Sommelier Interview: Zoltan Szabo

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 09-11-2013

Zoltan Zsabo

Zoltan Zsabo

On my recent tour of Greece (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3) I got to spend quite a bit of time with Zoltan Szabo, the sommelier at the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Toronto. Zoltan’s personality is infectious — and he kept our entire group smiling.

Zoltan’s path to his current position is rather unique. Before coming to Canada, he operated a booze boutique in his native Transylvania. When he arrived in Toronto, he came without any money and without any fluency in English, but soon landed a job as a dishwasher of a highly reputable restaurant. He quickly worked his way up, eventually becoming the  maître d.

In 1999, Zoltan headed to school to become a sommelier and has since gained recognition as one of the top sommeliers in Canada. When we hung out in Greece, it was obvious that his knowledge of wine is vast. And his appreciation of wine is second to none.

Check out our interview with Zoltan below the fold.

When and how did you fall in love with wine?

I studied oenology and viticulture back in high school, as my school in Sepsiszentgyorgy, Transylvania focused on agriculture. My parents’ and grandparents’ home winemaking activities also influenced me.

How did you end up a sommelier?

I ended up in the restaurant business — and with my passion for wine, it just made perfect sense.

What type of training or experience prepared you to become a sommelier?

I am a diploma graduate of the International Sommelier Guild and eventually will continue studies via the WSET and Court of Master Sommeliers.

How did you end up at your current job?

I have recently completed an agreement with the Trump International Hotel & Tower. The sommelier position was suggested by a friend and colleague initially, and after meeting with the co-proprietors of the property for a few minutes, I was hired on the spot.

Tell us something interesting about your wine program.

It’s a 500+ label wine list, evenly divided between New and Old World, with many off-the-beaten-path options, and an emphasis on organic, biodynamic and natural wines. Numerous grower Champagnes, several wines by-the- glass from each category, and excellent Sherry list.

If you could only pick one bottle, what would you order off your own list — and why?

Most probably a Riesling from the Mosel or Niagara Peninsula. I love Riesling because of its stylistic versatility, reasonable pricing, and excellent compatibility with many food items. But it’s also great to just drink it on its own.

What’s the best value on your list?

Wines from Greece, the Iberian peninsula (Portuguese and Spanish), and some wines from the Southern Hemisphere.

Forget about your wine list. What wines are you most excited about right now? And why?

Yet again, Greek and Spanish, plus Austrian, Hungarian, Sherry, and of course, those local, especially from Prince Edward County and the Niagara Peninsula, including many fabulous sparkling wines.

What is something that excites you about Canadian wine that most people wouldn’t think of?

Prince Edward County Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are like Burgundy due to limestone soils and a beneficial, cool climate.

Bordeaux blends from the Niagara Peninsula, especially from warm vintages like 2005, 2007, and 2012, are also outstanding. We have some superb Indian Summers around here.

Icewine is a given due to consistently cold and longer winters. Both regions are producing spectacular sparkling wine, most of classic method, again because of beneficial cool climates.

And then we have the picturesque Lake Erie North Shore, including Pelee Island. The southernmost area in Canada for grape growing, it was the first area planted under vitis vinifera back at the end of 1800s. It’s a warm, beautiful place — surrounded by the turquoise shallow water shores of Lake Erie, with lighthouses and unique fauna, it’s often called “the Bermuda of Canada.”

What do you like to drink?

Burgundy, Barbaresco, Barolo, Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, indigenous wines from Hungary, Greek Assyrtiko, classic, old school Rioja, Champagne and other sparkling wines, and MORE, depending on season, reason, mood and company!

Do you enjoy beer? What about hard liquor?

Of course, especially a great palate-cleansing lager after a long and grueling wine tasting. The artisanal beer market is growing in Ontario and some fantastic locally brewed choices are available. I also enjoy Belgian, German, Romanian and Chinese beers occasionally, but I abstain from high alcohol, flavored, and turbo-charged beers. And I like Fernet Branca and Unicum, a shot, or two, occasionally, after a nice meal, as a digestif.

What is most rewarding about your job?

People. Meeting interesting people, having a conversation, making them smile and be happy. I enjoy doing everything possible to have customers enjoy the dining experience.

What’s least rewarding about your job?

Nothing, really.

If you weren’t a sommelier, and could do anything, what would you be doing?

Marketing or, politics.

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