Opinion: Its not the winning, its the taking part

Drinks: Uncategorized
Other: Opinion, Service

So Monday was the regional final of the Sommelier of the Year competition and as you might guess from the title of the this post, I didnt win. I made it through to the final three of the day, but in the end, Ill admit I didnt have a good performance.

The day started out with a 30 question quiz and a blind tasting of four wines. I usually start off with the tasting and then come back to it before the end to double check. The first wine I nailed it, spot on!! New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. The second I thought was a chardonnay (it was), unoaked (it was) but I was out on the country and region, i had it pegged for a new world – it was a Macon. I knew it wasnt a Chablis because I couldnt find that babysick – acidic milky aroma I always find in a Chablis, but it was quite citrussy with what seemed like a high level of alcohol and medium acidity. So i had it down for a cool climate south american. Oh well! The third wine was a southern rhone that i was well off the mark having it down for a Spanish Rioja. I was sure that i was getting a red meaty character from the wine, and raw meat aromas always steer me towards Spain. Im also a bit gutted about the last wine, because my first impression was a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon from the Limari Valley (it was!!), but because I had convinced myself that the second wine was from Chile, I thought that they wouldnt use two Chilean wines and changed it to California. And thats my fatal flaw when it comes to doing blind tastings. Quite often my first impression is on the nose, but the more I analyse the wine, the more i convince myself it is something else, and steer myself away from the correct answer.

So having taken care of the blind tasting it was time to turn to the quiz. Some really challenging questions, it was obvious that they want to raise the level of the game a bit here. I have to admit, there were more than a few that i had to guess. But thats a good thing about these types of competition. They can often be a good way of highlighting gaps in your knowledge and experience. I always come away from them with a list of areas that i need to improve on.  I remember a bit of advice given to me after my first attempt at the competition many years ago. Always answer every question. Even if you have to guess, because you might end up with a mark. But if you leave a question blank you will definately lose the mark.

The last part of the mornings activities was a short oral question, we were presented with a scenario that we might encounter in the restaurant. In this case the scene was that a customer is enquiring about the “sugar” in his wine. What do you do? The aim is to see if you are aware that the “sugar” is in fact Tartaric Acid cristals (aka cream of tartar, wine diamonds etc). Were we able to explain that they are harmless, why they are there, what it indicates about the storage of the wine and also if we suggest decanting the wine/glass to remove the sediment. You have three minutes to verbalise all this!

Having completed the mornings activities, we adjourned for lunch and we get to see the wines that we had in the blind tasting. Now the nerves set in, as we all discuss the questions and share our answers and knowledge. And this is possibly one of the best parts of taking part in these kind of competitions. They are an invaluable source of networking. Meeting your peers and colleagues, catching up about mutual acquaintances and sharing war stories. By the end of lunch you are guaranteed to make at least three new friends.  And while we eat and share our groans at missing an obvious answer, and glee and being the only one who answered this one correctly, the judging panel are scrupulously checking and rechecking the papers, noting all the points and selecting the top three candidates to compete in the afternoon.

Its always nerve wracking when you sit there in the room after a nice lunch, perhaps a glass of wine (but not too many – just in case you get selected!) waiting while they review the paper and discuss the high standard of performance. Then comes the moment we have been on tenderhooks for, the three candidates who will compete in the afternoon session to be crowned regional winner. Your stomach is doing summersaults, you can feel your adrenal gland loosing a bucketload of adrenaline into your system, palms start sweating, legs start tensing up, your pulse ups its rate until you can almost hear the blood pounding through your ears, and your heart threatens to jump out of your chest. Bugger me, they called out my number. I had qualified to compete that afternoon. As my peers and colleagues congratulate me, i start to size up the other two candidates who Im up against. Mark from the Harrogate Hotel du Vin, and Lucasz from the Fat Duck. Call me arrogant, but i reckon its quite an even fight.

Having found out our fate, it was now to be decided in what order we would compete. We drew lots, and i drew first. Damn!! Adrenaline was still coursing through me, my heart rate was barely slowing down, and i was having to start off first. The other two candidates left the room and we got started.

The first task was decanting a bottle of red wine. Usually this is brought in as part of a small role play scenario, which is aimed at testing your service skills in a restaurant environment. So i was thrown off kilter a bit when i was just told to decant and serve the wine. So while you set up your decanting station, and service gear the judges are watching your every move. They work off a tick sheet, allocating points for acheiving certain key tasks – wiping the top of the bottle before removing the cork – one point, presenting the wine to the host – one point, wiping the neck of the bottle after removing the cork – one point, and so on. I like to try and engage the panel while i open the bottle and decant it. Tell them a little bit about the wine, why im doing the things im doing. It helps me to concentrate on what im doing, and it also helps to calm me down a bit. The main thing to remember about the competition is that they tend to be very old fashioned in their methods. So you have to remember to go Old School in the way you do things.

The next task is a menu matching situation. You are presented with menu and asked to match wines to a certain criteria. This is usually quite straightforward, although they often throw a small twist in to test you. This time is was a cast iron bitch of a task. We were presented with what I would consider to be quite a challenging menu, all six courses of it. Then to add to the pain, the wines were for 150 people conference on Organic/Biodynamics. Ouch!!! My mind went blank. All I could think of was super expensive Biodynamic producers – Leroy, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Didier Dagueneau, all way beyond the means of a 150 people dinner. We had three minutes. Not good, not good at all. My time ran out at about the main course, and the judges took pity and gave me (and the other two candidates) an extra two minutes. I felt like saying you could give me until next week, I still couldnt think of any organic producers or biodynamic producers off the top of my head that would be practical. I wasnt familiar with two of the three cheese either which kind of hindered my performance too! My one consolation was that the other two candidates also came unstuck on that task. The other frustration was that five minutes after sitting down, the name of an organic producer that is supplied by the main sponsor (major brucie bonus for getting the sponsors mentioned!) popped into my head. Gutted!

So my turn over i got to sit down and stew while watching the other two candidates through their turns. Then we came to the last challenge – the champagne pour. One bottle of Piper Heidsieck each, eight glasses. The task is to pour eight glasses to equal measures. We are not allowed to revisit a glass and the aim is to empty the bottle. The three of us were lined up side by side, a chilled bottle of Piper in front of us, and off we went. To be fair each of us poured eight equal glasses, there was perhaps a millimetre in it.  But in the end it came down to how much was left in the bottle. And for me and Lucasz, it was just a bit too much, giving Mark from the Hotel du Vin Harrogate the winners trophy and magnum of Piper Heidsieck.

Im hopeful that I will have scored enough to get through to the semi final to be held in London on April 28th, but at the end of the day, I left having had a great day. I made some new acquaintances, some good contacts, and discovered that I need to do some work on my knowledge of Organic producers! So its onto the books and interwebs to do some more research!

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