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Comments - Christine Parkinson from Hakkasan on why sommelier competitions are a good thing

Published:  19 May, 2009

Hakkasan's Christine Parkinson explains why sommelier competitions aren't just relevant to those who work in Michelin-starred restaurants



Hakkasan's Christine Parkinson explains why sommelier competitions aren't just relevant to those who work in Michelin-starred restaurants.

Well done Laura Rhys! In case you haven't heard, she's the talented young woman who just won the 'Sommelier of the Year' title in a gruelling competition. To win she had to complete various tasks, from spotting faults on a wine list to pouring 16 glasses of Champagne from a magnum, all in front of a large audience. Every challenge was tough, but it was the role play that really sorted out the winner.

Three sommeliers made it through to the role play round, and were faced with a 15-minute deadline to deal with two very demanding tables. This included serving and re-filling a chilled white wine, decanting a red wine, answering a tricky question about organic wines, and suggesting aromatic wines to match every course of a vegetarian tasting menu, all without repeating the same country or grape. Wow!

Watching her, and the other competitors, I was struck at first by the up-market focus of the role play challenge. Every step appeared to involve folding a white cloth, or placing a side plate on the table; there seemed no end to the formal flourishes. This was wine service wrapped in linen and topped with bone china! I was simultaneously enthralled by the skill on display and irritated by the 'three-star' standards. But on reflection I started to feel differently.

Clearly the competition needs a formula or standard that all entrants must follow. The chosen regime is broadly what you see in most formal, top end restaurants round the world, but is it appropriate? Even Michelin-starred restaurants don't always have tablecloths nowadays, and most establishments are far less fussy. The simple answer, then, is 'no'. The real answer, however, is that it doesn't matter at all. The crockery and linen are just decoration. The real skills (brilliant service, great wine knowledge and split-second time management) are exactly the same for everyone who works in a restaurant.

Laura won because she answered all the questions, served all the wine and made excellent suggestions for wine and food matching within the 15 minutes allowed. Even if different service standards were used, she would have won anyway. In other words, competitions like this are relevant to all of us, wherever we work. Each skill that Laura had to demonstrate is a skill needed every day of the week in restaurants everywhere.

It's not just fine dining restaurants that have errors in their wine lists. It's not only Michelin-starred places where a bottle of wine has to be shared evenly round a table of six people. It's certainly not just up-market joints where the customer needs a suggestion for what to drink, or an explanation of something they don't understand. If you work in a restaurant, all those things are part of daily life, even if you are not a sommelier.

Sommelier competitions can really focus attention on service, and any restaurant wanting to 'do' wine properly (with or without the tablecloths) is going to benefit by taking part. I'd love to think that sometime soon one of the finalists will come from a casual dining background. Everyone who competes is going to improve their skills just by taking part, so why not? Why leave it to the top few establishments? Especially when watching the final is such good entertainment!