I’ve often heard it said that a sommelier’s training for a competition is similar to that of a sportsman, and I think this is true.
We can liken a wine competition to a sprint – you need to be the best on the day over a short period – and an exam to a long distance race where it is important to be consistent for longer.
As with any competitive pursuit, of course you require skill. But to succeed also requires time, passion, dedication… and lots of practice.
It is important also to realise that though you might be the one competing, this is a team sport. It is crucial to be surrounded by like-minded people. This will help you to push yourself but also bring different views and ideas which can really make the difference between winning a competition, passing an exam and of course, developing your skills as a whole.
1. Have a Team
Everybody has their own way but, to me, it works well to have between one and three other people to assist you on a regular basis. They are your team and it’s important that you keep them involved.
Ideally, these persons will be from the wine trade (or have experience in the trade) and can provide constructive feedback.
It can also be good at times to present to people who are not related to sommellerie at all since they may bring a different perspective – even if you don’t like what they tell you! Embracing criticism is key to helping your development and becoming sharper.
2. Get friends and family on board
Obviously as well as your ‘team’, it helps if you have the support of your colleagues and management as well as friends and family.
3. Work with the kitchen
A sommelier should be able to identify wine, spirits, cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, tea and coffee.
But we are also expected to have an extensive knowledge of gastronomy, and understand dishes and cooking methods so we can accurately pair a wine or beverage with a dish. Working closely with your chef (assuming you work in a restaurant) I find is vital.
Discuss the dishes on the menu. Don’t just taste them as a finished dish but look at each element separately and break down the palate of flavours.
4. Create a positive environment
Having a positive environment at work and at home is vital for your well-being. Of course, this is always the case – but it’s particularly true when it comes to competitions if you are to perform at your best. You need to take care of yourself and have a clear mind to help your studies.
5. Use your suppliers
It is crucial for a sommelier to have a good relationship with their suppliers as they are often happy to help with tastings and all too pleased to show new and interesting wines for you to try.
6. Non-blind can help…
Blind tasting wines is a great way to learn but, from time to time, taste wines that you find more difficult with the bottles next to you. Personally, doing this has helped me, especially when it comes to varieties that I get mixed up in blind tastings.
7. … so can by the glass!
It can help to have a couple of wines that you might struggle to identify on your offering by the glass. This way you can get familiar with them.
8. Be structured
I find it important to have a structured plan for my studies to ensure that I am consistent in the way I do tastings and cover every point.
I can say that I personally have had (and still have!) many great people who have helped and mentored me throughout my career and it would take a much longer article to thank them all.
We are lucky to be a very close family in the sommelier world, and this is a great force that we need to use. This will only continue to increase the already high level of sommellerie and wine education in the UK – and help us all on to greater success.