Only one letter separates wine waiters from wine writers, yet there is often little crossover between the world of sommeliers and critics in the London wine trade. Each subculture has its own internal networks, conventions and jargon. With very little first-hand experience of what goes on behind the sommelier scene myself, I went to the finals of the UK Sommelier of the Year competition yesterday to get a taste.
The competition is open to any UK-based sommelier. One hundred contestants entered, with 90 progressing past the entrance questionnaire to regional heats, after which 12 finalists came to the Mandarin Oriental ballroom in London. There, they face a whole day of tasks and tests to establish an ultimate champion.
In the morning, six contestants are eliminated, then another round of tests culls a further three. That leaves three contestants for the grand final: a series of challenges to be performed live in front of the panel of judges - and an invited audience.
This was the section I watched, and it gave an intriguing insight into the world of somms. One big difference between the wine world I'm used to is a far greater potential for embarrassment - and a concomitant increase in pressure. Performing in front of a group of peers and strangers makes for a nerve-wracking atmosphere.
In one round, each finalist had to identify a label, vineyard or personality from a photo by writing down their answer on a whiteboard and then revealing it to the whole room. Later, contestants were given four minutes to match a four-course tasting menu with four different iconic New World wines, each from a different country - and this had to be done on the spot for a mocked-up table of diners. The potential for cocking up is huge - it was tense!
Other tasks include identifying errors on a wine list, several rounds of blind tasting, training a commis sommelier on his first day and the notorious 'perfect pour' exercise, in which a magnum of champagne must be poured evenly into 16 glasses without returning to any already-filled glass.
All the while, they needed to maintain an impression of coolness and control. Many exercises required talking fluently for several minutes to answer a question or identify a wine with no prior warning - a very tricky task indeed - and another big point of difference to the world of wine writing.
Another significant difference is age. Sommeliers work long, unsociable hours and are physically active nearly all the time. The same is most definitely not true for writers, and this reality is reflected in the age profile of each group: somms tend to be in their 20s and 30s, whereas the average group of wine writers has a much higher average age.
After hours of competing, the winner of the competition was Terry Kandylis of 67 Pall Mall. It was a closely fought contest, and all the finalists were fearsomely impressive, but Terry edged it with his composure, confidence and experience. A worthy winner!