Who will be the Best Sommelier of the Americas?

Montreal is host city to the who’s who of sommeliers from North and South America, May 21 to 24, 2018.

Janet Dorozynski DipWSET, PhD

We’ve all seen sommeliers performing in their natural habitat – pulling corks, serving wine and guiding diners in restaurants on which wine to try with what food. A large number of us have also witnessed the intense study and tasting necessary to become a Master Sommelier through the popular film Somm or TV series Uncorked. But have you ever witnessed a live competition where top sommeliers go head to head in a series of tastings, service and practical exams that push their sensory knowledge to the limit and test their organoleptic mettle? If you haven’t, you’re in luck as Canada will play host to the Best Sommelier of the Americas in a few weeks’ time. The competition, which is like the Pan-American Games for sommeliers, will be held in Montreal from May 21 to 24. In addition to getting to witness the nail biting competition, the week includes numerous master classes, tasting dinners and soirees that will help you get a leg up on the wines of France and Argentina, as well as those closer to home from Canada and Quebec.

Sommeliers who have won their country championships in the Americas* will be put through a rigorous series of theoretical exams over the course of several days which test their knowledge of wine and spirits, as well as how and where they are made and by whom. There are also tasting and service components to identify wines and spirits blind and give a full detailed description or tasting note (including the aroma and structure of the wine – tannin, acidity, alcohol content, how long the wine can be kept, serving temperature and what to match it with). Competitors will also be asked to prepare cocktails, open and serve Champagne and wine and answer questions on food and matching exercises to demonstrate a broad and well-rounded practical knowledge. If the competition itself wasn’t hard enough, competitors are also expected to compete in a second language for some of the exercises, be it in English, French or Spanish.

The competitors come from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela will compete in Montreal with the winner going on to represent the Americas at the 2019 World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Belgium.

Canada will be represented by Carl Villeneuve-Lepage who was crowned Best Sommelier of Canada 2017 at the Canadian championships held in Vancouver last September. He is joined by Pier-Alexis Souliere MS, the Best Sommelier of Quebec, 2017 and runner-up to the Best Sommelier of Canada 2017. Both are from Quebec with Pier-Alexis just having returned to work at La Chronique in Montreal after a year and a half stint at Manresa, a 3-star Michelin restaurant in California, while Carl has worked as a sommelier at Toque! in Montreal since 2014. Both will be vying for the title which is currently held by Paz Levinson, the Argentine sommelier who won Best Sommelier of the Americas in 2015 in Santiago Chile and current works in Paris as Executive Sommelier Manager for the Pic Group of restaurants managing their wine programs in Paris, London, Valencia and Lausanne.

I was fortunate to see Carl and Pier-Alexis, along with the 7 other finalists from the various provincial chapters of CAPS (Québec, Ontario, the Atlantic provinces, British Columbia and the Prairies), compete at the Best Sommelier of Canada 2017 in Vancouver this past fall and must say that you have to be at the top of your game knowing not only wine and various spirits and how to serve them, but also viticulture, industry facts and personalities and service, with marks given for how you interact with the mock restaurant diners.  It was truly impressive to watch the skill and professionalism of all the competitors and I would be happy to have any of them serving me any day.

The Best Sommelier of the Americas competition is held every three years and this is first time that the competition will be held in Canada. Having the competition in Montreal is not only a big deal but recognition of the sommelier community and profession in Canada. According to CAPS president Mark DeWolf, having the competition in Canada is one of the seminal moments for the Canadian sommelier trade, along with some other notable milestones over the last 15 years such as Ghislain Caron’s win of the competition in 2004 (then known as the “Ruinart Trophy for the Americas”), Elyse Lambert’s victory in Buenos Aires in 2009 and Veronique Rivest placing second at the World’s Best Sommelier competition in Tokyo in 2013.

The competition is organized by the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (CAPS), a pan-Canadian association which brings together individuals within the sommelier profession, restaurant services, and other sectors of the wine industry. CAPS is a not-for-profit organization, whose mission is to promote and educate the sommelier profession and foster an understanding within the hospitality industry, and by extension consumers, across Canada and throughout the world on the role of sommelier.

DeWolf also believes having the competition in Canada is important for other reasons. He sees it as not only raising the profile and awareness of Canadian sommeliers, but, and almost as importantly, as a means to raise the profile and awareness of Canadian wine to the highly influential group of international sommeliers through a series of tastings held during the competition. There will be master classes by Nova Scotia sparkling wine house Benjamin Bridge and British Columbia’s Mission Hill Family Estate (with wines and winemakers from Mission Hill, Cedar Creek, Checkmate and Martin’s Lane wineries), along with tasting events sponsored  by the regional wine associations British Columbia Wine Institute, Wines of Ontario, Wines of Nova Scotia and Cidre du Quebec. Dewolf feels that sommeliers “have to continue to place the emphasis on the “C” (in Canadian wine) and that it is the duty of Canadian sommeliers to shine a light on our Canadian industry. While it is the competition and competitive elements that are bringing the wine world to Montreal for the Best Sommelier of the Americas, the surrounding events provide us with an opportunity to showcase our best to the world”.

In addition to showcasing Canada’s major wine regions to delegates and sommeliers from such countries as France, Italy, Japan and the Americas, a group of over forty sommeliers will travel to Nova Scotia after the competition to get a taste of the renowned Maritime hospitality and witness firsthand the exciting things happening in Canada’s eastern most wine region.

Michelle Bouffard, Montreal based author, wine journalist and former president of CAPS BC and organizer of the Best Sommelier of Canada 2017 competition echoes Dewolf and points out that hosting the Best Sommelier of the Americas in Montreal will not only raise the profile of the city and province, but is akin to welcoming the best and brightest in the profession, just like when Vancouver hosted the Olympics in 2010. She furthermore sees this as an endorsement of the strong community of professional sommeliers in Quebec and tribute to the city of Montreal itself, long known and recognized for its culture of food, wine, dining and hospitality.

To find out more about the competition, master classes and tasting dinners, check out the website bestsomm.ca. If you cannot make it in person, be sure to check out the competition finals which will be live steamed to the CAPS ASCP Quebec YouTube and Facebook channels with more information here https://www.facebook.com/acspquebec/

Happy tasting and viewing and be sure to check back with us as we report on the competition and winners.

*sommelier associations from the United States do not participate in either the Best Sommelier of the Americas or the World’s Best Sommelier Competition

Photo credit: Scott Little