Sommelier of the Year competition, and why sommeliers deserve more credit

Back in May I attended the finals of the Moët UK Sommelier of the Year 2012 competition that I was covering for Sommelier Journal. From a short list of 12, three sommeliers had reached the final round, which was held in sweltering conditions in one of the gallery rooms at the ExCel exhibition centre.

The three finalists were Clement Robert (Medlar Restaurant, London), Laurent Richet (Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham) and Jan Konetzki (Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London). I saw them fight it out in the final two tests.

First, there was a restaurant simulation test. Eight of the previous winners of the competition had been drafted in to act as guest diners, and formed two tables of two each and one table of four. Each finalist had 12 minutes to perform three tasks of the kind they might be expected to do in normal restaurant service. However, this time they were doing it under the bright lights, with an audience watching, and a serious prize at stake.

The judges (l to r): Victoria Moore, Gerard Basset and Ronan Sayburn

The first task was to serve a bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial to one of the tables of two. Then the sommeliers had to approach the table of four where they had to select wines to match each of six courses of a tasting menu. Finally, they had to decant a bottle of red wine, and check that the first tables’ glasses were topped up.

The final test was the infamous perfect Champagne pour, in which a magnum of Moët & Chandon Rosé Champagne is poured equally into 16 glasses, without returning to any of them. This fiddly task made for excellent viewing, with lots of tension and some precise pouring. When this had been completed, the judges retired to consider their decisions. After a long wait, it was announced that the winner was Jan Konetzki of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.

Sommeliers are really important, and I don’t think they get enough credit. [In the same way, I think specialist wine merchants are important, too, and fail to get the recognition they deserve.]

Sommeliers get to decide which wines appear on the lists in top restaurants, where a lot of fine wine is drunk. They influence what people drink, by providing advice when this is asked for (and I guess it is not asked for as often as it should be). The sommeliers I know have a deep understanding of wine, because they are immersed in it, and taste a lot of it, and they get to see first hand how customers experience this wine. Of course, not all sommeliers are good or all that progressive. But a lot of them are. Interestingly, for many fine wine events I’m invited to, the invite list consists largely of sommeliers, with few press. Is this because the on-trade is where a lot of interesting wine is actually sold?

3 comments to Sommelier of the Year competition, and why sommeliers deserve more credit

  • Tim Carlisle

    I agree. I think that sommeliers are invited because if you influence them they may then firstly list your wine, secondly be tempted to but it on the ‘glass’ list and thirdly recommend it over some other choices. In that respect they are different to independent merchants only in that they do the ‘by the glass’ thing – although with Enomatics and the like this is changing at retailers and perhaps this is why suppliers are keen to support indie merchant tasting machines.

    Where they are different is that a diner who likes they Gruner Veltliner or Douro Red will then go into an indie merchant and make many repeat purchases.

    They also have customers in a position where they can only judge the wine by the name, the price and the tasting note (and sommelier recommendation) and not pick the one with the nice label. Chances are too that the restaurant may not have the wine that they always buy so immediately the customer is in new territory.

    However I do think it’s a London thing – or certainly big city thing – out in the sticks there are more wine waiters than sommeliers which as a wholesaler is frustrating (price is all, quality can mean nothing) and does mean our retail arm is more influential locally. We do get a fair bit of retail business from people who have drunk out – but it tends to be cheap Chilean Merlot, Marlborough Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio. It would be great to see customers coming in for something more interesting because they’ve had it in a local restaurant.

  • Laurence

    Sommeliers come from ‘fine dining’ restaurants/the very top end of gastro pubs. The economics of less expensive places do not permit the luxury of such a specialist. The expectation of these places is that they will have good wine. You may have multiple vintages of top end Bordeaux/burgundy/napa/super Tuscan. To list the wine, they need to be buying multiple cases. To justify the three and four times retail mark up, they need to be serving them mature. They are one of the few purchasers with the budget, but also the need to be buying. Put all this together and it’s not that is where a lot of wine is sold, but where a lot of distributors feel they need to market their top end wines.

  • Simon T

    Am i alone in thinking it ironic that such a prestigious event showcasing incredible wine skills is sponsored by one of the most woeful of the grand marque champagnes. I guess their marketing angle is not actually to seek out distribution amongst competitors/top-end but more the campaignability/advertising to lower tier restaurants.

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