Heather McDougall, Toronto ambassador: "A great wine list tells a story"

Heather McDougall.
Andreas Grube
Published 30-June-2022
Interview / Canada

Star Wine List is now updating and re-launching the wine guide to Toronto, Canada. The wine bars and restaurants are selected by Star Wine List’s new ambassador, sommelier and wine entrepreneur Heather McDougall.

"I am incredibly excited and nervous in equal measure. I love the expanding wine scene here in Toronto and am excited to share my current must-visits and add new favourites as I go!" she says about her ambassador role.

Heather McDougall got into the wine business "completely by accident".

"I worked in hospitality while at university and started wine classes as an easy way to move to better restaurants for better money. When I left hospitality, I missed it. I missed being challenged, engaged, social, and I missed the performance art that is service. I turned my back on my chosen profession and returned to the floor to pursue my sommelier's diploma."

"I had no idea what I was signing on for, but fifteen years later, I can confidently say that it was a watershed moment and one of the best decisions I have ever made."

When the pandemic shut the world down, she started a small company called Sips Toronto, offering virtual wine tastings to private clients. That quickly grew to include bespoke gifting, a bottle shop, fulfillment services for other sommeliers and repacking and shipping wine flights for “Wines of” organizations.

"Working with the ‘Wines of’ organizations have been especially fulfilling as it’s made it possible for me to cast a wider net and get people on the guest lists that don’t always get included. I joined the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers in the role of Technical Director with the goal of bringing diverse voices to the table, and it’s been great to have the ability to do so at work as well. I walked through doors opened for me early in my career, and I am happy to hold them open for others now."

Today, she has a private events studio and has added hospitality consulting services to the services list.

"I will probably pause here for a bit, but who knows what other crazy ideas will pop into my head."

I love that we are seeing such well-defined voices that are moving away from carbon-copy lists

Heather McDougall has lived in Toronto for around nine years, and she describes the wine scene in the city as "vibrant".

"I love that we are seeing such well-defined voices that are moving away from carbon-copy lists. The current generation of sommeliers ask better questions and demand more information regarding sustainability, ethics, and environmental stewardship. We are also seeing so many places choosing to specialize in regions/styles, and I have made those notes in my recommendations so everyone can find the adventure they seek," she says.

Any specific trends on the wine scene in Toronto right now?
"We have so many diverse places to enjoy wine that it really is a diner's paradise. On the same day, I was chatting with a restaurateur who had no interest in anything from eastern Europe and another who couldn’t get enough! I think the trend is diversity; there really is something for everyone."

Anything you would like to see more of?
"I would love to see more sommeliers take more no thank you sips. In the work I’ve done in the past couple of years, I have been hit with too many ‘I don’t like those wines’ without trying them. Perhaps it’s age speaking (it’s age speaking), but I can clearly recall rolling my eyes and brushing aside entire regions BEFORE diving in with an open mind."

Anything you would like to see less of?
"Yucking the yums of others (guests included)! The world of wine is not the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants; one size does not fit all. Enjoy what suits you, encourage your contemporaries to do the same, and if you don’t have something nice to say… Perhaps we can agree that if wines meet the threshold of sustainable at minimum and we prioritize the selection of those that have ethical practices may agree that everything else is just preference?"

What is a great wine list, in your opinion?
"A great wine list tells a story. It makes sense with the food on the menu, the clientele in the seats and offers a variety of structures and profiles. I don’t believe that a list needs to have an ‘insert grape here’ from ‘insert region here’ but something that could fit the bill. A great list is the reason to go, but the experience that accompanies it is the reason to stay for the second bottle. Small and dynamic is as exciting as a deep cellar to me, especially when I can leave my selection in the hands of a capable sommelier."

What is your favourite go-to wine on a night off?
"Night off? I'm not familiar. Jokes aside, my most often ordered glasses of wine are Riesling with a flirty amount of residual sugar, salty whites or unsurprisingly, reds with elevated acidity."

What wine region in the world is the most interesting right now, in your opinion? And why?
"I am going to go ahead and pick two. One to study and one to drink; Chianti Classico and Etna. I am OBSESSED with both and keep selling them as event themes so I can keep digging deeper."

"In the case of Chianti Classico, I’m excited to see so much diversity! There really is something for everyone, and I am having the best time sharing the rustic classics, the polished beauties, and the ethereal newcomers through their subregional lenses. I guess I am just a fan of specific wines; wines that specifically express place, time and producer."

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