A winning formula: How to win sommelier competitions

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

23 January 2017

Want to know what it takes to win sommelier competitions? Rebecca Gibb MW asks those who’ve been there, done it, and got the trophies to prove it, for their advice

People fear public speaking more than death, which means, according to Jerry Seinfeld, that you are 'better off in the casket than doing the eulogy'. Imagine, then, making life even harder for yourself: instead of a rehearsed speech, you get up in front of a panel of judges and up to 500 spectators and attempt to identify four wines that could be from just about anywhere in the world, answer questions on Hungarian appellations and try to pour identical glasses of champagne from a magnum.

To an outsider, this is, no doubt, more frightening than public speaking or death. Yet hundreds of sommeliers every year are keen to put themselves through this ordeal, whether it's for professional development, or to have one over on your colleagues and somm friends.

Studying hard at the Ruinart Challenge
Studying hard at the Ruinart Challenge

Fierce competition
From the all-encompassing Moët UK Sommelier of the Year to a competition with a regional focus like Sud de France or Copa de Jerez, entries can run into tens if not hundreds. Certainly, you're not going to become Sommelier du Monde overnight with such fierce competition. To make it to the winner's podium is going to take time and dedication.

The reigning Sommelier du Monde, the Swede Arvid Rosengren, spent seven years preparing for the competition. Meanwhile, Laura Rhys MS became UK Sommelier of the Year in 2009, but in 2006 – the first year she entered – she didn’t make it past the regional heats. The following year she made the nationals but got no further. The year she won, 2009, was the first time that she made it to the final three.

'After so many years of preparing and getting to certain milestones, you get closer and closer,' she says. 'No matter what the result is it’s always a great journey. You learn so much, grow as a sommelier, make great friends and have fun.'

Any winner will most likely tell you that the key to performing well is preparation. So, it's time to hit the books.

You're going to need The Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine for starters. Take the time to study wine maps, learn appellations, know the differences between fungal and viral vine diseases and keep up to date with law changes.

It requires discipline to devote yourself to learning the minutiae of the wine world when you'd rather be nursing a cup of coffee and watching Holly Willoughby on This Morning before heading out for lunch service. Keep things interesting and ensure you retain the knowledge, by using different techniques that work for you.

'If you're going to memorise all the appellations of Bulgaria, you need to figure out a context that makes sense, so that you not only understand, but also remember this knowledge under pressure,' says Rosengren. 'It might be lists, mnemonics, maps, drawings, music.'

Chaining yourself to a desk surrounded by books and hand-drawn maps can be a lonely experience, however, so get a study group together with fellow sommeliers or ask your colleagues to prepare blind tastings or test you on sample questions.

And when you're at work, be mindful how you work – your customers should have the same level of service and attention to detail that you’d provide in front of the judges.

On the day of the competition, all that studying and tasting should pay off, but suppose you’re hit by a bout of nerves and everything you’ve been practising suddenly comes undone?

Keep calm and carry on
Well, you’re not alone – even those crowned Sommelier du Monde admit to the jitters. 'Fifty per cent of what you know disappears as soon as you get on stage in the blinding spotlight: your breathing becomes shallow and your hands start shaking,' says Rosengren.

Champion sommeliers reveal that they've used a variety of techniques to help them keep their cool including meditation, yoga, hypnotherapy, learning visualisation techniques and even hiring an acting coach. Breathing exercises are also very popular.

But things do go wrong on the day. Even Gerard Basset MW OBE, who is the UK's sommelier competition doyen, having won the Sommelier du Monde in 2010 as well as the best sommelier in Europe and the UK sommelier of the year (twice) over his 35-year career, has had his off days.

Be prepared
Now head judge for the UK sommelier of the year and a key judge for many other national competitions including the UK leg of the Ruinart Challenge and Copa de Jerez, Basset remembers a day in 1992 when things didn’t turn out as he'd expected.

'I was going quite well, I knew I had done well in the theory and tasting. I was quite relaxed when I had to serve a bottle of Ruinart and then the cork went "bang!" up to the ceiling. The room was dead silent,' he recalls.

'For half a second I thought "Oh! La! La! La! La!" I knew I had scored an own goal, but there were still 80 minutes to play. I made sure I wasn't shaking and showed that I wasn't fazed by it.' He made a joke and continued, becoming UK Sommelier of the Year later that day.

That said, sending a cork flying isn't generally advised if you want to take home the silverware.

With your preparation in the bag and nerves in check, the most important thing is to be consistent across all rounds. Consistently good, that is. There's little point excelling in the blind tasting if you are weak in other areas – it takes time to get all your skills up to the required level.

Galvin La Chapelle’s Andrea Briccarello and Kevin Tew won the UK leg of the Copa de Jerez in 2013
Galvin La Chapelle’s Andrea Briccarello and Kevin Tew won the UK leg of the Copa de Jerez in 2013

One thing you can be assured of on the day is that there will be a winner, and you have to be better than everyone else. Some days you won't be the best but that’s not to say you won’t be in the next competition.

Similar stages
Rhys was working for Basset at his Hampshire hotel TerraVina when she took the UK’s Best Sommelier title, and his advice resonated with her.

'I remember Gerard saying something to me once: "When you are on stage, work as if you are in your restaurant",' she says. 'The restaurant was more relaxed than a Michelin star but the style of service was still classic, I found comfort in those words when I was on stage in the spotlight.'

There's a lot of pressure working on the floor during service, and the show must go on every lunch and dinner time, no matter what happens. 'Sometimes you do have problems in a restaurant and while
we are not trying to make [the competitions] overly difficult, we have to see how they perform under pressure,' says Basset.

So, as the head judge of the UK Sommelier of the Year, what does he want to see from the entrants in 2017?

'In a restaurant, a good sommelier should be very friendly and welcoming and you want him [or her] to know their wine list. They don’t need to know the total hectares of a property in Pomerol – he's not there to teach you. But, if he knows this [wine] is very soft, that [wine] is drinking well now – that's all you want. I don't want Mr Know-It-All or Mr Robotic.'

So, make sure you're prepared, deal with the nerves, and don't be a cyborg or a smarty-pants. And, if it doesn’t go to plan, remember: that's life.

Five competitions for your diary
There are dozens of comps out there, but these five are well worth a look

Copa de Jerez
When: The UK heats for the next Copa de Jerez will take place in late 2018.
Where: The current winning UK team from the 2016 competition will take part in the international final in spring 2017 in Jerez, Spain.
Format: A sommelier and chef team must firstly submit an online proposal for their menu and sherry matches to the competition organisers.
Those selected to attend the London final must present a starter, main course and dessert for four people cooked within a two-hour timeframe and pair it with at least two different types of sherry.
Prize: £500 cash prize for the winning team, and a gastronomic tour of Jerez.

Moët UK Sommelier of the Year
Deadline for entry: Mid-February 2017
When: Regional finals March 2017; national final May 2017
Where: Venue TBC
Format: Sommeliers must submit a written entry online before being selected for one of four regional finals across the UK. The rounds vary from year to year but usually involve a theory paper, blind tasting and a champagne pouring test from magnum. Between eight and 12 successful candidates from across the country are selected to compete in the national finals with three going on to the last round. This round takes place in front of an audience of 150 people.
Prize: A trip to a well-known European wine region and sponsor prizes.

Ruinart Challenge
Deadline for entry: End of February 2017
When: Mid-June 2017
Where: Moët Hennessy UK’s London offices
Format: Following a written application online, 20 sommeliers are invited to a day’s workshop: during the course of the day the candidates are asked to evaluate four wines over 40 minutes and will then attend a technical presentation by cellar master Frédéric Panaïotis. Finally, at the end of the day, a jury awards the prize to the person who it deems to be the most talented sommelier in the field.
Prize: Three-day educational trip to Champagne during the first week of July.

Sommelier du Monde
When: 2019
Where: Belgium
Entry conditions: Past and present winners of the UK Sommelier of the Year are offered the chance to represent the UK at the European and World Sommelier Championships. Interested candidates undergo internal tests before a national representative is selected.
Format: Starting with as many as 60 candidates, there are three rounds: quarter- and semi-finals and the final. The quarter-final is a written paper and written blind tasting with a short practical test. The semi-finalists take half of the points they have scored in the quarter final into the next round, which involves a theory paper, oral blind tasting of wine and spirits, two service tests, a food and wine exercise. In the final, the three remaining competitors start with no points on the board. They must undertake a blind tasting, service and pouring tests in front of the judges and an audience. The tests also include correction of a wine list with mistakes, recognition of estates or famous wine personalities shown on screen, and food and wine matching.
Prize: Varies according to competition sponsors.

Sud de France Sommelier Competition
Deadline for entry: 30 June 2017
When: Semi-finals and finals on 2 October 2017
Where: Venue TBC
Format: Entrants must complete and submit a preliminary questionnaire, which is then used to select competitors for the semi-final to be held on the morning of 2 October 2017 in London. Semi-final candidates are judged on a written questionnaire, a blind tasting and a food and wine pairing recommendation. The three top candidates compete in the final later the same day, where they are tested both practically and orally in front of a panel of judges and a live audience.
Prize: A four-night trip to the Occitanie region (formerly the Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées departement).

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