From Music that taste good, to Wine… Richard Sagala Story

Expose yourself to the best things that humans have done, and then try to bring those things into what you’re doing  (Steve Jobs)


Richard Sagala’s wine story began with an analogy game involving wine and the sound of musical instruments, the meeting of a classical musician with a passion for gastronomy, to Paris in 1984-85, to Lyon from 1993 to 1996 discovering French wine regions and chefs table, to discovering Protocol at the Canadian Consulate, to Butler studies in the Netherlands and the UK in 2001, to becoming a wine expert, to starting in 2012 the first private WSET school in Québec, to completing a Wine MBA in Bordeaux and getting involved in wine business research, to presenting in academic circles around the world, to creating the International Montreal Butler Academy in 2016 with a proprietary wine cellar management program, to sourcing cellar worthy original wines, to helping businesses wishing to pivot form the Service Economy to the Experiential Economy.

From November 2018 onwards, in a mysterious twist of fate, Richard Sagala returned to the exact same spot where he met the classical musician mentioned (at the beginning of this text) that got the ball rolling for him some forty-five years ago. All came full circle when Richard got appointed Sommelier to Orford Music arts centre, saddled with the task of  creating and building the Orford Music investment wine cellar.

From Music that taste good, to wine, to the Rich lifestyle, and back to the Music that taste good… where it all began.

I have always been fascinated by the taste of wine. In my youth in Canada, when I was a student at the Conservatory of Music in Québec City, I had a little game to help me in trying to figure out what was a good quality sound. The game consisted of comparing the taste of wine with the sound of musical instruments.

What was a simple game at first became serious when I met a classical guitarist during a Summer music academy at the Orford Arts Centre in Canada. The quality of tone that Alexandre Lagoya could get from a classical guitar, his guitar and my (inexpensive) guitar was unbelievable: Power, warmth, cors (depth of tone), sustain, expression and intensity. or to talk like singers: “core, squillo, chiaro-scuro”.

To this day, I compare it with the experience one gets when drinking a nice Bordeaux on occasion and then, one day, is offered a glass of Latour to experience.

In a word: Wow!

This fantasy of mingling wine and music would have proved not so far fetched in the end because Alexandre Lagoya, as I grew to know him, spent 80% of the time talking about cooking and 20% about music.

He used to say that when you play music it is like when you serve a dish. He suggested that the dish should be good enough to make one want to keep eating it. Better prepare a recipe that you master than challenge yourself with a complex one that you barely understand. This was his mantra.

Execution, execution, quality of execution!

This gastronomic slant is something that anybody in contact with him couldn’t avoid to notice but, the intensity of it, was quite a revelation when he invited me to spend a weekend with him in New York in 1983. Aside from preparing for the concert he was about to give in Manhattan, it was all food talk…or eating; we even went to visit the kitchen accessories department at Bloomingdales.

Later on that year, Alexandre Lagoya came to Montreal to play and, although we had invited him, here he was, at our place, cooking a meal for us (cooking for him was relaxing and he traveled with spices in his suitcase).

In 1984 and 1985, when I was studying in France, Lagoya invited us many times to his home near Paris. He was living near a forest in a place called Soisy-sous-Montmorency, always cooking something and proud to show his two thousand bottles wine cellar. One could find there bottles of classic first growths gracing the walls interspersed with small producers bottles that he would collect when crisscrossing France, giving concerts.

During that period, Lagoya’s wife, Monelle, made me aware of the Gault et Millau gastronomic guides. I found the one on Paris and started exploring the various places where one could find the best cheeses, wines, good bread et al. Then I found the wine guides. Reading them carefully and tasting the recommended (not too expensive) wines was the beginning of my “wine studies”.

1993 happened to be the year of my first official wine classes attending a weekend of workshops in the south of France organized by l’Université du Vin (Suze-la-Rousse, Vaucluse). This was followed by three years spent in Lyon (from 1993-to 1996), my anchor point from which I would explore the Rhône valley, the Beaujolais and the Burgundy regions -plus- all the gastronomy one can find in this lovely city and at the periphery like Bocuse (Collonge au Mont d’Or) and even offsite like Pierre Gagnaire who was still operating his restaurant in St-Étienne. So we went visiting, from Pic (Valence) and la Pyramide (Vienne) in the south, to les Frères Troisgros (Roanne) in the west  and Bernard Loiseau (Saulieu) in the north, Marc Veyrat (Annecy) in the east, etc, plus escapades in Alsace (at the table of Émile Jung chef of le Crocodile), Belgium (Buerheisel, chef Westerman), Carcassonne (Hotel de la Cité), Paris Lucas-Carton where chef Alain Senderens had created a reputation for himself with refined wine and food paired menus. I remember too a meal at Guy Savoy in Paris.

All these great places had first class sommeliers who were always willing to share their knowledge and again, Lyon was not a bad city for a gourmand. There was a « caviste », a wine shop, Morel, on Maréchal de Saxe street (where we lived) owned by a Mr. Morel who was very knowledgeable and eager to let one discover his selected producers. I would buy there the wines we used for the functions and the social agenda of the Canadian Consulate (my wife was the Canadian Consul from 1993 to 1996). Facing the Consulate on rue de Bonnel was Les Halles de Lyon, a food emporium of all the best culinary products one could wish for and an (inspiring) source of supply for chefs. Plus, being part of the diplomatic corps got us a flurry of official invitations culminating with a special dinner in the Lyon archaeology museum at the end of June 1996 in honour of the visiting head of states for the G7 summit. Lyon was the G7 host city that year.

A few years later, in 2001, during my butler training in the Netherlands, I received more wine instruction plus a wine and food pairing training class (I still remember the rabbit cooked in Chinon wine) from an inspiring Dutch sommelier in the city of Gouda. This same teacher showed us how to saber a bottle of champagne, something a butler must do properly (!) Seriously bitten by the wine bug and with a nascent butler-cum-wine project (that I will explain later), I started taking wine courses at the state run hospitality school in Montreal as soon as I returned in 2002 and, from 2002 to 2019, it never stopped. This journey led me to gain eleven wine certifications and diplomas plus, at the end of 2011, a MBA from the Bordeaux Management school. Could you imagine how pleasantly un-dry a Wine MBA program could be in Bordeaux? 

Talking about Bordeaux, allow me to describe what happened from 2009 to 2012 over there. Not only did I spent a lot of time in Bordeaux, but this special Wine MBA (the only MBA program of that sort) led us around the world, from the UK to Australia to the USA, with the purpose of studying wine related topics in places that have achieved a reputation for excellence and had a speciality, an area of expertise (like wine distribution in the UK, marketing in Australia, wine property valuation at UC Davis in California etc.)

Following the MBA, in 2012, the UK based Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) granted me a license to open the first and (to this day) only privately run WSET school in Québec. We teach in English and French, and our school bears a French name, École in Vino Veritas (EIVV). EIVV has been successful since the beginning and now is in its eigth academic year.

Being equally interested by wine commerce, I immersed myself in wine related business research and presented the school academic findings on a dozen occasions here and abroad. Some of it attracted media attention and two of our papers ended up on the website of the American Association of Wine Economists.

One wine project that’s been close to my heart is the Wine Leaders Forum. From 2014 to 2019 I was invited six times to participate in the Wine Leaders Forum with Kedge Bordeaux Business School and UBC, the University of British Columbia. There, I took part in the brand building seminars and organized every year tasting workshops for the BC wine producers on the theme: Determinants of quality and sense of place. This is a rather special experience when you think about it, BC wine scene is recent, it developed its momentum in the late 1990’s. It feels like a privilege to witness and be modestly associated with the first twenty years of a new wine region and see it grow. Especially one with such a qualitative potential like British Columbia!

In contrast, the opposite of a « new » wine region would be Italy.

In 2015, I became an Italian Wine Ambassador (IWA) at the Vinitaly International Academy. After five years I have the pleasure of saying that I discovered Italy from The Brenner pass in the north to Sicily.

In 2016, I started the International Montreal Butler Academy (IMBA). The IMBA butler school was designed as a distinct service school, a standard bearer of the highest norms in the trade, its program enriched by a fine wines cellar management curriculum. Wine knowledge acquisition is taught all along the thirteen weeks duration of the program, making it the only Butler school in the world with this specialty. This is what I was hinting at earlier when I said that I got an idea in 2001 for a butler-cum-wine project. The school is designed this way because, during my Butler studies in the Netherlands, we were told that butlers command high salaries. In my mind I was thinking: « how one can pretend to gain a high salary without any area of specialization or expertise? »  Yes, a butler works hard and has managerial responsibilities but, as an area of possible specialization, few are adding as much value as wine expertise .

The dining room is the focal point of a butler and employers normally have access to a respectable wine cellar in the service of their social agenda. The cellar falls naturally under the responsibility of the butler. It is not for the chef or any other person in the household to manage the cellar and it has traditionally always been the case. So much so that the name for the profession « butler » is a transformation and adaptation into the English language of the French word « bouteiller » the one who, in days of yore, was in charge of transferring wine from the cask to the bottle. The word « bottle » in French is  « bouteille » .

Plus, wine owns food!

A good butler will work magic with a chef to create harmonious pairing.

Maybe it is worth mentioning again that during my butler studies we did receive wine instruction, but only for two days… It is with that in mind that I formed the project of becoming conversant with wine, especially wines worth cellaring and use cellar management and food pairing expertise to constitute the DNA on which to build our Butler school. This project has required time and efforts and was fifteen years in its development phase before seeing the light of day in 2016.

In the Spring of 2018 I have added a subset to our schools with Veritas Wine Sourcing. It got established with the mandate of discovering original wines worth cellaring to add value to our client’s cellars and wine clubs.

Mapping the Future -and- Seeing new opportunities

Being the owner of a wine and a butler school, it is normal that cross-pollination occurs.

For instance, I have noticed that facing the wine lake situation (too much wine to absorb), wine producers have to cope with the risks of commodification and lower margins if not outright distillation. To counter those, producers are required to actively integrate vertically and increase the value in their brand. They must distinguish and build a compelling case for their products in order to find a spot in the consumer mind. To that end, building a top notch Cellar Door facility and operation is worth considering. Well done, it could be a perfect vector to showcase their goods and engage the consumer.

A proper structure and modus operandi is required, but to achieve superior results, a unique and proprietary (to the brand) «culture» needs to be developed and implemented. This requires proper conception, training, team building and follow-up.

For optimal results, a training program should integrate different strands of technical proficiency and product knowledge.

Namely, brand ambassadors would have to blend wine knowledge with a convincing wine storytelling narrative enriched with strong presentation skills and best front of the house service practices.

Here is how we have designed it:

From my WSET school I draw the adapted wine knowledge and synergise it with (learnt around the world) Wine MBA best cellar doors practices informed by our Butler School standards of service.

The program is called:  the Cellar Door Specialist (CDS) and it will be launched in 2019.

Two other projects were launched spring of 2018, they are the Experiential Economy Expertise -or- Triple E program and the Ambassadors for talented Brand -or- ATB program.

The Experiential Economy Expertise (Triple E) program has already caught the eye of private banking, here in Canada.

The Triple E program is designed to be polyvalent and adaptable, a sort of Swiss Knife that could address many ad hoc business situations.

Allow me to discuss for a moment the relevance of those two programs.

Almost everybody has read or heard about the the AI (Artificial Intelligence) tsunami that is about to self-impose on the Service economy. Some predict that up to 40-50% of jobs will disappear in the next decades to automation and machine learning.

Some experts are positively worried about AI, others are more serene, and those with a positive mind (I am thinking of Tom Peters here) see in it business opportunities and a way to transition from a Service economy to an Experience economy where professionals equipped with the right skill set will thrive.

It is suggested that, by enriching interactions with their clientele, it will create an opportunity for brands to move the lines and generate trust and loyalty like never before.

In other words, creating value for clients in ways that a machine cannot duplicate will not only preserve jobs or businesses, it will become the only game in town for all luxury brands, high value-added products, and services destined to a demanding, willing to pay, clientele.

It is in this context that we have drawn resources from the IMBA to create the Ambassadors for Talented Brands (ATB) and the Triple E (Experts in the Experience Economy) programs.

Whenever I have a moment, I am busy writing my Etiquette for the 21st century book. It’s title: The Etiquette Dividend.

The Etiquette Dividend is due to be completed for the Fall of 2019 and will naturally incorporate a wine section. It will encompass more than wine though, it’s ambition is to become the vade-mecum for ladies and gentlemen of the 21st century and A level performers at the top of their game wishing to live the Rich lifestyle ; The Etiquette Dividend, in a word, will help world-class leaders in becoming ornaments to their professions.

-To come full circle-

At the end of November 2018, I got appointed Sommelier for Orford Music, at the very same place where it all began forty-five years ago. I am saddled with the task of creating and managing the Orford Music fine wines investment cellar.

Right there where a great musician told me once (in 1974):

“You have to whet the appetite of your listener; play a few notes and make them taste (sound) good. If you get the attention of the listener they might lend you an ear and will desire for more. Otherwise, they won’t eat it. It’s that simple. Execution, execution, quality of execution! Think of a perfectly executed simple dish cooked to perfection with the best quality ingredients…for sure, a winner!”.

Then Lagoya took my guitar and demonstrated what he meant by “play a few notes and make them taste good”.

-I was awe stricken-

I learned a lot from Lagoya; if I would have to put it in a sentence it would be the following:

First, Rise! Rise as high as you can get, and then, spread your arms, take the plunge and go as deep as you can.

To this day, I never quenched my thirst, every day getting inspired by Alexander Pope commanding verses:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

This, is the kind of situation Orford Music Academy students are likely to get from the encounter with the greatest classical musicians they will meet in the idyllic setting and serene environment of the Orford Arts Centre.

Twenty years after Lagoya passed away (1929-1999) who was such a positive contribution to Orford Music, and now I feel privileged to add my modest share building this investment cellar to raise the endowment of this noble sixty-nine years old Canadian institution.

In Vino Veritas!

Richard Sagala