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Serving customers funky wine and reminiscing of the crazy French culture, we sat down with Marie-Sophie Canto, Head Sommelier of the Dolphin Hotel in Sydney and Good Food's bar of the year in 2018.

 Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you found yourself here (at the Dolphin Wine Room) as a sommelier?

I started as a journalist back in France. More into the politics and everything but got very bored of it very quickly. Decided to move to London to learn how to speak English properly, so the easy way of making rent was to start working in a restaurant. (After that) I don’t know, I got into it. Wine came naturally after. I discovered natural wine 5 or 6 years ago and I got hooked.   


What’s your working relationship with James Hird (Wine Director across Dolphin Hotel, Icebergs and Cicciabella)?

He was in charge at the beginning. But very quickly he understood we had the same palette. We kind of have the same palette, we like acidity, we like the same wines. He’s going to tell me oh we have the same palette try this wine and that’s about it.


Did you study something around wine or did you do a sommelier course?

I tried to do the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) a couple of years ago. I paid for everything. I hated it. I hated the fact you had to learn a certain way of tasting, a certain way of smelling. I remember the first couple of courses we had, the lady was like ‘so is this good?’ For me it was the most disgusting wine I’ve ever tasted. So gross. And she was like ‘no no, it’s not a faulty wine, it’s perfect’. I was like fuck, I don’t want to learn that. I buy a lot of books and things, I’m very into it, but courses no, not into that. 


Do you have a process for helping someone pick a wine or pair a wine with their food and what does that look like? 

I don’t really believe in the pairing thing, because I think it’s very personal, it depends on everybody. But I do have certain questions that I ask. You start by the colour, obviously, what (colour) they want. And after it all depends on the people. You see, you read people, it’s all about reading people. Some people just want or say ‘ah I want a rosé’ and you can feel tell straight away they want a dry Provence rosé so it’s very easy. Sometimes it can take a bit longer, it’s like when it starts to become a bit fun. You’re just like, um, I don’t know how to explain it, just ask a few questions like do you want to be adventurous? Do you want something more classic? Do you want me to let you taste something a bit different? You always have different people. It’s all about what people want to give you.


What’s the best mistake you have ever made? 

When we first opened, I didn’t know anyone in hospo (hospitality). We had just opened the Dolphin Wine Room and James (Hird) just kind of dropped me into the wine room and I was just like what the f*** am I doing. And I had to serve one of the high guys at Merivale and he was very very classical but I went full-on funky and I kept giving him funky, because I didnt… Because I wasn’t listening to him… I was so in my own bubble and it was so busy, I was trying to make him taste what I like and not him. He never came back for 6 months. 

After, when he came back, I was like I know what to do now, I’m sorry about last time. He used to go to the Dining Room and he never asked for me, so one day I went to his table and said ‘look I want to apologise for the first time you came and ahh ok let’s start again and I know we’re going classic’. Haha.


What rules do you live by? 


Have fun. Yeah not really. I don't really like rules


Your most treasured belonging? 


My daddy’s ring. He passed away a few years ago.


How would you finish this sentence. It’s not very cool, but I really like… 

Romcoms. It’s my guilty pleasure haha. With one of the chefs here, we have this thing, is like, we go home and is just like ‘did you watch this?'. Last night I watched Love Blossoms, this is the worst movie you’ve seen in your entire life. I love it. It’s terrible.


What are the crossovers between French and Australian wines if any at all?

There’re not many crossovers. I think it’s like completely’s a very very different approach. I’m going to go completely the opposite. It’s more the big differences between the two countries. Like for example here there are people buying grapes and making wines and they call themselves winemakers. Which in France, you can’t really do that. We have a very traditional way of making wine, so you have to have your vineyard, you have to work your vineyard, you have to make your wines and then you’re considered as a vigneron. It’s very rare to buy grapes, it’s starting now but because the weather is changing so dramatically that people have to buy grapes to make some wines. In France it was actually a big taboo and like no one would buy grapes, apart from the co-ops and everything. When here everyone does it, everyone just buys grapes and then makes wine, like in their garage or whatever and you’re just like weird. When I first arrived, I was like ‘What are they doing?’.

I think it’s all about the history as well. We have a long past of like making wines, it’s in our DNA. Australia is slowly going that way, but it’s taking time. You have more people buying vineyards and making wines.


What’s your view on classic vs modern wine?

I used to be very into like modern and you know funky, natural and fun wines. The more you taste wine, the more your palette goes to classic and the more you want something more nice and beautiful and complex but without being too crazy.

I’m still into naturals, I just like something clean and beautiful.


Personal differences between France and Australia?

The lack of culture really frustrates me here. The lack of, also, I don’t know, people are not really passionate here. I don’t know I mean everyone goes to the gym, everyone is beautiful haha, they go to the beach, but you know I miss the craziness. You know when you sit round the table in France and you’re going to start arguing about politics or about what’s happening to country. Our craziness. We’ll all go into the street; we’ll all demonstrate all the time. I know we’re complete psychos, but I really miss that, I miss the fire in France.


What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

When you make a customer very happy. You know what the best is, when I have customers that sit down, they tell me straight away ‘you know I hate natural wine, I hate it’. And I manage to convince them. And I’m like YES. And then they come back a week after. Some people have been sent but they don’t know anything about natural wine but they want to learn. It’s all about reading your customers and not going super funky. Trying to tell them natural wine can be clean and really beautiful and not just be stinky.