Paolo Basso learns he is named Best Sommelier in the World
Paolo Basso sometimes calls himself a “wine waiter” but that is a very serious understatement, especially today. Friday (March 29) Paolo Basso was named “The World’s Best Sommelier.
Every three years since 1969, the most hopeful and, most likely, the best sommeliers in the world gather in a competition to see who is really the best. As I followed this year’s competition, which wrapped up Friday in Tokyo with the crown going to Swiss sommelier Paolo Basso, I couldn’t help but think that, like the Olympics, each competitor had already surmounted many obstacles just to have a chance to compete. There were sommeliers from more than 50 countries competing before a jury of their peers (many of them previous winners of the competition) to showcase their skills and have a chance at the coveted medal. After all, if you love what you do, who doesn’t want to be the best in their profession?
What does it take to be the Best Sommelier in the World? Serge Dubs, the chairman of the jury (and a former winner) said at the outset of the competition that, “A good sommelier not only has to have good knowledge of wine, but he also needs to be able to put customers at ease and know what to do to let them enjoy the food.” Gerard Bassett, until today the reigning Best Somm, said, “A sommelier has to be a very good communicator, he has to know what his clients want and how to make them remember their experience at the restaurant.” Now, Bassett is French (though he works in the UK) so we take that into account as he describes a sommelier as “he.” In fact, there were several women competing as well and one, Véronique Rivest representing Canada, was one of the three finalists.
This competition and the attention it attracted (Japanese television broadcast the finals live!), brings home several concepts. Wine appeals to an ever-broader audience around the world and no one, not even the World Best Sommelier, knows everything about every wine. All of us are consumers and we can all use a bit of guidance. I’ve been privileged to work with some of our regions best sommeliers as part of VeritageMiami’s Best in Glass competition, and my respect for the hard work put in by these ladies and gentlemen continues to grow. They work long (and late) hours, they study hard (and that means tasting, but not too much or you’ll never remember what you’re learning), and they are constantly dealing with customers who do drink too much.
Paolo Basso explains the nuances of a wine in
a blind tasting before the judges
I think many of us wine lovers are still caught in a bind where if we know a little about wine we feel we have to know a lot about wine. I see a lot of customers in restaurants shying away from the sommelier under the mistaken belief that consulting an expert invariably means they’ll get sold something more expensive than they want. The truth, at least with a good sommelier, is exactly the opposite however. I had lunch last week with five sommeliers and our conversation turned to the issue of price. I asked the somms how they helped a consumer find the right wine for the meal they were having and they all agreed the first issue was not to match a wine with food but to match a consumer with they price bracket where they felt most comfortable. “I ask about other wines they like,” said Luis Mejia of J&G Grill at the St. Regis Bal Harbour. “That helps me understand the price as well as the wine style, and we go from there.”
This idea of putting a customer at ease as the first duty of a sommelier is slow to catch on with us consumers. I find though as I test it more and more, the rewards are greater and greater. I think dining is an adventure, and I love restaurants where half the wine list is unfamiliar to me – what an opportunity for discovery! But, you need a guide and that’s where the sommelier comes in. A wine list will have some basic wines that consumers insist on whether they go well with the food or not (like big cabernets at a restaurant featuring spicy food), but the greatest joys come from asking a sommelier what wine pairing surprised and delighted them recently. I’ve found more interesting pairings this way than from all the wine articles I’ve read. Like the beet salad with Charles Heidsieck Rosé Champagne I had at the St. Regis – stunning pairing and a revelation. I had to have a second glass.
So the takeaway from the Best Sommelier in the World competition is that there are a lot of wonderful sommeliers out there, and at any good restaurant they will know the wine list better than we consumers and can help us find some great surprises. Our challenge as knowledgeable consumers is to use our knowledge to not make a snap decision but to welcome suggestions from an insightful sommelier and take the plunge to try something new. Let the adventure begin!