From Tondo girl, to caregiver to global wine expert

Community News & Features Nov 9, 2018 at 5:34 pm
Arlene Oliveros at the Pinoylicious 2018 (Photo: HG)

Arlene Oliveros at the Pinoylicious 2018
(Photo: HG)

Filipina Sommelier Arlene Oliveros

By Irish Mae Silvestre
The Philippine Reporter

Arlene Oliveros, 39, has long believed in the Philippines’ untapped potential as a foodie destination. The Filipino-Canadian sommelier and enogastronomist is working to push her home country to the forefront of the latest food movements.

“If you look at how we utilize our resources and time, it’s always based on major productions like fashion shows, beauty pageants and concerts,” she said during dinner at Mother Tongue. “This is now the time that we have to start utilizing the power of Filipino gastronomy.”

And Oliveros would know.

Oliveros being introduced in Italy as Vintaly’s Certified Italian Wine Ambassador.

Oliveros being introduced in Italy as Vintaly’s Certified Italian Wine Ambassador.

After all, she’s the founder and director of World of Wines (WOW) Canada and the Philippines, a service that helps clients curate wines, promotes wine tourism and educates young Filipinos on wine. She’s also a certified Vinitaly Wine Ambassador, a position that has her splitting her time between Canada, Italy and the Philippines and she’s the founder of Pinoylicious, an event that promotes Filipino restaurants in winter when business is at its slowest.

Such is her faith in the success of Filipino cuisine that she’s currently trying to make the Filipino Restaurant Association of Canada an official entity that will kickstart more collaborations within the restaurant community.

“I think we need a paradigm shift,” explained Oliveros. “[Talking to millennials] is so empowering because they don’t need much to start something – it’s just the drive, passion and creativity. They have the humility to admit that they don’t know everything now and that they need to learn from other people.”

Studying Italian wines at the Vintaly International Academy.

Studying Italian wines at the Vintaly International Academy.

A Life of Extremes

“My life has been about random things, chance meetings and complex coincidences that ended up giving me these opportunities,” said Oliveros.

She’s witnessed both ends of the spectrum: poverty and wealth. She grew up in a low-income family in Tondo, Manila, then, while studying at the University of the Philippines Diliman, lived in a mansion formerly owned by Nora Aunor.

After graduating at the age of 19, she followed her boyfriend (now husband) Raymond to Canada. Upon arriving, she said she felt “so unwelcome.”

“It was such a rough start for me because his family was very conservative,” she recalled. “They weren’t happy because, to them, the message was, ‘Were we going to live together?’”

She soon found herself alone in a strange country. Oliveros eventually found refuge among a group of thirteen Filipinos who shared a one-bedroom apartment on Dufferin St. and Castlefield Ave. Most of them worked as live-in nannies and caregivers, which meant that on weekends, they were packed “like sardines” in the tiny space.

Blind tasting vintages of the historic Ronchi di Cialla in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

Blind tasting vintages of the historic Ronchi di Cialla in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

Through a referral, she ended up working alongside her husband as live-in caregivers for a wealthy Jewish family. They would end up living with the couple for over a decade, caring for the wife who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

“I paid attention to [her needs] until she became like a new person again,” she said. “She wanted to communicate and wanted to enjoy activities like playing cards.”

Living in a Eurocentric environment where they heard stories of the family’s travels had an impact on Oliveros. “That’s the first thing we did when we lost them,” she said. “We traveled to Europe.”

There, she and her husband visited various wine regions during wine tours. It ignited an interest in Oliveros, who signed up for events and wine classes back in Toronto.

They had also started a now defunct home and healthcare agency that assigned house helpers and caregivers to affluent families. She recalled one incident where one of her employees was asked to fetch a bottle of wine from the cellar. “She ended up uncorking a bottle, a pricey Bordeaux, that was a special occasion bottle that she was not supposed to open,” she said. “That’s when I realized there’s that liability part in the nature of my business.”

At a private tasting at the cellar of Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, France.

At a private tasting at the cellar of Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, France.

It also prompted her to apply for the sommelier program at George Brown College. There, she found herself in the company of students who had been drinking wines at a very young age. Oliveros, with her distinctly Asian palette, struggled to embrace the tasting grid, a system that separates a wine’s tastes, flavours and aromas.

“I was being a rebel, questioning the tasting grid and asserting my tasting notes,” she recalled. “I was fortunate to have met people who said, ‘You know what? You’re so right on your tasting notes – your palette is actually more complex than most people’s because you’re Asian and you’re used to different spices.’ That gave me back the confidence but I had to work hard for it.”

Homework meant going to St. Lawrence Market to learn about boysenberries, Meyer lemons and blackcurrants. Nearby wine regions like Niagara and Prince Edward County also provided the ideal setting to learn about wines and vineyards. She eventually became a certified sommelier, also learning about tea, coffee, chocolates and cigars. “Things that can be placed on the table in a fine dining situation,” explained Oliveros.

To add to an already busy schedule, she’s currently the subject of an upcoming documentary and a feature film, with filmmakers following her for a year around the world. “They told me, ‘You’re not really attached to wealth or luxury and we kind of hope to capture that in this movie: how different you are,’” said Oliveros. “And I totally agree. I think that’s what I bring to the table.”