“I've been a keen follower of history ever since I was a little kid,” says Bruce Soley. “I used to read encyclopedias at night, and my sister used to tease me.”
He grew up in a family who loves food: “I basically grew up in my mom's kitchen; she is a brilliant cook, so I’ve really been cooking my whole life.” Her father was a third-generation butcher who had left South Wales after World War I to homestead in Vermilion, and opened a butcher shop in Lacombe. Soley’s father moved from Edmonton to Lacombe around 1949, and with his grandfather, opened ‘Soley's Hardware and Furniture’, which they ran for 50 years; it’s now a Home Hardware store.
Soley came to Calgary in 1984 to study history and geography, and on leaving university in the late ‘80s, found it was hard to get work, and he fell into the restaurant business, and was hooked. He cooked for five years at The Keg before switching to the front of house and bartending, and then took a job at The Wine Gallery in Bankers Hall, where he discovered an interest in wine. He joined River Café in 1999 to run the bar, started sommelier school in 2005, becoming a “somm’ in 2007, and took over the wine director duties in 2011.
What bottle is Soley saving for a special occasion?
He produces a bottle of Marqués de Riscal Rioja Gran Reserva 1964. “I have all kinds of bottles, but this one's really cool,” he says. “Sal (Howell, River Café’s founder and proprietor) gave me this bottle; it was in the cellar when I started here. I'm a huge Rioja fan. I love the wines, and the history of the bottle is remarkable.”
“It’s 58 years old; it's been in the bottle through the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, the Yom Kippur war, the Beatles, fascist Spain, the fall of communism… the nineties,” he continues. “The history this bottle has watched go by is just amazing.”
And the story of the bottle gets even more amazing - it’s survived two floods, one in 2005 and one in 2013. “In 2005, we had about three feet of water in the basement, and it wiped out all the infrastructure on the island,” Soley explains. “So if we didn't have that flood in 2005 it would have been way worse in 2013, because after 2005 they redid all the power, the sewers, and water supply. If it hadn't been done, in 2013 we probably would never have been able to reopen that year.”
The flood was June 19 and River Café reopened the second week of August - which is truly remarkable because there was nine feet of water in the basement. Soley tells how the police came to help them get out as the water was coming in fast. They threw their last case of Bordeaux at the top of the stairs and then had to go, returning four days later when the water receded.
“It was just a complete disaster; this whole island was covered in a foot of glacial silt. It's like potter's clay, when it dries, it's hard as rock,” he adds. “It covered all the labels, and the wine was all underwater for four days. It wasn't necessarily spoiled, but because the water's full of everything from diesel fuel to bacteria, you never know. And then the next day it was 28/30 degrees, and the humidity was unbelievable - we could see the mould growing in the cellar walls by the hour. Everything was gutted in the basement right down to the concrete, we tore everything out and it all had to be completely redone.”
Soley inventoried all the wine that they were able to save, and for around 2,500 bottles of highly collectable wine that was lost.
And when will he open the bottle? “They're remarkable, they show really well, so I'll probably open it when the wine is 60 [years old]. There's only two more years, can you believe that? It's crazy,” Soley laughs. “Or maybe when I retire, I’ve waited this long. I don't think I'll ever “retire” retire, but I’ll probably retire from the restaurant business.”