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James Peden
People Food & Wine

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

April 4, 2023

James Peden has spent much of his life immersed in the hospitality industry. Born and raised in Mississauga, Ontario, he began his career at his family-owned banquet hall, where his passion for food, beverage and all things hospitality, was sparked.

He dedicated himself to exploring all avenues to expand both his knowledge and hands-on experience; his early career as a server and bartender afforded him opportunities at fine-dining restaurants throughout Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Read Also: Ask a Somm: How to properly store and serve your wine

It was in Niagara that James discovered a new obsession: the art of wine. After accumulating more than 10+ years of experience and training, James passed his Advanced Sommelier Certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2019. He is currently studying for the Master Sommelier (MS) Diploma.

In September 2019, James was hired by Canada’s foremost events and entertainment company, Liberty Entertainment Group as wine director across its restaurant properties and special events venues (including BlueBlood Steakhouse at Casa Loma and the Michelin Starred Don Alfonso 1890, located at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel).

After building and training an impressive team of sommeliers and managers, he was promoted to director of operations in 2021. Most recently, James was elected president 2022–2023 of CAPS Ontario (Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers) where he leads a board of hospitality industry volunteer members. His vision is to enact positive change for the wine trade in Ontario through inclusion, diversity and enhanced education for all wine and hospitality professionals.

VineRoutes: That wine cellar at Casa Loma. There’s a lot of history there. What makes this particular cellar so unique and special? 

James Peden: The history behind that room is everything. Over 100 years ago Sir Henry Pellatt used that very same cellar to store around 1,200 bottles he would pour for his guests while entertaining in the dining rooms of Casa Loma. Fast forward to today, and Christina Brown and her team of Sommeliers are using that same cellar to serve wine to guests of BlueBlood Steakhouse in those same historic dining rooms. It’s incredible to me that we at Liberty Entertainment Group are now just the next evolution of staff using such a historic cellar in an incredible castle.

Casa Loma

This sign appears just outside the famed and historic wine cellar at Casa Loma in Toronto. (SVPhotography)

VineRoutes: What’s the most expensive wine currently in the Casa Loma cellar? When was the last time you opened that bottle for a customer? 

James Peden: We actually have one more bottle of the 2009 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon at BlueBlood Steakhouse in Casa Loma. It sells for $7,000 and is a collector’s dream, being both from a successful vintage as well as Andy Erickson’s final vintage at the winery before handing it over to the “wonder kid” Nick Gislason.

VineRoutes: What’s an unusual, underrated, or lesser-known wine varietal that excites you and that you would urge customers to try immediately?

James Peden: I really love and enjoy all the Assyrtiko that I can get my hands on. Especially from Santorini. It’s a high-acid and high-alcohol style of white wine like Chenin Blanc but rather than being driven by oxidized fruit and botrytis, Assyrtiko is more driven by mineral sensations and light citrus and stone fruit. Super interesting and complex wines for a fraction of what they should cost.

VineRoutes: What’s the most popular wine that you carry? 

James Peden: The most popular wines for us are under the radar Napa cabs that over-deliver for the price tag. Wines like Framework, Textbook, Faust and Obsidian Ridge all punch well above their weight class in the Napa AVA and our guests frequently re-order those bottles. Great to be able to showcase some value wines from famously expensive wine regions like Napa and Burgundy.

Casa Loma Cellar

A closer look at the spectacular cellar at Casa Loma. (Photo by SVPhotography)

VR: What wine region throughout the world is the most underrated, in your opinion? Conversely, what’s the most overrated region? 

JP: The most underrated region in my opinion is Ribera Sacra. Mencia-based wines from Ribera are incredibly food friendly and can also be enjoyed without food, and they cost less than $30 most of the time. And the ones that are more than that almost always deliver.

I don’t want to have a mob of angry wine drinkers outside my house for saying this but to me the most overrated wines come from Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Southern Rhone. The baseline price of $45+ just simply doesn’t match what those wines deliver. Even the ultra-premium producers that cost $500-$1,000 per bottle can’t match up to other wines at those prices from Burgundy, Bordeaux or even the USA. Do you want to drink Ridge Monte Bello, or Henri Bonneau CNDP? Because to me it’s not even close.

VR: What’s your go-to classic food and wine pairing? 

JP: I know sommeliers get fatigued with selling the classics all the time. But sometimes people come to a luxurious steakhouse and they want the classics done right. We’ve all had a glass of Cab and a steak. But once you have something like an Australian Wagyu Striploin with a glass of Ridge Estate Cabernet (which is poured by the glass at BlueBlood) it will change the way you see that classic pairing. The green character in the wine can even live up the sides like Broccolini or Asparagus while having the extra freshness and acidity to cut through the decadently marbled and buttery finish of the Wagyu.

Don Alfonso 1890 Toronto

Photo by: SVPhotography of Don Alfonso 1890 in Toronto and the view of their wine cellar, which sits in the middle of the dining room.

VR: What’s the most exquisite pairing of food and wine in the world?

JP: Fried chicken and champagne. No questions asked. A bucket of chicken from Oddbird in St. Catharine’s and a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvee will put me immediately into my happy place.

VR: Do you remember the first time a wine really blew you away?

JP: I remember being at the Sommelier Factory wine school in Toronto when I tried Domaine Jamet Cote-Rotie for the first time. I could barely process all the spectacular flavours and aromas. That one glass of wine I tasted that day has since cost me thousands and thousands of dollars in pursuing the perfect glass of Syrah. Before then I didn’t realize what a connection one could have with a glass of fermented grape juice.

VR: Which cliches would you like to banish from the wine world forever?

JP: The general feeling that all wines from Napa taste the same is something I really wish would just go away. If you’re a sommelier that can’t taste the difference between Dunn and Silver Oak, the problem is the archer, not the arrows. 

James Peden

James Peden pulling a bottle from Casa Loma’s historic cellar during our February, 2022 visit.

VR: What mistakes do restaurants most often make when serving or selling their wine?

JP: Generally, when I am reading a wine list it’s easy to tell if the Sommelier or Wine Director designed the list to their taste or the guests’ taste. Too many sommeliers use the wine list as an opportunity to express themselves and their journey through wine when they really should be used as a tool to heighten the guests’ experience. Try and leave your personal feelings at the door when taking over a wine list and sell and serve the wines that match the menu, vibe, and clientele of your restaurant. Don’t force in wines that don’t make sense because of a personal bias. 

VR: Regarding Don Alfonso 1890: You’ve all just recently moved to your new permanent location. Can you describe the wine program? What can customers expect in terms of a wine pairing experience with their meal when they visit?  

JP: What really brought Don Alfonso Toronto to the next level was the addition of our new Wine Director, Julie Garton. She has so much experience pairing wine with food and such an elegant wine service. She is the tide that raised all the ships in terms of our wine program. One can expect multiple tiers of pairings that are painstakingly chosen by a team of sommeliers that all weigh in to ensure the guests will receive the best wine for the dish.

Julie and her top-notch team will frequently be creative, so our guests should also expect to try something new and exciting every time they enjoy the wine pairings with us at Don Alfonso. We’re proud to have been recently awarded a Michelin star, as well as again named in 50 Top Italy’s Best Italian Restaurants internationally, which attest to the quality, dedication and service we provide.

James Peden

James Peden and VineRoutes Editor Carmelo Giardina having a discussion within the cellar.

VR: You’re the current President of CAPS Ontario. How’s that going? What challenges are you facing? 

JP: So far, my tenure as the President of CAPS Ontario has been a dream. We have had lots of special events, fundraisers, and competitions – most recently, Best Ontario Sommelier Competition 2022, at Toronto’s Liberty Grand – that have been incredibly successful. The only real challenge I’ve had so far is really uniting the entire province. But working with people like Connor Gallagher in Ottawa and James Treadwell in Niagara has really helped bring us all together into one large community of wine professionals.

VR: What words of encouragement would you give to young or upstart wine lovers who want a career in the restaurant or hospitality industry?   

JP: In addition to understanding the wines themselves it’s crucial to not ignore the business aspect of wine. It’s great to understand all the producers and vineyards in Burgundy. But unless you’re able to design a proper wine list with costing that matches the food menu and demographic of your restaurant, it doesn’t even matter how much theoretical knowledge you have. If the wine list isn’t profitable and you don’t have a good relationship with your vendors or accountants, the program can’t be successful. So, the better your understanding of the business of wine is, the more employable you become.


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