It’s fitting that the competitors for Best Sommelier of the World crossed the finish line on April 19, just one day after the famed Boston Marathon. Only the elite amongst sommeliers qualify to compete – 61 candidates from 58 countries who won either their national best sommelier title or continental title (Best Sommelier of the Americas, of Europe and of Asia-Oceania). This competition is held only every three years, in the tradition of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale in France.
The competition was hosted this year by the Argentine Sommelier Association in Mendoza, Argentina, the blossoming wine capital of South America. I was fortunate to attend several of the events over the five day competition, which included three intense days of blind tastings, theory exams, service tests and several visits to local wineries and cultural events. For a competition overview, check out Decanter’s article here.
So, what exactly is a sommelier, you might ask. Before moving to Mendoza a few months ago, I was recreationally familiar with the world of wine, but I wasn’t really sure.
A sommelier is a wine steward who specializes in understanding wines from around the world, describing them (visual characteristics, aromas, flavors, mouthfeel), serving them and pairing them with harmonious foods. They made the wine list at your favorite restaurant and on the airlines you frequent. They train the service staff on wine, pairing recommendations and service. They also have expertise in spirits, beer and sometimes in water.
As one sommelier who specializes in water joked, they’re experts with inventive words (BS). But that’s not so. And this event proved it. See this video of the finals at 28:38 where Arvid Rosengren has to blind taste and identify 8 wines – the variety, the year, and the region of the world they come from!
Competitors have undergone years of training and competitions to get to the world stage. The competitors have to train to be for anything because the format of the competition changes every time. They know the content will include theory and technical knowledge, many blind tastings and various service components. 80 Harvests went behind the scenes to share exactly what the competitors went through in this year’s competition.
One of the main reasons for this event is to showcase the sommelier profession, encourage excellence and raise awareness about the role sommeliers play in our society. Just to give you a statistic — there are only 343 Masters of Wine, the highest credential attainable in the field of wine expertise, from 25 countries, according to the Institute of Masters of Wine. That means a large majority of those on the world stage have not yet received their MW. At least there are other avenues to achieve mastery even if you don’t win the world competition!
Let’s cut to the chase… who won?
We were delighted with the winner, Arvid Rosengren, representing Sweden. I met Arvid Rosengren the first night of the competition at bodega Trapiche, where he shared with us how he got into the wine industry. He started college studying engineering, but didn’t feel the passion for it. So he took a year off and worked in a wine store in the meantime. Customers would come to him with questions about certain wines, and the more he learned to be able to answer their questions, the more he became interested.
Arvid went back to his studies, this time to become a sommelier. He worked as a sommelier and then as a wine director in Denmark, but tired of the business side and wanted to get back to service and working directly with people. He got the opportunity to move to New York and work in a small, hip restaurant, Charlie Bird, as their sommelier. He doesn’t wear the typical white collared blouse and black server apron that was so common at the competition, but he gets to serve wines wearing sneakers and listening to hip hop music! His bosses and his family have been very supportive of Arvid’s studies as he prepared for and won the Best Sommelier of Europe 2013 and now Best Sommelier of the World 2016.
Arvid was very humble throughout the competition and brought a calm confidence to the intensity of the event. Here’s a video clip of him on their day off before the finals, visiting Mendoza’s wineries and reflecting on the semi-final exams.
Line, Arvid’s girlfriend, took over his instagram during the competition and shared this classic shot from the evening
Secrets to success and words of wisdom for aspiring competitors
Our Editor Amanda Barnes interviewed several previous winners before the competition to ask them how they prepared and what their advice would be to future aspiring World’s Best Sommeliers. While some contestants go to extremes, staying up so late studying that they would fall asleep at a stop light, others recommend a more balanced approach.
Andreas Larsson, Best Sommelier of the World 2007 and also from Sweden, sacrificed years with little social and family life as he prepared. However, his recommendation for the last six months, once you’ve mastered much of the knowledge, is to focus on well-being. “I was jogging every morning. It isn’t about luck – it is about preparing yourself. A bad day doesn’t exist. Through physical and mental exercise, I felt perfect when I was in the competition. It is important to work on your psychology, not only as a sommelier – but as a human!”
You would think Andreas coached Arvid, since they’re both from Sweden, but Andreas could not because he was one of the judges at this year’s competition and had to maintain his impartiality. Of course, now he is elated that Arvid, another Swede has won!
Arvid seemed to have a similar philosophy. After years of preparation and winning Best Sommelier of Europe, he thoughtfully wrote on his personal blog about his preparations for the world competition:
You may think “why not just prepare like you did the last time, it seemed to work out alright? Why fix it if it ain’t broken?” You’re right, but maybe the formula is broken, even though it might not appear so. Basically, the mode I have operated in for the last few years leading up to the 2013 competitions builds on setting unattainable standards and goals, intense self-deprecating and sacrificing sleep and happiness for results. It is something you grow mighty tired of, and not something one can keep up forever.
So what is the glorious future like? A state of Zen-like clarity and mindfulness of course! Probably not, but one can always dream. I do intend to seek balance in a different way than before. If I will achieve it or not is obviously not clear yet, but where I in the past egotistically put aside friends and family to dedicate myself more fully to the craft, I hope to do the opposite and in turn be in a happier, more harmonious state. Hopefully that will lead to having more energy and motivation when the going gets tough.
He shares his strategy for keeping his knowledge current, his tasting and service skills smooth here. One of my favorite tips: travel — “Being in the vineyards and cellars is an infinitely better way to learn what is special about a place than reading about it.” (See our 80 Harvests project for vineyard experience!)
Perhaps there are some grains of wisdom we can learn from the Swedish as we embark upon our next professional and personal challenges!
Now that he’s won the competition and can relax a bit, Arvid says, “I’m looking forward to having a beer. I’m looking forward to doing things like seeing a movie or reading a book that doesn’t involve wine (without feeling guilty). I’ve done this with an intensity, so it’ll be nice to get back to some semblance of a normal life.”
Arvid, the second youngest winner at age 31, breaks the norm of past winners of the world title. “You don’t have to be stiff to be a sommelier, and I think it is good for the new generation and important to show the world that sommeliers can be different,” he says. He will continue serving up drinks at his trendy SoHo restaurant in New York and exploring the world of wine, this time as an example and mentor to the next generation of sommeliers.
Like anyone who makes it to the top, whether in the world of wine, athletics, business or politics, it takes passion, consistency, a team of supporters and dedication to a purpose bigger than yourself to win a world title. What can really set you apart, though, is daring to be different. The women made a strong showing this year, with three in the top five and all four women (out of sixty-one contestants!) made it to the semi-finals. Perhaps next time, the first female will win Best Sommelier of the World!
By Lara Colvin
Lara is one of our guest collaborators originally from Oregon, USA. In the beginning of 2016, she switched from living in the Pinot capital of the US to living in the world’s Malbec capital, Mendoza in Argentina. In her spare time she is an avid runner, which helps keep her trim despite the copious amounts of steak and red wine found in her new adopted home.