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Music, mime, farce – and wine – in sommelier challenge

One of the most prestigious sommeliers’ prizes has been won by a Scandinavian for the second time running.

Norwegian Robert Lie walked away with the Trophée Ruinart competition for top sommelier in Europe, which took place in Paris yesterday – and tests competitors’ acting abilities as much as their wine knowledge.

The last winner of the biennial contest was Swede Andreas Larsson in 2004.

Lie stole a surprise victory from more experienced finalists like the Swiss Paolo Basso and Frenchman Eric Zwiebel of the Summer Lodge Country House Hotel in Dorset.

The 25-year-old has been working as a sommelier for only five years, but has already been named the best sommelier in Norway for the past four years. He works at Restaurant Bagatelle, in Oslo.

To become Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe requires an in-depth knowledge of wine, spirits and restaurant service. Also needed is the ability to speak fluently in a foreign language: all finalists compete in a non-native language throughout the contest.

Perhaps less obvious is the importance placed on the theatrical element of restaurant service. Set on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the competition was an extraordinary mix of wine tasting, music, mime and farce.

Although hired actors provided most of the entertainment, the sommeliers were expected to play along, cracking jokes and acting out ‘real’ restaurant situations for the audience.

Former winner Larsson said, ‘It’s so much about being an actor. It’s about entertainment.’

Finalist Eric Zwiebel took acting lessons to help him overcome his stage nerves in competitions like this, but fellow competitor Paolo Basso claims that being on stage is not unlike his job.

‘I was very comfortable on stage. It’s like a restaurant: you have to manage the stress and the tension.’

Lie was also cool under pressure. ‘It was easy to talk to the “guests”. You don’t notice the crowd when you’re up there.’

Written by Beverley Blanning MW

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