Nicole Raufeisen, manager and sommelier at Little Oak (recently named one of Canada's Best 100 Restaurants for the second year in a row) and The Ostrich Club, sure can sell a person on wine. Her enthusiastic, unexpected fantastical or pop-cultural descriptors can bring the mere idea of a drink to vibrant life before a drop is poured. This is the specialized skill of a good sommelier, and Raufeisen, who first came to Halifax to study at NSCAD, has a contagious knack for it.
Raufeisen's first job out of NSCAD University was right next door to where Little Oak now stands, at the Bicycle Thief, and from then she moved to Agricola Street Brasserie before becoming a sommelier and landing at Little Oak and Ostrich Club, both of which she co-owns. Raufeisen is part of a new wave of Halifax sommeliers, young women revitalizing a traditionally male-dominated field and bringing with them all kinds of fresh references and experiences.
"A lot more people are becoming aware of the restaurant world as an actual career," she says. "Young people are finding new ways to relate and show it's not necessarily a super aristocratic pursuit."
At a Femmes du Vin event that took place earlier this month in Halifax, gathering local women working in wine, attendees discussed their origin stories. "Many people before they decide to become sommeliers have an a-ha moment where they're like 'Oh yeah this is some good juice.' I always thought the more I knew, the more successful I would be and the more you know, the more interested you become. Then things started making sense and I thought about those little moments and made those connections," says Raufeisen of her own origin. "I had a job as a registrar at Simon Fraser University and the gallery director there, Bill Jeffries, hired me to housesit. He paid me in good wine, and I remember thinking 'What is this? This isn't what they pour for free at art openings, this is something else.'"
Students studying to become a sommelier with the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers are warned not to be too idiosyncratic in their descriptions. While you're learning, Raufeisen says, it's better to have some more universal references.
"They don't believe it translates," she says. "But sometimes, I think it really translates. I totally know what you mean when someone says something really off-kilter. In my mind I might be thinking about technical terms but at the end of the day, I just really enjoy drinking wine so I find what will resonate. Perhaps it's not classic tasting notes, but if you give someone a fantasy reference—like, we all know what butterflies feel like—that's going to resonate."
Natural and low-intervention wines are of particular importance to Raufeisen, and a major focus at Little Oak. "Some people dismiss it as a trend, but it's about being more thoughtful about things," she says. "If commercial winemakers had to put ingredient lists on their bottles people would be shocked." But it's explaining why we should be thoughtful about wine, and telling the stories of the winemakers, the wines and random grape varieties that she considers a highlight of her job. "Any day I can say I just talked about wine all day is a pretty good day."
Sherry, babyIf your most recent reference point for a sherry drinker is your grandma, please allow Raufeisen to update you. Before you know it you’ll be snapping up tiny glasses from thrift stores and passing around trays of the admittedly old-fashioned beverage at your next party.
“I’m a huge sherry enthusiast,” she says. “I mean, the southernmost tip of Spain? It’s pretty sexy. It was made popular by cocktail world 10 to 15 years ago, but now people are drinking it straight again—with some encouragement.”
Made in a protected region of Spain called the Sherry Triangle, the history of the beverage is quite literally steeped in the making. “Three years ago I went to Jerez, and went to the bodegas, it’s steeped in history and made in the solera style, and the barrels of hundreds of years old. They fix them, but they don’t replace them. So there might be the tiniest molecule of wine in a sherry glass now that was made 300 years ago. There’s that direct connection.”
“It’s just so versatile, there are sherries you can drink with oysters, and sherries you can drink with dessert. It goes from bone dry to like molasses—it’s the most versatile style of wine that exists.