Meeting The Master

Canada's only master sommelier, John Szabo, on earning his stripes and opening a bottle worth thousands.

When it comes to opening wine, top sommelier John Szabo trusts his standard, no-frills Pulltap's corkscrew. In fact, he carries it with him at all times. “That's all you really need,” he says. “If you're locked in a cellar somewhere, you're not going to die of thirst.” As Canada's only master sommelier, Toronto-based Szabo is rarely faced with thirst. He tastes 3,000 to 4,000 wines a year, sometimes more.

To prepare for his master sommelier exam in London last November, Szabo combined seven years of independent study with stints as a waiter and a cook in Ontario and France. They weren't without their stressful moments: while working a 40th birthday party at Michael Stadtlander's Eigensinn Farm eatery a few years ago, Szabo gingerly uncorked the most expensive bottle he's ever opened: a 1975 Chateau d'Yquem, worth thousands of dollars. His years of hard work paid off: last year Szabo was awarded the Court of Master Sommeliers' Chivas Regal Trophy, which goes to the person who passes the exam on the first try and also scores the highest.

Szabo put his wine wisdom to work as an educator. In 2002, he started the Centre for Vine Affairs to promote wine culture in Toronto. He offers courses and tasting seminars, oversees many restaurant wine lists and trains staff. He says he's never maimed anyone with a champagne cork, but sometimes even the experts make mistakes. Recently, Szabo was not paying quite enough attention while showing a group of restaurateurs how to open a bottle of champagne. “The cork burst out of the bottle, champagne spilled over and covered the laptop I was using for a PowerPoint presentation. There I was with a black screen,” he says, “and a half bottle of champagne. 'That's not how you do it, ladies and gentlemen.'”