Tough competition

The Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers’ Inniskillin Best Sommelier of Canada competition was held in Halifax for the first time, showcasing skills in a high pressure environment.

No matter how hot it is outside, you probably shouldn’t add a handful of ice. #protip - SCOTT BLACKBURN
No matter how hot it is outside, you probably shouldn’t add a handful of ice. #protip

Sommelier Véronique Rivest approaches the table and asks for the judges' order. They respond with a request for a full tasting menu, with wines for each course, but they add an odd requirement: the wines must come from different countries, all of which have to have hosted the World Sommelier competition. It's a bizarre request that Rivest would never ever get in a real restaurant, but that is the sort of thing a competitive sommelier faces.

Wine is supposed to be fun. Opening a bottle of wine for your friends at home or ordering one at a restaurant is an inherently enjoyable activity, because you know it results in happy success: you drinking the wine.

It's hard to contemplate the stress of competing in a sommelier competition. Performance anxiety takes on a new meaning when you are asked to decant a wine and open a sparkling wine according to a strict series of etiquette rules, all the time being watched like a hawk by a row of judges, docking points for every slight false move.

Add to this the complication of having to compete in a second language---not all sommeliers are fluently bilingual---and you'll begin to appreciate how difficult it can be.

The World Competition is an international event, reflecting the global nature of the sommelier profession. This is wine pressure at its highest, and results in stress, not Champagne bubbles.

This week Halifax hosted the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers' Inniskillin Best Sommelier of Canada competition at the Delta Halifax, the first time it has ever been held down east.

Three Quebec sommeliers, two Ontario competitors and one representing Atlantic Canada---Robert Noel from deja BU restaurant in Caraquet, New Brunswick---competed in the written, service and tasting components to determine who gets to represent the country at the Best Sommelier of the Americas in Brazil and Best Sommelier in the World event in Japan in 2013. The top three from day one went on to the extremely grueling finals which Rivest won. They had to provide "white tablecloth" style wine service to tables filled with bilingual amateur actors, and do "blind" analyses of wines, all in front of the judges and crowd, and the world, via

The service portion's difficulty is heightened by the way in which the mock diners order their beverages, sometimes asking for matches to difficult food choices, or refusing a choice and asking for something different or---perhaps the hardest---asking for a wine that will go with two radically different dishes. Cool, experienced sommeliers can handle this sort of thing relatively easily when working their jobs at their respective restaurants, but the nerves kick in much more when you are competing.

Rivest takes a look at the menu, studies it for only two or three minutes, then works out a tasting menu with an array of wines that are both impressive in their diversity and tantalizing descriptions. The listening crowd can almost taste the wine, and the wine and food pairing. The party at the table seems satisfied. Rivest is finished, and it's time for the next competitor.

Those of us watching from the crowd feel some of the nerves that Rivest surely must be experiencing, but she has won this competition twice before, and seems cool as a cucumber on the way to her third win. We mortal wine drinkers can only watch and learn.

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