Can bartenders swill and spit, and can sommeliers shake? Chris Losh reports from the front line as the two teams tackle a series of demanding tasks in the second part of our Bartenders vs Sommeliers Challenge
A warm sunny day in June, and the courtyard at the splendid Atlas pub in London’s Fulham already has a feeling of déjà vu about it. Immaculately attired bartenders have, like last year, arrived early; the more, er, casually dressed sommeliers arrive in dribs and drabs.
Sitting in their separate camps, it’s obvious which disciplines are worrying them the most. The sommeliers test each other on the components that go into various cocktails, the bartenders discuss what wines to match with Peking duck, using the Imbibe Sommelier Wine Awards booklet as a guide. Listening to bartenders tossing around words like ‘citrussy minerality’ is something of an eyebrow-raiser.
‘Bartenders are inherently competitive, and we have much more practice in doing competitions,’ says team captain Julian de Feral.
Nigel Lister, two-time veteran leader of the sommeliers, takes a different approach – possibly out of necessity. ‘We’re less well-prepared than last year,’ he says cheerfully. ‘But I think it helps being more laid-back. We’ve only just found out what a 125ml measure of wine looks like in a glass…’
As the bookies hastily adjust the odds in favour of a second win for the bartenders, the judging panel, featuring Colin Dunn of Diageo Reserve Brands, Ransome’s Dock head sommelier Martin Lam, bar manager of Duke’s Hotel, Alessandro Palazzi, and Bibendum prestige sales manager Jamie Wynne-Griffiths, take up their positions. Let the bibulous battle commence…
|The Varietal Vineyard Crew|
|Captain: Julian de Feral, Lutyens; Luca Cordiglieri, China Tang; Rich Hunt, Kanaloa; Dino Koletsas, Bourne & Hollingsworth; Lewis Wilkinson, Met Bar|
|The Wine Bar Barians|
|Captain: Nigel Lister, Royal Thames Yacht Club; Andrea Briccarello, Galvin La Chapelle; Virgilio Gennaro, Locanda Locatelli; Jade Koch, HG Wines; Chris Zoeller, Asia de Cuba|
The test here is to free-pour a 25ml and 50ml measure of spirits with the right and the left hand. It is a discipline that ought to favour the bartenders, but nerves can
do strange things to the formbook, and
the sommeliers did well on this last year.
Andrea Briccarello goes first for the sommeliers. He seems calm, and his technique is good, snapping off the flow of the liquid like an old pro. His two 50ml pours are a little under, his two 25ml pours a little over, but overall it’s a good effort and puts some pressure on Rich Hunt for the bartenders. He is similar in his execution – two under, two over – by about the same amount. Honours more or less even.
In theory, free-pouring a 125ml and a 175ml measure of wine into a Riedel glass ought to favour the sommeliers. In practice, it’s something they rarely do, and last year the bartenders were significantly better at it. This year, Dino Koletsas continues the pressure, with two excellent pours that are
a combined total of just 8ml out.
Jade Koch, though, is equal to it. Her first pour
– the 175ml – is bang on the money, earning her impressive bonus points. Possibly flushed with success her 125ml serve is a niggardly 107ml, but it’s enough for the sommeliers to take the lead after two rounds. The scores: sommeliers 113, bartenders 104.5.
Optional bonus round
Both teams are now offered the chance to earn an extra 10 points. The challenge: to free-pour a 50ml measure of Tanqueray No. Ten into a cognac balloon, from an open neck. If they get within 5ml either side, the bonus points are theirs. But outside that, they lose 10 points.
With an early lead, the sommeliers decide this challenge doesn’t favour them, and sit it out, to good-natured clucking sounds from their competitors. Eager to get back on level terms, the bartenders go for it, and Koletsas steps forward once again. There are no marks for speed or style, so he’s very careful, and there’s a tense silence as the judges measure his pour.
Cruelly, he’s poured 44ml – literally a drop more and the bartenders would have been catapulted into the lead. Instead, they fall further behind. Almost 20 points back is a serious deficit. Will they be able to regain parity? Suddenly, the bookies are looking nervous.
Setting a table
This is another test that ought to favour the sommeliers, but which they messed up last year, failing to spot dirty glasses and even forks with bits of food on them. No such problems this year. Nigel Lister is methodical in checking the glassware and manages to bring all 12 glasses out at once, chatting easily to the table of judges as he does so. While the judges liked his manner, missing a small fleck on one glass cuts his score back, and a full-marks score to Lewis Wilkinson, whose slow, methodical approach (and better eyesight) allows him to present an immaculate table and sees the bartenders start to chip away at the deficit. After the third round: sommeliers 127.5, bartenders 114.5.
Taking a wine order
The contenders here have to take a wine order, retrieve the bottle and open it at the table, with all the necessary protocol. Luca Cordiglieri goes first for the bartenders. He looks immaculate, greets the judges with an attractive mix of warmth and irony, and seems to be enjoying himself. He chooses to open the wine bottle at a neighbouring table, to avoid awkward corkscrew-fumblings, and while this might be something of a bail-out option, the judges don’t mark him down for it.
‘It wasn’t a problem, I could see the bottle the whole time,’ says Diageo’s Colin Dunn. Also, rather than offering the wine to the table to test, he checks it himself; a less-usual, but utterly acceptable technique. Impressively, he scores maximum points…
For the sommeliers, Chris Zoeller, dressed like he’s just come from Brighton beach, gives a very different performance. He’s relaxed, laconic, in control – and if the judges are unsettled at being served by someone in an orange straw hat, they don’t show it. He keeps the bottle label presented at all times, and doesn’t even seem to be trying. It’s an impressive showing, and he, too, gets full marks. The sommeliers are now in the lead with 147.5 points to 134.5.
Round of drinks
A deceptively simple bartending task: take an order for a round of drinks, including two Diageo perfect serves, make them and serve them – preferably to the right people.
De Feral goes first for the bartenders. He interacts very well with the judges, making suggestions where appropriate and generally proving attentive and open, though there are a couple of minor quibbles. He doesn’t mention that the Tanqueray No. Ten and tonic is served with a slice of grapefruit, for instance, which could come as a surprise for your average punter.
But it goes more seriously downhill in the ‘creation’ and ‘serving’ parts of the task. De Feral seems to use different sized measures for the G&T and the vodka and Coke, he fails to pour the beer at the table, presents the G&T half-poured, but the vodka and Coke fully-poured, and, most seriously of all, gets Dunn’s Johnnie Walker Blue and Alessandro Palazzi’s G&T the wrong way round. Nerves seem the only plausible explanation.
For the sommeliers, Virgilio Gennaro starts the task well. He gives the ‘customers’ information about each drink – although it’s unlikely that Dunn would be too impressed to hear that Tanqueray No. Ten is ‘distilled 10 times’. He remembers to mention that he’s putting ice in Dunn’s water, accompanying his Johnnie Walker Blue, and also checks with Palazzi that he’s ok with a grapefruit garnish in his G&T. There are flaws in his presentation, but nothing major and, if he talked a bit too much – ‘a lot of information, but not much small talk,’ muses Jamie Wynne-Griffiths – it was probably to hide nerves.
The net result is that, at the end of this task, the sommeliers have pulled even further into the lead, with a score of 170 to the bartenders’ 156.5.
If the judges are unsettled at
being served by someone in an
orange straw hat, they don’t show it
In this exam-style round, all team members must blind-taste and identify six wines and six spirits using a multiple choice system. The wines, kindly supplied by Bibendum, include six ‘staple’ restaurant wines, from Aussie Riesling to claret and Burgundy, while the spirits feature four brands from Diageo Reserve Brands among the two whiskies, two rums and two gins.
Last year, the bartenders out-performed the sommeliers in this task, nailing all the spirits and most of the wines. But this year the situation was reversed, with three of the five sommeliers getting every single drink right. The bartenders, meanwhile, did well on the spirits, but they consistently mixed up the Katnook Shiraz and the Château Lezongars Bordeaux, and by the end of the discipline, far from clawing back some ground, they had fallen a little further behind. With over 20 points in it, and just two disciplines left, the pressure was mounting on de Feral and his team. Though with the two toughest disciplines yet to come, anything, as John Motson might say, could happen… After the sixth round: sommeliers 278, bartenders 256.5.
Food and wine matching
Without a shadow of a doubt, this is the round that was most worrying the bartenders. Can they take starter and main-course orders from a table of four and come up with decent wine matches
for each dish? Moreover, can they answer the questions that will come their way from the judges?
Hunt goes first for the bartenders and despite an anguished ‘noooo!’ when his name is pulled out the hat, he does a fine job. He chats happily to the table, and is decisive in his suggestions, managing to come up with one bottle to cover three of the starters and carry through into the main course. He gives Palazzi a plausible explanation of why he should have Chardonnay with his mushroom risotto, and is confident enough to describe lamb and claret as a ‘classic match’.
There may have been questions over the accuracy of some of his suggestions (Peking duck and Pinot Noir rather than Aussie Shiraz, for instance) and there is a near miss when he almost suggests a Sancerre with Thai green curry, but
the panel are impressed by his ability to make common sense decisions quickly, and that he gives thumbnail taste-sketches of each of the wines.
‘With the small wine menu that he had, the matches he made were more or less the ones I would have chosen,’ says Wynne-Griffiths. And Martin Lam, too, is impressed. ‘He’s clearly done his homework,’ he says.
For the sommeliers, it’s the turn of Gennaro of Locanda Locatelli. He starts well, mentioning the different serving options available (by-the-glass and carafe), and he seems keen to push champagne both before and during the food. For each chosen dish he explains carefully how various different wines might work with it, though his attempt to sell Riesling to the diners as ‘tasting of burned rubber’ isn’t exactly rapturously received.
The problem is that his thoroughness to work out what every diner wants, his tendency to explain each wine in great detail and an unwillingness on his part to take the lead and actually make suggestions means that it takes Gennaro forever to come to a conclusion. By the end of his performance, the panel are more confused than before he started.
‘It was all about information rather than informing,’ says Lam, while Palazzi growls that ‘if he was my waiter I’d have shot him.’
With too much knowledge a dangerous thing, Hunt’s nigh-on flawless performance manages to pull back points against the head for the bartenders, and they go into the day’s final round scenting blood. The sommeliers have 304.5 points, the bartenders have 293.5 points.
It’s not just the participants who are drawn out of the hat here – it’s the cocktails themselves. Zoeller (as Beppe Digiese last year) gets off lightly with the Negroni; de Feral gets a Bloody Mary.
Zoeller goes first, and it becomes obvious that, despite having got the simplest drink, he is winging it. He knows the right proportions for the drink, but doesn’t measure them out, opting to free-pour them, and the result is a drink that is totally out of balance – too much Campari and nowhere near enough gin. The judges are uneasy about the rather industrial way in which he pokes his sliver of orange peel with his fingers, and his ironic attempts to deflect the fact that he doesn’t know the drink’s history backfire badly.
‘For a bartender, the knowledge about the Negroni is important,’ says Palazzi. ‘He tried a few jokes, but I didn’t really like them.’
De Feral’s performance, by contrast, is imperious – it more than makes up for his disappointing display in the speed round earlier. Admittedly, he takes a while to prepare his pitch, enlisting the help of what appears to be most of his team mates. But once he starts, it’s a masterclass in bartending. His manner is relaxed, informative and helpful, but never cocky. He explains exactly what he is doing and why, outlines the drink’s history and, in a final flourish, presents it alongside a spare lunchtime sandwich ‘because it’s a brunch drink’ – a beautifully timed punchline to an absorbing five minutes. The drink, too, served in a silver tankard, is fantastic, and the judges drain it enthusiastically.
De Feral’s maximum points, with Zoeller’s undercooked display, marks a comeback to rival that of Lazarus. From being dead and buried at half past two, by four o’clock the bartenders have nosed back in front: 333 points to the sommeliers’ 325.5.
But the battle’s not over yet – there is still the Champagne Magnum, the Blazer, the Cascade Challenge, as well as the Quiz yet to come. Will the sommeliers catch fire? Or the bartenders fall flat? All will be revealed when they compete in front of a live audience at Imbibe 2010 this July…
Our heartfelt thanks to Diageo Reserve Brands for supplying the spirits, Bibendum for supplying the wines, and Riedel for the glassware. Also, thanks to The Atlas for hosting the event.