“If anybody orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any ******* merlot!”
Unlike Paul Giamatti’s Miles Raymond character in Sideways, you will not find a judgmental wine snob in Doug Cooper.
The Provenance Commissary and Wine Bar owner won’t think less of those who enjoy merlot, the variety that fell out of favour with many following the release of the 2004 Oscar nominee for Best Picture.
In fact, they might earn Cooper’s respect.
Was merlot a controversial grape before the movie’s release?
“No,” Cooper responded without hesitation. “It’s delicious. It’s so good.”
He won’t judge those who dislike it, either. Such is his passion for wine and sharing it with others. That’s the whole point of his opening the downtown Orillia business in early July — to share that passion while making wine approachable to everyone from the occasional wine drinker to the connoisseur.
“It can be a little overwhelming because there’s lots of wine and it’s a small space, but we’ve really enjoyed walking guests through as many wines as we can,” Cooper said.
For those who aren’t sure what to order, he can help. There’s no such thing as too many questions.
Often, the first two he will ask are what the customers drink at home and how much they want to spend. He takes it from there.
“There’s no guarantee with wine. If I pull a cork on a $1,000 bottle, you might not like it. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “A $1,000 bottle does not taste 10 times better than a $100 bottle. There’s no math. It’s just supply and demand.”
It appears there is demand locally for what Cooper is offering. Barely open for a month, Provenance is already proving popular.
“Orillia drinks a lot of wine,” he said with a laugh.
It’s the reception he was hoping for when he made the decision to move from Toronto and set up shop at 11 Peter St. S.
He had seen what was happening in downtown Orillia. He had connections with the owners of the Common Stove and PICNIC as well as the developer of Matchedash Lofts. All three were taking off around the same time, and a visit with his friends here helped him make up his mind.
“It showed that Orillia was interested in some more food options and that there was probably a wine crowd here,” he said.
He isn’t one to trash talk places like the LCBO, but he wanted to offer varieties that aren’t as easily available. Visitors to the shop, or the Provenance website, can buy bottles from around the world — from more obvious places such as France and Spain to the more surprising, like Caduceus Cellars in Arizona.
The list of by-the-glass wine changes, if only slightly, every week. The options are listed in order, from lightest to fullest, giving customers a better idea of what to order.
The food menu, which is limited but impressive, also gets a weekly makeover.
Every Sunday, Cooper contacts Dragon Acres Farm in Ramara to see what’s good that week, and he moulds his menu based on what’s available. If he can’t get products from the immediate area, he still tries to look as locally as possible.
The current menu includes Ohme Farms watermelon with feta and tamarillo. Dragon Acres tomatoes are also available, served with buffalo mozzarella, sourdough and basil.
The menu isn’t designed to offer full-course meals. It’s more about appetizers and sharing.
You can still leave with a full stomach if you order enough food, but “before and after dinner is the sweet spot,” according to Cooper.
He designs the menu with the wine in mind.
The Red Seal chef used to cook in fine-dining kitchens, often working with sommeliers on tasting menus. His focus then was chiefly on the food.
When he moved to the wine side, that focus shifted to food that was “super-classic, freshly prepared and executed well so the two work hand in hand and neither the wine nor the food is trying to steal the show.”
Likewise, Provenance is not trying to steal the show from other businesses in town.
It’s become a common theme in this column — local restaurants and shops working together and viewing each other as complementary more than competition.
“People will leave Rustica and say, ‘Where do we go next?’ They’ll send them here,” Cooper said. “That local support is what’s making this work so well.”
It helps that Provenance offers an atmosphere like no other in town. It’s a quaint space with dark walls and cozy vibes, modelled after some of Cooper’s favourite wine bars from around the world. Guests, if they don’t already know one another, often interact while there — a pleasant byproduct of the limited space.
“We wanted a good-quality guest experience,” Cooper said, “and nobody should ever feel intimidated coming in here.”
Even if they like merlot.
Nathan Taylor’s local food and drink column appears every other Saturday.