Today we are continuing our Fortnight of Wine with wine connoisseur Mihai Gutuescu. Mihai is the Manager at Vineyards, Ottawa’s Wine Bar Bistro on York Street, where they offer over 300 types of wine, 80 of them by the glass. Mihai was kind enough to sit down with us to share his knowledge of wine and to help us normal people understand the ins and outs of this classic drink.
Welcome to FMMS’ Fortnight of Wine! As the harvest season approaches, we thought it would be the perfect time to take a deep dive into that most wonderful of elixirs. Over the next two weeks, we’ll have a few more posts than usual as we explore wine’s ins and outs, after which we’ll be be back to our regularly scheduled programming. So grab a glass of your favourite and read on, for as Andre Simon said, “Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.”
Monday, September 15 – A Brief History of Wine
Wednesday, September 17 – Varieties of Wine
Friday, September 19 – Sangria
Monday, September 22 – Conversations with a Wine Connoisseur
Wednesday, September 24 – Our Wine Tasting Experience
Friday, September 26 – Conversations with a Winemaker
FMMS: Mihai, thanks so much for sitting with us! Can you tell us how this all started for you? How did you become interested in wine?
MG: Thank you so much for having me. My first taste of wine may have been while just a kid. I am originally from Romania and I guess alcohol is viewed differently in Europe. I remember having wine with a bit of Pepsi when I was very little at the dinner table. I never really viewed wine as something special, and to be honest, it is still on par with other things that I or anyone else would enjoy in a social setting. I became more knowledgeable about wine at my first job as a bartender.
FMMS: How did you learn what you now know about wine?
MG: I mostly learned through drinking and trying different wines. I tried reading a book once and it seemed like a chore rather than one of life’s perks. Trying different wines is my preferred way of learning about the available varieties that are out there. I suppose I have an analytical mind as I always think about what I taste. This works very well for me, as my main role at Vineyards is to help people find what they want.
We are all so different and wine is a very personal preference. In my experience, speaking about wine in specific flavour profiles that have been fine-tuned and analysed is like speaking a different language for most people. But wine came long before any of this analysis. I think what kept driving me towards trying more and adding to my library was the connections it helped me form with customers. Listening to their stories – when they had a certain wine on their vacation, where they had it, the type and how it tasted to them on that occasion. These stories would help me put together a jigsaw puzzle. If I can recreate that feeling they are describing, then I can build some trust with them. Then I can take them on a trip, suggesting wines that have left their mark in my mind. It is a very personal experience for me. Wine is like music in that way.
FMMS: Can you tell me a little bit about the concept of Vineyards, what inspired it?
MG: Vineyards was not my concept. What I know is that it came to life in 1979. I took over in April 2013. We have changed some things around. The main difference is the service at the table. Before hand, you would have to get up and go to the bar to get a drink. This was alright, however, once you had discussed what you wanted and found it, getting up a few times and leaving your guests behind seemed illogical. Today at Vineyards you can come up to the bar and have some samples, and find what works for you. Once that’s done, you can enjoy your evening while being served at your table. We still have many regulars that come to the bar out of habit. Mainly our goal is to have a comfortable, laid back, relaxing experience; something you would find in a neighbourhood bar, but located in downtown Ottawa. We could be Ottawa’s neighbourhood bar (laughs). I’ll work on that and put it in some advertising. Seriously though, we have people returning to us every time they are in Ottawa from all over the world. It really gives me a giggle when I see their reaction when you greet them like old friends. Service seems to have gotten lost in most places. I hope to fill that gap.
FMMS: What sort of experience are you hoping to create for those who visit Vineyards?
MG: As far as wine, beer and spirits, I would like to have a laid back environment. Many people have some reservations going to a place called “a wine bar”. Sometimes staff just want to show off their knowledge and sadly, that is not a personal experience. What we aim for is a memorable stay. We want people to feel like they are in our living room chatting about what we made for dinner and what booze is in the kitchen. I realized I wanted to be a bartender at this kind of house party. We want people to feel comfortable enough to say “I’m not really sure what I want. Heck, I don’t know what “oaked” means or what “tannins” are but this is what I am in the mood for so let’s try some things”. In a sense, the wine, beer, and scotch have to take second place to the atmosphere in order for it to be fully enjoyed. Nothing ruins a good drink or meal like an overly stuffy, sterile atmosphere.
FMMS: Speaking about enjoying the quality of wine, do we really have to spend an arm and a leg to get good quality?
MG: Yes and no. What is good quality? Is quality something you like or something someone else likes? Liquor in Ontario is very overpriced. A California bottle that is $15 dollars at the LCBO probably costs $5 in California. I think we can all keep our arms and legs and look for value instead. Value also helps us try new things. Pick a price point that you are comfortable with. For example, I will usually hang out in the $15 to $20 dollar range. So when I go to the store, I’ll get a bottle at $7 to $10, one at $15 to $20, and one at $20 to $25, and then I’ll compare them. You don’t need to sit down and take a blind taste test, but just be aware of the differences as you drink them throughout the day or week. Once in a while, splurge. But I would suggest saving this moment for when you are out of province or out of country, to really make it count.
FMMS: What do you think is the most versatile wine?
MG: Versatile? A bottle that doesn’t do anything exceptionally. It depends on the foods being ordered, and again, it depends on the customer. If it’s a table of four and they want to share a bottle, it gets tricky to suggest any accepted pairings unless they are all having the same dish. The wine I use the most is the Pinotage and Gruner Veltliner.
FMMS: Which do you prefer more: red or white wines?
MG: If I’m out to dinner, I prefer white, but if I am at home, I prefer red.
FMMS: What are your favourite wines? Are there any regions that have become a favourite for you?
MG: Barolo has been my favorite as long as I can remember. Unfortunately a good Barolo will lighten your pocket quite a bit, so I don’t usually have it unless I’m travelling.
FMMS: Do certain wines really pair well with certain foods, or does it all come down to personal preference?
MG: There are certainly wines that compliment and enhance the flavours when paired with foods. Countless Sommeliers wouldn’t have a job otherwise! But the most important thing to me is that the customer to have an enjoyable experience. It’s not about me and what I think about wine. It’s about you and what you think. My job is to figure out what you think is the perfect wine for you, at that moment, and then facilitate that.
FMMS: What is your favourite food and wine combination?
MG: Personally, my favourite is the one pairing that almost made me rethink the way life was lived. It was Muscat and Foie Gras. I thought I died and went to heaven!
FMMS: Wow! With so much choice and so much information, what do you find is the biggest misconception about wine?
MG: The biggest misconception is not directly about wine; it is about wine culture. The overwhelming consensus seems to be that this culture is something that you need to be a part of. Wine is part of life. Just like any of life’s pleasures. No membership is required.
FMMS: That’s really nice to hear. For us new wine drinkers, are there certain wines you would recommend to us?
MG: Most people start with whites and move on to reds well before they start to understand the subtle nuances of white wines. Later in life, they migrate back to white to look for more interesting and less overpowering character of white wines. I would suggest if you have never had wine start with whatever is on the table. I say this because wine is best enjoyed with company. The wine will change based on your mood. It will comfort or boost your sense of humour. Approach wine the way you approach life.
FMMS: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to increase his/her knowledge on wine?
MG: My advice is figure out what wine is for you and what you want from it. You can get a wine education almost anywhere now. You can enroll in a class, buy a book, or just try and see what you like. I suppose the most important part of it is to know who you are and how it will fit in your life.
FMMS: Mihai, this has been a lot of fun for us. I’m so happy you were able to take the time to shed some light on wine and help us understand it a little better. Thank to you much!
MG: It’s been my pleasure thank you again for having me.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to check back with us on Wednesday when we will unveil our Wine Tasting experience at Vineyards and showcase some of our new favourite wines!