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 

The 2013 Best Belgian Sommelier Trophy

What a day!! My respect for professional sommeliers got bigger by the second during the annual Belgian Sommelier Trophy. First things first, before I start talking about anything else I want to clear out something. The title of “Best sommelier of Belgium” given yearly by the Belgian Sommelier Guild is the one and only real title as they are the only association recognized by the ASI or “Association de la Sommellerie Internationale” to hand out this title. During this competition there is also no favoritism as this contest gets observed by a bailiff to make sure the whole contest happens correctly. Secondly, during this contest every participant gets thoroughly tested on his/her knowledge and get judged by an international jury with special guests like Bernd Kreis (Best Sommelier of Germany 1990, Best Sommelier of Europe 1992, Semi-finalist Best Sommelier of the World 1992), Jan-Willem Van der Hek (Best Sommelier of Holland 2013, Candidate for World and European championships 2013), Cees Vos (Past president of the Dutch Sommelier Guild), Louis Havaux (Past president of FIJEV, Concours Mondial de Bruxelles…), international winemakers, me 🙂 and a few more… so basically people who know what they’re talking about. I (together 5 other judges at my table) had to evaluate the participant’s handiness, efficiency, politeness and professionalism during his tests. It might seem an easy task, but it really wasn’t!!

Gilde Sommeliers

Now you know the above I can continue with talking about the actual competition. Last Sunday 3 young sommeliers (remaining from the 11 candidates that participated the semi-finales) Yannick Dehandschutter (Restaurant Sir Kwinten), Antoine Lehebel (Restaurant Villa Lorraine) and Jan Rots (Restaurant Brasserie Latem) competed against each other to become the this year’s Best Sommelier of Belgium . I was really honored to be part of the jury and glad I was at the good side of the table as it wasn’t easy competition :-).

3 participant together with Louis Havaux

To give you guys an idea how difficult a contest like this I’ll give a few examples of tests they had to do. The first test they had to do might seem like a very easy test, but don’t get fooled!! They had to serve (according to the rules of the art) my table of judges a 2006 Telmont Blanc de Blancs Champagne and also tell us more about this champagne… to make it more difficult they also put a 2004 Blanc de Blancs and a totally different champagne in the ice bucket and to do this all they had 5 minutes. Only 1 of the 3 participants’ served us the correct bottle… it did cost them a point, but this way I got to try 3 different champagnes 😉

Antoine Lehebel

Competition

The most difficult tests were  saying from 6 glasses of alcoholic drinks which kind of alcohol it was and the country it comes from or maybe telling from 3 glasses of wine as much as much as possible and which wine it is… all this just by looking at the color, smelling and tasting again for which they only had between 5-9 minutes to accomplish. Or was it the 7 course menu for which they had to give 7 different wines from 7 different countries and tell us why? Although finding the mistakes in a wine list also didn’t seem like child’s play as the mistakes could be typo’s, but also references to wrong regions or vintages… so if after this test your respect doesn’t get bigger for them I don’t know what will?! Next time I’ll see a title like this given by some magazine or guide I’ll think twice and wonder on what they based themselves to determine the winner of their title!!

Yannick Dehandschutter Photo : Jean-Marc Brasseur

Jan Rots

Yannick Dehandschutter Photo : Jean-Marc Brasseur

Grading the 3 finalists wasn’t an easy task as they matched on many levels… I mean they all had parts they did less or better, but in the end it evened out. I waited until I had seen all 3 participants before grading. I personally didn’t know as there were around 20 judges each judging a different aspect so it could go every direction… but in the end the best man won, the 2013 Trophy of Best Sommelier of Belgium went to Yannick Dehandschutter from restaurant Sir Kwinten

Yannick 3 Photo : Jean-Marc Brasseur

Check the following link for a little video of the awarding ceremony

With every victory there must be a good meal and celebration and boy did we eat and celebrate, but I’ll talk about that another time 😉

Congratz Yannick and see you soon @ Sir Kwinten 🙂