The Performer: Master sommelier John Szabo

On keeping your cool, getting your hands dirty and why bias can actually be a good thing.

In 2004, John Szabo became Canada’s first master sommelier. Since then, he’s worked as a wine importer, consultant, educator and writer. But the 38-year-old isn’t resting on his laurels. Within the next year, he plans to launch a line of name-brand wine cellars, and a software system that will help restaurants keep track of their wine. He also recently accepted the role of beverage director at Toronto’s new Trump Tower. He spoke with Canadian Business associate editor Jacqueline Nelson.

Languages spoken: 5 (English, French, Spanish, Italian and Hungarian)

As a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers: 7 years

Bottles produced per year from the Kekfrankos grape at his winery in Hungary: 4,000-5,000

The year of the winery’s first release, under the J&J label (Szabo didn’t think the wine produced in 2004 and 2005 was good enough to release): 2006

Number of bottles in his personal collection (he keeps some of the best in his mother’s cellar): 2,000

What does it take to qualify as a master sommelier?
These days, it’s a four-level program, but in my day it was only three. In the upper levels, the pass rate is very low. Only about four or five of the 50 people that sit an exam will pass in a good scenario. When I signed up for my advanced-level examination in Birmingham, U.K., I passed on my first go through. It’s not that common to pass on your first try. It was a good stroke of luck. And then, a year and a half later, they accepted me to sit for the master’s exam in London. I passed that on my first try too, which is even more rare — and even more lucky.

Was there a lot of pressure in those examinations?
Absolutely. A lot of it is just keeping your cool. If you’ve made it to that level, then chances are that you know what you need to know to pass the exam. But something like decanting a bottle of red wine, which I’ve done a thousand times — which all of the candidates have done a thousand times — it’s not really your ability to open the bottle, it’s your ability to deal with the pressure [of the situation]. Imagine the Queen of England rolls in and orders a bottle of bubbly — you need to be able to perform under those kind of extreme circumstances.

You have a second-degree black belt in karate. Did that training help you cope?
It’s going to sound kind of corny, but a lot of the visualization that you do to prepare [in karate], I was doing for the service part of the exam. It’s essentially a mock-up restaurant scenario where you perform a number of tasks such as identifying grape varieties or regions. Martial arts increased my ability to calm my mind and get rid of all the external influences that affect performance, and focus on the task at hand.

You also own a small winery in Hungary. Why the leap into wine-making?
I bought the winery with my business partner in 2002, just before Hungary joined the European Union. I knew that within the EU all vineyard land is a fixed commodity, so one would assume that any land registered as a vineyard would increase in value.

But my primary interest was just to get my hands dirty and make wine. I was doing more writing and critiquing, and I figured that if I’m going to criticize someone else’s wine, I’d better damn well know how to make it myself. It would be like a restaurant critic who’s never cooked or worked in a kitchen — seems a bit dodgy in my view. I gained the experience, and suffered through the trials and tribulations to gain a deeper understanding. And I have to say, it dramatically changed the way I will review a wine.

For even the most practised tasters, it can be hard to avoid bias based on region, label or winemaker. Is that a challenge for you?
We could talk about this all day, but I’ll try to keep my answer short: yes. We’re all human, and we’re all influenced by label, price, whether the winemaker is a nice guy. If you want pure, honest, straightforward opinion: blind tasting. Give me 1,000 wines that I know nothing about. I’ll score them some way, and have a relative comparison. That said, I think it’s crucial as a so-called “expert” to have that extra layer of knowledge.

So you believe that some bias is actually an asset in an expert?
I would expect an expert in any field to know everything about that subject. A blind tasting is just a snapshot of that liquid at that moment in time. Say you’ve got a young vintage, a 2009, and it’s super tight — you can’t smell anything, and it was just bottled two weeks ago. In a blind tasting, you can’t know any of those things, so you dismiss it as an uninteresting wine. But, sitting with the winemaker, you may learn that when just bottled, this producer’s wines are always tight. If you give them two or three years, though, they’re going to blossom and turn into something extraordinary. You know this because you’ve tasted two or three vintages. If you’re a wine expert, I’d expect you to guide me in that. I want that bias, as a drinker.

You used to be Canada’s only master sommelier, but two others have recently achieved that qualification. Is the industry big enough for other experts?
The more the merrier, I say. When I passed in 2004, nobody had heard of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the details behind it were ignored by most. It’s great that the opportunities are growing, but I’d have to say there isn’t a ton of room in the business yet. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the country doing the mix of things I’m doing.

Do you struggle to keep your palate fresh with the constant tastings?
It’s really physically demanding. At the end of a day with over 100 wines to taste, I’m exhausted. It takes me a day to recover. That’s a beer night, or a water night. Alcohol is a poison, after all. Obviously, health is key. I train six to seven days per week. Karate is part of it, but I’m at the gym almost every day. I just keep fit and eat well.

How do you define success?
I suppose beyond the obvious personal satisfaction of having something new to do every day, the hard reality of making sure your mortgage is paid and there’s a bottle of wine on the table every night, that’s one small measure of success. And ultimately, contributing to this profession that makes people happy. If I hear someone in the restaurant say, “Wow, that was great, whatever that grape was, with the pretty label, I loved it,” I’m satisfied.

So even though you’re surrounded by wine all day, you still want to come home to a bottle on the table?
Well, there’s John Szabo the wine critic, reviewer and a thousand things, but then there’s John Szabo the man, who loves wine. That’s why I got into it in the first place. If I can sit down with a meal I’ve cooked myself, preferably, and select a bottle of wine not because it was rated highly by me or anyone else, but because it pairs perfectly with the food, the moment and the mood, then I’m a happy camper.