Best Ontario Sommelier Challenge – By Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

It is nearly impossible to come across someone in the field of wine, whether a winemaker a wine critic, educator or a sommelier, who is not passionate about their job. Indeed, it is a terrific business, chalk full of individuals who have a love of great food, travel, exceptional drink and the best of company. And like any other group of people with a set of skills they love to show off, wine professionals can occasionally get competitive. Recently, CAPS (the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers) held a competition to crown the province’s Best Sommelier. The competition, most of which was open to the public, highlighted the skill and knowledge required by this illustrious profession but also the grueling nature of service along with guest and cellar management. What follows are highlights of this enlightening competition. . .

The stage was set, as were the tables; the overfilled audience was hushed; the Maître d’Hôtel, Jennifer Huether, M.S., was making her final rounds; and the judges, anxiously awaiting their first contender, were reviewing their roles impersonating demanding restaurant customers. The mood was tense and spectators were filled with nerves for those about to walk into the fictional restaurant setting to be judged by some of the country’s top dining experts in front of a live audience of peers and fans.

BOSC finalists Corey, Steve, Lucie and Bruce

Bruce Wallner chose the short straw and was thus first to step onto the scene to meet the unknown challenges that lay ahead in a scene that was specifically designed to test his years of experience and training in restaurants. A Master Sommelier, he had put a great deal on the line entering this year’s Best Ontario Sommelier Challenge and was determined to prove himself, among a sea of bright, young, savvy stars.

In addition to Bruce, three other candidates made it to the finals, from an original group of sixteen, to write a grueling exam testing both the theoretical knowledge and their palates. (What are the two main red grape varieties of the Ahr? Explain the solution for controlling nematode populations in the vineyards. – to give you a few examples of the kinds of questions they faced).

Steve Robinson in action

Impressively, two of the four finalists hailed from Ottawa, and from the same restaurant at that. L’Atelier is a critically acclaimed, franco-Canadian inspired restaurant renowned for its experimental cuisine in the Capital, and owned by Chef Marc Lepine. Lepine is a certified Sommelier himself and evidently fosters a love of wine among his staff. Head Sommelier Steve Robinson and Sommelier Lucie Trepanier beat out a very talented group of primarily Toronto Sommeliers. And this was not 25 year-old Steve Robinson’s first experience in the top four – two years ago he took on some of the best Sommeliers of the province when he rose to the top for the first time.

Corey Ladouceur in service exam

The fourth finalist, Corey Ladouceur, was no novice and proved a contender to be reckoned with.  With many years of experience at Toronto’s most exclusive, premiere sports club and fine dining establishment, the Granite Club, he now turns his trade at the elite Hockley Valley Resort. His cool-headed performance was indicative of his seasoned proficiency.

Wallner ultimately took the title, barely missing a beat in the competition. In fact, his confidence and humor was enough to make the audience to either overlook or forgive any answers to questions he may have missed. Yorkville’s Mideastro Sommelier says he aims to provide guests with life altering, immensely pleasurable experiences with wine. He believes that he can do this by listening and truly understanding what guests are saying, and developing a strong feeling for what people desire.

Bruce Wallner with glass

Wallner will go on to attend the national competition in Halifax on September 17th and 18th where he will compete with the country’s best to earn the title of Canada’s Best Sommelier. Previous Ontario winner Will Predhomme will also attend the national competition this year (CAPS rules provide that any previous provincial winner can compete in any subsequent national competition). The regulations of the ASI (Association de la Sommelierie Internationale), of which CAPS is a member, allow for the winner of Canada’s national competition to hit the world stage and compete for the title of World’s Best Sommelier – an honour that a Canadian has not yet held.

BOSC Judges Gilberto, Veronique and John

Head judge at the competition, Veronique Rivest, was perhaps the Canadian representative who has come closest to ever winning the World’s Best competition. By her side on the head judges table were WineAlign’s very own John Szabo along with Gilberto Bojaca, CAPS’ founding member. They had the difficult task of reconciling all the table judges’ scores (those table judges included the likes of Chef Jamie Kennedy, Scaramouche Sommelier Peter Boyd and Educator/Sommelier Peter Bodnar Rod) with their own scores to determine a winner.

One of the most challenging components of the exam for the candidates was the verbal blind tasting portion. The finalists were given two wines and one spirit to taste and identify in front of the crowd. With the clock ticking, there was little room for error and the tension was thick in the air. If you would like to challenge your friends with this daunting task, treat them to a blind tasting of what the finalists were up against:

Trefethen Estate Chardonnay 2009, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley, California, USA, 95760, $39.95 and Marcarini Barolo La Serra 2006, Docg, Piedmont, Italy, 7807, $49.00

As a member of the Board of the CAPS, I will be reporting from the national competition in Halifax, joining our Ontario candidates at the exam. Interestingly, although the candidates will be presented with questions in their native language (in both cases English), they must answer both the written and verbal components in a language other than there own – either French or Spanish. Therefore, their tongues will be working overtime in order to prepare.

As a Sommelier myself, I can attest the fact that sommeliers share a love for competition but realize the difficulty of putting your reputation on the line. From hobbyist to trade, the wine community turned up in unprecedented numbers to support the efforts of these fearless, valiant sommeliers. After a full day of competition (including the morning written component), the revelry began with a gala dinner at The Fifth Grill and Terrace where the winner was announced.

Best of luck to those finalists and stay tuned for the report on Canada’s Best Sommelier!

Photos by Shannon Hamilton