On Canada's Best Sommelier
The whole body ache of exhaustion. Lately: life.
This week! Oh goddddd, this week. The highlight: flying to Toronto to watch Canada's Best Sommelier Competition.
We all know that a Sommelier is a fancy word for a wine professional who, in theory, makes wine lists & is the ultimate wine service and food pairing pro. In practice, Sommeliers often do a million other restaurant management things that have little to do with wine, because restaurants are expensive.
Somms are getting kinda cool. In 2013 or let's be honest, whenever Netflix released it, the movie Somm - where four Sommeliers attempted to pass the prestigious and insanely difficult Master Sommelier exam - was a thing that almost everyone asked me about when they found out what I did. "Cool! I watched Somm!"
I did not watch Somm. I got through 10 minutes and found the whole thing so intolerable, I considered a career in beer until I realized I have the wrong body type. Jk! Anyways, I'm sure the candidates are very nice and without a doubt incredibly dedicated and talented, but I just couldn't deal. The all boys club naming obscure adjectives in their glass. The locker room, my glass is bigger than your glass bravado. No thanks. The trailor is here.
I am all about the understated, talented Sommelier, one of my favourite archetypes. Interested, introspective. Warm, but not too warm. Lingering just long enough. Poised. The best Sommeliers should be amazingly knowledgable, but never showy. In the same way that only the worst bosses need to tell you they are your boss, the best Sommeliers shouldn't need to say they are Sommeliers, let alone Master Sommeliers, they should just be wicked good at their jobs, choose fantastic wines, listen to what their customer wants, find them their perfect bottle and then pour it with such grace that it bestows ultimate trust and pride. "I choose good!", the guest will internally beam.
Meeting the understanted sommellier was perhaps my favourite part of selling wine in Toronto. I witnessed the rise of the young chef, buying a hole in the wall and making a tiny, dynamic menu. With the young chef, came the hot somm, pairing the chef's favourite things with unusual wines chosen for their balance, food compatibility and story. The focus left filling categories on a list (I need a Cali Chard, Aussie Shiraz, Chilean Merlot) to filling taste profiles and choosing wines that sung true. Often this meant a shift from larger producers and by-the-book taste profiles to more naturally made wine with little additives or manipulation. At times this went too far. There is little worse than the dogmatic worship of natural or biodynamic wines. A slavish appreciation for flawed garbage juice. Ignoring flaws and balance because something is the colour of pond water. But, I digress.
Fancy white table cloth service has never been my jam. And indeed, apparently not my peer's either. In my time in Toronto, I watched countless high end restaurants close in favour of cool kids more relaxed places. The one thing that critics often pan about this new evolution of dining is a drop in service. I never got that. I liked the denim on denim. The hot, young, mean people serving me food.
And then I saw the Sommelier Olympics or rather the Best Sommelier in Canada Competition. Eight competitors from around Canada competed this weekend for the title and chance to represent Canada at the World's in Argentina three years from now. Each competitor had already won their provincial competition. I write about BC's competition here.
They squared off in Toronto this past weekend to write a theory exam and compete in service (decanting, cocktail making, beer pairing, menu construction, glass blowing*). From the preliminary rounds, the top three competitors were selected to compete live.
*not glass blowing
Live service. In front of a huge audience and a television camera. In their second language (!). Like, whoa. So hard, but also so much yes. In this ever anglicized world, where google translate and gold apple watches make real learning obsolete, I love this old world respect for language and culture. Food and wine is universal. It brings people and cultures together. Part of respect for culture is communicating in a language that isn't your own. God, I need to brush up on my French.
The tasks: building a Canadian whisky cocktail, blind identitfying a spirit (its base material, origin and age), opening a champagne magnum and pouring it equally into 24 glasses without going back, decanting an old bottle and speaking to its origin and perfect food pairing, looking at 15 slides and identifying the wine association or menu error and finally blind tasting three wines and identifying the grape, region and age in years, along with a full tasting note, of course. All three candidates were funny, relaxed and so so good behind their white table cloths.
I finally got it. This was service. Next level service that brings the human experience of dining to another level. It isn't about being in a fancy room or paying $65 for a plate of asparagus, which I have totally done! I'm the worst, but experiencing meticulous professionalism that is relaxed and precise and only stems from years and years of study and practice.
The winner, Elyse Lambert, was whip smart, talented, humble, warm, generous and basically my new hero. Her acceptance speech spoke of her 10 year journey to this place and the joy in watching her student come in third in the same competition and challenge her to be better. I must admit, I also loved that a woman, the only woman in the competition, won. I cried. Her journey brought me to tears and not just because I had had an incredibly misogynistic experinece with a client just days ago, but partly. She made me want to be so much better.