Why the Sommelier Olympics is serious business

Jason McBride reports on the Canadians competing to win the title of Best Sommelier in the World

Fruitier, bubblier, oakier

Photographs by Cole Garside

Canadians Will Predhomme and Véronique Rivest (Photograph by Cole Garside)

To be the best sommelier in the world you must be able to do several things, and to do them swiftly and perfectly. You must not only be able to blindly identify thousands of different kinds of wine, you must comprehensively describe their flavour profiles, pinpoint where and when the grapes were grown, and state the most appropriate foods with which to pair them. You must do all this in two minutes, and in a language other than your native tongue. Your knowledge of every other kind of spirit, from absinthe to vodka, and even non-alcoholic beverages like tea and mineral water, will be similarly tested. In a simulation of fine-dining service—timed, like everything—you must demonstrate you can efficiently and smoothly pour a bottle of wine to one, two, possibly a dozen guests. A single spilled drop, or the incorrect fold of a napkin, may cost you points. And you must do it all with an audience of 5,000 watching.

It was in preparation for this, the Best Sommelier in the World competition, to be held in Tokyo later this month, that a handful of the country’s top sommeliers were gathered at Momofuku Toronto on Valentine’s Day morning. It was only 9:30 a.m. and the restaurant was technically closed, but its beverage director, along with master sommelier Bruce Wallner, had transformed its upstairs bar into a boozy boot camp. A half-dozen decanters filled with various red and white wines, along with 12 glasses, were arrayed on a table in front of Véronique Rivest and Will Predhomme. The 47-year-old Rivest, who lives in Wakefield, Que., and works at Les Fougères in Chelsea, 15 minutes north of Ottawa, is currently considered the finest sommelier in the country—she won both the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS) competition and the Pan-American competition in Brazil in 2012. Predhomme, 31, is the head sommelier at Canoe, routinely ranked as one of Toronto’s best restaurants. They are both representing Canada in Japan—the first time we’ll have two candidates in the competition, one of the trade’s most prestigious events.

Rivest hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the breakfast of toast, fresh fruit and green tea that she has every day. She is very regimented about what she puts in her mouth. On competition days, she sets an alarm so that she brushes her teeth a minimum of three hours beforehand, and always before she eats; she doesn’t want toothpaste to be the last thing she tastes before wine. Predhomme, who’d only had his usual morning coffee, clutched a mint-green exercise book, constantly reviewing the Spanish vocabulary he’ll need to master by this time next month.

Rivest, dressed entirely in black, down to her cowboy boots, started with one of her whites. After a swirl, a deep sniff and a couple of swigs, she rapidly rattled off, in flawless English, two minutes’ worth of tasting notes in a kind of stream-of-consciousness litany of flavours: “Tree fruit, green apple, pear, mostly green apple skin, lots of citrus, lemon, lime, grapefruit, very pithy, citrus skins, definite briny note, salty, iodine, a kind of oyster shell character to it . . . ” The amiable, down-to-earth Predhomme followed the same routine, though his second language was a fair bit less fluent (“It’s my Achilles heel,” he said later, of his Spanish. “But it’s a sommelier competition, not a language competition.”)

When they tasted their final red, which they’d both guessed was a malbec, they recoiled. Rivest wrinkled her nose at what she called “disgusting, slutty oak.” When it was revealed the wine was in fact a Spanish garnacha, they were even more repulsed. “That’s why I hate Spain,” Rivest said. “They have such great terroir and tradition but they’re making so much of this s–t. It’s like a box of Pot of Gold.”

This is the kind of mistake they can’t afford to make next month in Tokyo. The Best Sommelier in the World competition, sponsored by the Paris-based Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, is held every three years. The 14th edition begins on March 26, and 60 different competitors, representing 55 countries, will vie for the top prize. The renowned U.K.-based master sommelier Gerard Basset, who won the competition in 2010, likens victory to an “athlete winning the 100-m at the Olympics—it’s monumental.”

In fact, the event is known to aficionados as the Sommelier Olympics, and the parallels to the actual Olympic Games are numerous. Both Predhomme and Rivest have paid for their training out of their own pockets, and only Rivest, so far, has secured any kind of sponsorship—the SAQ, Quebec’s government-owned liquor corporation, is covering travel costs to Tokyo for her and her team. There is no cash prize accompanying a gold medal. Remuneration comes in the potential for endorsements—a champion might be asked to put their name on a line of stemware, or to design a new corkscrew. It can mean more opportunities abroad—a job in New York, say, or Las Vegas. The greatest reward is the prestige that comes with highly specialized academic achievement: first place means you are deemed to know more about wine than anyone else in the world.

For a couple of years, anyway. At such an elite level, distinction is a matter of almost imperceptible degree and chance. Neither Rivest nor Predhomme are master sommeliers (Rivest, in fact, has failed the impossibly rigorous exam five times), but both beat Wallner in the Canadian competition last year. “There are days when the wines don’t speak to you,” Rivest says.

As cutthroat as the sommelier world can be, it’s also surprisingly collegial—at least in Canada. Wallner was Rivest and Predhomme’s unofficial coach for several days of pre-competition preparation. He put them through their paces, starting each day around 8 and finishing close to midnight, with sessions dedicated to more esoteric beverages like amaro, the Italian liqueur, and sake. The morning at Momofuku, he also guided them through a spirit “nosing” and a simulation of restaurant service where he, playing a guest, had them select, open and serve a bottle of champagne in exactly three minutes. The three have been friends for years, and frequently train together, even when they go head-to-head in the same competition. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” Predhomme says, with characteristic diplomacy. “We’re all in this together.”

Rivest, a professional sommelier for about 20 years, has been to the Sommelier Olympics twice. Both times she finished in the top 12. She says she’s been preparing for this competition her entire working life, but training has intensified considerably over the last year. She’s taken a leave from Les Fougères, constantly honing her palate and devoting her time to memorizing weather maps and obscure growing regions. After 20 years, there are still surprises. “Yesterday, I got all excited to discover that verdeca from Italy and Greek lagorthi grapes were the same,” she says. “Totally geeky, but I get a real kick out of it.” She estimates she’s spent about $40,000 this year alone, on travel expenses and wine and spirits for tasting. She frequently goes to Toronto, San Francisco and New York, where she studies with the French sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier.

If this sounds a little like an athletic training regimen, in some ways it is. Both sommeliers have loaded their iPhones with heart-pumping, inspirational playlists—Predhomme’s consists largely of anthemic hard rock and the soundtracks of every Rocky movie. (Before the 2012 Ontario contest, where he placed first—he is ranked second in the country—he also revisited The Karate Kid.) Rivest’s has more of an international inflection: it includes the merengue singer Elvis Crespo and Come On Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Rivest has even hired a sports psychologist to cope with the pressure. “The expectations are so high this time,” she says. While Predhomme happily calls himself an underdog, Rivest’s odds of winning are good. If she wins, she’ll be the first woman ever to do so, and the first sommelier not from Europe or Japan. Basset has high hopes for her: “If Veronique can control her nerves, and she enjoys herself, she has all that’s required to win.”

In Tokyo, Predhomme and Rivest, like their fellow competitors, will be sequestered before they go on stage. They may have to wait several hours before their performances. During that time they won’t be permitted any contact with the outside world—no cellphones, computers or notes. They’ll even be escorted to the bathroom. “On the morning of a competition all I want to do is start crying and run far away,” Rivest says. “I think, why the hell am I doing this to myself?” The answer, as any champion knows, is that even the best have to keep proving themselves. Or, as the immortal Rocky Balboa put it, “Ain’t nothing over til it’s over.”