The sommelier team brought their A-game to the BvS final at Imbibe Live this year, snatching victory from the bartenders. Clinton Cawood watched as the vinous half of the on-trade took an overall lead in this competition for the first time ever
If you’ve talked to a sommelier recently, or been anywhere wine people hang out, you’ll have heard the bragging. Seen the high-fives. Witnessed the clink of congratulatory glasses of vintage champagne. History is written by the victors, and this textbook will be stained with wine.
Yes, whether or not you were at Imbibe Live on day one this year to witness all the excitement, you’ll no doubt know by now that a sommelier team achieved an important and significant victory in the 2015 Bartenders v Sommeliers final.
You see, BvS is a highly contested duel to the death (almost) between two rival camps in the on-trade. And this wasn’t just a victory for this sommelier team, but for all of sommelier-kind.
It puts sommeliers in the lead, four wins to three, for the first time in the competition’s seven-year history.
For the glory
Since 2009, on-trade teams have each year been put through their paces, trained in their opponents’ skills, and made to go through rigorous trials from blind tastings to champagne cascades.
The sommelier win this year was hard fought, but well deserved. Both teams went to town during the training sessions, but the somms had the edge when it came to the semi-final in May, walking away with a strong 19.5-point lead over the bartenders. The score, as they took to Centre Stage at Imbibe Live, was 180.5 to 161.
Here’s how it went down:
The final’s first challenge, the magnum pour, always goes to the team captains, meaning that arm strength is a more important consideration when selecting a captain than, say, leadership skills. Contestants are required to pour a magnum (of Bisol Prosecco in this case) quickly and evenly, with one hand, into 16 glasses, returning to none, and with as little leftover in the bottle as possible. It’s a test of strength, speed and accuracy under pressure, and it’s not for the faint-hearted, or shaky of hand, for that matter.
But before the two team captains showed this massive audience what they could do with a magnum, presenter Craig Harper got the two coaches, Luigi Buonanno and Russell Burgess, up on the stage for a quick chat.
‘When I was first asked to do this, I was scared I’d have to coach a team of total reprobates,’ said Burgess. ‘Then I realised I was in charge of the sommelier team.’
And with that, the two captains took the stage: Seamus Sharkey for the sommeliers, and Michele Mariotti for the bartenders. Mariotti in particular would have been feeling the pressure at this point. Not only was the team he was heading in desperate need of these points, but he’d been a member of the losing team on this very stage a year before. There was just no way he could afford to lose again.
The two contenders hefted their magnums of Bisol, taking a steady aim at their line of flutes, and got to work.
Sharkey, whether through nerves or a deliberate attempt to gain an advantage, started his pour using two hands, in blatant violation of the rules. This transgression was quickly corrected, but too late, the judges had already made note.
On the other side of the stage, Mariotti was a picture of grace and accuracy, speeding ahead and finishing the task while Sharkey still had four glasses to fill.
Amid chants of ‘Seamus, Seamus’ from his team, Sharkey poured his last glass, dumped the considerable leftover prosecco into a tumbler, and downed it.
Bold and confident – but not enough for the judges to forget his two-handed pouring lapse, or the leftover fizz either – Sharkey earned himself 24 points out of 40 for his efforts, not to mention that free slug of prosecco. Mariotti’s performance, on the other hand, was worth an absolutely massive 37 points out of 40 according to the judges. The bartenders were back in the game.
A quick quiz followed, worth two points to each team (see box, right). The bartenders failed on both questions, while the somms nailed it, adding two to their score. Every little bit helps...
Bartenders may know a few things about bashing out rounds of cocktails at high speed on a busy night – more than your standard sommelier, at least – but the speed round in this competition is another thing altogether. One must sometimes look elsewhere for inspiration, suggested judge Tim Homewood. ‘Pay little attention to accuracy,’ he said. ‘That’s the key in Rematch Beeyatch, at least.’
In this speed round, a member of each team, picked at random, was required to make a round of drinks as fast as they were able to. And no skipping on the garnishes either.
The round consisted of a Zacapa 23 Daiquiri, Ketel One Martini and Ypióca Caipirinha, as well as a free-poured 125ml measure of wine, and 50ml measure of Tanqueray No. Ten. Speed was the name of the game here, although points were deducted for really bad drinks.
Names went into a hat, and were pulled out again: Sarah Riddle and Daniele Gentili’s fates sealed, for the sommelier and bartender teams, respectively. Riddle looked pumped up and barely able to contain her excitement, whereas Gentili was a picture of calm.
Too calm, as it turned out. As Riddle erupted into a blur of activity, whirling bottles and spraying spirits on anyone nearby, it started to seem like it was actually possible that no one had told Gentili about the ‘speed’ part of this challenge.
He was zen-like, on the cocktail equivalent of a Sunday drive, taking twice as long as Riddle. Cheered along by her team mates, and with plenty of shouted advice along the way, she looked pleased with her performance.
Her coach, Burgess, remained realistic however. ‘That Caipirinha wasn’t muddled or churned, so it’ll be an awful drink...’
While deliberating, judge Mia Johansson confirmed it. ‘The drinks that were good were good. The ones that were bad, though, were quite shit...’
Assuming she was talking about Riddle’s drinks, they weren’t bad enough to rob her of a decisive victory in this round. The judges gave her 45 points out of 60 for her trouble (rewarding what was no doubt some serious amounts of practice in her own time), while Gentili earned a meagre 25 for his chilled-out performance. Slow and steady doesn’t win the speed round, it turns out.
Another set of quiz questions helped the bartenders add one much-needed point to the scoreboard, at least. No bonus points for the somms this time, but after a round like that, who needs ‘em?
Entering the final round trailing by 27.5 points isn’t necessarily a death penalty, particularly when that final round is the champagne cascade. Worth 40 points in total, it meant one false move from the sommeliers and their comfortable lead would be smashed, along with all those coupettes.
But there was an unscheduled delay before this final nail-biting round could commence. An eager somm team stacked their glasses well in advance, keen no doubt to wrap this up and get on with their celebrations. Harper’s announcement of the previous round’s points caused so much jubilation, however, that some jumping up and down on a somewhat wobbly Centre Stage spelled disaster for the empty tower of glasses.
Incidentally, a similar scenario destroyed a BvS cascade a few years ago, although those were filled with champagne at the time. Take good
note, future competitors...
With clean-up completed and glasses replaced, Alix Nardella stepped up to the plate for the bartender team – in full ninja outfit, mask and all – while Lukas Nikanorovas began rebuilding the sommelier cascade.
This challenge required one competitor from each team to stack at least four coupettes, pour Palmer & Co Brut Reserve NV Champagne into them until the glasses were full, and then dismantle the stack and serve the glasses without spilling the contents.
Both Nardella and Nikanorovas elected to go above and beyond the bare minimum, and stack five glasses – a time-honoured BvS tradition by now – and both completed their task quickly, with apparent ease and grace.
Nikanorovas with a little more grace, it turned out, with all four judges granting the sommelier slightly higher scores than they did to Nardella. Bartenders got 26.5, but another 34 points for the somms meant a win not only in this round, but in the competition overall. And indeed, a decisive victory for the sommeliers in Bartenders v Sommeliers 2015.
Many thanks to Luigi Buonanno and Russell Burgess for their time and expertise throughout the competition. Thanks also to Craig Harper, Tim Homewood, Mia Johansson, Christina Larsson and Ronan Sayburn MS. Thanks to Bibendum Wine for the wine and to Haig Club for all the spirits. Finally, thanks to the sommelier and bartender teams for their time and high spirits – pun fully intended.