IF IT WEREN’T FOR NORA GRAY, would Montrealers have a much-loved spot where they can enjoy low-intervention wines of spectacular quality? Possibly. Possibly not. Under the direction of co-owner Ryan Gray, this 11-year-old restaurant pretty much forged the natural-wine path along which so many have wandered since, not only in Montreal but also in other North American cities who came later to the party.
For this, we have Ryan Gray to thank — or spank — depending on how you feel about natural wine. But whether you prefer the conventional (“modern wines,” he calls them) or you’re open to something with a bit more character — and, possibly, some quirks — Gray is not fussed. Just give him and his team a chance. These wines are less about definitions and more about balance. Wines that “vibrate,” he says. That make him weak in the knees. That make him cry. Picture a dining room full of weeping wine lovers…happy tears, mind you. Sounds pretty good.
“When we opened Nora Gray, [natural wine] wasn’t a term that was used. But I became interested in, and gravitated to, these wines — or low-intervention wines — when I was at Liverpool House,” he says. In the ensuing years — and inspired by staff trips to Italy and France to forge connections with like-minded producers — Gray and partners opened Elena (2018) and Gia (2021). Each place has a distinct offering: Gia Vin & Grill for fun wines with pizza, Elena for bigger, riper wines with robust fare. All three are built around wines that are “alive,” the foods that animate them and the customers who love them.
We have noted in past appreciations that “diners would do well to heed [Gray’s] suggestions for pairing” with the refined and creative Italian cooking of chef Emma Cardarelli at Nora Gray. Let’s update that, adding an appreciation for the work of sommelier Lawrence Fiset at Gia and Elisabeth Racine at Nora Gray and Elena. Gray himself deflects any praise, calling out his team and putting them and “wines with soul” front and centre.
For that, and also for putting Montreal on the map for its appreciation of delicious wines, we recognize him as Canada’s Best Sommelier 2022.
Photos by Monse Muro