Lessons in taste from Jennifer Huether, Canada's first female Master Sommelier

We sat down with Jennifer Huether to talk sustainability, California reds and women in the wine industry...


As Canada’s first female Master Sommelier, how have you seen the industry change throughout your career?

So many changes, it’s crazy. The last advanced exam that I went to – I guess it was last summer in Phoenix – there were more women sitting the exam than men, and that was history-making. When I first started taking certified sommelier courses, there were practically no women. It didn’t really phase me, it didn’t make me feel awkward or uncomfortable or anything like that. But as time has progressed, women are kind of dominating. We have good palates! And we’re good multitaskers. Women are all about getting what needs to get done, done. They’re not about ego; they’re about, this is my to-do list and this is stuff that has to happen in a restaurant. I don’t care if I’m the one picking up a plate if it needs to get done.

And how has the wine industry evolved more generally?

Well, number one, wine has never been more popular in North America. Wine’s hot – it’s a hot commodity. And then with that, of course, there’s all kinds of wine regions that have sprung up. So we’ve also grown locally in wine, and then of course it’s just becoming more a part of people’s meals. People are willing to spend more money on it than ever, and they’re more educated in North America.

How have Canadian tastes and palates changed over the years?


Master Sommelier Jennifer Huether

People have become more educated, they’ve become more adventurous, and there’s certainly a move toward drier wines. So, for example, the sweeter rose styles from California were like, hot hot hot hot many years ago when I first started, and you can just see the shift.

No more pink zin?

[laughs] No more pink zin. Moscato is still hot, and there still is a palate for that, but people become more adventurous and they’re trying other things.

According to the LCBO, California reds are a top selling category for summer. Why do you think that’s the case?

California has been a hot category here in Ontario for some time, and as far as the reds go, they’re so accessible. I mean, there’s many reasons. When you read a bottle, you can see what the varietal is. The quality is so consistent out of California as well, people feel very confident even to try something new, because they’ve had great past experiences with California just in terms of good, overall solid wines. When you start to buy into other places in the world, they may or may not be as clean, if you will.

And then there’s just that delicious fruit-forwardness that our North American palate just really gravitates towards. You know, we like juicy, we like fruity, we like those flavours. And when you look at a place for example like France or Italy, they like bitter, particularly in Italy, or acid, in Italy or France. So they have a much drier palate, or less fruit-forward. But our palate is aligned with the wines of California.

How have consumers been responding to the wines grown in our own backyard?

I feel like Ontario kind of got typecast as not very high quality wine. So it’s funny because for the longest time, when we did start making good wine, the people we would most readily sell it to – at least in a restaurant – were the actual tourists. Now I think that’s changed. People have accepted that we’re doing great wine, and there’s been some great producers like Norm Hardie and like Tawse who are making wines that are world class level. The challenge around that right now around is that even though we have these amazing wines to offer, they’re not cheap, because it’s not cheap to make wine here. So people say, yes, I accept that we are now making great chardonnay or great Riesling but, eh, I can take my $45 and spend that in Italy, or, you know... So there’s not a ton of value just due to the cost of production here.

People say, I accept that we are now making great chardonnay or great Riesling, but I can take my $45 and spend that in Italy

And then the other thing that’s muddied the waters is that there’s been a lot of experimentation, growing grapes that we probably shouldn’t here, because we just don’t have the climate for it and so forth. So that has just added to the confusion more.When you look at a new wine region like New Zealand, who came out with the sauvignon blanc from Marlborough. Like, extremely focused, extreme focus in marketing, came out on an international level and have had tremendous success. Because they were very streamlined. And here we’re like, oh, well we have syrah, and we have gamay, and we have… you know, and it’s like, what are you? There’s an identity crisis.

I think it’s hard, but I think a big part of the answer is getting locals to support like they do in B.C. Go to B.C. and I mean, B.C. wine… they eat it up. They’re so supportive of their local community, and for whatever reason, here in Ontario there’s still a disconnect. The somms are generally happy to support locally, but then they say, well, I’m not going to buy this, because then it’s going to be $150 on my list. And who’s going to buy a $150 Ontario wine? But I think that it’s all coming, and I think it’s all moving in the right direction, and that’s exciting. And we are making some exciting wines here.

What lessons can Ontario learn from the experiences of other wine regions?

When you look at each region – especially New World, or new regions – what you have is a timeline of them figuring it out. The challenge is when you come out as a region or a country and you look to be just value, for example, Australia, with the 'critter' wines. If that’s what you hang your hat on, then it’s really hard for people to get their heads around something else. Same with Chile. Chile makes fantastic $50 wines, $100 wines. Do you think people want them? No. Because they know Chile as that great $15 wine. And so they’re having a really hard time marketing themselves out of that. And I think to a degree that’s what happened in Ontario too. You know, we started out with, not the best quality, understandably, but it’s just this process of growing and figuring it out, and you know it’s been a bit of a cottage industry, but I think that’s changing.

Chile makes fantastic $50 wines, $100 wines. Do you think people want them? No.

Sustainability is a big topic in the wine industry today. Is it more than a buzzword? What do consumers need to understand about organic, biodynamic, etc?

Unfortunately, there’s so much confusion around those terms, and there’s been a lot of greenwashing, which hasn’t helped in certain ways. Because the bottom line, I work for a company that’s very sustainable. Even outside of the wine industry, they’re winning awards as a company for being so green. But they just do it because it’s the right thing to do: they own a lot of land, they make a lot of wine, so being as aware and doing what they can where they can is just very important to the family. And at the end of the day, it turns out it saves money. I think one of the examples was, they bought a bunch of solar panels. So, you know, quite a bit of money [spent] at one winery, for example. And basically, within six years, it paid for itself. And they have something like 35 more years. So it can save you money.

What's Jen drinking?

We asked Jennifer to name her drink of choice the airport:

Something hard. Not wine. a new restaurant:

I’m going to go with something like champagne, because it goes with everything. your favourite restaurant:

I’m going to start with a Taval rosé from France.

...on the patio:

Ooh. Anything white and crisp, like a Grüner Veltliner.

...for a special occasion dinner at home:

I’m opening a big, rich Napa cab or Super Tuscan, and I’m going to decant it and let it sit there and aerate. And I’m going to cook something red meat-ish to go with it. 

So there’s a lot of confusion, however, the best things to look for are when people are certified third party. So for example, in California, there are several certifications you can get third party. That’s when the rubber hits the road really, because you have someone coming out and checking you, auditing you. So I know that in Ontario, there are people now practicing sustainable, but there are no third party audits. That certification is coming, it’s in the pipeline and they’ve just worked out all the details, so it’s awesome, because that’s going to be available to wine growers here in Ontario like it is in California.

If your goal is to support sustainability, look for wineries with the logos and the symbols

If your goal is to support sustainability, then absolutely, look for wineries with the logos and the symbols – which not everybody puts on, interestingly enough – and support wineries who do grow and produce sustainable. And believe it or not, there’s a lot more boxes to tick with sustainability than there are with organics or biodynamics. Because sustainability involves not just that little piece of land making the wine, but also how you treat your employees. Is your building green? Is the way you’re shipping as green as it can be? It’s your carbon footprint… It’s much bigger shoes to fill.

Do you find that there's a kinship between female sommeliers and women winemakers?

Yeah, totally. We love it, we love to support (each other). And female winemakers are cool. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not glamourous. I can say that on the sommelier side, sometimes it’s glamourous: we wine, we dine, we travel. And with them, it’s hard physical labour, dirt under your fingernails. And at the end of the day, you’re responsible. If that wine doesn’t turn out and you had perfectly good grapes, or if anything goes awry at any time, the middle of the night, the ferment goes off, well… it’s on your shoulders. We do have a ton of females working at Jackson Family Wines, and they’re just the coolest women. They have some stories of their own...