Friday, April 23, 2010

My Baptism as a Sommelier at the 2010 Challenge International du Vin in Bordeaux

On a return flight from England, I saw an advertisement in the on-flight magazine that immediately got my attention: “Why not go to Bourg and Blaye in Bordeaux and apply to be an official taster at the 34th annual Challenge International du Vin, France’s largest international wine competition?” Why not? I said to myself. I speak French; I’m now a sommelier . It’s what I’ve been training to do for the past 3 years and it would be a good start under the “Experience” heading on my wine CV.
Upon my arrival home, I looked up the site, and though the date had passed to apply, I thought I would send in my application, and an email, and give it a shot. Sure enough, the next day, I was accepted as an official taster, and I was booking flights from Naples to Bordeaux.
I knew it was a bold move for a novitiate such as myself, but what gave me the confidence to apply were the words “seeking wine professionals and knowledgeable amateurs” on the website. That had to include me. I pounced on the opportunity like a dog on a bone. “Pounced” is probably too mild a word for the manner in which I seized this opportunity. I was fueled…maybe even jet propelled.
I was not to be discouraged from doing this. Not even when my husband broke his ankle and I realized I would have to go to Bordeaux alone. Not even when my badge and my instructions did not arrive 1 week before the event as was supposed to happen, not even when my husband remarked, “Do you even know how to do this?”
My official taster’s badges, instructions and directions arrived in the Italian mail the day before I was to leave. I arrived in Bordeaux undaunted but a little nervous. I was staying near the airport and I knew that the drive to Bourg the next morning could take from 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic. The morning of the competition, I donned my new navy blazer with the badge of the Associazione Italiana di Sommelier neatly sewed on, lest someone think I was an imposter. I could say, “here it is, right here. Proof that I know what I’m doing,” all the while my husband’s incredulous refrain was ringing in my brain. I reassured myself that his lack of faith in my abilities as a sommelier came only from the fact that he has never really seen me in action.

My eagerness to be on time was immediately noticed as I pulled into the town of Bourg just as dawn was breaking. I sat and watched the sun rise for a while then decided I would go on foot to try and find the Gymnase where the event would be taking place. A car stopped and the monsieur asked if he could help. It was one of the organizers and he offered to show me the way. By the time I got back to my rental car, and figured out how to get it in reverse, my guide was gone. I found some people at a bus stop and asked where I might find the grand event--he Challenge International du Vin, and all I got was a squint in return. I decided to ask if they knew how to get to the Gymnase. One man's face relaxed, and within less than 2 minutes I was there. I hesitated to get out of the car as the event didn’t start for another hour and a half. I saw people rushing to get in, so I decided to go. I was told to go and get a coffee somewhere and come back in an hour.

Satisfied that I wouldn’t be late, I walked through the town, but decided against having coffee on my tongue before a tasting.
Upon my return, the event was gathering momentum and I saw many people lining up to get their badges scanned, because, after all, imposters are not allowed into this event. I am one of them—the real thing that is, not an imposter (or so I try to convince myself!)
My badge reveals the jury to which I will belong for today’s tastings or “dégustation”. We are supposed to be sitting in groups of 4 and at least one person at the table has to be a wine professional with many years of experience. That is not me, nor is it my jury mate Julie Wilcox, a Brit who speaks impeccable French. She too is new to the profession as a new graduate of Bordeaux wine commerce program. This is her second year at the Challenge. The wine professional at our table is called Lionel, and he described himself to us as a consultant to the Cognac industry. Our 4th jurist did not show up, as I understand often happens. However, I couldn’t have had better partners had I chose them myself. Julie seemed to be a person in a similar position to me: both starting out in the world of wine, wanting to gain some experience, and neither one of us has a job in the profession as yet. Lionel humbly played down his experience, was very reassuring, and treated us ever so kindly.
The 12 bottles were placed rather unceremoniously in a plastic crate beside our table. They are covered in black plastic thus hiding their identity. Each bears a number that corresponds to the numbers on our sheets. The sheets also list 4 characteristics in each of the categories that must be evaluated: olfactory, taste, and then very abruptly we had to give it a score out of 20: 10, 11 was a no medal score; 12, 13 meant that it should get a bronze medal, 14, 15 was a silver, and 16+ was gold. Our last evaluation was whether or not we would recommend this wine. We were asked to write comments especially if we were not awarding a medal to the wines. There was water, crusty bread, a wine glass and a pen waiting on our tables.
Our first task was to evaluate 12 Champagnes….oh, là là! I had great difficulty trying to find anything remotely unpleasant in these wines. The only information we are given about the wines is the year, and the denomination. They are all of course AOC or Grand Cru Champagnes with varying ages from 2 to 5 years of aging in the bottle. I know I gave way more prizes on the first day than I should have. We were the only 3 people that day evaluating those wines. I may have skewed their results.
Our second “dégustation” that day was none other than Bordeaux wines from the right bank. All of course AOC and some of these were also Grand Cru. I longed to finish drinking some of them, but I dutifully spat into the spittoon at my station.
When the degustation was complete on the 1st day, we were treated to a sumptuous feast, and all the wines that had won at last year’s competition flowed freely. The menu read as follows:
Croustillant de Gambas au gingembre et citron/ Crispy prawns with ginger and lemon
Tendre de Pintade farcie aux Asperges vertes, puree a la fourchette a l’olive noire/ guinea fowl stuffed with a puree of asparagus and olives and potato puree with black olives
Frivolite de passion sous son dome chocolate/ a frivolity of passion under a chocolate dome
Café et mini cannele/ coffee and the regional dessert –a mini cannele –a small French pastry with a soft and tender custard center and a dark thick caramelized crust.
The dinner and wines were compliments of the Challenge du Vin organization. The wines that I sampled were the following:
Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo, Colline Terramane, Farnese 2005—a 2009 silver medallist and one of my favorite wines at the dinner. Spice and chocolate!

Chateau Montpezat Corbieres – Languedoc Roussillon, 2007 Grande Reserve – silver
Waimea, Sauvignon Blanc, Nelson, New Zealand, 2008—silver
Chateau La Bourree, Cotes de Castillon, 2007 silver
Finca Antigua, La Rioja, Spain, Syrah, 2006 – gold
Domaine Bosquet des Papes, A la gloire de mon grand-pere 2007, AOC Chateauneuf du pape This was only a bronze winner last year, but was my favorite. It is made up of 98% Grenache, 2% Cinsault. It was luscious, pure fruit in the glass, with beautiful complexity on the nose and rich plum and licorice scents. I could go on.

The next day , and I was with a new jury. This time with Lidi from Hanzhou in China, Damien, also a new graduate of the wine commerce course in Bordeaux, who also spoke Chinese, and Patrick, a vineyard and winery owner in Bordeaux. This time we sampled 12 wines from Cahors, France made up mainly of Malbec, and then 6 wines from Tunisia, and 7 wines from Turkey.

Was it worth after all the expense, after all the miles traveled, after my flight got cancelled because of the volcano eruption in Iceland and I had to drive 12 hours from Bordeaux to Milan, then take a train from Milan to Naples? The answer is a resounding yes! What did I learn? I learned that French wines are pretty hard to beat. I learned to be able to tell the difference with my eyes, nose and mouth between a Champagne Blanc de Blanc, and a Blanc de Noir. I learned that even though I can call myself a sommelier, my education is just beginning, and my knowledge base, well, is exactly that: a base on which to stand. A base on which to be able to call myself a sommelier, but it’s just the foundation. It’s got me yearning for more. I have seen the light!

For more information about the Challenge du Vin visit: