Being a sommelier is one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs the hospitality industry has to offer. It requires commitment to perfecting the art of service and years of study to refine one’s knowledge – and an ideal method of testing this knowledge is the high-pressure environment of the competition.
Fresh off her triumph at the UK Ruinart Sommelier Challenge 2019, we caught up with 67 Pall Mall’s Jitka Auermüllerová to talk gearing up for the competition, the ever-expanding world of wine and the importance of consistent blind tasting
What drove you to enter the Ruinart Sommelier Challenge?
I think that ‘challenge’ is the key word. It’s not just about the prestige that you get if you win, it’s about anything that motivates you and pushes you to learn more. In the world of wine this is crucial. I understand that some people are not that competitive, while some others enjoy it more and are more confident about it. Personally, anything that challenges me, anything that I find kind of scary, is motivating.
Was it the first time you’ve entered the challenge?
It was actually the second time. I first entered two years ago, and I ended up being one of the runners up.
The prize is a trip to Champagne…
I’m really excited about the experience of going to Champagne and getting to know a little bit more about the area. I’ve been once before, but I was only 17 so…no wine then. It’s basically the first time for me. It’s only when you experience the region, you meet the people and taste the wines that you can really understand it as a whole.
How did you prepare for the competition?
The Ruinart Challenge focuses mostly on blind tasting, so obviously you must have a good background knowledge. I recently finished my [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] diploma last year, and at the moment I’m studying for my advanced Court of Master Sommelier (CMS) certification. This year’s Challenge was on reductive and oxidative faults, so I had to understand those issues and the processes that cause them to understand the wine.
In terms of blind tasting itself, I’m trying to train as much as possible. With my colleagues [at 67 Pall Mall], I try to do blind tastings every weekend. It’s good, it motivates you, it pushes you a little bit more to increase your standard of education. Also, I’m training and blind tasting for the CMS exam and I go to trade events and wine dinners. Masterclasses are also very beneficial.
With many lesser-known wine regions now making their first appearances in the British market, is it still possible for a somm to be on top of everything?
As a somm, you need to know your wine list well and need to be able to recommend the wines featured in it, but in a world of wine where new regions keep emerging it’s a big challenge to keep up to date.
Personally, I find it amazing to discover new countries and new intriguing wines from little-known regions, because they can really surprise you and that’s also how you can surprise your guests. But the reality is that there’s always something I’m not gonna know, because the wine industry is evolving at such a fast pace.
Even in classic traditional regions that you might feel super comfortable with and feel like you know a lot about, there’s always going to be something that will surprise you, something new to research and discover.
How did you manage stress during the competition?
I know that for some people stress plays a big role, but not for me. I don’t find stress challenging. I really enjoyed the day, it’s been a really nice experience. But I do understand that for some people stress can really affect their ability to recall information.
So what did you find hard to cope with?
The consistent effort you need to put into it: keep studying, pushing yourself and keep tasting, because you can only really improve and succeed by doing this.
Would you recommend entering competitions to other somms?
Yes, as long as they feel comfortable and find it inspiring or challenging it’s definitely worth trying. You might not make it to the final, and some competitions are harder than others, but you learn a lot as you do it, not simply through the preparation itself but through the experience on the day too. It trains you on managing a certain level of stress.
Are you planning to do other competitions anytime soon?
I would like to do the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year [entries close on 11 March]. It would be my first time so I don’t know how well I could perform, but I definitely want to give it a go!