In 1997 Lesle Gibson enrolled in wine school classes to become a certified sommelier in Toronto, Canada. As one of a handful of female sommeliers back then in Canada, her career now spans over 30 years as an expert in the world of wine.
A role traditionally held by affluent white men, she was the only woman in her class at that time. Gibson remembers her male instructor referring to her as ‘Betty Boop’ rather than her real name, being compared to an animated sex symbol with absolutely zero relevance.
Much different than it is today, it was rare for women to build a career in wine and required resilience, thick skin and a sense of humour.
Gibson received her full sommelier certificate from the International Sommelier Guild in 1998. Taking that knowledge along with her, her true passion was to build unique wine experiences over the years. Before opening her importing agency in 2019, Gibson’s restaurant career spanned over two decades and in two major north American cities, opening a total of eight spots between the two.
Sommelier to the Stars
As a trendsetter, Gibson received rave reviews at all her locations both in Toronto and Los Angeles. She made her first stylish splash in Toronto with a trio of celebrated bars and eateries: Teatro, Xacutti and Bird. In L.A. she opened Bella, Parc and Shag before returning home to open Grace – her favourite spot to date. She helped plan Janet Jackson’s 40th birthday party, hosted after-parties for Justin Timberlake and John Mayer, provided private dinners for U2 all while recommending wines for Hollywood’s elite. She even attended Meghan and Harry’s royal wedding, establishing her reputation both at home and in the city of angels.
Before launching her import agency Gibson Family Group in 2019, Gibson met actor, producer and now vigneron, John Malkovich while he was filming RED in Toronto. He was a regular at her restaurant and the two got along very well. “John loved California Cabernet and Oregon Pinot. And we both loved wine. It was a natural fit to be one of his first importers and I love sharing his wines.”
But before the importing days, Gibson was on a wine mission designing a personalized wine tasting experience for her guests. Gibson was one of – if not the first to offer flights of wine in the city of Toronto and also created wine-themed evenings built around education. “I wanted my restaurants to have an ‘experience first philosophy,” she says “with a huge focus on wine and food at an approachable level for everyone”. At a time when wine came either by the glass or bottle, half litre or litre, Gibson was educating wine lovers about how to smell, sip, savour and compare wines from all over the world. By offering smaller ounce pours based around regions and themes, she enlightened her clientele’s knowledge of wine and her establishments were always full.
Up until the 2000’s the role of a Sommelier was mainly working as a wine steward in white tablecloth dining rooms and fine dining establishments, popping the corks of expensive, old wines at business lunches and dinner reservations. But wine culture started to shift and women started to enter into the business on the floor. ‘I loved having a dinner party every night – and getting it right.” This was Gibson’s mantra on the floor and one that she’s maintained for decades.
Gibson was helping to change how people experienced and how they were being educated about wine in two of North America’s booming cities. As a female restaurant owner and wine trailblazer she was paving the way for every woman in wine after her.
The birth of the wine bar scene came at the perfect time for Gibson to educate and enlighten in a way that hadn’t been done before. Wine culture in city centers was shifting from being high brow and skewed to mature men to being accessible, trendy and hip. The millennium birthed a new type of career for sommeliers – the wine bar and Gibson took that energy and shapeshifted the personal experience with her own voice and her establishments. Gibson created every single wine list and managed every single bottle of wine. She was a woman with a fire in her belly to make a true mark on the world of wine – and boy did she! Gibson embraced the shift in times and used her connection and love of people to build a new type of wine consumer. She loved the challenge of opening up people’s minds to great wine experiences, and was passionate about hospitality. Her talent and tenacious character has made her one of the most respected, accomplished and credible voices in the wine industry today.
The Gibson Family Group
After years of being in the hospitality industry, Gibson decided to start her own import wine agency. Aptly called Gibson Family Group, she hand-selected over 45 family producers for the exclusive portfolio. With over 200 wines on her list, Gibson and her dream team of ‘Wine Angels’ sell to private clients and restaurants across Ontario.
“I spent 20 years buying wines for my restaurants and was the working somm on the floors most nights. I also hired the best staff and empowered them with the tools to sell. It was a natural progression to start my own agency. There are so many similarities in both worlds. Ultimately we are all buying and selling wine from producer to agent to sommelier to customer.”
One of the first members of her wine family was John Malkovich’s Les Quelles de la Coste wines from Provence, France. His wine philosophy reflects his passion and people around the world love his wines. Malkovich crafts wines he loves to drink, blending Cabernet and Pinot Noir. This original blend raised more than a few eyebrows but is a trend that is now catching on, trailblazing indeed. Her portfolio exudes uniquely talented, wonderful winemakers, every bottle hand selected with that Gibson touch.
“My wine family means the world to me. I love sharing their passion, their dedication and their wines to my clients who are both industry and private, another unique family in itself.”
Her wine journey has been long, and she truly loves the industry. “I’ve been a wine lover for as long as I can remember. I’m not a wine snob – and I will always order wine when I’m out.” However, Gibson admits that she will send wine back for being bad, cooked, corked, too warm and downright disgusting. She’s traveled all over the world, dined at Michelin star restaurants and tasted an uncountable number of wines. She remembers the first time she went to Burgundy, France and how the region, wines and people stole her heart. “All roads lead to Burgundy,” she says, “its magic is irreplaceable!”. Gibson loves the Burgudy wine region so much she’s dedicated a large part of her portfolio to this iconic region. But when we started to talk about other regions, she exclaims, “I have however, just returned from Italy and left a piece of my heart with my wine family there….there is just so much magic everywhere!”
Gibson drinks Rosé all year long and is a darn good cook. She loves to entertain and takes pride in perfectly paired, eloquently polished wine and food experiences that wow any enthusiast. Gibson also mentors and supports women in the business and consistently works with charitable causes as a way of giving back to the industry.
“I think it’s incredibly important to provide support is as many ways possible. We all need a helping hand and I am proud of the family we’ve created along the way.”