The Sommelier in the next cubicle

Few execs have a wine degree

Prepping a blind tasting at Bruce Wallner’s Sommelier factory. (Photograph by Jennifer Roberts; iStock)

Prepping a blind tasting at Bruce Wallner’s Sommelier factory.
(Photograph by Jennifer Roberts; iStock)

It sounds like the setup for the world’s least offensive joke: an investment banker, a management consultant and an ER doctor walk into a Toronto classroom and crack a bottle of wine. The punch line for Ryan Doornbos (the consultant) and his classmates comes a year later when they pass their final exam and officially add “sommelier” to their resumés. The joke is funnier after a few glasses of Burgundy.

Doornbos is one of a growing number of weekend wine warriors putting their passion to the test. The 33-year-old executive enrolled in the year-long Certified Sommelier Certificate program at Toronto’s George Brown College in 2011 after deciding that “if I was going to study wine, I wanted to do it at a high level and come out of it with a title people recognized.”

The idea of moonlighting as a wine connoisseur has become decidedly hip in recent years. Last December, ex–LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy hosted a wine-tasting on a Coachella-sponsored cruise, and author Jay McInerney scored a wine column in The Wall Street Journal. But ascending from those ranks to become a certified sommelier is not for the faint of heart. The course at George Brown demands more than 250 hours in the classroom and covers everything from winemaking theory to rules for food pairing to the proper technique for opening Champagne (whisper, yes; pop, no). It also requires an unpaid 60-hour “stage” at a restaurant. “Sometimes, I’d have to duck out of class to deal with urgent business,” says Doornbos. Nor are sommelier programs for the slim of wallet. Tuition at George Brown is around $4,500. “In one year, I tasted 1,200 wines,” says Doornbos. “A lot of that was in the program, but I probably spent another $4,000 outside the classroom.”

One of Doornbos’s instructors at George Brown, master sommelier Bruce Wallner, wasn’t sure he liked the idea of sharing a sommelier title with people outside the industry. “I fought against that for a long time,” says Wallner, who works several nights a week at Toronto’s Mideastro restaurant. “When you need a plumber, you don’t call a plumbing aficionado who’s actually a psychologist. But I changed my mind after the enthusiasts in my course performed better than the career servers.”

So, what do the executives win by passing their final exam? A foot in the wine business, if they want one. Michelle Paris, the investment banker in Doornbos’s class, used her degree to launch a career change. She’s now a licensed wine import agent and even owns her own vineyard in Argentina making Malbec under the label MouthWater.

There’s another benefit of the education. “People sometimes ask me if I drink more expensive wine now that I’m a sommelier,” says Doornbos. “But the average price I spend on a bottle has probably dropped by half. I’m no longer buying with that group that’s chasing famous labels and scores from magazines. I’m driven more by curiosity, toward unique wines I haven’t tried yet.”

What goes with fish tacos?*


Prestige Picpoul de Pinet 2011

“It has high acidity to balance the fat and lots of citrus, to bring out the flavour of the fish”



Boutari Santorini 2010

“Same thing. The citrusy mineral balance works much like squeezing a lime on a taco”




“Not everyone thinks of wine with tacos. The classic match would be beer. On a patio.”

Market prices

*according to Ryan Doornbos, management consultant and accredited sommelier



Wait. Isn’t all wine the natural result of grapes fermenting? Yeah, sorta. But then there are pesticides, commercial yeasts and, controversially, the use of sulphur dioxide as a preservative. The driving principle behind natural wines: do as little as possible to the grapes. Grow organic, let wild yeasts develop on the skins. The resulting wine is rawer, lower-alcohol and, often, a little funky. (U.S. writer Alice Feiring coined the flavour “puppy’s breath.”) For more on organic and natural wines in Canada, visit