Brad Royale credits the time he spent right out of high school working as a server in Lake Louise for exposing him to wine culture. From Lake Louise, he moved to Calgary to pursue his dream of becoming an architect, though he was less enthused about his studies than he was for the wine-store job he had taken on to help pay for school. He would eventually drop architecture to follow his passion, gaining accreditation as a sommelier. He parlayed that into a position with Divino Wine and Cheese Bistro, which led to him becoming wine director for the entire Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts (CRMR) group, which includes Calgary restaurants Cilantro and The Lake House as well as mountain properties Emerald Lake Lodge, Buffalo Mountain Lodge and Deer Lodge.
In addition to overseeing the CRMR wine program, Royale also puts out his own wines via Kitten Swish, a “micro-ngociant” label he co-founded with Mark Kuspira of Crush Imports. We caught up with him on the patio at Cilantro to talk about his role as Kitten Swish’s “curator,” where to get the best ramen and why everyone should drink more acid.
What’s it like to run a wine label out of a place that is not known for being a wine region?
“It makes it tricky, for sure, not to have a local source, but there’s also a lot of excitement to it. The Calgary wine market in general is a killer market, just a fascinating wine market to be in. There’s no government monopoly, so the diversity of product here is fantastic. Starting a wine label [here] means you have to travel to go find wine, which is a big perk, but it also means you can have a lot of diversity. With Kitten Swish we do products from France, the U.S., Canada, maybe Germany coming up, maybe Australia, maybe Italy next year. It’s a great way to get a lot of different types of wine into one brand.”
So you basically travel to vineyards, meet with the various winemakers and get them to create product for you?
“Essentially. Sometimes it’s me showing up at the winery and the winemaker will have, say, 20 barrels of chardonnay and I’ll taste all 20 of them and pick three or four that I like and blend them together. It’s kind of putting my mark on the wine, I suppose. I call it curating; moving the pieces around so they look a certain way. Or it could be also a completely finished wine that I like and they let me have it [and put my label on it], or it could be what I call a vineyard-up project where a winemaker from a specific vineyard and I will devise a fermentation plan and an aging scheme for the wine and really actually create it together.”
Can you explain the significance of the name?
“Well it’s two parts: the first part, Kitten, is a little feisty, a young cat, very playful, very distracted, that’s kind of where the label is at. We see products from all over the place, we change the lineup, the wines don’t always have to be the same, so that’s the ‘distracted’ part of things. And then Swish is an old barrel term. If you were super broke-ass and had no cash and managed to obtain a recently emptied whisky barrel, you’d fill it with a bit of water and kick it around your yard for a while, essentially extracting some alcohol from it. At the very least you’d drain the water, drink it and get wasted, hopefully. If you were really crafty you’d take that water, distill it again, and actually make something with some power to it. So that’s where the ‘Swish’ came from, because we do a lot of barrel-buying and moving wines around and curating wines.”
What are some wine trends for the summer of 2016?
“Overall, in general, the average wine drinker is starting to appreciate a bit more acid in their wines. High-acid wines that are really fresh and vibrant and energizing are becoming a lot more attractive to the general wine consumer. So I say drink everything that has a lot of acid in it!”
Let’s just clarify that’s not LSD you’re talking about.
“Exactly! But yes, drink fresh. Find stuff that is light and bright and juicy.”
So which of the Kitten Swish wines encapsulates that best?
“Two of them, really. There’s a recently released chenin blanc coming from Dry Creek Valley. We made it with a partner with a winery in Sonoma. It is all of those things – light, bright, extremely fresh. Quite fun. And then there’s the cabernet franc from the Okanagan – it’s really pretty, very floral, very soft, quite caressing in terms of its palate. Nice blueberry-graphite-y little fruits that roll through it. It’s quite fantastic. Great for summertime. You could drink it by a pool.”
What’s the biggest misconception about sommeliers?
“That they’re stuffy, that they’re super serious and snobbish and stuffy and pompous. All the best ones are not anything like that at all. Just men and women that really, really dig wine and everything that goes along with that: culture and geography, geology, anthropology. It’s a big study, wine, when it gets down to it and the people who are best at the job of being a sommelier embrace all of it and embrace the best thing about wine, which is just the casualness of having a glass of wine. Just sitting around with a glass of wine, it’s the best part.”
What’s your favourite wine region to visit?
“They’re all good. All of them. Wines are like people, they like hanging out in beautiful places. They like warm climates, they like bodies of water. Every region has its own particular charm.”
What food-and-wine pairing are you obsessed with right now?
“Ramen and chardonnay.”
What’s your favourite ramen spot here in the city?
“Carino. The miso ramen there is absolute dynamite. The broth is perfect. The noodles are great. I really like Toshi [Karino, owner of Carino and former Wine Director at Teatro]. He’s a really great guy. And the room is nice. It’s quite small and there’s never really a lineup to get in so you can walk right in and sit down. On weekends you can bring in a bottle of wine, so a group of friends will go there, usually every weekend, Saturday or Sunday, we’ll drink a bottle of chardonnay and eat ramen.”