Best World Sommelier Competition: Some Thoughts

winelist

It is very interesting to get a behind the scenes glimpse into something which you have been following as a spectator for a long time. For years, I was just a normal mortal wine-lover and was always awed and amazed by the sommeliers. Not only the vast amount of knowledge they had impressed me, but also their ability to taste, and then communicate, so many different things in a wine. And they could even tell what wine it is! And with what ease they could just open a bottle and serve it, what perfection!

Now I am a sommelier myself, have succeeded some exams and conduct wine tastings; but the feeling of “you are just a beginner, you still don’t know even a percentage of what real sommeliers know, one day someone will ask you a question and you will fizzle, everyone will see what a miserable failure you are” never went away. Actually, it even got stronger.

Until this past Saturday, that is. Until I was allowed to sit through and watch the finals of the “Best World Sommelier” Competition of the WSA (World Sommelier Association). Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to assert that now I think I am a perfect sommelier and know everything there is to know. All I am saying is,

1) even the certifiably best sommeliers in the world put their pants on one leg at a time and

2) most (unfortunately not all) also do realize, at least deep down, that they don’t know everything.

Before the finals I was able to watch on Saturday, the 14 competitors, each representing a country (not necessarily their native country, but the one where they have been actively working for the last year) had to go through rigorous semi-finals in theory and practice. They had to answer written questionnaires covering in depth a vast area of knowledge, including viticulture, oenology, wines and wine-making, equipment there of, the wine world (regions, legislations etc.), other beverages (like spirits and liqueurs, but also mineral waters, tea, cocktails etc.) and other taste related subjects (like cigars, chocolate, cheese etc.). They had to conduct a blind tasting with a technical and sensory analysis of two wines, they had to go through a food and wine pairing test and a practical one as well, where they had to show their abilities in service, manners, language etc.

The finalists

Only the 3 who scored overall highest in these tests were in the finals. And there they had to perform in front of not only a jury of the highest caliber (presidents of several member-national sommelier associations) but also a limited audience of interested individuals, of course mostly professionals like me. Talk about peer-pressure!

Each finalist had about half an hour on stage, where they again had to deliver a sensory analysis of two unknown wines in 8 minutes, and this is already where I start to feel better: Not all of the finalists did a good job of describing the wines (limited and repeated terminology - although this also had to do with language problems, I assume) or pairing them with food (”as we are in Rome, you could have some Serrano ham with this”) and none guessed which wine he had in his glass correctly, neither the country (let alone the region!), nor the varietal. But afterwards, knowing which wines they were, I have to say that Aldo Sohm delivered the best description.

Blind tasting

After this came the “identify this distillate” test with 5 distinctly different glasses. You would think the best sommeliers in the world would recognize absinthe (none did!) or not deliver such a wide and wild array of explanations for the same liquid: vodka (”the one with the green grass”), tequila, grappa… (It was Cachaça!)

Identification

Then the easiest part, you would think: Find the mistakes in the wine list (the picture you see at the top of this post) in 3 minutes. Well, the corrections you see in that picture, you know, I didn’t just see the mistakes in a snap… Actually, sitting there in the audience, I only found 6 of them, and was rather vague about it, too! And the other ones, I had to research them at home and even now, after many books and googling, I am still not 100% sure about all of them. Is the CS reserve from Mondavi really Napa Valley or Oakville AVA? And what about the grapes and their percentages in there, I can’t seem to find this information for this vintage… Is the mistake I see in number 9 really one (and to think I just about 2 months ago really drank this wine myself!) or am I actually wrong? Actually, Aldo Sohm was the only finalist who found almost all mistakes.

Service

The next part was the one what I had thought would be the most difficult for me but easiest for the pros up there: Wait/service test. In a real-life-like situation (well, if you ignore all the cameras - more than you can see in the picture! - around them), the sommeliers had to offer a table of guests (all celebrities in Italy, a journalist from Gambero Rosso, an anchor man from the tv channel Canale 5, the sommelier of a famous cooking show on tv and Gianfranco Vissani, 2 Michelin-starred chef) who was having a specific 5 course menu (which the sommelier heard of just then) the perfect wine pairings. They each had 9 minutes to offer a set of still wines and then a set of bubbly. Of course they had to give details about the wines they were recommending and why they thought it would pair so good with the specific dish.

At first I considered this to be very difficult, but the more I think about it, the more I am deciding against this notion: The dishes were pretty common dishes (oysters, spaghetti with tomato sauce, goulash, coq au vin and Sachertorte), they were even explained on the menu card so there was no guessing what really went into them, and I love pairing wines with dishes. Of course I tend to pair wines that I know or even have in my cellar, so it might not be the best pairing possible, but I know/feel what goes with what. So actually, these sommeliers do just the same thing, they are thinking about the wines they have in their cellars in the 3 Michelin-starred restaurants they work at, so naturally the wines they name are grander and better known wines; but they are not magically coming up with stuff, they just have to open the right drawers in the wine-library they have in their minds, just as any normal mortal would do! It was also interesting to see the national differences in the pairings: offering a Moscato d’Asti for a chocolaty dessert is unthinkable in Italy, but the Austrian Aldo Sohm, influenced by the American preferences (where he works), didn’t think twice about it!

Decanting a Chateau Petrus 1982

Then the sommeliers had to take the order for, open, decant and serve a Chateau Petrus 1982 for €2,500 (of course a fake bottle only!) to the table while answering the question why it is so expensive (actually, I agree with Andrea that it would be a steal, I saw this wine on a wine list in Paris for €6,000!). In the picture above, Roger Viusà is decanting the wine, perfectly visible for us, the audience, but this a mistake: He should have done this table-side, like only Aldo Sohm did!

After a final test about cigars and a distillate pairing for it, the finals were over. The result would be announced only at 10:30 pm the same night, during a gala dinner, but almost everyone agreed that Aldo was the most eloquent of the three. Some Italians in the audience were very sad that the Italian sommelier hadn’t made it to the finals and later in the (Italian-)blog world there was talk about Aldo winning only because of his better English (the finalists had to compete in English or French and for none was one of these languages the native language; during the semi-finals and the written tests also Spanish and Italian were allowed). Did he speak better? Yes. Was it easier for him? Apparently, yes. He does work in the States (for which he competed) since 3,5 years, so he had an advantage, but why don’t the others who want to win such a competition work on their language skills? It is expectable from someone who wants to be the best sommelier in the world that he should be able to speak very good English or French, the common international languages in high-class dining (and wine-drinking) world.

I talked to Aldo during a wine tasting (between the finals and the gala dinner) and was amazed how nice and down-to-earth he was, unlike some other big-name sommeliers I have met lately. He talked about how nervous he was (he managed to calm down and “go with the flow” only an hour before the finals), how much work and time it cost to prepare for this competition (he is the wine director of the 3 Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York and works already for up to 15 hours daily on this job), how he had to train hard to hammer all the technical information into his brain which seemingly works in 14-day cycles (he even uses a special technique - mind maps - and a software for this - MindManager - but there are always pitfalls: he memorized for example all the German appellations and had them all and then just a couple of weeks ago they went and changed everything!). He was afraid of being called the favorite at that point, he said he has been training and taking part in competitions for the last 10 years and has decided that this one would be the last (he does have a girlfriend, among all this work and training and travelling!). I am so happy that he can conclude his competition career as the worlds best sommelier. This is a guy who talks about and recommends $15 wines, doesn’t have a private cellar (whites in the fridge and reds in the kitchen cabinet), personally likes Italian and Austrian wines (my two favorites) and tells you to give him a call and visit him when you are in New York; just a very likable wine interested guy with whom you want to sit down, eat, drink and talk about everything. And never mind he works at Le Bernardin and just became the best sommelier in the world! I want to be just like him.

5 Responses to “Best World Sommelier Competition: Some Thoughts”

  1. Great Chefs and Their Quirks: Vissani « food vagabond

    […] Seen on May 24th in Rome, during the “World Best Sommelier” Competition, about which you can read a very interesting post at the vinoroma blog. […]

  2. andrea

    nice job hande! sehr gut! du bist wirklich eine gute neue sommelier…
    aber du bist deutsch oder…?

  3. Hande

    Andrea, Danke! Ja, ich bin Deutsch und lebe seit Anfang des Jahres in Rom. Bei Dir ist es genau umgekehrt, glaube ich, oder?

  4. mary ann

    thanks for the great writing and detailed descriptions of the competition. i’m going to save your link and keep reading.

    all the best,
    mary ann
    winoinnyc.com

  5. Jean Sommelier

    Perfect detailed descriptions of the competition !

    The atmosphere that reigns in this competition must be unique !