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2 min

Drinking for a better world

Mario Larochelle is the founder of Swirl & Twirl fundraiser

SERVICE ETHIC. Sommelier Mario Larochelle finds community by volunteering to help. Credit: Shawn Scallen

Mario laroch-elle says he may have one of the best jobs in the world. And it’s hard to argue.

Larochelle is a sommelier – a wine expert – whose day job with the LCBO consists of sampling and evaluating new products as they come on the market, giving expert advice to customers and teaching wine-tasting classes.

In the book of worn clich├ęs, this might make him rather snooty and patronizing – a wine snob.

But at the still-almost-tender age of 36, Larochelle seems more elemental than elitist. He says that after almost 25 years in the restaurant business (“I started as a dishwasher at 12”), it’s working with people, wine and food that he loves.

And he has recently found a way to turn these loves, and his expertise, into a series of creative and successful events to raise needed funds for queer community organizations.

Larochelle is the instigator and event coordinator of Swirl And Twirl, a wine, beer and food-tasting fundraiser that has raised more than $4,000 each for both Pride Ottawa and Pink Triangle Services in the last two years.

He says the inspiration for Swirl And Twirl grew out of his desire to help Pride Ottawa dig itself out of its recent – and ongoing – financial deficit.

“I was disappointed with the community response to Pride,” he says. “I enjoy going out in the street, seeing other people, having a beer and partying. And I thought I can do my part – do an event – and maybe raise a bit of money. And if other people in the community do the same thing, maybe we can help Pride to pay for their deficit, and help them get back on track.”

Larochelle had been a long-time volunteer at Pink Triangle Service’s Gayline peer support service. He approached the agency about taking part in Swirl And Twirl, and it got on board too.

The third incarnation of Swirl And Twirl is now set for Jun 2, with Harmony House, a local shelter for women and child survivors of violence, added to the list of beneficiaries.

This willingness to contribute to the queer community in Ottawa seems woven through the fabric of Larochelle’s life. He’s also an organizer with both the Gay Ottawa Volleyball league and the Ottawa Knights.

I ask him why he isn’t staying home, perhaps studying his books on wine, cheese and cigars, in preparation for the upcoming first Canadian national sommelier competition in which he will compete this year. He is a contender, having finished as first runner-up in last year’s Ontario competition.

He explains that he learned earlier that community life happens because people – often volunteers – make it happen. When he moved from small-town Quebec to Montreal, “There was a gay volleyball league, and it was my introduction to the gay community in Montreal. The volleyball league in Montreal helped me to grow up and be secure about myself, more confident about myself.

“And I guessed that if there were events, that meant there were volunteers getting involved – people pulling them off and taking care of the league.”

In the big picture, raising funds for flagship organizations like Pride, Pink Triangle Services and Harmony House sustains the very processes Larochelle may have seen unfold for himself in Montreal – support, community, celebration and wellness.

Sitting in the springtime Ottawa sun, seemingly at ease in his own skin and on top of his game, he appears reflective, but feels no need to take sole credit for his work

“I love doing what I do. And I know so many great people that are willing to get involved and do stuff. So I guess maybe it’s just a matter of having someone step forward with an idea, and asking them.”