After a two-year hiatus due to Covid, the UK Sommelier of the Year competition was back with a bang and saw Arnese bag the highly-respected title on Monday 18th July 2022.
He pipped this year’s runner-up Agnieszka Swiecka (The Five Fields Restaurant) and 2019 runner-up Gareth Ferreira (Core by Clare Smyth) to the post.
The competition is organised by The Caterer in partnership with the UK Sommelier Academy (UKSA) – a new non-profit organisation, officially launched yesterday – which provides access to development, mentorship and education for all UK-based sommeliers.
Following regional heats in April 2022, 11 sommeliers were selected to compete in Monday’s finals at The Savoy Hotel in London.
‘The coolest and most unflappable sommeliers are present,’ said James Stagg, editor of The Caterer.
After a morning of tests, this was whittled down to six hopefuls, which was in turn trimmed down to the three finalists.
Testing knowledge, service, and determination – what were the tasks?
On the UK’s hottest day of the year so far, Nicolas Clerc MS, president of the UK Sommelier Academy and the competition’s host, revealed which three finalists would battle it out on stage in front of the judges, the technical committee and a 150-strong audience: ‘If you think it is warm now, this room will boil this afternoon!’, he said.
Competing individually on stage one after the other, each finalist was put through their paces with a set of demanding tasks:
- Identifying errors on a wine list
- Bling tasting
- Food and wine pairing scenarios
- Knowledge quiz
- Taittinger Champagne pour
The judges, including past winners and industry experts, scrutinised the candidates from their seats on stage, where they acted as restaurant customers.
This was overseen by a star-studded technical committee including head judge Kathrine Larsen MS as well as Laura Rhys MS, Claire Thevenot MS, Eric Zwiebel MS and Matt Wilkins MS.
Having grown up with a father who competed in many national and international sommelier competitions, Romané Basset, son of the late Gerard Basset and one of the judges in yesterday’s competition, noted that the questions seem to get harder and the standards higher every year.
‘If you don’t raise the standards to the current level of sommelerie, the sommeliers who win don’t get the same sense of achievement. The questions have risen to the occasion of the quality of sommeliers,’ he said.
Setting industry standards
The competition showcases the extraordinary depth of knowledge, as well as the dedication to the craft of sommelerie, of the best sommeliers in the UK.
Not only is it a great reflection of talent and professionalism for the winner, but it is also a way for sommeliers to challenge and benchmark themselves.
‘It is more a personal target rather than a professional one. You want to challenge yourself and you want to see how far you can go,’ Arnese told Decanter just minutes after being announced the winner.
When asked how he kept his cool on stage and even elicited a few laughs from the audience and judges, Arnese said: ‘I think I was cheering myself up.’
But the competition goes beyond challenging individuals to be the best they can be, it also serves as inspiration for the younger generation of sommeliers, as well as those thinking of starting out in the industry.
Emma Denney, assistant head sommelier at The Clove Club and one of the final six candidates, told Decanter: ‘It’s very inspiring, seeing that there were three women in the semi-final. And having Agnieska get through to the final has been so inspiring. It makes me want to push really hard’.
Arnese said that he’s had ‘great support’ from his restaurant, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester: ‘I think it makes a difference to the mood and the atmosphere of the restaurant. I think it will bring the team together, that’s what’s important.’
An industry recovering post-Covid
One of many industries hit severely by lockdown restrictions during the pandemic, the hospitality sector has been struggling to recover and attract potential waiters and sommeliers back to the floor.
The UK Sommelier of the Year competition has provided a much-needed morale boost.
‘It was a good assessment of where the industry is, and where sommelerie is, at the moment. We had no clue who had left [the industry] or who had joined. But some very good people remained and the level was very high today. I hope it is an inspiration for people to come into the industry. I hope the younger generation is inspired,’ Clerc told Decanter.
Gerard Basset Award
Presented by Nina and Romané Basset, wife and son of the late Basset, this award was established in 2019 as a tribute to the great sommelier.
Ian Harris, former chief executive of the WSET, was the first to receive this award, and it has subsequently been awarded to Ronan Sayburn MS and Christelle Guibert.
Speaking on stage at the competition, Nina Basset announced celebrated sommelier Isa Bal MS as the 2022 recipient.
‘This year’s winner is renowned and much respected as a sommelier. He too was a very dear friend of Gerard’s. He’s passionate, dedicated, and generous with his expertise and knowledge, and readily makes himself available to help sommeliers and mentor them. He’s an absolutely lovely chap, and he’s also a successful Michelin-starred restaurateur.
‘Gerard would be delighted to know that we are honouring someone very special each year,’ she said.
Following intense regional heats, the 11 finalists were:
- Vincenzo Arnese, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester
- Stefano Barbarino, Coravin Wine & Bubbles Bar
- Melania Battiston, Medlar
- Biagio Castaldo, Maison Estelle
- Emma Denney, The Clove Club
- Gareth Ferreira, Clare Smyth
- Philipp Reinstaller, Trivet
- Agnieszka Swiecka, The Five Fields Restaurant
- Lorenzo Tonelli, Maison Estelle
- Dion Wai, 67 Pall Mall
- Elvis Ziakos, TILA
Past winners of the UK Sommelier of the Year competition have included co chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards Ronan Sayburn MS, as well as such sommelier royalty as Xavier Rousset MS, Eric Zwiebel MS, Claire Thevenot MS, Nicolas Clerc MS, Gearoid Devaney MS and Laura Rhys MS
The winners over the last 10 years have all been DWWA judges:
- 2019 Romain Bourger
- 2018 Alex Freguin
- 2017 Mathias Camilleri
- 2016 Terry Kandylis
- 2015 Tanguy Martin
- 2014 Kathrine Larsen MS
- 2013 Clement Robert MS
- 2012 Jan Konetzki