Canada has a thriving wine scene—sommelier Valerie-Marie Lessard, 33, can attest to that. She heads the wine program at Canada's Ric's Grill, a chain with 21 locations in three provinces, and four more opening in 2011. The menus are internationally accented, with a focus on surf and turf, meaning the wine lists must have a little bit of everything, from Bordeaux to Australia, and, of course, Canada.
Hailing from Quebec City, Lessard began her wine education at an early age, thanks to her wine-loving father. But it wasn't until she started working at the Rimrock Resort Hotel restaurant in Banff at the age of 18 that she developed her passion into a career. Since 2004, Lessard has been at the Ric's Grill group, overseeing wine lists that range from 101 to 150 selections. All 15 locations that applied—14 Ric’s Grill Steakhouses and the Sal’s Prime in Kelowna, British Columbia—earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2010. Lessard spoke with Wine Spectator about her favorite bottles for entertaining, the Canadian wine industry and what she's been drinking lately.
Wine Spectator: How did you get into wine?
Valerie-Marie Lessard: My dad has always been a huge fanatic about wine from around the world. I have a picture of myself when I was three years old holding a bottle of wine. So that's how I started. When I was younger, we would make dinner and pair wine with the food. When I was older, he took me to wine tastings, and so I really took the passion from him. It was not until I started to work in a restaurant that I saw what could be done with wine, how interesting it was and how complementary it was to meals. That's what triggered my career path.
WS: Do you collect wine like your father?
VL: I try! But it's very difficult. I have a hard time holding on to my bottles, but I do hide some of it away. I don't have a huge collection yet. I'm a huge fan of Pinot Noirs from around the world so I have a tendency to have that on hand. I actually love trying varietals I'm not very familiar with so I have some Spanish wines, some Portuguese and a few different wines from around the world. When my friends go traveling, they bring wine back for me to try. These are wines not distributed. These are the ones I tend to keep tucked away.
WS: What do you serve to friends when they come over?
VL: I'll either pull a bottle that's special to me, or if I'm going to be hosting a dinner, I grab some varietals that are well-known, such as Shiraz from Australia, Malbec from Argentina [or] Cabernet from California. I know this is what my friends drink. And they drink red! If I pull a white, they are like, “No, go back to the dark side!”
WS: Being from Canada, how do you feel about Canadian wines?
VL: I love our wines, especially from Okanagan Valley. I'm a huge fanatic. Our wine list reflects that too. We're probably the chain restaurant that carries the most [British Columbian] wines on our bottle and by-the-glass listings. We have eight by the glass and 26 by the bottle in the Canadian section.
WS: What has been your latest project in terms of expanding the wine list?
VL: One focus has been to increase Canadian selections. The perception of Canadian wines, even in Alberta, has been, "Oh, Canada can't make good wine.” But we're proving them wrong. It's such an interesting change of mind to see. We'll pour an Okanagan wine, such as Merlot. They are making some great Merlot out there, and people don't know about it. We've really focused a lot on Canadian wines so we can showcase smaller producers. We have some exclusive wines such as Quail's Gate Cabernet Sauvignon from Okanagan Valley.
WS: Do you have a favorite pairing with a Canadian wine?
VL: The Ginger Chili Chicken appetizer with Desert Hills Okanagan Valley Gewürztraminer. Love serving those together.
WS: Do you have a favorite wine to drink?
VL: I'm a huge fan of Pinot Noir so I'll try any Pinot Noir. But I'm on a huge kick of bubbles … [over the summer] Summerhill Cipes Brut NV was my drink of choice. It's a Riesling-based sparkling wine from Okanagan. But I’ll drink any bubbles they put in front of me!