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Wine Lists at Ric's Grill Sing "O Canada!"

Wine director Valerie-Marie Lessard showcases favorites from the Okanagan Valley and beyond at the Canadian restaurant group

Stephanie Cain
Posted: October 6, 2010

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!

Jim Facco
Calgary, Alberta —  October 6, 2010 6:22pm ET
Will miracles never cease, a story that mentioned Canadian wine.

There is some great wine being produced in Canada.
Unfortunately the only acknowledgements usually seen are "Canada....famous for its Ice Wine"

I have been a subscriber for close to 10 years and I can't recall a single article on the Canadian wine industry.

Sure would be nice to see a review of the both the Okanagan and Niagara regions.

Just a thought.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  October 6, 2010 6:31pm ET
Hi Jim,

Here are some magazine news and feature articles, as well as some blogs, on Canadian wines from the past few years. In addition, you can find some recent ratings of Canadian wines in the Wine Ratings database, some as recent as the Oct. 15, 2010 issue. Unfortunately, not enough Canadian wines are exported to the U.S. (as surprising as that seems for such a close neighbor) making it difficult for us to review more, but those who do export are welcome to send wines to our NY tasting office for review.

Recline Ridge

Canada Finds Its Napa: The Okanagan Valley

The New Niagara

Protests Mount over "Cellared in Canada" Wines

Recent wine reviews:

Hope you find those helpful!

Dana Nigro, managing editor of WineSpectator.com
Troy A Sedgwick
Calgary, Alberta, Canada —  October 6, 2010 10:20pm ET
Hear, hear...to Jim's comments above re seeing a rare story on Canadian wine.

I nevertheless appreciate Dana's response and comments re the challenges reviewing Canadian wine...

Having been blessed to have visited several of the great wine-making regions of the world (Tuscany, Mendoza, Napa/Sonoma, and yes, Canada's Niagara and Okanagen ;-) ), I can honestly say say that our little Canadian Wine Industry is (in my humble opinion) finally coming of age.

From the quality of the wines being put forth to the wine tourism industry itself, it is worthy of some time and reviews, and hope Wine Spectator finds some time, space and resources to do so.

And in the interim, thanks for this little 'taste' of what's to come...

Troy Sedgwick
Tom J Wilson
Canada —  October 7, 2010 3:33pm ET
Hi Jim;

Reason why Okanagan wines are not known outside BC, it is simple; Your BC people there are only drinking loco wines, so very little goes out of the east of the country, forget about going south, USA.....
Jim Facco
Calgary, Alberta —  October 19, 2010 2:33pm ET
Thank you very much Dana

I appreciate the extremely quick response to my little bit of sarcasm.
I actually haven't got around to the October 15th issue yet but I will be looking forward to it.

Keep up the great work with the web site!!
The money I have saved in restaurants alone by using the Ratings Guide has returned itself a hundred fold on a yearly basis.

Jim Facco

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