What does it take to be crowned UK Sommelier of the Year? AMY WISLOCKI helps judge the finals in London

It’s unusual to have lunch in a room with 15 of the country’s top sommeliers and have to top up your own wine glass. But then, they did have other things on their mind, having just performed in the semi-finals of the UK Sommelier of the Year Awards that morning, with the finalists announced – and finals to take place – after lunch. Glasses of fizz went largely untouched as contestants fiddled with their food and agonised over their performances. ‘I’m sure I haven’t made it into the finals,’ sighed Rémi Cousin, of Hotel du Vin in York. ‘You need to constantly read around and I just wasn’t prepared enough. It’s hard when you work an 80- to 100- hour week.’ Isa Bal from The Fat Duck in Bray (who, in May, was crowned Best Sommelier of Europe 2008) barely touched his terrine: ‘I taste better on an empty stomach,’ he said.

The morning’s semi-finals comprised a written theory test, a blind tasting of two white and two red wines, and an oral exam where contestants had to explain in two minutes how they would organise a wine dinner. The highest performing sommeliers went through to the afternoon finals where equally gruelling tasks awaited – to be performed on stage before an audience of 150 peers. Lunch over, the 15 semi-finalists were lined up on stage and eliminated, X-Factor style. ‘When your name is called, please sit down,’ stated chief judge Gérard Basset MW MS, who won the title in 1989 and 1992. After a tense few minutes, and many crestfallen faces, just three remained on stage to fight it out in the final: Isa Bal, last year’s runner-up Gearoid Devaney from Tom Aikens in London, and Cyril Thevenet of the Hotel du Vin group.

Under pressure

The first task involved an elaborate role play which required each finalist to deal

with four difficult customers as well as decanting a magnum of wine for one

table, suggesting wines by the glass to accompany cheese dishes at another

table, while also organising martini cocktails. ‘We try to make it as realistic as possible,’ explained Basset. ‘They have to treat the stage as a real restaurant and deal with any situations as they arise. Of course, in a real restaurant, you don’t have 150 people watching your every move, so nerves tend to be the biggest problem.’ You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Complete silence reigned as the judges and audience watched the finalists demonstrate their decanting technique, crack a few jokes with their diners and instruct a junior sommelier in the art of mixing the perfect martini. Thevenet seemed stiff and formal. Was it nerves or his manner? Hard to tell. Devaney was visibly nervous, his hand trembling as he poured from the magnum. Each action was scrutinised and marked by the panel of judges. Did they all wipe the neck of the bottle? Did they explain that Vega Sicilia’s Unico Reserva Especial is a non-vintage cuvée? Did they leave the bottle and cork visible to the diners? How did they deal with the arrival of table two just as they wereabout to start decanting? A thousand possible pitfalls, or chances to pick up points, depending on how you look at it. Role play over, it was on to a blind

tasting of five drinks, which included a vodka, dry gin and dark rum, followed by a speed round which gave each finalist just three minutes to detect errors on a lengthy wine list. Would you spot that there can be no such thing as a 2006

vintage rosé Champagne (it must be aged a minimum of three years before release), or that Le Pin 1964 doesn’t exist (the first vintage was 1979)? Finalists then had three minutes to suggest different sparkling wine matches (including

Champagne), with money no object, for: seared scallops with julienne of cucumber and coriander; truffle linguini; chateaubriand with potato gratin; and hot chocolate fondant with praline ice cream. No country was allowed to be used more than twice, so ingenious suggestions included Moscato d’Asti, Schramsberg vintage blanc de blancs, vintage Nyetimber and a sparkling Tannat.

And the winner is…

As a grand finale, the contestants lined up next to each other to pour a magnum of Champagne into 16 glasses, without returning to any glass and leaving as little as possible in the bottle. ‘It’s a practical task that we should be able to cope with,’ said Devaney afterwards, ‘but by that stage my nerves were shot.’ All three made a good attempt at the task, though none did it perfectly. Finalists exhausted and in need of a rest, all that remained was for the judges to retire and add up the scores. As the members of the panel took their seats in the judging room, there was a shout from the balcony where the three sommeliers were taking some air. ‘Don’t start yet,we’re still here!’ panicked Devaney, anxious not to overhear the deliberations.

He needn’t have worried. Despite one of the closest-run contests in the competition’s 28-year history – just one point separated the winner and runnerup – Devaney pipped Bal to be crowned 2008 UK Sommelier of the Year by the organisers, Academy of Food & Wine, cheered on by fellow trade and press. Reflecting on his performance a few weeks later, Devaney said he learned from

some of the mistakes he’d made the previous year, in terms of knowledge,

preparation and practical skills. ‘It was definitely an advantage having been on

stage before. The role plays are tough, and it’s amazing how your mind can shut

down when you’re under pressure, but I did feel supported – you know the audience is rooting for you all.’ Chief of judges Basset was full of admiration for the finalists. The UK’s most awarded sommelier, he has been runner up three times in the World’s Best Sommelier competition and is the only person to hold the Master of Wine, Master Sommelier and Wine MBA qualifications. ‘They are setting a greatexample to other sommeliers. It’s a toughcompetition and they’ve all invested a lot of time and effort.’ It’s interesting to see how the field narrows with each stage, he said: ‘The theory test eliminates half the candidates – you can see where they are not prepared. Then the oral exam can fool quite a few, especially those who aren’t in charge at their restaurant. A lot of what we’re looking for in their answers is common sense, and we also need to see

that they have a good commercial sense. Basset, who co-founded the Hotel du

Vin chain and, last year, opened Hotel TerraVina in the New Forest, said: ‘Being a hotel receptionist isn’t just about answering phones and being a sommelier isn’t just about knowing wine. Anyone can learn the wine theory, but you need to be good at dealing with people, to be patient, to understand budgets and to

think long-term about repeat custom. Every sommelier I employ will be friendly and won’t think his own taste is more important than that of his customers.’

Written by Amy Wislocki