up is a lot of work but it is SO much fun. Power tasting can be exhausting and I am thankful to be tasting alongside Cody (currently Wine Director at The Mackenzie Room and GM of Say Mercy!) I am learning really fast that the two of us balance one another very well. I tend to get very excited and wrapped up in the story of the wine and Cody brings me back down to earth and keeps me somewhat practical. It is so important for me to offer our guests something different while creating a playful narrative with the wines and Chef’s food. The list will focus mostly on Italian wines with some B.C. offerings.
L: What is your MO when choosing wines for a list?
M: Writing a list starts in a very simple place for me—I want to love it, be excited by it, and be proud to pour it. It’s the best place for me to start because as I get deeper into the experience of tasting I can really zero in on why a wine speaks to me. My background is in natural wine and it’s what I am best known for loving and drinking—but at the same time a delicious wine can quickly steal my heart. I started my career as a server and so the opportunity to curate a wine experience tableside based on whether a guest wants a wine to relax or a wine to discover is always on my mind when selecting wines for a list. This experience at Say Mercy! is particularly exciting because Chef Sean had a very clear narrative around the food and can work with Cody and I to help highlight his vision and compliment the food in a curious, but obvious way.
L: Who has an underrated wine list in the city? (As in, a secret gem that often gets overlooked?)
M: Dachi. This should be no secret but Stephen is bringing in some of the most exciting wines in our market and offering them at honest prices. Stephen and Miki have created a space that is so warm in their hospitality everyone should be taking notes. Also, Grapes and Soda and Farmer’s Apprentice! Mioi’s list is always on point. And finally, The Arbour!! The list is small but my god is it good! Happy hour too?! Easy.
L: What (or who) was the spark that set you on the path of wine? Any mentors?
M: I clearly remember a night of drinking and eating over seasoned cauliflower with Meghan Carr (former sommelier at Burdock and Co.; owner of Francis Bread) when I first moved to Vancouver. I made a sensory connection from a personal memory to the wine we were drinking and Meghan said something along the lines of, “this is why wine is great Meg. What other beverage can resonate human emotion like that?” That was it for me. I wanted to drink and learn more.
Also, I simply would not be the hospitality professional I am today without the support and mentorship of Jesse Walters. Working alongside of him at Bistro Wagon Rouge for as long as I did was invaluable. With kindness, endless quizzing and ‘surprise blinds,’ Jesse pushed me to be the best I can be. I will forever be thankful for that time I spent working with him.
L: You attend blind tasting groups pretty regularly. Are there any particular wines that just consistently baffle you? And any thoughts on starting your own group?
M: Absolutely. The Triangle of Death (Pinot Gris, Gruner Veltliner, Albariño) is always a humbling reminder to taste and study more. Eventually I’d love to start up a tasting group but opening a restaurant is a lot of work! Perhaps when things start to settle down.
L: You recently hosted a pop-up wine bar as the guest sommelier at Livia Bakery! What was this experience like? Are there any other fun wine events like this coming up that we can expect to see you at?
M: It was SO fun. Anytime I get to pour wine and connect with my peers and community is a good time. We also focused our pours on wines of Piedmonte so it was good market research for my list at Say Mercy! 😉 and yes, I do have something in the works coming in the new year!
L: Can’t wait to hear more about it! What about B.C. wine? Any favourite bottles at the moment?
M: There is so much good B.C. wine out there right now! It’s exciting seeing winemakers be more transparent with their farming and winemaking processes, picking earlier, and offering more refreshing styles. A few of my current faves are Scout Vineyard – Riesling, Chic Fille – Pinot Blanc, and Rathjen Cellars – Pinot Noir.
L: Yum! Rathjen is doing great things on Vancouver Island, too. Nice choice.
What advice would you offer to someone wanting to pursue wine as a vocation?
M: Surround yourself with people and mentors who elevate and BELIEVE in you. Work somewhere that makes you feel supported AND challenged. Taste ALL the wine and read all the literature; yes even the dry as hell stuff. Education helps you focus and narrow in on the necessary variables to keep you objective for your guests! Understand that you will be constantly humbled and that is okay.
L: Well said! That is great advice. When it’s not wine, what might we find in your cup?
M: I LOVE Polynesian cocktails and if I am being honest… I love a vodka soda with bitters.
L: Do you have a go-to wine?
M: Not a particular wine but I will say: Chenin Forever.
L: How about your guilty wine pleasure?
M: I love Moscato d’Asti.
L: Yes! I haven’t heard that one yet. Great answer! Thanks so much for participating Meg!
Dog or cat? Cat
Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni
Most overhyped wine trend? Wine influencers on Instagram
Most despised wine term? Feminine
Most underappreciated grape? Barbera
What grape would your mom be? Moscato Bianco
Go-to hangover cure? I’m still trying to figure this out
High school prom song? The Get Up Kids – I’ll Catch You
Flute or coupe? COUPE
WSET or CMS? WSET
@ Vitis Magazine