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Food + Drink

Cam Pinkney on What it Takes to Judge an International Wine Competition

You might know Cam Pinkney as the general manager of Ricardo’s Hideaway where, on any given evening, he can be seen extolling the virtues of rum. But there’s more to his beverage knowledge — Cam just happens to hold a WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) diploma, a pre-requisite to the Master of Wine program (of which there are only about 350 in the world).

Later this week, Cam will be travelling to London to be a judge at the International Wine & Spirit Competition. We chatted with him about this honour, the state of wine in Canada and what he plans on doing while in London.

How did you get your start in the world of wine?

I guess the real eye-opener for me was when I was enrolled in the Hospitality program at SAIT. I was selected to be an ambassador for the hospitality program where they sent myself and other students from four other faculties to Australia. I was fortunate enough to see numerous wine regions during my extended time there. I went back a couple years later to Australia and visited more wine regions while working. From there fine dining restaurants grew my knowledge of wines.

Can you tell us a bit more about the IWSC?

The International Wine & Spirit Competition is an organization that sets the international benchmark for quality wines and spirits. They receive entries from over 90 countries worldwide and the samples are judged by a panel according to its class. I will be judging the Canadian wine samples this year.

How does one become a judge for IWSC?

A few things definitely had to fall in line to be a wine judge for the IWSC. I applied for the role and then I went through the interview process where they have criteria to be a part of 400 judges from around the world where they assess candidates on their knowledge and experience. I completed my WSET Diploma in 2016 which is the prerequisite to the Master of Wine (MW) program where there are only around 350 in the world and this diploma sets you up knowledge wise about the world of wine, spirits, business and the ability to properly assess wines based on what is in the glass structurally. I have also had the opportunity to work around the world and network with some amazing people who have become mentors to me and this is where great references based on your work ethic and personality come in handy.

How does Canadian wine stack up to wine from other countries?

That’s a very good question and one that can be looked at in many ways depending who you ask. First off, I think Canada is doing great things with wine given our short history in comparison to some places in Europe. At this very competition, Mission Hill won Best Chardonnay in the World in 1994. MW’s were in disbelief, they tasted the wines for a second time and it won again. Secondly, you have so many intelligent and passionate people growing grapes, making wine, distributing wines and consumers asking for Canadian wine, that stacks up big in my books.

Are there any up-and-coming regions in Canada producing great wines? Any that would surprise us?

Wine regions are always evolving and there are areas in Nova Scotia producing some great sparkling wine, to an area in British Columbia called Similkameen producing elegant Rieslings and Pinot Noir. There are some linear wines from the Niagra Penninsula to big reds from down in Osoyoos to some masterfully crafted wines from Time Winery and Culmina Winery. Step out of your comfort zone when in a restaurant or wine store, ask questions, you could surprise yourself for sure.

What current trends are you seeing in Calgary wine consumption?

I am definitely seeing a demand for quality wine at an affordable price in the restaurants. National has had great success with their half price wine on Tuesdays and happy hour all day Monday. In the retail aspect, less sweet wine and a focus on single varietal wines from Washington and Oregon are increasing in demand along with mid- to high-tier Grower Champagne. Education of wine drinkers has been improving over the years and I think consumers are looking at drinking specific wines to pair with what they’re eating. Sounds pretty simple but this increased focus on pairing has led to hospitality professionals having to sharpen their skills to ensure they provide a great level of service.

What is the one thing readers can do immediately to up their wine enjoyment game?

I like to pick one single varietal from different parts of the world. Use Sauvignon Blanc for example in these regions — Marlborough, New Zealand, Loire Valley, France and Napa Valley in California. Try them all side by side with friends and note the differences. You could even call your local wine shop and ask them to pick three wines and brown bag them so when you pick them up, you don’t know what it is. Select based on price point, or a region of the world. Let them know that you want classic examples, single varietals and even let them know that you’re new at this. They should guide you in the right direction. Invite some friends over and talk about each wine, why you like it and maybe why you don’t but treat them all fairly.

What is your favourite bottle of wine at the moment? Where can we get it?

I am loving wines out of Spain at the moment as they are bright with fruit, medium acidity and work well with a variety of foods. Lopez de Haro makes a Tempranillo (Tempra-knee-yo) that will slide your socks off it’s so smooth. Tart red fruit, fine tannins with a little herb and tobacco notes. You can get this poured by the glass at Ricardo’s Hideaway. Highlander Liquor should have this on the shelf as well.

How do you develop wine lists for places like National and Ricardo’s that are known for specializing in other types of alcohol?

You have to assess a lot of different factors such as the food menu being offered, price point, quality of the product, all the way to the business relationships and how they help train the staff. In the end, you need to diversify your menus as guests have many preferences. Some guests only drink beer, some wine, and others maybe just spirits. Expanding beverage selections for a variety of guests and being known for all-around quality in different beverage categories is something I have focused on while developing the beverage program for the National brand and Ricardo’s.

What’s your current food/wine pairing obsession?

Dry Riesling! Spicy food. The Jerk Chicken at Ricardo’s or the Alberta Beef Short Rib bowl at National. Perfection. Throw some Oysters in the mix and I am dreaming of sitting on a patio.

Aside from IWSC, what are you looking forward to in London? Where will you eat? Drink? Any sight-seeing planned?

In London, I have plans to see the art museums and the many historic buildings there. I have reservations at a couple Michelin-Star restaurants, but last minute arrangements are all part of the fun too. I will be heading to Bordeaux to visit Chateau Mouton Rothschild with some friends in the MW program, taste history in a glass and view the historic paintings that have become the visual tradition for their wine labels.

Does all this talk of wine make you want to go out and drink every night this week? Lucky, you, we have a guide to the best places in Calgary for late-night drinks.