What does it mean to be the Best Sommelier?

On Friday, March 15, after a week of highly demanding, hotly disputed competition in Antwerp, Belgium, a young man of 27, Marc Almert, from Germany, became the 16th person in the world to hold the title of Best Sommelier of the World. In the finals, he was joined by two remarkable candidates: Nina Højgaard Jensen, of Denmark, and Raimonds Tomsons, of Latvia, who respectively finished second and third.

During the finals – and throughout the week – the skill and knowledge displayed by all the candidates was incredible. The level of difficulty has been rising constantly, over the years, and more and more candidates are rising to the challenge. That’s how we had to select a 19th semi-finalist, this year: the scores were simply too close. The growing talent and ability of new candidates also explains why some who were seen as favourites by many saw their contest end at the semi-final stage: the general level of excellence is just that high, nowadays.

It cannot be stressed enough how impressive it is to come out on top of such an amazingly qualified international field. And for us at the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, such high-level performance means every competition is also an opportunity to adjust and learn, strengthen the tests and improve the scenarios, logistics and judging.

The results are about excellence in skill and knowledge, and maybe more about grace under pressure than perfection. When doing a sommelier’s work, on a restaurant floor, all sorts of unexpected things can happen. To be at the top of the profession, one must  stay focused despite occasional adversity, keep one’s ears and mind open to the needs of the people being served, and remain humble and adaptable. If everything has gone smoothly one night, it doesn’t mean it will go the same way the next night: adjusting to the circumstances is key to turning the skills into an art.

During the finals, Marc Almert impressed the crowd with his skill and precision, but he charmed them with his presence and his detailed attention to the “clients” seated on the stage for the final tests. In some ways, one could say that he became the champion because he used his skills and knowledge to put his clients first. At the highest level of performance, the sommelier profession remains all about service.

As we take stock of a highly successful event, I want to give special thanks to the whole ASI team, from the Board and the Technical Committee to the communications and marketing team, including the social media and film crew who have helped give the event unprecedented worldwide visibility. I’d also like to praise the work of the presidents of the national associations and their teams. Organizing the national contests, encouraging young sommeliers to compete, supporting their training, all that means long hours stolen away from family and holidays, often for years, always without remuneration, and limited recognition. This commitment, at the national level, is what makes ASI great and is pushing the level of sommellerie around the world.

Last but certainly not least, I want to deeply thank organizing committee president William Wouters and all his team for the incredible amount of work they put in to ensure the success of this most important event. As the competition grows, this becomes ever more challenging. Many thanks also to the international delegations who travelled to the contest, and everyone else who joined in the preparation and organisation of the week, as well as the many partners who provided essential support and opportunities for learning for our sommeliers – and delicious wines.

Andrés Rosberg
President, Association de la Sommellerie Internationale

Impressions from the competition

For one winner, in this latest Best Sommelier of the World contest, there are 65 candidates who don’t make it there. Impressions and reactions from the semi-finalists and other candidates are quite a mix, from thrill to disappointment. But everyone who participated praised the quality of the program and the opportunities for learning, whatever their results.

Candidates had to be well prepared, said Canadian semi-finalist Pier-Alexis Soulière. “It’s the world championship. You have to expect the unexpected.”

Andrea Martinisi, semi-finalist from New Zealand, testified to the demanding character of the ASI Best Sommelier of the World competition. “Emotionally, it’s a bit of a roller coaster. There is a lot happening. It’s been a hard few days, but I’ve done my best, so no regrets.” Same for Loïc Avril, from Australia, who certainly was hoping for a shot at the finals. “It’s a marathon. A very long run. You need to take a single step at a time,” he said, adding that the waiting between the end of the semi-finals on Wednesday and the announcement of the finalists was particularly unnerving. Having master classes helped him remain positive and patient.

Fredrik Lindfors, from Sweden, was positive after the end of the semi-finals. “The competition is absolutely fierce, and it means everything is very close. But I just enjoyed everything and had a good time.”

Despite his deep disappointment after the finals, where he felt he’d missed the mark, Raimonds Tomsons from Latvia spoke eloquently of the sacrifices made as a young father preparing several hours a day to prepare for the great event (“I have a great wife,” he said convincingly). He also mentioned he loved what the semi-finals had to offer. “It was dynamic, very fast, lots of tastings, very specific practical tasks as well – and very tough.” Always ready to challenge himself, he just announced that he will take another run at the world title in 2022.

Others, like Martynas Pravilonis, pointed out the impact of the competition’s growing visibility. “I think the sommelier profession will grow, because it’s such a good show,” said the semi-finalist from Lithuania.

Many of those who didn’t make it past the first round remained entirely positive about the experience. Dustin Chabert, the first American candidate in many years, didn’t feel let down by his elimination after the first round, which he saw as a “glass half-full kind of situation”. “Conversation with wine people from 65 different countries is [really] awesome”, he added in a colourful Facebook post, after the end of his competition. Indeed, opening new horizons and worldwide conversations is a big part of what the ASI Best Sommelier of the World contest is all about.

A week of discovery in Antwerp

Thanks to the hard work by the Belgian organizing committee, everyone who took part in the 2019 ASI Best Sommelier of the World contest had a great opportunity to discover Antwerp’s eclectic mix of history and modern character in everything from architecture to food and culture. Candidates, delegations, journalists and other participants had the chance to see and taste all sorts of local specialties, like fries, chocolates, diamonds, beer, and even Belgian wines!

A dozen or so master classes were also offered throughout the week, creating learning opportunities for the candidates and participants, with a wide range of programs, from a vertical of eight vintages of Château Beaucastel’s Hommage Jacques Perrin cuvée to an exploration of biodynamics and Languedoc terroir with Gérard Bertrand, a presentation of ancient Catalan grapes revived by Torres Family, and more technical tastings exploring the effects of bottle size or closure permeability on wine profiles. “It’s very good, because competitions like this are all about learning,” commented Martin Bruno, the semi-finalist from Argentina, when asked about the week’s program. “There was a high level of quality and knowledge in the master classes, especially on Thursday and Friday,” concurred Satoru Mori, the Japanese semi-finalist.

Many positive comments were made about the many sommeliers who volunteered, under the coordination of the Guild of Belgian Sommeliers. In addition to pouring dozens and dozens of bottles, switching over from one master class to the other could require changing over as many as 2,400 glasses in 20 minutes! “I need to thank the sommelier team, for all the service they did during the master classes,” said Chinese semi-finalist Reeze Choi. “They worked very hard and very fast.”

Austrian Wine and Côtes du Rhône, in particular, offered the candidates and other lucky attendees the opportunity to discover the best their regions have to offer during their platinum master classes, while also supplying a vast selection of wines, changing every night, at the Bar des Sommeliers – with many somms spending time at the bars taking notes, even well after regular hours. “An amazing and inspiring program,” insisted Reeze Choi about the Austrian and Rhodanian contributions to the program.

The complete list of the 2019 ASI Best Sommelier of the World contest’s partners is available here. Thanks to all of them for making the event so memorable.