“Sooner or later, those who win are those who think they can.”
– Richard Bach, Writer
Buenos Aires – It seems like a huge amount of time has passed since I got seriously into the wine field. I’ve been in the world of food and restaurants since I was a teen and first able to get a work permit, other than minor forays into trying other possibilities, but somehow always coming back to it. And I drank wine. But it wasn’t until I started to think about the possibility that one day I’d really want to open my own restaurant that I signed up for a professional level wine course, the Wine Captain’s Certificate, offered by the Sommelier Society of America (at the time, the U.S.’s only sommelier organization, now one of two). I enjoyed it immensely, got to be friends with some of the instructors, one of them offered me a job, I had just left a cooking position that I wasn’t happy with, so I took it and moved from the world of chef’s whites to the world of suits. I got actively involved in the Society, and only about a year later, was asked if I wanted to participate in the competition for “Best Sommelier in the United States”. I figured it’d be a hoot. So I signed up, and one fine morning in 1994 went through the paces in the “Eastern Region” (the country was divided in four), along with about 60 other sommeliers, and a few hours later I suddenly had the distinction of being declared the best in the Eastern Region! The national finals popped on the radar for a few months later, two of us from each region, and I spent that summer learning and practicing everything I could. Then it was off to Napa Valley and some seriously intense competition, and I suddenly found myself declared… well, fourth. So no international competition for me. But it was still one of the most fun and interesting things I did early in my wine career, and it launched me into a position where I had some extra leverage when it came to job seeking. Kinda cool. But that’s all faded into the past, and besides I’ve only put a suit a few times in the last three years.
Last week, I got a call from the president of the Argentine sommelier association asking if I’d be one of the judges for this year’s competition in Argentina (the internationals happen, I believe, every four years). The regional competitions were over, and they were down to four finalists, and wanted to really put them through their paces. I accepted, and this past Thursday morning headed off to the basement of the Hotel Madero where the competition was being held. Here’s a run down of the fun and games… should you one day aspire to do something like this…
First, the Argentine version is open to the public. There was an audience that ended up being about 70-80 people, mostly friends, family, and colleagues of the finalists, and some press, but anyone was welcome. In Napa Valley, it was a closed door event. This had to have put some extra pressure on the competitors here, but then, at the international level, there’s an audience I believe, so maybe it’s good practice. Because Argentina is relatively new to the whole sommelier world, their association only having been in existence since 1999, they’ve had to bend some of the international rules a bit – like only allowing competitors with five years of fulltime sommelier experience (but then, for whatever reason, the same rule was bent when I competed – or maybe it wasn’t in effect at the time, I’m not sure). In fact, one of the competitors, while a graduate of one of the sommelier programs here, works in the financial services world, and is just a keen wine aficionado – I was told he’d agreed to start working in a restaurant immediately if he won, at least through the international competition.
The competitors: Alejandro Iglesias, Mariana Mendizábal, Maria Pando, and Marcelo Rebolé. I’d met Marcelo before on the tasting panels for the Austral Spectator guide, I hadn’t met the others. Most of them were known to the judges, it’s still a fairly small community. The judges were a mix of sommeliers, wine writers, hotel f&b managers, and wine educators. The test was held up on a stage in front of the audience, with four “stations” that they had to compete in. The competitors did not watch each other compete. The whole thing was videotaped (an international requirement in case their is any need in the future to review procedures), and, because of the audience, the sommeliers also had microphones clipped on their lapels.
The first station was the blind tasting. Quite possibly my least favorite thing in the world of sommeliers. It’s not the party trick portrayed in the movies, where James Bond, or someone else, picks up a glass, sniffs it, and declares the wine to be the Lafite ’92. In truth when someone can do that, it’s usually just luck, or they know a short list of possibilities that it could be – I once participated in a blind tasting of the five “first growths” of Bordeaux along with one California Cabernet; the room had a mix of professionals and amateurs (in the best sense of the word), and most of the pros pretty easily identified the six wines, because we dealt with them regularly, and they have distinctive styles, and we also knew what we had in front of us – had we just been told “these are Bordeaux” or “here are some red wines”, I doubt any of us would have identified them exactly. Regardless, back to the competition – the candidates are presented with one white and one red wine, and two spirits – one white, one brown – with a time limit of 8 minutes total on the wines and 6 minutes on the spirits. The key isn’t really to identify exactly what it is, though that gives added points, and it would be a cool audience pleaser if the audience knew whether they were right or wrong, but they don’t. The key is to do a proper analysis – out loud – giving a detailed description of your thought processes as you go through the tasting process, and then drawing a conclusion that’s logical given your analysis. The Argentine competitors had one big plus on the wines – they knew that both wines were from Argentina, since that’s really all that’s available here – when I did it, all we were told was “the judges have agreed that the wine smells and tastes like what it should, it could be from anywhere and made from any grape”. That’s a big advantage to the final conclusion, but then, not really if they can’t do a good analysis. All four did very competent, and nearly identical analyses, a tribute I suppose to the constancy of the training programs here. All four drew completely different conclusions on all four beverages: just to give you an example, the red wine was “guessed” to be 1) a Syrah from Mendoza, 2) a Malbec from Patagonia, 3) a Malbec from Mendoza, and 4) a Cabernet from Mendoza.
The second station was one of the more interesting ones I’ve seen, and not something we did in our competition. The competitors were handed a wine list with ten wines listed on it. They were told that there was an error in the listing of each of the wines. They had three minutes to examine and announce the ten errors. The wines were from all over the world, and the errors, for the most part, were subtle. I looked the list over, and with some time spent thinking about it, figured out seven of them, but had I only had three minutes, standing in front of an audience, I’d have been lucky to get more than two or three. I don’t have the list in front of me, but an example would be something like recognizing that a certain wine was listed in the wrong appellation, or that given the particular wine a certain vintage date was impossible. It’s sort of hard to give you a real sense of what that would be, but it probably doesn’t matter anyway!
The third station, judged by the same panel as the second, was handled quite differently from the competition I was in. Here, the candidates were given a menu that had been selected by a dining party (the judges), of various dishes that each had a brief description, like you’d find on most menus. They were then to “approach the table” and make their recommendations for up to five wines to pair with the menu, course by course, the one stipulation being that each wine had to be from a different country. What I found fascinating, and different, was that it was a completely non-interactive process. Each competitor walked up to the table and then launched into a ten minute presentation of what they were going to be serving. All of them spent time talking about the bottled waters they were serving, all of them talked about cocktails and after dinner drinks. Two of them went into cigar recommendations. And not one of them engaged the table in conversation. Apparently it was considered more of a test of the ability to make a presentation – they’re in for some surprises at the international level, which I’m pretty sure is done the same way as the U.S. competition. The table is treated as a real dining party – it’s a conversation with them that involves the judges grilling the competitor on each of their wine choices for their selection reasons, rejecting some selections and having them make other recommendations, having them describe the dishes in more detail (which requires on the fly making stuff up about the dishes based on the few word descriptions on the menu) as part of their justification process.
I was a judge on the fourth station, the decanting test. Decanting, for those who don’t know, is a process of carefully pouring the wine into a large flask while leaving the sediment that may have developed over time behind. It’s a relatively simple, but somewhat delicate procedure, and depending on your point of view and your training, there are variations to it – like here, they only cut the top of the foil capsule away from the neck of the bottle, which leaves the entire neck obscured – I was trained to remove it entirely so you can see whether or not there’s sediment in the neck. They only had five minutes for this test, including time to set glassware on the table, setup their decanting process, decant, and serve the wine. Five minutes is tough to do that, and only two of the four even made it to the actual point of serving the wine. Once again, not one of them engaged us in conversation, which when I tested was part of it, being questioned and having to answer the questions during the process. The one “kink” they were given was that they were told that one of the three members of the dining party was a “foreigner”. That’s all they were told, nothing more. Apparently they’ve all been prepped for this though, as, without asking, they all switched into English for at least part of their “presentation”. We had the same, with French being the alternative language, but we had to determine who was the “foreigner” and go back and forth between English and French, depending on who was asking the questions. At the international level they are given the option of English, French, or Spanish, whichever is not their native language, but, unless things have changed, like the station above, they have to carry on a conversation, not just a lecture.
In the end, I had a fun day, most of the judges did as well. I think the competitors were beyond nervous, but that’s something to be expected, and something the winner and runner-up need to practice for before heading to the next international competition, next year in Barcelona, to represent Argentina. They all did quite well given the pressure they were under. I think, and it’s a suggestion I’ve passed on to the president of the association, that they need to be ready to engage the judges in conversation as opposed to the judges remaining silent through the entire event and being talked to. But that’s something for him to check out with the international folk, perhaps that has changed since I competed twelve years ago.
So, I know you’re all pins and needles tingly with suspense wondering who won. And the drumroll… the envelope… Mariana Mendizábal. Congratulations! She really did a great job on all four stations, but I have to say, the competition was very close, and she was “neck and neck” or is that “cork and cork” with Maria Pando at the end. I didn’t take any photos myself, so this one is courtesy of argentinewines.com.