The freshly minted president of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers, Atlantic Chapter, doesn’t look old enough to drink. Sean Buckland laughs when I ask him if constantly being told this is tiresome. “Doesn’t bother me at all,” he says. “It’s just good genes.”
Barely 30, but looking 10 years younger, Buckland is the new face of wine in Nova Scotia. He sits for our interview in jeans and sandals, a ball of energy rushing into answers, words tumbling out one on top of another. And it’s a good thing his energy level is so high—along with the CAPS Atlantic title, he’s the sommelier for the Five Fishermen restaurant, co-owns Valley Wine Tours with business partner Mark DeWolf and recently leased a small vineyard (with three other people) in the hopes of learning how to grow grapes for winemaking.
Buckland came into the wine business almost accidentally. He started at the Five Fishermen as a busboy in 1995, gradually working his way up through the front-of-house ranks. Four years ago, his manager asked if he wanted to fill a space in the sommelier training program left vacant by an employee who was unable to attend. Believing any educational opportunity should not be wasted, Buckland jumped at the chance. He showed up for class in jeans and a backwards ball cap and says, “Adam”—Dial, instructor and renowned wine expert—thought I’d be the first student to bail.” Dial was in for a surprise. Not only did this unlikely student love the tasting aspect, but he “especially enjoyed learning about wine origins and culture, about where the grapes are grown and where the wine comes from.” Indeed, his conversation is peppered with facts and figures, dates and statistics.
Buckland’s degree in criminology and thoughts of a possible career in law fell by the wayside as he took up with his new passion.
And this, he believes, is his strength. “Mark is brilliant with tasting wines, much better than me,” he freely admits. “My strength is making people passionate about our craft.”
As for food-and-wine pairings, while agreeing there are no longer hard-and-fast rules such as red with meat and white with fish, he does emphasize that “wine should complement the food. If it’s done wrong, it can ruin a dish.” He eschews the idea that some cuisines cannot be matched, citing one of his favourites: Thai food. “A wine with low alcohol, some sugar residue and strong aromatics, like a Riesling, will cool the palate but stand up to the intensity of the food.”
Buckland’s foresight is another of his strengths—this is the kid who took out an RRSP at age 15. Looking to the future, he is focused on culinary tourism and education.
“How does an industry grow if there’s no education?” he asks, almost urgently, speaking of the need for the NSCC to incorporate more winemaking into its hospitality and tourism programs. “They could have a working vineyard,” he says.
He’d also like to grow Valley Wine Tours, believing Nova Scotia could be a hotbed of culinary tourism. “Those that are into wine are generally into great food and other things. There’s a huge economic spin-off.”
Wine appreciation has come a long way since the first grapes were grown in the LaHave Valley in the 1600s (another fact dropped by Buckland). “In the last 25 years we’ve managed to grow our industry to where we are now producing wines on a par with the best in the world, wines that hold their own on the world stage.
“We just took a 300-year break, that’s all.”