Young Blood Sommelier : Liz Martinez

Liz Martinez was in Toronto recently for John Szabo MS' Volcanic Wines book launch.

Liz Martinez was in Toronto recently for John Szabo MS’ Volcanic Wines book launch.

In the third of an fourteenth (and wildly popular) series, we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario (and occasionally from further afield). A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers. Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising stars.

In our last Young Blood Sommelier of 2016 we speak with Elizabeth “Liz” Martinez, Beverage Director and Sommelier at Chicago’s famed The Purple Pig.


Good Food Revolution: So Elizabeth, what is it that you are doing these days?

Elizabeth “Liz” Martinez: My position is pretty expansive right now, but for the most part, my role is to oversee everything beverage at TPP. I curate the wine list, oversee the process of creating new cocktails, and train the staff on my wine list.

GFR: And what kind of experience and training did you have before doing what you do today?

EM: Well I’ve always worked in restaurants, mostly high end, high volume, James Beard award winning, and Michelin star rated. My love of wine started at a restaurant that I worked at, years ago in San Francisco, called Boulevard. When I moved to Chicago, I started realizing that I wanted to start working towards my goal of being a sommelier. The restaurant that I worked and trained at was Rick Bayless’ fine dining restaurant, Topolobampo. My position there was pretty involved as well, I ran the dining room and worked as assistant somm. After teaching myself, reading a lot, training on blind tasting, and working with the wine director there, I passed my certification exam with the Guild of Master Sommeliers in 2010.

GFR: How would you describe your role at The Purple Pig?

EM: Ha! Well TPP is an interesting place. Keeping up with the wine list can be difficult. We pour almost 90 wines by the glass at any time. Mostly you’ll find me in the dining room running service, and acting as a cheerleader for the wine program, which is very important for what we do. TPP motto is “cheese, swine and wine”, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Not only that, we are definitely one of the busiest restaurants of our caliber in the US.

GFR: You have worked in a number different types of places… how does The Purple Pig compare?

EM: I tend to gravitate towards restaurants that have a lot of energy. TPP does not disappoint! Very high energy and very high volume. The main difference is that we have a more casual dining room experience, with communal dining. That makes for a pretty crowded environment.

GFR: How open do you find the clientele to trying new things when it comes to wines? Is there a specific style of wine that the demographic crave? And just what is that demographic?

EM: We have a pretty diverse clientele at TPP. We have a pretty large “foodie” base, but then again, there is a lot of tourism in our area too, so I have to be prepared for everyone. The main thing is that even when I do choose wines for the more pedestrian palate, it’s always going to be the best example of that. In terms of the more obscure wines on the list, my staff is trained to dig deeper, and navigate the list with our guests. We are definitely well known for having hard to find, interesting wines, and we have absolutely no domestic wine on our list, whatsoever.

GFR: What’s the size and scope of the wine program that you run?

EM: Typically I have anywhere from 240-250 wines on the list, of which 80-90 wines, including port, sherry and madeira, we will offer by the glass.

GFR: What sets Chicago apart as a wine and food city?

EM: Well, Chicago is an interesting place. There are a lot of “salt of the earth”, kind of blue collar people that live here. To me, that translates to passion, hard work, and creativity. Not to mention that we are pretty land locked here, so even though we are a major hub, we are not always getting the same food products that other places are. We have to be more inventive.

GFR: Now, how do I word this? Have you drunk the “Natural Wine Kool Aid”? I’m just kidding, how do you feel about the scene?

EM: Ya know, I’m not super on board. I can appreciate these old school techniques, and I get that this is where wine’s origins came from, but I like my wine to taste good. That’s why I love wine. Finesse, elegance and grace. The craft and evolution of  winemaking over the years has taken the wine industry where it is today.  That’s important to me.

GFR: Does your job allow you to travel much? Where have you been lately?

EM:Up until this year, I haven’t been able to travel much. Thankfully, my bosses have started to realize how important the travel is to what we are doing. In June, I travelled through Greek wine country, (which coincidentally is where I met my boyfriend, Nick Liu, of Toronto) and just a couple of months ago, I travelled through Northern Italy.

GFR: What makes for a good agent/supplier in your mind?

EM:Someone who is proactive. Nothing worse than having to chase people around because wine didn’t show up, or because there are vintage changes. Someone who anticipates your needs.

GFR: And what makes for a bad agent/supplier?

EM: One who is never around, or who just shows up and tries to push things on you. Also, I’ve had a few who were very condescending. That REALLY grinds my gears. It’s one thing to be informative to your buyers, but another thing to completely to speak down to them.

GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines? Do you ever see any in your market? 

EM: To be honest, I haven’t tried any, but I hear that Prince Edward county is making some interesting wines. We don’t really see Canadian wines in Chicago. Oh! Years ago at Topolobampo, we did pair a Canadian dessert wine with one of our courses on a tasting menu. It was an Eiswein [sic] style of wine. It was delicious!

GFR: Do you think that your customers would be open to Canadian wines?

EM: The wines on my list are all from across the pond, so it doesn’t really makes sense, however, my staff are really on board with my choices, so if I were to find something yummy and promoted it, my servers would definitely be able to convince our guests to try them.

Liz Martinez was in Toronto recently for John Szabo MS' Volcanic Wines book launch.

Liz Martinez was in Toronto recently for John Szabo MS’ Volcanic Wines book launch.

GFR: Just as there is from everywhere in the world, there is quite a lot of dreadful wine coming from Ontario also. How do you feel about the issue of people simply promoting something because of it being local, and not because of its quality?

EM: It’s definitely an issue. There’s nothing wrong with promoting local products, in fact, I’m very much in favor of it, but the product needs to be good, thoughtful, and well crafted, for me to get behind it.

GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age? 

EM: Well I’m pretty sure that it surprised my family, the fact that this is the direction that I took with my life. If there was any wine around when I was a kid, it was the awful wine in jugs that they sold at the store. My parents were hippies, so we grew up around parties at the house, where everyone was smoking joints and drinking beers. Not to mention that my father was Mexican, so I always wished that I could drink their margaritas and tequila. To this day, I still love a margarita that’s made with love and fresh lime juice!

GFR: Can you remember your first taste of wine?

EM:Maybe? It was probably some of that awful jug wine, years ago in my youth. My first revelation in wine came in 1997 or so, when I was introduced to non mass produced wines from Italy, at a restaurant that I worked at in Denver, Colorado.

GFR: When do you feel children should be introduced to the wonderful world of wine?

EM: Early! My ex husband was a chef from France. My son would always drink a little glass of wine with lunch, and with the family. It was an experience that brought everyone together. After that, I would let him have sips of wine, as long as he assessed the wine with me. Aromas, flavors… to this day that kid has a better palate than the average human being.

GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?… and was it with a view to being a Sommelier yourself?

EM: The first time that I thought of pursuing a career in wine was at that Italian restaurant, years ago. I fell in love with wine! At that point in my life though, I guess that I didn’t really know what a Sommelier was. More, I was thinking of getting in to sales, or something along those lines.

GFR: So who or what gave you your first insight into the world of wine?

EM: The wine director at Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco was so inspiring!! The epitome of wine nerd. People that have a true love of what they are doing, and are able to spread that message to their staff will always stand out to me. That’s who I aspire to be.

GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full of pretentious arseholes, and after seeing that film Somm I worry about the emergence of a new Bro culture… I’d love to hear your thoughts?

EM: Ha! Well I would hate to say anything about these people that have worked so hard to get to the positions that they are in. That being said, I understand that there are always going to be people like that in every field. It certainly doesn’t help that there is a sudden love affair with the food and wine culture.  It has created foodie “groupies”, sort of. I feel very lucky that there is a great community of women Somms in Chicago. For the most part, women that are all very hard working and down to earth. Bro culture? Well, let’s hope that the visionaries are the ones that shine through.

GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?

EM: Well I lived in California for many years, so I was able to visit many areas in Northern California multiple times..The Loire Valley is lovely. My ex husband was from there, so we were able to tour that area of France a bit. This summer in Greece, I started out on the island of Santorini, flew up to Naoussa and Amyndeon, and then finished up Greece in Nemea, the peninsula across from Athens. Northern Italy was my most recent trip, where we started out in Piemonte, (Alba and Asti), followed by Tuscany, (Chianti and Montalcino). The next leg of the trip moved more East, with Emilia-Romagna and Lambrusco country, followed by Soave and Valpolicella. The last part of that trip was breathtaking, with The Dolomites, Alto-Adige in particular. Hoping to hit up France again, Burgundy, hopefully, and Spain next year. I’ve also been sending hints to one of my suppliers about Valtellina, in Northern Italy, an area that fascinates me.

GFR: Have you ever made your own wine?

EM: Goodness no! That’s next on the list!!!

GFR: And where would you like to make wine (in a pipe dream)?

EM: Either Northern Italy, or Burgundy.

GFR: So do you prefer to manage people or bottles and why?

EM: Hmmmmm maybe a bit of both. If I had enough time, I could certainly get more immersed and nerdy with my bottle selections, but at the end of the day, I’m a hospitality professional. I like creating experiences for my guests. That all starts with managing your staff.

Liz Martinez was in Toronto recently for John Szabo MS' Volcanic Wines book launch.

Liz Martinez was in Toronto recently for John Szabo MS’ Volcanic Wines book launch.

GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?

EM: Well my first job as a teenager was at McDonalds. We call that the chubby era. Not necessarily a low, for a teenager, but the lowest probably. I still learned quite a bit, took it for what it was. This year has to be the high. It has been an incredibly difficult year for me, as we are soooooooo busy, and I’ve lately had a lot more exposure. This requires writing, which I love, but there’s something about being in the spotlight that I guess that I don’t feel comfortable with just yet. I have to keep telling myself that it’s for the restaurant, the guests, and the people that work here.

GFR: Who is, in your mind, a real role model for Sommeliers?

EM: Somebody who is truly passionate about our field. When you meet someone like that, when they talk about wine, you can see the fire in their eyes. The teachers. The people that strive to know more and to bring that intensity to their staff and guests.

GFR: And for Wine Agents/Importers?

EM: The answer would be much the same as above. There have been times when I’m listening to an importer or supplier, and I get so wrapped up. I long to know more!! So inspiring!!

GFR: Do you have nightmares about working with wines? I do… regularly… and it usually involves being unable to find bottles in a cellar… and the clock is ticking away… in fact I had one last night!!! And I haven’t been in the role for over six and half years!!!

EM: The nightmares have changed over the years. Since my time at TPP, I’ve definitely learned not to sweat it too hard. There were times in the beginning of my tenure here that I didn’t really understand the volume of the place, and maybe I didn’t order enough. Some days it was so scary, 86! 86! 86! That got to me for a long while.

GFR: Sommeliers famously have their Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?

EM: A Sunday off? Sounds dreamy!! Well a perfect Sunday would be to sleep in with my boyfriend, wake up and drink coffee in bed. That would be followed by a Ninjachef, Martinez collab breakfast prepared Chez Martinez whilst enjoying some bubbly. The first nap of the day would take place on the couch, after which we would wake up and go for a nice long walk, stopping in at some spots in the hood, having snacks and drinks around the hood.

GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine and drink.. perhaps tell us a hidden treasure of your city?

EM:Well I tend to stay in my neighborhood when it comes to dining and drinking. Pub Royale, an Indian pub style restaurant is one of my favorite places. The same company owns a bar nearby, Sportsmens Club. It’s an old timey bar, that’s been refurbished. They kept all of the taxidermy on the walls. Great cocktails, created daily by some super talented bartenders. Also, a great place for noodles and slushy drinks, High Five Ramen. My Asian friends will say that the noodles are not “Asian” enough, but it’s a good bowl of noodles, regardless!!

GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?

EM: Well I’m a much better cook than in my youth, when I cooked for my siblings, and I’ve picked up some technique over the years. My favorite homey dish is a Mediterranean style brown rice chicken fricasee. So good with wine, and lots of briny bright Mediterranean flavors.

GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters recently?

EM:  HEE!! Not recently. Being around a lot of chefs over the years has lent a hand in that.

Liz Martinez was in Toronto recently for John Szabo MS' Volcanic Wines book launch.

Liz Martinez was in Toronto recently for John Szabo MS’ Volcanic Wines book launch.

GFR: Do you feel that there is a good Sommelier community in Chicago?

EM: There is an abundance of very intelligent sommeliers in Chicago. Sometimes there is a bit of a disconnect, because there are so many styles of Somms in the city. My favorite community of Somms right now are the women. There seems to be a good group of passionate and creative ladies that are really doing some interesting things.

GFR: Do you hang about with other Sommeliers? 

EM: Not Sommeliers, per say, but wine professionals, yes. People that sell wine or import it or suppliers sometimes have the most interesting things to talk about, or have a different take on things. For me, inspiration comes in many forms.

GFR: How do you feel about Chicago as a wine and cocktail city? Where do you go if you need to get your wine or cocktail on?

EM: There are a ton of really creative pros in this town. My feelings are much the same as they are about food.. Not to mention, that people in Chicago love to drink when it’s cold outside. Mescal is kind of a big thing right now, I love to see what people can do with that. Sportsmens Club and Dove’s luncheonette, as well as Big Star, are places that you can find me drinking cocktails at. Wine is something that I prefer to drink at home or with friends.

GFR: What would you be doing if you were not doing what you are doing today?

EM: Years ago, I toyed with the idea of being a dancer or a DJ. I dj’d with friends and was heavily involved in electronic music in the 90’s. Once that started to die down for me, I joined a Brazilian dance troupe in SF. That was something that made me really happy at the time.

GFR: What are your thoughts on music in restaurants? 

EM: It depends on the restaurant. TPP has a very loud, lively atmosphere. The music makes sense. The guests enjoy it. Other types of  restaurants need music, but it should be in the background.

GFR: Do you have a favourite food/wine related scene in a film/movie or show?

EM: Well, I guess that there are two scenes in the movie “Sideways” that I found to be humorous. First, when the main character loses his mind and drinks the spit bucket.For some reason I always think of that when I’m at tastings.

Second, when he drinks the Cheval Blanc at the end after spouting off about his hatred for Merlot for the entire movie. What can I say? I enjoy comedy and irony.

GFR: I know that you have non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?

EM: People think that I have the most glamorous job. Haha. It’s true, I am able to experience and drink and eat things that other people will never be able to enjoy in their lifetime. There are a lot of hours involved, and at the end of the day, sometimes I just don’t feel like drinking wine! I try to keep reminding myself how lucky I am.

GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting wine?

EM: Blind tasting is very interesting to me. During the time that I was studying for my Somm certification, I got to be very good at it!! It’s so interesting to me, kind of like you’re a detective, that’s solving a mystery. The deductive reasoning is just fascinating to me.

GFR: Are you a better blind taster with or without a bad hangover? I’m definitely the former…

EM: Interestingly enough, I do a lot of things better when I’m hungover. It’s as though I have to prove something to myself.

GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?

EM: It’s almost like you’re trying to make me choose which child is my favorite!! As I sit at the bar with my staff right now, they are all saying Valtellina, an alpine wine region in Lombardia.  The Nebbiolo from there is sooooo interesting. There is also a white that I love from there, in fact I’m pairing the white with a course at The James Beard house next week. The wine is late ripening Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, blended with nebbiolo that’s vinified as a white wine!!

GFR: In your mind, as an Sommelier, what is “hot” in the world of wine right now? And why?

EM: For me, I’ve been drinking and talking about volcanic wines. They are everywhere! And from the most interesting places!! I just picked up a passetoutgrain style of wine from the Cotes de Auvergne in France. The vineyards are planted on extinct volcanoes, set right in the center of the country. Definitely some topic of discussion there! Most of what I’ve seen are Burgundy style grapes.

GFR: And what’s not so hot? What has fallen out of favour? I why do you feel that is?

EM: Well this question takes me back to the natural wine thing. So many people are still excited about natural wine! Yes, it is interesting to see the history of wine, to see the “roots” (haha) of winemaking, but where would wine be if people weren’t trying to find new method and technique  of vilification over the years?

GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?

EM: See Above. LOL. Sort of kidding. But seriously, Bordeaux these days! Too dang expensive. Especially considering the value that you can find these days…….and you wouldn’t have to wait forever to enjoy most of these “value” wines.

GFR: What is your favourite wine pairing right now, something nice and seasonal?

EM: Well my favorite wine pairing of all time is pork rinds and pink champagne. LOL. Seasonal? One of my favorite comfort foods, mashed potatoes and gravy with Oloroso sherry is just dreamy. The Maestro Sierra Oloroso is a really nicely structured sherry with great acid. The wine really brings out any herbs and spices in the gravy, leaving you with a luxurious and silky textured from both the gravy and the wine.

GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… this time with… Hmmmm… your new Royal Family.

What would you suggest to pair for them wine or beverage-wise… and why?

  1. Ivanka Trump ?

  1.  Steve Bannon?

  1. The Donald?

EM:My answer would be the same for all three of them. As it is somewhat of a hot topic in the US these days, I would need to remind myself that I am a professional, first and foremost.

The wine pairing that I choose is always tailored to each individual. Something expensive, obvious, yet still delicious, without being too cerebral. Mostly because based on what I have witnessed so far, these are people that may not be interested in anything too compelling.

GFR: Smart answer there, Liz.

Do you often drink beers, ciders or spirits? What do you currently enjoy?

EM: I typically stay away from beer and cider. If I do drink beer, it’s usually something simple, juicy and crisp. Sometimes I get tired of assessing every thing that I drink.

Spirits? Definitely. Mescal, as I mentioned before, is my favorite day time spirit, as it is a stimulant versus being a depressant. Whiskey would be my other spirit of choice. Preferably in a cocktail. Manhattan or a Toronto.

GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as a Sommelier? 

EM: Paperwork.

GFR: What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?

EM: Waiters wine key. Although with the amount of volume that we do at TPP, I go through quite a few. I broke my favorite fancy wine key a few years ago, and realized that I just need something sturdy and reliable.

GFR: And your thoughts on the Coravin system… has it changed the playing field?

EM: Changed the playing field? Somewhat? We have 5-6 wines that we pour with it at TPP. It allows me the opportunity to pour luxury wines, and keep them in pristine condition. Our guests really do enjoy the opportunity to try wines that are somewhat obscure or expensive, without committing to the entire bottle.

GFR: Speaking of which, where do you stand on the screwcap vs. cork debate? And how do your customers feel about that?

EM: It was pretty painful for me at first. LOL. After years of playing up the theatrics and romance of opening a wine with finesse, along comes these bottles that you literally have to “crack” open. It’s fine, I’ve learned how to make that look fancy too. As for the guests? It has not been as big of a topic of discussion as it once was.

GFR: Due to us being around alcohol, many people in our industry often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze, or they develop issues. What is your limit and how do you keep yourself in check?

EM: Well, there is likely a cumulative amount of alcohol in my system at all time. I try not to drink more that 5-6 drinks in a sitting. Water is very important. One glass of water per drink is usually my routine.

GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”? If so, where and when was the most recent time?

EM: I’ve never been cut off. Not sure why that is. Maybe I have been and I just don’t remember. haha

GFR: Speaking of which, do you have a good hangover cure?

EM: Working out like crazy.

GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?

EM:Goodness. Well, I probably try 30 or so wines for the list, and I try at least that a day to assess for our substantial by the glass program.

GFR: When tasting with agents do you choose to spit or swallow?

EM: I always spit when I’m at work. It’s a long day, and I believe that our guests deserve a hospitality professional that’s as “on point” as possible at all times.

GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?

EM:Something white, crisp and mineral laden. Muscadet, or Chablis.

GFR: Most remembered glass of wine ever?

EM: Wow. That’s a tough one. Likely it was the  1941 Chateau d’Yquem that I tried one night while I was working for Rick Bayless. It started to open my eyes, as to what happens to certain wines with some age. It started the wheels turning.

GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy day at work?

EM: A really beautiful French Chardonnay. One that moves and changes in the glass, and reminds me of why I got in to this crazy business in the first place.

GFR: And now the cheesy question Elizabeth… If you were a grape varietal which would you be? and why?

EM: That’s easy. Nebbiolo. We share a lot of the same characteristics. Bold, broad shoulders. Tough, but with a feminine side.

GFR: Thank you for taking the time Elizabeth.


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Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.

Peter Boyd has been a part of Toronto’s wine scene for over two decades. He has taught the Diploma level for the International Sommeliers Guild, and has been the sommelier at Scaramouche Restaurant since 1993. He also writes about wine, food and pop culture and raises show molerats for fun and profit. He’s also one of the most solid guys in the business.Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and is slowly taking over this city. He just celebrated his 67th birthday!

A well-known and much respected figure on the Toronto food and wine scene for almost twenty years, Potvin has worked in many of the city’s very best establishments including Biffs, Canoe, and Eau. In 2004 Potvin opened his incarnation of the Niagara Street Café, a restaurant that has gone from strength to strength year after year, with universal critical acclaim. Anton spends much of his time traveling and tasting wine and has been ranked highly in consecutive years of the International Wine Challenge. Anton is now GM at DaiLo with Chef Nick Liu.

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