Meet Michael Ziff, a renowned yet almost mythical industry creature, who bears the head of an Anglophone and the heart and body of a Francophone, and whose antics will spin your world as he unravels stories of drinking 1947 Nuit-Saint-Georges, religiously attending Burning Man, compulsively skiing at every possible opportunity, and, oh yes, did he mention he had time to train for Aprons for Gloves as well? He also proudly wears the title of Husband and Father. He is a lover of love (and Mezcal) and he will warmly greet you with elegance from the highest tier of hospitality expertise. Read on to learn more about his recent move to the Okanagan to head the newly opened Home Block Restaurant at CedarCreek Estate Winery. Disclaimer: stories from Burning Man are not included, so if your ears are burning, you’ll have to venture up to visit him, with a nice bottle of something to warm up his tongue.
Laura: Hi Ziff! Tell me, what’s going on in your world these days?
Michael: It’s been an interesting time! After a wonderfully successful opening year at St. Lawrence, I had a bad ski crash and needed two surgeries to repair my knee. I then got a call from the Mark Anthony Group to open a new restaurant project at CedarCreek Estate Winery. It was difficult to leave the amazing team and what we’d created at St. Lawrence but the Okanagan was calling and the idea of finally merging my love for wine and opening a restaurant in a winery setting was irresistible.
L: You’ve worked in several notable restaurants across Vancouver, moving through the ranks at Chambar, Hawksworth, and St. Lawrence. How did each of these places contribute to your interest and knowledge of wine?
M: When we opened the original Chambar back in 2004, it was a unique time in the history of Vancouver’s restaurant landscape. Karri and Nico gave the opening team a lot of creative space and trusted us to establish the culture and service. I built out the wine program and off we went into the future. It was a very cool time and many industry careers began in that space and they still inform the scene today.
When I joined the team to open the second Chambar, I had stepped away from the business for about six years, and things had shifted in wine culture and I met a new generation of somms. I had the pleasure of working with Jason Yamasaki. He probably doesn’t know this but he reignited my love for wine. Jason is a true talent in this business, and working with him, and the team he’d gathered, was like a reboot for me. Jason set a new course for the wine program at Chambar.
At Hawksworth I got to work with Bryant Mao and his wonderful team. Bryant is a very generous spirit and is like an open source of wine information. Combine that with a deep wine list, and you walk away from that experience richer.
St. Lawrence gave me autonomy again. And, with JC’s support, created a workhorse of a wine list, one that was meant to be focused and speak to the amazing food and to the room. We were not concerned with making it the best list in the city or win awards, it was meant to sell and pair with the food. It was a unique French environment in the middle of an Anglophone city. As a bilingual Quebecois, it was restaurant heaven.
And if it were not for a phone call with an offer to move to the Okanagan, I would still be there.
L: And now you’re settled in beautiful Kelowna, in the role of General Manager of Home Block Restaurant at CedarCreek Winery. What is it like putting together a wine program for a restaurant that is connected to a winery?
M: Home Block at CedarCreek is a bit of a dream. This iconic winery has been re-imagined with a clear vision for the future. Not a week goes by that I’m not talking about wine with the winemaker, Taylor Whelan. And how wonderful is it to taste future releases while still in barrel! I get to see and taste the evolution of this living product and then pour it for our guests. It’s brought a whole new dimension to selling wine and engaging with people.
I had stopped tasting B.C. wine at St. Lawrence because I was only buying French but now I’ve gained new appreciation for what’s happening in the valley and couldn’t be happier with the quality of wine coming out of CedarCreek.
Every current CedarCreek vintage is available by the glass or the bottle. And we feature a rotating list of about eight wines from our other properties’ libraries. It was a lot of fun tasting older B.C. vintages to select for that list.
It’s an exciting time for me!
L: How much wine knowledge is expected of your staff? Do you supplement it with training?
M: I like to hire for personality since skills can be taught. And people that come to work at wineries are naturally curious about wine so it’s a great starting point. In the day-to-day, we talk wine and taste, and discuss pairings at pre-shifts. Formally, we’ve had two tastings with the wine team during training and will likely have formal tastings every 6-8 weeks.
We’re open all day every day, so it can be challenging to gather the entire staff for tastings but we’re planning on scheduling short and focused 20-minute tastings including updates in from the winery along with winery tours to help connect the staff to the product. Also, the staff have opportunities to work harvest, bottle, or just get to know the process.
On the floor, I like the staff to be able to speak to the wines with clear, approachable language and descriptors along with pairing suggestions but I prefer them to send me over to discuss wines when the conversation needs more time and attention. Not because I don’t trust them, but I can take the time to elevate the guest’s wine experience, while the server stays focused on other guests.
L: What is your current favourite sipper on your list?
I go back and forth between the Estate Sauvignon Blanc and Platinum Pinot Noir Rosé.
M: What about the most surprising pairing, especially given the extremely intricate and creative menu that just rolled out?
2015 Platinum Merlot with the chocolate budino dessert. It’s dark chocolate drizzled with olive oil and Maldon salt.
What (or who) was the spark that set you on the path of wine?
M: I still remember my grandmother talking to me about Châteauneuf-du-Pape as her favourite wine. That place always held mystery for me and was my first taste of quality wine. There was a romantic connection to wine from the very start and that has never left me.
And all my best food memories have wine attached to them, and vice versa.
L: Where did you start in the industry, and what was the progression to get you where you are now?
M: I got a job as a bus boy / barista at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto. At that time, the Courtyard Café and the Three Small Rooms were at the epicenter of the Toronto culinary scene. Michael Bonacini was the Chef and there was a Belgian Maïtre D’ named Paul-Louis de Ghent. It was exciting. Food, wine, style, elegance. I loved it all. And I was like a sponge for all that was happening around me. Paul-Louis mentored me and I followed him to two other restaurants before landing my first managing job for Peter Oliver at his then flagship restaurant, Oliver’s Bistro. I managed the wine list and cut my teeth managing my first team.
Paul-Louis identified in me someone that could build a career in the business because of my curiosity and love for the environment that is created in a quality restaurant setting. That spirit lives in my to this day and I hope to pass on whatever I can to the next generation.
L: Any sage nuggets of advice for someone wanting to pursue wine as a vocation?
M: Dangerous question… How much space do you have???
L: Do you feel moving up to the Okanagan has given you a new perspective on B.C. wines? Any new gems that have rocked your world?
M: Absolutely. I’m diving deep and getting to know who’s making what, often, my days off are about visiting other tasting rooms.
I’m really enjoying the cool-climate varietals in the Kelowna area. The crisp acidity and brightness are really enjoyable. And in the hands of a good winemaker, they offer depth and texture.
L: Do you have a go-to wine?
L: When it’s not wine, what might we find in your cup?
M: Beer and when it comes to spirits, Mezcal.
L: What is the most memorable wine you’ve tried?
M: 1947 Nuit-Saint-Georges. I was in a small town named Baasrode in Belgium in this beautiful estate and was told I can pick anything in the cellar. I couldn’t resist. We decanted it and watched and tasted as it became a completely different wine in less than 30 minutes. But so cool to drink something with that much history.
L: How about your guilty wine pleasure? (Mine is cheap buttery chardonnay, just to set the bar really low for you…)
L: What is guilty about Crémant?? Are you drinking it in the shower every morning?? (NEVER HAVE I EVER…)
On the topic of fun things to do with wine, are there any exciting Okanagan wine events coming up we might find you attending this year?
M: Garagiste North at Sperling (August 18). Fun event and you get to try some new and unheard of wines.
BC Pinot Noir Celebration at UBCO (August 17), featuring 35 local Pinot Noir producers.
Dog or cat? Dog
Negroni or Boulevardier? Negroni
Most overhyped wine trend? Smoke taint
Most despised wine term? ABC. It’s not even a “term” but when people say it, I die a little bit inside. Oh, and Gew.
Most underappreciated grape? Gros Manseng (mostly because I love saying it)
What grape would your mom be? Viognier
Go-to hangover cure? Sleep
High school prom song? New Order – Blue Monday
Flute or coupe? Flute with a hint of coupe
WSET or CMS? Taking the 5th
You’re awesome. Thanks so much, Ziff!
@ Vitis Magazine