This lockdown has not stopped Susan Watkins from moving herself up and expanding herself out, drilling down into wine books and exploring some very, very special bottles of Champagne (for good reason as you’ll soon find out). If you don’t know her, it is simply a matter of time: an unforgettable vibrancy and authenticity elevates her in a room and draws you in to want to know more. And there is so much more. Driven and hungry for education, this stick of dynamite quickly worked up through many respected establishments in Vancouver to be offered an incredible opportunity to take over the position of wine director at the Mackenzie Room… and then COVID crashed the party before it even began.
As we wade through these swampy times, Susan’s story is a reminder of the drive and eagerness that we cannot let go of, and that we can look forward to, when our hospitality world safely opens its doors again. And there is not a dabble of doubt that Susan Watkins will be at the helm of one of these doors, more prepared than ever to make her mark on our world of wine.
Laura: Hello Susan! It seems necessary to differentiate between life now, during this Covid19 lockdown, and life before. You were just stepping into a pretty awesome position at the Mackenzie Room. Why don’t we start there?
Susan: Hello! Yes, I recently joined The Mackenzie Room to fill the role of wine director. In mid-December, I made the decision to go back to school for my masters, so I was looking for a low-key serving job that would allow me to save some bucks in the interim. Say Mercy! had just announced that they were hiring for their opening team, so I jumped on the opportunity because I was big fan of The Mackenzie Room and, after a stint on the wine team at a swanky five-star hotel, was interested in working for an independent restaurant. I interviewed, and the next day was offered a choice: serve at Say Mercy! or take over as Wine Director at The Mackenzie Room. I chose the latter—the masters degree can wait.
The months leading up to the Covid-19 lockdown were spent acquainting myself with TMR’s flow of service, philosophy of hospitality, and Chef Sean Reeve’s cuisine. Right before we announced our closure, I was deep in planning mode—putting my own ‘wine philosophy’ onto paper, reinterpreting the central thesis of the list, identifying the direction in which I wanted to steer the program and making a list of wines I wanted to bring in. For now, everything is on pause, though I’m hopeful that in the near future we’ll be able to pick up where we left off.
L: So now that things have come to a halt as we work through this lockdown crisis, how have you been keeping busy and stimulated?
S: Like the majority of my colleagues in hospitality, I am holed up at home. The first week, I went a little stir-crazy and didn’t know what to do with myself. Now, I’ve fallen into more of a routine. I attempt to keep busy by burying my nose in books and giving myself little research projects. I try to go screen-free for a few hours each afternoon, which facilitates the learning (what better time than now to spend hours memorizing all the AVAs in Mendocino County? Or doing a deep dive into the life of Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno?) Like many others, I am brushing up on my baking skills… and yes, I’ve indulged in Tiger King.
L: Ouf, yes, I also took the tiger bait. OK, so where did you start in the industry, and what was the progression to get you where you are now?
S: Oh boy. I’ve worked in dining rooms since I was fifteen years old. In 2013, I moved to Vancouver to study at UBC and worked casual serving jobs on the weekends for a couple of years. I had a contact from my high school’s Shakespeare Festival who had become a maître’d at L’Abattoir. I decided to get in touch, and he got me in the door as a server’s assistant. At the time, my interest in wine was very casual. I enjoyed drinking it—I knew that much! However, I was acutely aware that L’Abattoir had (and continues to deliver) one of the best wine programs in the city with strong women at the helm. This inspired me.
It was my time at Vij’s on Cambie that really marked the beginning of a professional interest in wine. It may have been the challenge of pairing unique wines with Indian cuisine (Heidi Schröck Furmint? Stina Pošip? Yes please!) or all of a sudden having to explain what Furmint and Pošip were tableside… it may have been the fact wine director at the time, Sean Nelson, was the first individual I had worked with who was a huge proponent of the Court of Master Sommeliers… either way, I promptly decided that upon graduating from UBC, my plan was no longer to move to Toronto and pursue a Master of Architecture. It was to study wine. I invested in the WSET and the Wine Scholar Guild. I decided to pursue CMS certification as well.
When I saw that Botanist at the Fairmont Pacific Rim was looking to fill a position on their wine team, I promptly applied. I was nervous as there are so few wine-focused roles in the city and so many experienced wine professionals, but I surprised myself and landed the role. Learning ensued! I had never worked for a hotel before, nor as a floor sommelier, so I was able to refine my hospitality skills while putting my knowledge to the test every evening. I had a lot of fun challenging the stereotype of what a wine professional looks like, particularly in such an upscale room—I’m quite young, I’m Nepalese… I don’t like to generalize, but I can say with confidence that when asking for the services of a sommelier, most guests aren’t expecting to see me approach the table. That said, it was (and remains) incredibly fulfilling to deliver a fantastic wine experience to guests, no matter the context.
This takes us to the present! I got the itch to go back to university—there are some great wine-focused programs in Bordeaux and Burgundy—and applied for a serving job at Say Mercy!… the rest is history!
L: That’s quite the climb! What (or who) was the spark that set you on the path of wine?
S: Ultimately, my parents. When I was five years old, we moved from the Kootenays to Summerland, B.C., because they purchased a little winery called Scherzinger Vineyards. Fast forward, and they changed the name to Dirty Laundry and were becoming quite popular. At the time, I had no idea what it meant to “have a vertical of Gewürztraminer on the list at Lumière” or the significance of a blurb on the front page of the Vancouver Sun—but for my Dad, who was vigneron and winemaker, this recognition was a big deal. When I was 13, we sold Dirty Laundry and bought five acres of apple orchard which was promptly converted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines (semi-retirement, my Dad jokes). For the past few vintages, these grapes have landed in Okanagan Crush Pad’s Haywire “The Bub.” Of course, they solicited my labour whenever possible—I begrudgingly would shoot thin, tuck, prune… I didn’t appreciate it back then, but I do now. Organic viticulture is a labour of love. Constantly being surrounded by vines, winemaking and wine people during the most formative years of my life affected me profoundly, it just took some time to come full circle.
I was nervous to tell my Mum and Dad that I wanted to become a sommelier, but there was no need. They are a constant, steadfast pillar of support in my life, and it feels remarkably special that the three of us are now able to share in our love for wine.
L: Wow, I had no idea of the family connection to wine—it makes sense now though, as it seems to be in your blood. Do you have a favourite wine list in the city? And what is it about a wine list that catches your attention?
S: I’m a lover of small, self-aware lists. Focus, balance, and honest pricing are important to me. I have so much respect for wine directors who are able to put something together that is both creative and democratic… something that reflects the context of the restaurant and speaks to the philosophy of the cuisine. I’m a big fan of Dachi, AnnaLena, Farmer’s Apprentice, and The Acorn.
L: Do you have anyone you would consider a mentor in the wine world?
S: I’ve been fortunate to share workspaces with some of the most celebrated wine-folk in the city. Lisa Haley, Kristi Linneboe, and Sean Nelson all helped plant the seed. Jill Spoor took a chance on me and encouraged me to believe in myself. For them, I am grateful.
So much of our development, particularly in blind tasting, relies on mentorship from those who are more advanced than we are. However, I believe spending time with individuals who can share in our experiences and struggles is equally important. At the moment, I rely heavily on my peers for mentorship. I’m particularly grateful for two of my closest friends and fellow wine-people, Tiago de Souza Jensen and Stephanie Mathis.
L: This situation has put a lot of restaurants in a bind, and yet there are some really creative efforts coming to light that I think really speak to the nature of our family feel in the hospitality industry. Have there been any initiatives or creative endeavors that have caught your eye, or that you feel are worth a special shout out?
S: I’m incredibly proud of my team at Collective Hospitality (The Mackenzie Room, Say Mercy!) who rapidly organized Staff Meal, an initiative that provides fresh, delicious and affordable food by order for pickup while also accepting donated meals to be distributed to those in need. The response has been phenomenal, and other local restaurants are joining in on the initiative: Dachi, Masayoshi Sushi, The Arbor, Belgard Kitchen, Fable Kitchen, and Pampanga’s Cuisine to name a few. Dishes range from $5 to $10 with an additional $2 per order designated as a donation for the food bank. Online orders are live at 8am with same-day pickup. In addition, every evening Collective Hospitality is dropping off meals at the doors of hospitality workers who have been laid off, donating meals to front-line workers and to various shelters in the DTES. All of this has come together in the past thirteen days, and resulted in well over 1,000 donated meals.
L: I love this initiative (and I can definitely vouch for the tastiness of their offerings!) A lot of B.C. wineries began offering free shipping and supportive initiatives to help see us all through our quarantine lives… what have been your go-to wines during isolation?
S: I’m attempting to be very health-conscious at the moment, so this month I’m eschewing wine for tea! However, I am using “dry April” as an opportunity to purchase wines direct from wineries, local wine stores, and restaurants (Juice Bar delivers, friends!) The goal is threefold: support industry folk, spread the love around, and replenish my humble cellar. My hope is that I’ll come out of quarantine well stocked so I can have my pals over for a proper celebration when normalcy resumes.
L: I couldn’t help but notice the endearing announcement of your engagement a few days ago! Tell me about that Champagne you were drinking??
S: It was quite a surprise, especially in self-isolation! My partner insisted that we open a bottle of 2005 Raphaël & Vincent Bérèche “Côte” Grand Cru that magically appeared from the back corner of the refrigerator… 100% Chardonnay from Avize, disgorged in 2016! Needless to say, it was a Monday and I was wearing sweatpants, so something had to be up.
He popped the question, I said yes, and we followed it up with a bottle 1999 Raphaël & Vincent Bérèche “Montagne” Premier Cru that I had been sitting on… just because. This bottling is 55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay from 1er Cru plots in Rilly-la-Montagne… disgorged January 2018. Nineteen years on the lees! Broad and textured on the palate… decadent, yet elegant! I felt very spoiled that day.
L: WOW! As if the day wasn’t already memorable… so when it’s not wine, what might we find in your cup?
S: I consume copious amounts of Yorkshire tea (with a pinch of sugar and a dash of milk)—mostly for energy/survival. If I’m after a tipple, any Highland single malt or a splash of Marrow vermouth will do the trick.
L: How about your guilty drink pleasure? (Mine is cheap buttery chardonnay, just to set the bar really low for you…)
S: White wine spritzers made with cheap Vinho Verde and grapefruit La Croix. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
L: What are your thoughts on competing? Any chance we’ll see you running in the CAPS Best Sommelier in BC competition next year?
S: In all honesty, the thought of competing terrifies me. I’m working on pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, so it may happen. But I get sweaty palms just watching, so for now I’m happy to be a spectator!
L: I get that (but also have to say, you’d kill it!!) Thanks so much for participating, Susan, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what rolls out for you post-isolation.
Dog or cat? Cat. They possess the same range of affection as dogs, they’re just selective about who they give it to. There’s something about having to earn their love…
Negroni or Boulevardier? Boulevardier.
Most overhyped wine trend? Archaic and arbitrary point systems.
Most despised wine term? Archaic and arbitrary gendered descriptors (masculine; feminine). Essentialism does everyone a disservice.
Most underappreciated grape? Verdicchio.
What grape would your mom be? Chenin Blanc.
Go-to hangover cure? Hot shower, large-format kombucha, and a spicy sando from Down-Low Chicken Shack.
High school prom song? Likely something obnoxious… see “Boyfriend” by Justin Bieber.
Flute or coupe? Neither—just a utilitarian white-wine glass for me!
WSET or CMS? Both! Personally, I thrive in structured programs like the WSET, but CMS pushes me far outside of my comfort zone which is equally rewarding.
@ Vitis Magazine