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A Taste of Change: Bold steps lead to big rewards

A Taste of Change: Bold steps lead to big rewards

Written On: 27 September, 2017
Category: Alumni
Related programs:  Hotel and Restaurant Management

Wine and food. According to the experts, there’s an increased interest worldwide in both. Knowing about wine, and being able to successfully pair it with meals, is an in-demand skill.

Two Assiniboine graduates have taken the lessons they learned in college, and the inspiration they found that red their passion, and are parlaying it into careers in a burgeoning industry. They are becoming sommeliers.

“(Instructor) Kyle Zalluski was definitely a huge part in building my interest in wine,” said 27-year-old Brendan Villafana, a Brandonite who now works as a server and bartender at one of Winnipeg’s premier restaurants, 529 Wellington. “And I was lucky enough to do the wine production tour with Niagara College a couple of times.”

The annual intensive week in Niagara, taking courses with some of Canada’s leading wine professionals and tasting wines at dozens of area wineries, is something students in the Hotel and Restaurant Management and the Culinary Arts programs experience. The trip can be life-altering for some, as Villafana discovered.

“I’ve always known I wanted to be in the industry, but definitely Assiniboine turned me on to the sommelier career path,” he said.

For Sara McDonald, the exposure to something completely foreign to her in Assiniboine’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program was a turning point.

“When I arrived at Assiniboine, I was not drinking wine—I knew nothing about it,” McDonald said earnestly. “For me, it was actually one of the training classes we took for Grey Owl—Kyle was introducing us to the wines we were going to be using in our restaurant. And he said, ‘Remember, in the end, this is all just grape juice.’

“He asked us what we could smell and taste and everybody was saying all kinds of things like ‘cherry’ and ‘lemon,’” McDonald recalled. “Then I asked when they added the fruit juice.”

She said Zalluski laughed good-naturedly, and told her those flavours weren’t added to wine—they became apparent depending on how the wine was made, which grapes were used, the climatic conditions, and the soils in which the grapes were grown. “So my interest was piqued right from that moment,” McDonald said. “I have a very curious personality and I just ran with it. I figured, ‘There must be a little more to this than I originally thought.’ On my own I started to buy wine books and do research—I just dove right in.”

Now McDonald works at Banville & Jones Wine Co., a private wine store in Winnipeg, which is also home to its educational arm, Wine & Drinks College Manitoba. Villafana and McDonald have taken their level three WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) course, and the next step for both is to achieve their diploma, which will certify them as professional sommeliers.

Andrea Eby, one of many sommeliers who works at Banville & Jones and taught Villafana and McDonald at the Wine & Drinks College, said the training the two grads received at Assiniboine really helped them achieve the success they’ve enjoyed thus far. “There’s a palpable level of enthusiasm they’ve brought to the classes,” Eby said. “(They) came in with (a lot) of knowledge, and the Niagara trip brings an awareness and a whole different level of knowledge. And that’s an advantage.”

Eby said there’s an emerging market for the skills Villafana and McDonald will possess once they get their sommelier diplomas. And she said part of the Wine & Drinks College’s mandate, and its goal, is to advance the profession in Manitoba so there are even more opportunities for graduates who want to work with wine.

It’ll take a few years for Villafana and McDonald to achieve their sommelier designations, but while they look forward to doing so, and have their own dreams for the future, both are extremely content with what they’re doing now. Villafana credited 529 Wellington sommelier Christopher Sprague, who is also wine director for WOW! Hospitality Concepts, with being a tremendous inspiration and fountain of knowledge.

“Right now, I’m just soaking in as much as possible,” Villafana said. “Maybe operating an establishment of my own down the road might be something I’d consider, but at 529, I’m working with some great guys. Christopher—his knowledge is unbelievable. We work with a 30-page wine list and he can tell you something specific about every one of them. So he’s definitely great to learn from; he’s one of the best around.”

McDonald, too, said she plans to remain at Banville & Jones. “Maybe one day I’ll be working in a restaurant and maybe managing the cellar or designing the wine list so that things will come full circle for me, and I can still be involved in both food and wine,” McDonald said. “But right now, I really love my job. And I think the aspiration for me is to just further my wine education, and I’ll do that by continuing on with Banville as well as pursuing more knowledge.”

When McDonald was initially exploring her options before deciding which post-secondary institution to attend, she knew she wanted to find something to do with food, since she had fond memories of spending time in the kitchen with her grandmother. But when she “stumbled onto” the Hotel and Restaurant Management program, it seemed tailor-made for her. And coming to Assiniboine from her home in Sioux Lookout, ON was the best choice she could possibly have made.

“I am extremely grateful that I took the path of Assiniboine,” McDonald said. “The instructors were nothing but helpful— really taking the time and showing the interest not just in me as a student, but me as a person. The industry is really growing and constantly evolving and Assiniboine has a really good handle on that. The program is so hands-on and it’s very progressive—they see the trends that are coming. The program is very up-to-date. They really know what’s out there.”

Brendan Villafana

Hotel and Restaurant Management alumni Brendan Villafana (above, class of ’14) and Sara McDonald (below, class of ’16).

Sara McDonald