Opinion: In Training

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As a sommelier, Im always in training. We try to organise blind tastings each week, to train our noses, we hit each other with pop questions during service to train our knowledge, we set ourselves up with scenarios to train our customer handling skills. We are always in training for something. Sometimes it might be a competition – the Academy of Food and Wine’s Sommelier of the Year competition for example. For many years known as “the Ruinart” in reference to its long term sponsor, now that mantle is held by Charles and Piper Heidsieck (the Heidsieck just isnt as catchy is it?). Sometimes it might be an impending exam or course – the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Certificate or even the Master Sommelier itself. But mostly its just for work.

On Monday its the regional finals of the Sommelier of the Year competition organised by the Academy of Food and Wine Service. Ive qualified for the northern final again this year, and Im hoping that Im better prepared for it this year. Last year I was a runner up in the Regional and qualified to compete in the Semis in London. Hopefully this year I will win the regional and then the training will have to step up a few gears for the semi’s.

The competition is a good way to recognise the skills, knowledge and talent of Britains sommeliers. For me its a good networking forum, although this year a few old friends wont be there, Im curious to see what new faces there will be. The first stage of the competition took place in December (really not the best time of year to be holding a competition) and consisted of a short question paper to be completed at the competitors own time and with reference to books and other sources of information. The questions are set by a team comprising some of the creme of the sommelier crop in the UK – Gerrard Basset and Matt Wilkins and Im sure a host of other previous winnners too!

The regional finals are held then in February. The day starts with a 50 question exam paper, of a much higher standard than the initial entry paper. Candidates have an hour to complete the paper and a four wine blind tasting to identify two whites and two reds. They are then presented with an oral question usually comprising a scenario that is laid out for them and a timed response. From this the top three candidates go forward to compete in the next stage of the regional final comprising a restaurant scenario role-play to identify key service and selling skills. Service of a bottle of red wine to include decanting and salesmanship of said wine. And finally the pouring of a bottle of champagne into 8 glasses, aiming to pour equal measures into each glass without returning to it (thats actually the hardest test of the day!!)

So fingers crossed, Ive got a day in the books on Sunday to gem up on my factual recall and then its down to my nose, my brain and my ability to keep it all together in front of an audience on monday. And may the best person win, and hopefully it will be me!

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