In the recent international contest the Cyprus entrant did better than ever before, raising the bar for the profession on the island
The ASI Best Sommelier of the World contest in Paris came to a thrilling conclusion in front of a crowd of 4,000 wine professionals and enthusiasts at the Paris La Défense Arena earlier this month.
The crowd was quiet in anticipation of the revelation of the final three. One by one the final rankings of the semi-finalist were announced. Our candidate Sotiris Neophytidis was waiting anxiously on stage, but at number 10 he did not make it to the final. His long journey, as with many others on stage, to become the Best Sommelier of the World fell only one step short of completion.
Soon only the final three contestants – Nina Jensen (Denmark, who was runner up in Cyprus’ Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa 2021), Raimonds Tomsons (Latvia), and Reeze Choi (China) – remained on stage. The final contest, which consisted of various tasks designed to challenge the sommeliers’ knowledge, tasting skills, service acumen and ability to remain calm under pressure brought out the best in the candidates.
And it was Raimonds Tomsons who was the most successful at this and was announced as the winner by ASI President William Wouters.
“It took more than 30 years for this contest to return to Paris,” Wouters said. “It was worth the wait! From the first day candidates arrived, they were treated to the hospitality and amazing gastronomy of France. As for the contest itself, it honoured the commitment of our candidates by being both challenging and fair.”
He went on to say Tomsons would be “a fantastic representative of ASI, and an inspiration to our global sommelier community.”
Compared to 20 years ago, our own candidates are remarkably well informed about wines, vineyards, legislation, vintages, and more, information that to most consumers is trivial. They need to read volumes of books, gather a lot of information on countries like China’s new wine regions, follow wine development practices in England, Denmark or Belgium, just to name a few of the newcomers. Young sommeliers use their National Contests, the ASI (Association Sommellerie Internationale) Continental Contests, regional contests and of course the Best of the World to demonstrate their wine knowledge as well its practical application.
What was positive, especially in the final, is that judges tested the candidate’s knowledge but in a real, working and sales environment. After all a sommelier is primarily a front-line member of the restaurant brigade and, like a chef, is part of providing a dining experience to the paying guest. The knowledge and understanding of wines, spirits, beers, cognacs, distillations as well as cocktails, cigars, tea, coffee, gastronomy and food was tested with a hard written test as well as blind tasting of wines and spirits.
More practical tests followed during the quarterfinals. At a cocktail reception that took place at the grand hall of Quay D’orsay (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) the 16 semifinalists were announced. Out of 68 candidates from 65 countries only 16 qualified for the semis. Wand when Neophytidis was announced as among them there were many cheers, mine the loudest. He won the National contest (May 2022) and Open Balkan Contest in October. Now he had made it to the 16 best in the world. Bravo Cyprus, for the first time the island had a candidate in the semis. It took us 20 years, and many worthy candidates have represented Cyprus.
The semis were harder than the previous round, with a more difficult written test. According to Neophytidis, Sotiris the unique aspect of the semis, also seen in the finals, is the importance it places to sommeliers’ relationship with customers, above and beyond a mastery of mere facts and figures. The focus will always be on knowledge, and interaction with the judges is key. They are looking at how well a wine can be sold and interaction with guests, having to deal with customers on other tables, and care not to serve an expired beer, a trick that many sommeliers failed to notice and inform the guests (judges). In the real world you must always check the expiry date of what you are selling. Interaction with the guests was important, modern sommeliers are reliable and put guests at ease. Gone were the days that you were judged on the knowledge you possess. Real life social skills will need to pair with wide-ranging wine knowledge.
Many of us think we talk too much about the profession as one that is elitist. Sommeliers though are some of the most passionate people in the world when it comes to wine, and they are eager to share that passion with guests. So, look out for them in restaurants.
Being a great sommelier requires a lot more than just information. In the end, what a sommelier does is not only being a specialist in the product, but in being able to fully explain the wine. Knowing how it is made, the little tricks that are used in that region of the world, and to truly understand the wine.
Sotiris was number 10. There is the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa in Belgrade in 2024 and in three years, again Best Sommelier of the World Lisbon 2026. Sotiris and a couple of other somms will be getting ready. No one knows yet who will represent Cyprus, but the yardstick of success is much higher now.