Battle of the Corkscrews: By Sara d’Amato

Canada’s Top Sommeliers Vie for the National Title

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

On Sept 17th & 18th in Halifax, some of the country’s top Sommeliers willingly arrived to be evaluated by their peers and by the public in the hopes of securing the title of Canada’s Best Sommelier. The competition, hosted by the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (“CAPS”) and sponsored by Inniskillin Wine welcomed the past competition winners of all three chapters: Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Journalists from across the country were invited to cover this landmark event that was judged by an impressive panel of esteemed Sommeliers such as WineAlign’s John Szabo, M.S., Jennifer Huether, M.S., and the CAPS provincial chapter presidents.

As a board member of CAPS helping to organize the competition, I was afforded a front row seat to the two-day affair that took place at the Delta Halifax. Taking place at the same time, just outside of Halifax in Grand Pre, was the annual Chef’s Congress. Nova Scotia was thus home to many of the country’s top palates that weekend, all of whom were warmly welcomed.

Will Predhomme

Will Predhomme

On to the competitors . . . six illustrious sommeliers qualified to compete in their respective provinces which included Robert Noel of deja BU! In New Brunswick, representing the Atlantic, Will Predhomme of Toronto’s Canoe Restaurant, and Bruce Wallner MS of Toronto’s Mideastro, representing Ontario, Elyse Lambert at Montreal’s Le Local, Veronique Rivest, wine columnist for Radio-Canada and Journal Le Droit, and Bertrand Eichel of Montreal’s Le 357c representing Quebec. However, only three finalists resulted from the first day’s written competition:  Will Predhomme, Elyse Lambert and Veronique Rivest. The high level of expertise made for a tight race to the finals. None of the competitors were aware of their standings until noon the next day, immediately prior to performing their final skill testing hurdle before a live audience.

To give you an idea of some of the questions the sommeliers were faced with, I’ve included a few examples below. Test yourself to see where you stand . . . answers can be found at the end of the article.

1. Who established the Hospices de Beaune and in which year?

2. List the 9 vintages of Chateau d’Yquem that were NOT produced in the 20th century (1900-1999):

3. Put the following Chilean D.O.’s in order from North to South

Aconcagua – Bio Bio – Curico – Itata – Limari – Maipo – Maule – Rapel

Don’t feel bad if you’re 0/0 – These are anxiety-inducing for most professionals as well.

The finalists had one hour each to perform tasks such as decanting, sparkling wine service, oral blind tasting, pouring feats, food and wine recommendations and wine list correction, all in a restaurant-staged setting complete with a maître d’hôtel and several waiting tables. The time went fast and the competitors were obviously sweating. The competition was streamed live on where we bumped the feed of the ever popular lobster  trap cam and gave it a run for its money in terms of viewership. Over a thousand people tuned in to see the finalists face off.

There was enormous support from across the country as words of encouragement and performance comments from viewers lit up the Twitter-sphere. Being the national qualifying round of the sommelier Olympics, the event did indeed feel like a competitive sport accompanied by all the sweat, tears and drama that you may expect.

Elyse Lambert

Elyse Lambert

As a spectator and a professional in this business, it is absolutely nail-biting to watch these courageous sommeliers put their reputations on the line and be judged by their peers and community. It is so incredibly important that they do so as it inspires a whole new potential group of competitors and strengthens our profession and our professional identity in this country and the world. It is simple to make a mistake, especially when a sweaty palm caused by nerves can lead you to lose grip on a cork or spill a glass of wine. An equally suspenseful situation arises from on-the-spot questions pitted at the competitors in service as  there are no restrictions on what can be asked. If the answer is not known than it is up to the sommelier to answer as gracefully as possible without letting it affect their performance. If that isn’t pressure enough, being afforded a set amount of limiting time for each feat certainly had these sommeliers sweating. Just to crank it up a notch higher, the competitors were required to compete in a language other than their own. Finalists Elyse and Veronique were able to compete with ease in English and had both worked in this language prior but Will chose to compete in Spanish, with which he was more at ease than in French but had never worked in this language before.

The rewards, however, are great and included $10,000 cash + $5,000 in wines offered by the SAQ, a weekend in Toronto/Niagara for a full training program with John Szabo (MS) & Jennifer Huether (MS) Offered by Inniskillin, a trip to Italy offered by By the Glass & Tenuta Caparzo, a Stressless Corkscrew Offered by Trudeau, a Decantus Offered by Vinearus, a Magnum of Treana Offered by Hope Family Wines, Trudeau accessories and an engraved Riedel decanter from The Wine Establishment. But the most important prize is no doubt the haute prestige and right to compete in both the competition of the Americas in Brazil as well to represent Canada in the World’s Best Sommelier Competition taking place next year in Japan was the most coveted of prizes.

Véronique Rivest pictured here between judge Del Rollo and Jessica Harnois

The finalists’ performances were quite tight and I found it difficult to call the winner. After careful deliberation, the substantial team of judges, who had all angles covered, determined Veronique Rivest’s winning status. Del Rollo of Inniskillin and also a judge in the competition bestowed the title upon Veronique at a gala dinner the same evening over an Inniskillin Icewine toast. This veneration is not new to Veronique as she has won this competition in the past and was a competitor in the 2006 world sommelier competition. By all accounts, she delivered an exceptional performance. I look forward to reporting on the upcoming World Sommelier Competition, taking place in Japan in 2013. It is unlikely I will be fortunate enough to travel to the trenches in person as I did for the Canadian Competition, but I will ensure to provide as close to a play-by-play as possible of our national team.

There was no rest for the winners as the Pan American competition took place last week in Bento Gonçalves, Brazil on October 24th, 2012. Rivest and Predhomme both qualified to compete and the best Sommelier of 19 competitors went to our homegrown Veronique Rivest. She ranked first in front of Ian Caube from the U.S.A. and Thiago Locatelli of Brazil in the grand finale. Therefore, Veronique Rivest will be representing the Americas while Will Prehomme will be representing Canada in next year’s World Sommelier Competition in Japan.

Wishing these brave ambassadors the best of luck!


Question 1: Nicolas Rolin. 1443; Question 2: 1910/1915/1930/1951/1952/1964/1972/1974/1992; Question 3: North: Limari/Aconcagua/Maipo/Rapel/Curico/Maule/Itata/Bio Bio