Last week I competed in the Top Somm regional final for the Mountain region (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada) sponsored by the Guild of Sommeliers. I reached stage two by having one of the top scores on an online exam back in January. It was an honor to be one of the top 10 qualifiers from the region. Our region is particularly difficult as Colorado, Las Vegas and Texas are all hot spots known for the development of somms for the Court of Master Sommeliers. Those of us in Texas have a friendly rivalry with our friends in Colorado and when you add the wine machine that is Vegas it makes for some high standards.
Eight of us made it to Dallas for the competition (my buddy and one of the favorites, D Lynn Proctor, had to compete in Chicago as he would be away on the day of the contest). All but one of us had passed the Advanced Exam and several had sat for the Master. It was a daunting group with lots of fancy ties all around. The Little Nell in Aspen was there in force with a trio of somms. Texas was represented by Liz Dowty and Eric Hastings of Houston and me.
At 8AM, we filed into a room and were subjected to the hardest theory test I have ever seen. I admit I have been coasting a bit on my theory since August but these were not questions that I would have even considered much less have ever studied. We all walked out a bit shell-shocked and gathered in the lobby trying to piece together the answers from our various notes.
The next phase was a bit more familiar, blind tasting. We all knew the format, 6 wines 25 minutes. Describe and identify the best you can what’s in the glass. Hit the boxes and score points. Since we do this all the time, it was probably the most fun exercise in the competition. When I came out of my tasting someone asked me if any of the wines spoke to me. I answered, “not really, they sort of mumbled.” No NZ Sauv. Blanc or Napa Cab or any other ‘bankers’ in this flight. The wines were all shy tweener wines that really could have been any number of things. To add to the difficulty, the tablecloth was beige and the lighting in the room was muted making visually describing the wines tricky. As we sat around the table at lunch it seemed that everyone called different things and we didn’t really have a consensus.
Finally, we met for the service portion. This is where the testing crew really had some fun with us. The stations were again familiar from the Advanced exam: decanting, wine pairing, Champagne service. Each element had a twist to separate us. The decanting station featured a wine that didn’t exist that we were supposed to catch. For food and wine pairings we were asked to use a single varietal to pair a four course menu of wildly varying foods. For Champagne, the wine we were given was nearly impossible to open with several of us either being unable to open the bottle or ripping the top off the cork. Those who got it open did it with a loud pop, a cardinal sin in any testing environment.
We all retreated to the bar and consoled ourselves that the worst we could do was tie for fourth. I actually think this is one of the most rewarding parts of exams and competitions. The down time you spend with fellow travelers beating ourselves up over our mistakes, talking shop about our programs and bonding with colleagues from around the country is unique and rewarding. So often, a somm’s job is a solitary one so the times we get to spend together helps to recharge the batteries and add some new ideas to our repertoire.
We gathered back in the service room for a brief awards ceremony where I placed in the expected tie for fourth. Dustin Wilson, one of the rising stars from Aspen took the medal. The good folks from Iron Horse and Robert Mondavi winery supplied some nice wines to try with our sliders, tater tots and sushi buffet. The only frustrating aspect of the whole thing is that we had no feedback from the competition. As is the Court’s standard they never tell you the answers. This seems a bit unfortunate as this is a competition environment and we are all working to improve ourselves for upcoming exams. I don’t see the harm in letting us know where we did well and what we should work on. Maybe someday I’ll understand why they do this but for those of us in the competition it was disappointing to put ourselves out there and not get any response to build upon.
At the end of the day, I was disappointed with my performance but happy to have participated. I had fun and learned that I need to step my game up big time for the next level. I made some new friends and reconnected with old ones and I have a shiny Bronze medal to show for it. I look forward to trying again next year and am sure that I will be much better prepared for the challenge.