Friday, April 04, 2008

Sommelier of the year 2008

Well wednesday was the finals of the Heidsieck Champagne Sommelier of the Year competition organised by the Academy of Food and wine service. Im grateful to the hotel for flying me back from Oslo in order to compete.

Well the day started at about 10am in the rather lovely atrium of the Royal Society of Medicine. We kick started the competition with a very challenging questionaire and blind tasting of five wines. The quiz was hard, very very hard. I could see peoples faces drop as they opened it up an saw the first page. The first question was an easy one just to set us up , then bam!! Naming the DO's of the Balearic islands, naming the regions of greece that four wineries were situated in, eastern european regions and which countries they were in, were all some of the more challenging questions. In fact Gerrard Basset MS, MW, who wrote the questions acknowledged that the quiz was very challenging and more in line with the european and world championship level that ever before. The blind tasting was quite straightforward, and in some respects the training i had been doing with mark had paid off. The first wine i was only a bit off on the vintage, the second white i was way off the ball, the third wine i got pretty much on the ball, the fourth i swithered between italy of spain and in the end plumped for spain (should have gone for italy, my bad!) and the last wine i only got the grape variety right, everything else was off the mark.
The last part of the morning was the quick fire question - two minutes to answer, which wasnt anywhere near enought time. The question was - how would you go about organising a wine dinner? There was a lot to cover and it seemed like i had only got started when my time was up. Everyone else said the same thing. And that was the morning over. We enjoyed lunch, some champagne and waited to find out which three competitiors would be competing in the afternoons finals.

So it was that we were all lined up on stage in front of an audience of about 150 people as they introduced us all and we were given our certificates by Jeremy Rata, current chairman of the Academy. Then one by one we were eliminated until there were three candidates left - Isa Bal from the Fat Duck, Gearoid Devaney from Tom Aikins and Cyril Thevenet from Hotel du Vin. In truth I felt a sense of relief that I wouldnt be competing in the final, but at the same time slight disappointment. The finals were about to begin.

The final consists of four tasks. The first task is the restaurant scenario. The stage is set up as a restaurant with two tables. The candidate is given his briefing which is to serve the table of two guests a bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico Especial Reserva (alas not a real one, they used a bottle of Craggy Range red, i couldnt see which one). Then the other table will enter the restaurant and chose the cheese menu. You are expected to deal with them and help them select their wines to complement their choice. So this is a test of how you handle yourself in a restaurant scenario. The guests are previous winners, so they know how you feel and what you are going through. In order to make it completely fair they are given a script to follow. The judges are looking at how you handle the guests, your service skills - decanting, upselling oportunities, drinks knowledge, attitude, wine knowledge and food matching skills. All of this must be done in under ten minutes. Cyril was first and I must say that his performance was very polished, and set the bar quite high. Gearoid was second and was also very good, if a bit more relaxed and Isa, for me, caught a few of the opportunities that the other two missed.
Task two was a blind tasting - five beverages, the first of which had to be described in detail and then a matching food dish to be suggested. The other four beverages only had to be identified. All three handled this quite well, although we later found out only Isa identified them all correctly.
Task three was correcting the mistakes on a menu. This was the hardest task of the three as the time allowed was quite short, and they all seemed to waste time reading out each wine in order. There were ten mistakes and I think that I myself managed to find about six.
Task four was wine and food matching. The candidates are given a table of six guests with a selected menu, an unlimited budget and limo organised to take them home. They have to make recommendations of sparkling wines to meet the guests requirements. The only rule is that they can only use wines from the same country no more than twice.
The fifth and final task was the champagne pour. The candidates are given a magnum of champagne and sixteen glasses, they have to pour all the glasses to equal measures, emptying the bottle. They cant go back to a glass once they finish it. This is really hard when you dont know which glasses you are going to be using. In the end Gearoid was the only one who managed to pour sixteen glasses, even if they werent all the same level.

The competition was over, it was time to retire to Chandos House for the reception, and await the results. Much champagne flowed and eventually the winner was announced. Gearoid took first place, Isa came in second and Cyril placed third. Well done to them all. So with my two magnums in hand, me and Ian set off for some food to line our stomachs. A great experience, and its made me determined to give it a good shot for next year.


Douglas Blyde said...

'DOs of the Balearic islands...' and I bet no questions on English wine...

grazza said...

as i recall there was one question on the duty rates on wine in the uk. Dont think there was anything else in this level, but i seem to remember a couple of questions in both the initial entry and the regional final.

gopaz said...

Great post! I couldn't help but feel my heart race while I was reading it, imagining how I might feel in any one of those situations. And ironically, the only moment I felt mildly relaxed was when you had to recite the DOs of the Balearic Islands. I suppose it occasionally pays off to be situated a stone's throw away ;-)

Stephany said...

Great post, I agree! I've enjoyed your blog, and this was a really good read.

Boozer said...

Very entertaining! I couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a shot at the semi-finals/finals in London - working with Hotel du Vin, of course. Happily, I also sat and observed in the afternoon.
It's a fabulous day, but painfully demanding on the final three.