Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight

With the ASI World Championship for Sommeliers being held in Belgium (Antwerp aka the most beautiful city in the world 😉 ) in 2019 I thought is was time to put another key person of a restaurant  in the spotlight… I mean it are always the chefs that are put in the spotlight, but  to create a full gastronomical experience it takes  so much more than only food, the beverages that accompany the dishes for example are as essential for the experience! So time for a change I’d say and put that spotlight on the sommeliers. They deserve it !

I know you might find it strange that I am putting this job on a pedestal even though I’m not a sommelier myself…  but let’s say that there are  2 persons to blame for me finding a passion that is not my profession 🙂 My Dad and  William ‘Pato’  Wouters (who I met through my dad 20 years ago)  🙂 🙂 My dad because he introduced me into the world of good wines (and food in general)  and William for helping me widening my horizon ad showing me different aspects in the world of wines  and introducing me in the world of Sommellerie. A few years later  I’m a board member of the Belgian Sommelier Association , Co-organizer of the ASI Sommelier World Championship and being as much as possible busy with wine and sommeliers … so you could say it has found a way to my heart.

What is a sommelier? I know that around this topic there is a lot of confusion. Most people think that a sommelier is only responsible for serving wine, but they do much more.  A sommelier is a trained  (HoReCa) professional with  deep knowledge of how food and wine, beer, spirits soft-drinks, cocktails, mineral waters, and tobaccos work in harmony (on top of what the job of a waiter implies). It is their mission to give an extra dimension to the meal you are having  :-).

In the past year I’ve been fortunate enough to have done over 80 interviews with TOP sommeliers form all over the world (and I will continue interviewing) from the great Gerard Basset to Arvind Rosengren  to Sören Polonius.. .  FYI It does me great pleasure to see  that many Sommelier Associations from other countries have taken over these interviews and translated in their local language and even started putting more of their own sommeliers in the spotlight… so basically spreading the word and making the job of sommelier more popular.

What I learned from all the interviews I did is that  in bigger cities like London, Paris or Brussels or countries like Japan or the US the job of Sommeliers is mostly valuated as it should and most restaurant owners understand the added value of having a  sommelier in their restaurant. But what surprised me maybe even more was that in many ‘smaller’ countries or countries you won’t expect the job of sommelier is taken serious the situation improving as many new Sommelier Associations are founded and many are also joining the ASI (International Sommelier Association)!! What Sommelier Associations  do is giving chances to young people to discover the a wonderful world, to build an International career and bring together people with the same passion.    There a many examples of sommelier whose life changed and turned 180° thanks to their local sommelier association.

Anyhow I can only advise you to check out the interviews with the sommeliers and let them be the shining star for a change 🙂 You can find the interviews (English) via following link 

Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Antoine Lehebel

I know it sounds strange when I tell you a Frenchman won the title of Best Belgian Sommelier in  and defended the Belgian colors during the World’s Best Sommelier Competition earlier this year 🙂  🙂 And yet it is all true!! It was my dear friend Antoine Lehebel has done it all with lots of pride and a big smile. Antoine Lehebel is head-sommelier of the Brussels Michelin starred top restaurant Villa Lorraine  and a great example that even if you didn’t go the hotel management school you can succeed as a sommelier!! You only need the drive of wanting to do everything to  achieve your goal … And I also know Antoine still has lots of ambition left as he already has lots of new targets he wants to succeed in 🙂 What I like about Antoine is that he is a very modest/humble person who loves every aspect of his job. Sometimes I wish I felt the same about my job 🙂  Just like with William Wouters, I asked Antoine 10 questions that give you a view in the life of a top sommelier.

Antoine 2

 What is your favorite wine region to work with?

I love the Loire valley because of the diversity of wines, and honestly you have so many great vignerons there. You can play with the style, color, age of the wines, and you can find a lot of original stuff too… and the region is really dynamic so it really is one of my favourite region to work with. I was born there too so there is a touch of chauvinism also… 😉

What does it take to be a good sommelier according to you?

Passion for wine, eagerness to share with people, and a bit of fun also, an evening in a restaurant should never be boring you need to have a good time, and a sommelier (or anyone working on the floor for that matter) should be able to make you feel at home.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

It depends, obviously as a guest you only see the tip of the iceberg, but sometimes do not realise all the work involved before your service, but we can feel more and more interest about this job, which is very gratifying, we all need to keep up the good work to make this role even more estimated in the future.

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

It all started in London when I started to work in an indian restaurant, the German Manager was a sommelier for some years and started to teach me a bit. I got hooked very quickly, and never stopped since then.

Who is your big example in the wine/sommelier world?

Well first that would be Thomas Heimann who’s been my mentor when I started in the trade, and then I do not think I have one “big example”, there are too many great sommeliers around.

What is your approach for pairing wines(or other beverages) with dishes?

There’s a sense of feeling obviously, and I always try do find some harmony in the flavours, but it is really fun for me to get quite technical too, i think the association of tastes, and their effect on the perception you have is an amazing subject to study. you can actually make a taste changing according to your pairing, which is a nice game to play, but obviously it takes a bit interest on that matter.

Which wine region would you recommend everybody to visit and why?

The Douro Valley without hesitation! breathtaking landscapes, brilliant wines, and the dry wines are getting better and better, I am very fond of that region. You can easily spend a full week there and come back for more because you never have enough time to see all of it!

For which wine would you make a big sacrifice to be able to taste?

Very old german rieslings, I have a great memory of a 1949 riesling Sonnenhur spätlese from J.J Prüm, probably the best wine I have ever tried (so far)

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school?

I actually did not go through any hotel management school, so I can not really answer this question.

A culinary or wine experience everybody should have had besides have a meal at your restaurant, shop, winery, etc..?

The restaurant “le pot d’étain”, in the Chablis region, at l’Isle sur Serein (well, it is lost in a small village 30 km from Chablis but is definitely worth the trip), the food is traditional french fare, very well executed, and the wine cellar is like….the best i have ever seen, with very kind prices and the best french wines represented in any region.