Best Sommelier of the World – A once in a lifetime experience

Last week (10th -15th of March) the 16th edition of the Best Sommelier of the World contest set up its tents in Antwerp. It seems like only yesterday when we received an email from our President William Wouters (president of the Belgian Sommelier Association and Vice-president of ASI Europe) asking us what we thought of the idea of organizing the 2019 ASI Best Sommelier of the World contest 🙂 .  At that time most of us thought William had lost his mind, but William’s enthusiasm convinced us all. What followed after that specific email, were 3 years of hard work (although I only was supposed to help a little bit 😉 ).

The contest can definitely be compared with the Olympics, as it is an event that is only organized every 3 years where only the best of the best from 63 countries compete against each other. It takes years for the competitors prepare themselves for this contest…. Just like the athletes for the Olympics.   And although they don’t get a ‘money’ price if they win it, it does change their life tremendously. From the moment they win, there are soooo many interesting offers that pass by  that for many years to come they don’t have to worry too much about having spare time 🙂  but even for those who don’t win, it opens doors in their own country and gives opportunities that maybe before were unreachable.  So it represents so much more than only a contest… it can (to my opinion) be seen as a life changer and that is why I was glad to be help a hand to make this event a success.

Most people I mention the contest to immediately make the reflection that the competitors only need knowledge about wine, which is obviously a big part of it, but it is also about so much more than that… it is also about coffee, tea, beer, cigars, distillates, juices, hospitality , etc… This also explains why they have to prepare themselves for years, as it a looooot of info to put in their brain.

A question I’ve heard a lot the last few years, was how the sommeliers actually got selected to compete. Every country will ask the winners from the local championship (sometimes also finalists) from the last 10 years who is up for it (as it takes a lot of sacrifices). For the remaining group, we organize a ‘mini’ competition and the winner from this competition can compete.

When William started talking 3 years ago about the championship and experiences he had from all the previous editions from both continental as the world contest that he was part of since the early ‘90’s  , one thing was sure, we wanted to make it an extra special edition. Extra special, as this edition would be exactly 50 years after the 1st edition that was held in 1969 in Brussels. It would also be the first urban edition, as unlike in previous editions we wouldn’t be visiting vineyards. Another important things was to try to take the dust off the image ‘sommeliers’ often have (which is also the mission of the ASI).

Quickly we noticed that we couldn’t manage an event of this size alone. First of all as besides the contest, you have to organize masterclasses, a program for people travelling along with the official delegations, meals, logistic movements, etc… for over 300 people that travel to Belgium for a whole week. But also that it is just a business we don’t know that much about. That’s when our friend Mich Van Aerde and his event company Balthazar came in the picture. They have done an outstanding job in the last 3 years, as some circumstances didn’t always make it easy  for them to wrap their heads around the whole event (also because of constant changes, etc…) and get the work done.

Now that we had that, the next very important thing, was gathering the money to be able to actually organize the event 🙂 this is where our path crossed the path of Claire Berticat. She took in charge all the negotiations with all potential partners (of who many became actually became a partner).

From time to time It has been a bumpy ride, it took blood, sweat and tears… but we (or at least that’s how I experienced it) were a team headed for the same goal, making the 2019 Best Sommelier of the World a World class event where they would talk about for many years to come … and I modestly think we succeeded?!!  Funny enough the week of the contest felt a bit like a wedding party, you are present, but did you actually got to fully enjoy  it? 🙂 I’m exaggerating, I enjoyed it very much 😉 😉

I did get to see a bit of the contest itself here and there, but there were so many things going on behind the scenes, so basically I got to experience it less then I had hoped.

What I will always treasure is all the wonderful people I got to meet  and things I got to experience during the 3 year adventure and I hope to see many again in the future.  It was also wonderful hearing from so many people from around the globe that we did a great job and receiving many compliments… this makes all the hard work worth it!

I wish I could have freed up more time to help, but nevertheless I hope my little contribution to this event made a bit of difference. If you want to know how the week went, please check out the below footage from the whole week!! As it will give you a better view then when I would explain it 🙂

I want to thank all the great people I was fortunate enough to work with and from who I’ve learned a lot: William Wouters, Mich van Aerde, Claire Berticat, Sofie Van der Poel, Tania Asselberghs, Niels Goyvaerts, Domien Van Aerde, Bob van Giel, Amandine Vandeputte (PR/Communication)  and Katrin Bilmeyer for their devotion and outstanding work.  Also thank you to all the people behind the ASI, not to forget all the previous winners of the World title who were present at the finals (even Armand Melkonian who won in 1969)

But this event wouldn’t have been as good without the many many volunteers that travelled from far to help us a hand like Filipa Pato, William Wouters (there are 2 William’s in the Belgian Sommelier Association, this is the other one 🙂 ), Katia Wouters, Marijke Bilmeyer, Bart Sap, Gerard Devos, Kris Lismont, Els De Brucker, Douglas Wouters, Hanne Lesage, Lucas Delforge, Steven Wullaert Bram van der aa, David Hsaio, Jean-Marc BrasseurEllen Franzen, Karim Hayoun, Yiannis Stefanides, Giannis Papachristoforou , Ketil Sauer, Saskia Schurink, Guillaume Coret, Allard Sieburgh, Nelson Guerreiro, Pedro Noguiera, Sergio Pires, Tomas Carreira, Adrian Jipa, Ivan Nikolic, Nenad Nedimovic, Anika Manojlo, Milena Zakaric, Milica Papic, …

Not to forget Belgian helpers and students from hotel school PIVA who helped during the gala dinner. I do hope I didn’t forget anybody!

Last but not least I do want to thank all the AMAZING partners that believed in our project and have kept supporting us until the very end. Thank you Austrian Wines, Inter Rhône, Le Wine, TorresPerrin, Bellavista, Zonin, Gusbourne, Bairrada, Grahams, Vinventions, Port of Antwerp, city of Antwerp,  Flemish Government, Clarence Dillon, Malartic Lagravier, Duvel, Gerard Bertrand, Farnese, Carlos Ruben, M’as tu vu, Decanter, etc… and obviously mostly the people behind these brands 🙂

 

Without all of the above mentioned people (and I hope I didn’t forget anybody, but if I did I apologies as we are of course also thankful to them) there would have not been a 16th Edition of best Sommelier of the world.

It was fun and I met lots of people, but I’ll be honest that I’m also very glad it is over 😉 😉  it literally will be a once in a lifetime!!  Once again congratulations to the new Best Sommelier of the World Marc Almert!! Also To the 2 runners up Raimonds Tomsons & Nina Højgaard Jensen  and of course to our very own Antoine Lehebel who became 10th. Very proud of you all.

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: Gerard Basset

Gerard Basset is from all the sommeliers I’ve interviewed, without any doubt the most admired sommelier from within as from outside the ‘world of sommeliers’. Most top sommeliers I’ve interviewed so far gave his name as THE person they admire the most… Which made me wonder who Gerard himself admires ….

Gerard Basset

To make a long story short, Gerard Basset is the only sommelier in the world who has won every International sommelier competition there is to win :-). In case you were doubting which titles: Master of Wine, Master Sommelier, Wine MBA and World’s Best Sommelier and the list goes on and on . He’s also been appointed as Officer of the Order of the British Empire So he’s practically royalty 😉

gerard-basset-champion

Although Gerard has been living and working in the UK since the 1980’s, his roots lay in France. It is in the UK on the other hand that he’s started his career as a sommelier in various top UK restaurants. Later in the 90’s he was even co-hotel owner of six hotels until they were taken over by another group. Now Gerard’s main focus goes to the hotel his wife and himself opened near Southampton that goes by the name  Terravina. I say main focus, but I do also think most of his time still goes to wine and traveling the world to be a wine ambassador.

hotel-terravina

Just like with all the other sommeliers I’ve asked Gerard to answer  questions that give you a sneak peak into his world. Feast your eyes on what the Master himself has to say:

What is your favorite wine region to work with?

I love the Island of Madeira, Jerez and the Douro Valley as I love fortified wines.  However, there are so many other exciting regions, to name just a few: Burgundy, Champagne, The Napa Valley, The Colchagua Valley, Mendoza, Piedmont and many more, including England too.

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

To be able to do several things well, like being a great taster of food and wine, having wide knowledge of wine but also food, being an excellent waiter, being capable to organize a team and train/motivate the other Sommeliers, being good at finance and being an excellent buyer and salesman (in the noble sense of the term), being a great ambassador for wine producers and above all being extremely welcoming and making customers happy.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

Perhaps before but I don’t think it is the case now at least in countries where the Sommelier profession is well established.

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

When I came to England (in the 1980’s) I was quickly put to serve wine as I was French and I really enjoyed it so it soon became a passion.

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

In the wine world Jancis Robinson as she is so exact and thorough.  However, the world of wine is full of heroes and unsung heroes I have so many producers I admire and many Sommelier friends who have inspired me.

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

I like following different routes.  Sometimes I match the texture of the food with the body of the wines, sometimes I match saviours and aromas, sometimes I match regionality of food and wine, I can match slow cooked food with mature wines or grilled food with young fresh wines, or other principles.  To recap I am not rigid and at the end we must have fun and not take that too seriously.

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

I think Chablis is unique and magical but I also like the island of Madeira for all sorts of reasons and the Napa Valley for its superb food.

napa-valley-by-destinationdelicious napa-valley-by-huffingtonpost

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

I would make a big sacrifice to taste  Château Haut-Brion 1989 again. It was simply phenomenal when I had it last time (2 years ago).

chateau-haut-brion-1989

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school or viticulture studies?

Learning how to write essays when I was studying for the Master of Wine.  It was tough for me but I am glad I persevered.

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

Spending holidays in wine regions, I cannot think of anything better