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James Treadwell
Food & Wine People

James Treadwell’s path to being Ontario’s most supportive sommelier

September 6, 2023

It’s 30 minutes until lunch service on a June morning as the summer season ramps up in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Coming from a meeting, James Treadwell stows his knapsack on a bar stool and heads outside with front-of-house staff discussing sections and table numbers and ensuring the 40-seat covered patio is ready. Saying hello to a cook, he sits at a two-top and segues smoothly from directing customer-service details in the dining room to discussing his role as sommelier – and the sommelier’s role in general – at Treadwell Cuisine.

Treadwell’s father, Stephen, opened the restaurant in 2006 with field-to-fork values that have established Treadwell Cuisine as a pioneer; Toronto-born James was involved in the landmark restaurant from its inception.

Read Also: Sommelier Q&A: James Peden is elevating the wine experience in Toronto

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree specializing in political science and history at Carleton University, his further oenological training would see him head overseas for a broader wine experience. Like French authors and gastronomes Dumas père and Dumas fils, that experience included following his father’s footsteps.

“I worked at the same place my dad worked when we were both in our twenties – Chewton Glen, a Michelin-starred Relais & Châteaux on England’s south coast. It was amazing, and I was a young sommelier. It was prior to the recession, and people were spending money. You’d think: what are we opening tonight? A great Bordeaux, a Burgundy, a vintage port? You name it. The experience, while challenging, really gave me great perspective. There’s wine service – and then there’s wine service in an environment like that,” he says with a rhetorical flourish.

But he clarifies that Treadwell, an elegant but casual 30-seat restaurant, is not striving for Chewton Glen-level formality though he says elements of his Hampshire experience have been part the restaurant’s wine service from opening day some 17 years ago.

James Treadwell

James Treadwell serving customers at his family’s Niagara-based restaurant, Treadwell Cuisine.

Treadwell holds certification from the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers, Wine & Spirit Education Trust-Level 3 and Court of Master Sommeliers, but he defines “sommeliers” not only by their mastery of technical terms like Botrytis cinerea, volatile acidity or “grippy tannins,” but also their expertise in individualized guest service and wine exploration: a central aspect of what a sommelier is – and does – according to Treadwell, is crafting beverage experiences based on guests’ expectations.

The foundation for that aligns with the restaurant’s local, taste-of-place philosophy. Like the food menu, Treadwell foregrounds what he calls “the best of Niagara viticulture” within a relatively young grape-growing region and wine industry. It was a rare approach indeed in 2006 that saw a wine program with 70 different wines, roughly 50 of which were from the immediate area, when most wine lists at comparable restaurants were heavily Italian, French and American, he notes. “An important aspect of being a sommelier is that you are, in a way, a concierge. Especially in a region like ours where you’re forging relationships with guests so they feel comfortable asking questions on where they should be going when it comes to local wine.”

Treadwell

At Treadwell Cuisine, locally sourced wine plays a major role in the restaurant’s farm to table approach.

The earliest days of Treadwell saw a cellar of 80 percent or even 90 percent local wines; he estimates it’s now about 60 percent. Of course, when considering 700 selections, that means a lot of Ontario wines. It represents a complex range – and simultaneously sommeliers face the vagaries of serving today’s wide demographic of educated wine lovers, compared to 2006. That means listening to your guests, Treadwell says. It’s Restaurant 101: if a customer is after a Burgundy, Champagne or something from California’s Russian River Valley AVA rather than a dinner pairing of Ontario wines, he says it’s up to the wine program to curate that.

“Sommeliers have to understand that the wine list is not so much about them as it is about the guest. They’re taking the easy way out just showing their own wine preferences. Sommeliers must understand their role in educating consumers. If guests only experience the same types of wines, they’ll never learn, never grow.”

“I know that Treadwell will continue to have a major role to play for the growth of the wine industry in this province…”

At the end of the day, any restaurateur knows it’s good for the bottom line if customers are buying wine, but Treadwell sees sales through the prism of Niagara producers and with a dedication to how his wine program supports local. He says that it’s “critically important” that he, Treadwell restaurant, and its wine team play an integral role in educating customers about Niagara producers, both large and small.

A few minutes after a waiter sets out an easel sign signaling that the restaurant is now open, customers wander in. Treadwell observes a couple at a breezy table nearby, not knowing whether they’ll choose a Niagara wine or Old World – or if they will even order beverage alcohol at all: the world has changed since the pandemic, and perhaps especially the restaurant industry. He says they’ve been “very fortunate” to have been able to continue to invest in their wine program.

Treadwell

Treadwell Cuisine was named to VineRoutes’ list of 25 Top Restaurants in Ontario in 2022 and its cellar holds the most Ontario wines of any restaurant.

Citing the fact that Treadwell likely has the largest selection of Ontario wines anywhere in the world – truly a boon to Ontario wine lovers – he says activity in their cellar, no matter the wine’s country of origin, has been robust. He estimates that the last 18 months have been – “I don’t want to gloat,” he adds quickly – some of Treadwell’s best months ever in terms of sales. “I think a lot of people, after the pandemic, are visiting for full experiences, sitting down here to four courses with wine at dinner. Even at lunch. A lot of guests are staying for multiple courses.”

The unique terroir of the Niagara peninsula contributes to building credible – and delicious – wine programs for sommeliers to dig into, he maintains. Pointing to climatic and soil differences compared to the limestone-rich soils and elevations on the bench, he says there are certain varietals that do much better here than they would over on the bench, and vice versa. Yet, he’s no Niagara-wine Pollyanna: “We still grow varietals here that I don’t think we should grow.”

But ask him for his current favourites, and he’s cagey and discreet, explaining one day it might be a riesling but another it’s a Bordeaux before acknowledging several area producers who’ve taken “their game” to the next level. “When you look back over the last 17 years of operating this restaurant, it’s amazing how much better Niagara producers are in terms of consistency. And some of the most dynamic wines produced in Ontario right now are no more than a thousand cases.”

“Sommeliers have to understand that the wine list is not so much about them as it is about the guest.”

Scanning the patio as more customers arrive, Treadwell sips water before describing sommeliers as “partners” to restaurateurs in helping a restaurant’s profitability. “They don’t just taste wines. Of course, they ensure the beverage program is profitable, but it’s also about the guest having an amazing experience – which ultimately leads to more profitability as a company.”

But as the conversation wraps up, Treadwell stresses the essential qualitative “personal” role of sommeliers rather than merely their quantitative contribution to a healthy balance sheet. After all, there’s wine service – and then there’s wine service.

“I’m continuing to mentor and develop young individuals as they enter this industry and take great pride in the success of the restaurant and our staff, especially on the wine side,” he says. “I know that Treadwell will continue to have a major role to play for the growth of the wine industry in this province and mentoring and cultivating its new talent.”

 


Andrew CoppolinoRestaurant reviewer, book author and food columnist, Andrew Coppolino’s work has published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the United States and England. In 2022, he was the “Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence” at the Stratford Chefs School – a place where he has also taught at in addition to teaching at Conestoga College School of Culinary Arts. His writing has been dedicated to telling the stories and narratives of food and promoting and nurturing culinary businesses at the same time advocating for local chefs, restaurants and food businesses.

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