Krysta Oben
#007

Faces of Food

Krysta Oben

Driven to make wine aficionados of us all, Krysta wants to open the world of wine to everyone.

Issue #7
June 2019

Krysta Oben

“There’s never been a better time in Toronto to drink good wine.”

Wine lovers rejoice. These are the words of Krysta Oben, sommelier and general manager at Paris Paris. According to her, there’s cause for great optimism for fans of everyone’s favourite grape-based beverage.

Krysta is on a mission to find some of the coolest and most delicious wines around, and bring them to the masses. In a world that has traditionally been dominated by a fairly inaccessible and exclusive wine culture, Krysta wants to bring down those barriers, and make sure that this is a drink that can be enjoyed by all.

“A lot of sommeliers I know grew up in a studious world where you’d go to a tasting and people would be wearing suits and everything being very “bro-y” and uncomfortable. So we wanted to make it accessible to people who don’t want to wear a suit, and just want to enjoy wine with their friends.”

It was this perception of a slightly stuffy wine culture, at least in part, that motivated Krysta to go against the grain, and breathe some fresh air into the industry in Toronto. After working in restaurants from the age of 18, and developing a passion for wine as soon as she could legally drink it, she began educating herself on the subject through her work. By asking a ton of questions, travelling to wineries, and attending talks and workshops, Krysta equipped herself with the knowledge necessary to forge a career in wine.

Fast-forward to today, having since worked at Byblos, Edulis, Cava, and Geraldine, that career has found her plying her craft at Paris Paris. And whilst discovering and sharing incredible wines is a big part of what she does, this is in aid of a bigger cause. “I want to provide people with a vocabulary where they feel comfortable talking about wine, and talking to a sommelier, but also where they feel comfortable making choices that are brave and going beyond their usual like Pinot Grigio or Cabernet Sauvignon to being able to say ‘I want something light and crushable’ or ‘big’. People are scared to talk to sommeliers, but we try to be very ‘not scary’ [at Paris Paris].”

It was clear from the outset of our chat with Krysta that she is hugely motivated to ‘normalise’ wine. She wants to make wine, and the entire experience around it, something that can be easily shared among friends, and enjoyed by everyone. “Wine is a beverage. It’s just fermented grape juice. Obviously it’s full of history and magic and all of these very special things, but it’s really something you should share with your friends and not put on a pedestal.”

But despite this noble cause, Krysta was also keen to emphasise that her job is not all blue sky thinking, big dreams, and changing the world of wine. As with any job, it isn’t always about the bigger picture – there is the more humble business of the day-to-day hustle. Asked what a day in the life of a sommelier looks like, she told us “it’s mostly unpacking cardboard boxes. Waking up, sending a million emails, coming into work, checking invoices, breaking down boxes, checking the list and making sure everything is in order, working the floor, being there for dinner service making sure everything runs smoothly.”

So, far from being all glitz and glamour, there is some serious hard work that goes into her profession. However, Krysta is not only a sommelier at Paris Paris. Such is her dedicated and hard-working nature, Krysta has another, completely separate wine project – Grape Witches. “Paris Paris is more a traditional wine bar. People come and ask a lot of questions. They’re usually sitting down and I have a lot more time to engage with them and find out what they like and what experience they want. Grape Witches has more of a party vibe, so we’re more pushing the wine we’re interested in with the hope they can’t resist.”

Grape Witches was started by Krysta and her best friend with the goal of educating people on wine and making it more fun and accessible. Through organising tastings, events, and parties, they seek to empower consumers to make informed decisions of what they drink. “Grape witches is a real passion project…our dream is to break down the barriers of wine.”

As with Paris Paris, a big part of removing these barriers is by cutting through some of the perceived snobbiness and often expensive prices that might put people off trying to understand wine. But another part of this is enlightening people on what they are putting into their bodies. There are often many chemicals added to the wines we buy from stores, but people have no idea what these are and their potential health impacts. As Krysta observed, people are very careful about what they put into their bodies nowadays, but it is difficult to know what that may be with many wines when there is very little transparency about some of the ingredients commonly found within it.

And so, to help solve this issue of transparency, she wants to guide people to find and understand good, soulful, natural wines at Grape Witches. “We wanted to think of fun ways to get our knowledge of wine across to people who don’t work in the industry.”

What, then, is natural wine? Whilst there is no official definition, or official standard set by any regulating body, Krysta gave us her own two cents on how she would define it: “It’s grapes that are grown organically, often by the people who are making the wine with their own farms and vineyards, that they get to take care of and raise without any chemical intervention.” And thanks to projects like Grape Witches, and wine bars like Paris Paris, there is an increasing awareness in natural wine, and it’s popularity is growing.

But why is this trend starting to gain momentum? This might be explained, at least in part, by increasingly informed wine-drinkers. Gradually, people are seeing that all may not be as it seems with the wines they have been enjoying in the past. “It’s pretty shocking that our food is labelled with ingredients and our wine doesn’t have to be. And there’s up to 60 or so ingredients that can be added to a wine that don’t have to go on the label, which stuns me. I feel like natural wine is a bit of a reaction to that. We all imagine wine is just fermented grape juice, [but] there’s a teaspoon of sugar and…additives and colour and all that kind of stuff.”

Between Paris Paris and Grape Witches, Krysta is certainly playing her part in changing the landscape in the wine industry. But she is careful not to play up her influence here: “No, I’m definitely no trailblazer. I’ve seen a trend over the past couple years in Toronto with our very cool sommelier community but also around the world where through the internet you can learn so much about wine now and 15 years ago I couldn’t even imagine…You would have to read books and wait for it to come out but now you can DM a cool winemaker and hopefully they’ll answer you.”

So, in Krysta’s eyes, she is just part of a bigger trend towards a more wine-educated public. But with such a dedication to the beverage, and by running both Paris Paris and Grape Witches, we think it would be fair to say that there are few sommeliers in Toronto doing more than Krysta to change the conversation. Such is her devotion, she quite literally takes her work home with her. “Oh my God, I have so much wine at home, I need more wine shelves. If I’m at home hanging out, I’ll drink any [wine] that’s fun. It really depends on my mood and the mood of the people who are hanging out with me. My boyfriend and I will share a nice little glass of whatever seems interesting and whatever is taking up space on the shelf. But if people are over, I love to drink champagne, I always have a few bottles in my fridge.”

Wine at work, and wine at home. A sommelier through and through.

With such an obvious love and passion for this subject, and coming to the end of our interview, we realised we had missed one of the more obvious questions: why wine over other beverages? “I think why it’s so special compared to beer and cocktails is that it’s always shared. You’re not making a bottle of wine for yourself. It’s always something you want to share with people around a table to celebrate something or just to facilitate conversation.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Krysta aspires to open this kind of experience to everyone, and to invite people into the world of wine. So what should you do if you want to take up this invite, and get to know more, but are afraid you just don’t know enough to get started? “Don’t be scared and don’t be afraid to tell them you don’t know what you’re talking about. Just to say “I’m looking for a wine” is a really good start. And if your sommelier or server cares, which hopefully they do, they’ll help guide you to find [your] dream wine…We’re all working for the guest, and not the cool bottle status, so to not be afraid to use whatever words you have in your vocabulary to talk about [wine] is my best suggestion.”

So there you have it. Wine can be something for everyone, understood by everyone, and enjoyed by everyone. We just need to open up a little and ask for help. Then, hopefully, in the words of Krysta Oben, “one day we’ll all just end up together, drinking beautiful wine.”