Calgary Wine Life: Meet Matt Browman @ Highlander Marda Loop

27 01 2012

[Cross-posted at www.calgaryisawesome.com]

I am truly excited to kick into gear what I hope will be a long and, well, awesome collaboration with site-around-town extraordinaire Calgary Is Awesome.  For those regular CIA visitors who don’t know me, I’ve been writing local wine blog popandpour.ca for almost a year now, a site that contains reviews of a number of bottles available in town and other thoughts and musings aimed at demystifying (and glorifying) the incredible world of wine.  One of the things that I’ve wanted to do with Pop & Pour, but that I couldn’t really figure out how to approach, was to highlight the remarkable people and places that illuminate Calgary’s local wine scene, which remains almost criminally underrated.  Well, CIA has given me that chance.  My monthly posts for Calgary Is Awesome will focus on YYC wine shops, events, personalities and other home-based vinous topics of interest that will hopefully showcase the amazing depth of talent and energy that our fair city has directed towards my favourite beverage.  If you want to know how lucky you are to be a Calgarian who likes wine, read on.

Tasting, anyone?

I used to live in Altadore three places and five years ago, and even back then I thought that the area needed a specialty wine store…Liquor Depot wasn’t quite cutting it.  Now that land in my old neighbourhood costs more than my soul and Marda has become THE inner-city-but-not living destination for many Calgarians, this need has only amplified, and in December 2010 it was finally addressed when Highlander Wine & Spirits opened a massive new store in the heart of the Loop (2112 – 33rd Avenue SW).  As soon as you walk in, you can immediately tell that the shop was designed to be a temple of wine.  The large, open-profile modern space is lined with dark-wood-rack after dark-wood-rack of bottles, organized by country and region; there’s a huge tasting table in the back of the store, right beside cupboards full of wine glasses and an Enomatic machine that keeps a dozen or so open sample bottles free of invading air; it’s an oenophile’s dream.  Of course, there’s still plenty of beer and spirits available for sale, but if you were to walk in the front door and take a look around, you would definitely say:  “This is a wine store.”  This focus on fine wine is completely intentional.

When Highlander’s Managing Partner Elliot Porozni bought into the business a little over a year ago, it was known by many as an established jack-of-all-trades liquor store in North Hill and Killarney, a full-service shop that carried a wide selection of wine, but may not have been specifically known for it.  One of key missions with which Porozni was entrusted was to increase Highlander’s profile and exposure as a specialty wine boutique, something that he did almost immediately in two ways:  he ensured that the new Marda Loop location was a space that showcased the company’s dedication to wine, and he brought on board some of the most knowledgeable and respected wine folks in the city to run it.  Topping that list was Highlander Marda Loop’s General Manager Matt Browman, who can’t possibly be much older than me (and I’m not old) but whose background and experience in the world of wine is nothing short of extensive.

Internet, Matt. Matt, Internet.

Like many industry people I’ve talked to, Browman got ensnared in the world of wine while on the path towards doing something completely different:  “I moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake to work as a bartender while taking a year off before a Master’s degree in Asian Religious Philosophy,” he explains. ” I became so compelled by the wine scene that the Master’s degree never happened and the wine world became my career.”  After getting an absurd number of formal wine certifications and gaining local industry experience, Browman was contacted by Porozni, an ex-colleague and one of his former wine students, about getting involved at the ground floor with Highlander Marda Loop.  “He was looking for people for a new direction in the Highlander company,” Browman says.  “The timing was perfect.”

Browman is, to put it mildly, eminently qualified to run a wine shop:  he has his Diploma from the International Sommeliers Guild (ISG) and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET, the body whose lower-level Advanced Exam I just wrote), and has completed the Theory & Service portions of the Diploma exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers.  In addition, he has considerable experience in the restaurant/retail business and is a Certified Instructor for the WSET; in 2006, he opened the leading WSET teaching school in Calgary, where he taught for three years.  Let’s just say he knows his wine and his customer service.  His skills in both these areas are now being used to full advantage to grow Highlander’s brand in a local market whose demand for fine wine has been ever-increasing.

Highlander's many exclusives. May I particularly direct your attention to the amazing Gramercy Cellars, top right.

“It’s no secret that the North American thirst for wine and wine culture has increased by leaps and bounds in the last decade or so,” Browman says.  “Perhaps we were a little forgotten as a wine destination.  Our direction is to reinstate that awareness in the consuming public.”  They’re doing that in a few ways:  through a highly-interactive Twitter account (@Highlanderwine), a new blog (www.highlanderwineblog.com), increased staff training, more sales on good bottles than I’ve seen anywhere else, and customer rewards programs.  For me, as your typical wine-obsessed maniac, Highlander’s biggest strides in the past year have come via the number of exclusive bottlings it has brought into the province, top producers which you never used to be able to buy in Calgary and which you still can’t get anywhere else.  I’m a giant fan of the wines of the US Pacific Northwest and have benefitted greatly from Highlander’s offerings of Oregon’s Boedecker Cellars and Washington’s Mercer Estates and especially Gramercy Cellars, one of the most critically-acclaimed producers in the US over the past few years and completely unavailable in Canada…until now.  Browman goes farther afield with Highlander’s future exclusive plans:  “We are always on the lookout for great wines that over-deliver on quality and price, but I’ll highlight Valle dell’Acate from Sicily, a producer over which Elliot and I connected when he and I were managing different businesses, but which we both realized as a great opportunity.  Four years later we are realizing that opportunity.”

Having just celebrated its first anniversary, Marda Loop’s lone fine wine shop is settling in nicely.  “Time and again new or returning customers exclaim how nice it is to have a ‘place like this’ in the neighbourhood,” Browman confirms.  “And one of the great things about the Highlander brand is that it has never had that intimidating perception.  We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and really want to get the person who comes in the store exactly what they came in for.”  Having spent my first couple years of wine interest quietly slinking around stores hoping not to get noticed, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Matt treat my prior wine ignorance almost as a blessing:  “I like to think that if everyone knew a lot about wine, I wouldn’t have a job, so there is no need to feel intimidated.  The first mandate of having knowledge is how it is being used to help the customer.”  I have now spent enough time with the Highlander folks to know that they practice what they preach in this regard, which makes HL Marda Loop a must-visit if you’re in the area.

Once you’re there, what should you make sure to grab?  Here’s your very own personal Highlander Buying Guide, as recommended by Matt himself (and by me, but you should probably pay more attention to Matt):

Not sure what to buy? Don't guess -- ask!

Q.  What’s the last bottle of wine from Highlander that you took home to drink?  How was it?

Matt Browman:  Domaine Pegau 2006 Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  It was corked.  [Author’s note:  Awesome.  Great start, Peter.  Who thought up this Q&A format anyway?]

Q.  What’s your favourite/most highly recommended bottle in the Marda Loop store for under $20?  Why?

Matt Browman:  Rive Droite Rive Gauche 2009 Cotes du Rhone, $16.95.  This is my best value wine of 2011.  It combines intensity, complexity, structure, length, intrigue.  A Grenache-Syrah blend.  You won’t find a better value.  [Author’s note:  I would give an honourable mention to the Mercer Estates Dead Canyon Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon from Horse Heaven Hills, Washington State, an INSANELY good Cabernet for around $20.  I reviewed the 2008 vintage of DCR here; Matt himself just wrote up the new 2009 vintage here.]

Q.  What’s your top “black sheep” bottle:  the one that just sits on the shelves, unsold, even though it’s an amazing wine that you think should be way more popular than it is?

Matt Browman:  The most underrated bottle on the shelf is the 2001 Rizza Barbaresco Fondetta, $49.95 (sale priced).  It is a wine for those who are more interested in drinking a great Piemontese red wine without worrying about the designation.  Barbaresco has fallen out of popularity compared to Barolo and other reds from Piedmont, but this is a stunner.  [Author’s note:  (1)  I heart Barbaresco.  It’s just awesome.  One of my favourite Italian reds.  (2) Another unheralded Highlander winner is the 1989 Schloss Reinhartshausen Beerenauslese Riesling — crazily German label, lots of consonants, but an unbelievable pre-aged dessert wine that will absolutely blow you away for $50.]

Q.  What’s the all-time best-selling bottle for Highlander Marda Loop?

Matt Browman:  Most units sold goes to 2008 Schild from Barossa, Australia.  That was nuts.  [Author’s note:  I bought many bottles of this.  Any Schild Shiraz delivers WAY more quality than you have a right to expect from a mass-produced wine.  I’m actually drinking a Schild Shiraz right now as I type this.  Really.  ’07 though.  But it still rocks.]

Happy shopping!  Talk to you next month, CIAers!

Highlander Marda Loop is located at 2112 – 33rd Avenue SW.  In addition to his GM responsibilities, Matt is currently helping me figure out the best way to drink more Burgundy so that I can keep my New Year’s Wine Resolution for 2012.  

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