"Somm" People.

“Somm” People.

Somme People.
The Sommelier World cup in Mendoza.

The Best Sommelier in the World tournament was held recently in Mendoza. Emilie Giraud checks out the competition

It’s only 4pm on a Tuesday and an unprobable queue of glamorous women in cocktail dresses and well groomed men in tuxedos are pushing through the entrance of the ornate Theatre Independencia in Mendoza city center.

Mendoza’s wine aristocracy are out in full force to attend the Oscar-like award ceremony of the Best Sommelier of the World. Winery owners, managers and winemakers have temporarily left behind their considerable harvest worries to see and be seen at this event, the first in Argentina since its creation in 1969. During the four days of competition, sixty one candidates and their entourage have been received like royalty at some of Argentinas best known wineries and enjoyed the cuisine of the country’s best known chefs.

This included an 18-hour roasting of an entire cow that required no less than 2000 kg of wood to cook. Eighty four wineries sponsored the event, paying a minimum fee of 40,000 pesos and hosting numerous events. One thousand different wines were available to taste over the long weekend, and nearly 15,000 glasses were polished by an army of 125 volunteer sommeliers.

So what is this enthusiasm for sommeliers? It has surprisingly become such a hip profession in a world where hospitality jobs are consistently undervalued. One must wonder is there any room for the stiff wine waiter in a modern world where casual is the new chic?

Lets start by asking what on earth is a sommelier. “Sommelier “ comes from the French word “sommerier“ referring to the person in charge of watching over the pack animal. The word “sommerier “ turned into “sommelier “ to describe more someone in charge of a specific cargo. It is only in the 18th Century, alongside with the apparition of the modern restaurant, that the word started to be used exclusively in the context of beverages and cigars.

Previously the butler would care for the wine storage of the aristocracy and chefs would work exclusively in the big estate houses. The idea of dining out in a fine restaurant didn’t appear before the French Revolution.

The first a-la-carte restaurant opened in 1782 and the trend developed further with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the collapse of the old establishment. Left without a job, many chefs started to cook for the general public and soon came to require wine stewards. At the time, the job was quite different and not exactly as glamorous as it is today. A sommelier was usually an embittered or frustrated cook that bought barrels from wine sellers.

The profession slowly came into its own, and in 1907 the first Union des Sommeliers was founded in France to ensure the rights of its members. The job started to change in the 1940’s when estate bottling and labeling became the norm. A restaurant could store much more variety of wines and the concept of the wine menu appeared. The profession of sommelier suddenly flourished.

Since the 1940’s the profession and the image of the sommelier has changed dramatically. The sommelier is no longer that dull, middle-aged blacktied wine bore with an imperious manner, and imposing nose, eager to sell you that over-expensive bottle of French wine that he most likely earns a commision on. Nowadays, he is more like an expert wine communicator that recommends a certain label with cool, knowledgable aplomb in an ever increasing, more casual style that appeals to a younger generation of wine lovers The average age of the competitors in Mendoza was 30 years old.

The modern sommelier style is less rigid and frigid. In many ways, he can even be described as a kind of entertainer determined to ensure people have the very best wine and dine experience. With the development of technology and wine apps, he can no longer be the one that transmits hard facts about certain wines.

He should be able to tell stories about the origin of each wine and elaborate on wine concepts without sounding like a snob. He also needs to be a good people reader. In a way a wine lover`s psychologist with enough empathy to find the right wine for the right menu, for the right occasion, for the right person.

The sommelier is not a person who is paid to spend his day drinking wine. His daily agenda is way more diverse than that. As a sommelier friend working in an upscale Mendoza restaurant puts it :

“As a sommelier, I have to develop and curate the wine lists, monitor the purchases and sales according to the menu and the types of clients we have. My day-today job also consists in managing the wine inventory, overseeing the storage and care of wines. The key, is to work closely with the chef to create an harmonious food and beverage program. I also need a team of well trained waiters. In my free time, I am forever updating my knowledge of the region’s wineries and communicating through blogs, forums and social media the latest trends.

¨Obviously I need to be impeccable in service., It is fair to say I am slightly obsessive. Before serving, I check that the bottle has the correct temperature and that the glasses are in perfect condition. I always check the wine for defects and use decanters, etc”.

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