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Memo From American Sommelier: Competitive Spirit

Posted on  | December 19, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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The dynamics of competing can dramatically improve your skills

Holidays are in the rear view mirror, perhaps with a note of melancholy—or exhaustion! Your New Year’s resolutions are already on their way to the “I can’t believe I couldn’t stick to my resolution” pile and you may be wondering what to focus on next.

I say COMPETITIONS! Why do beverage directors, sommeliers, front waiters or servers and captains choose to compete? Well, there are a number of answers to that question, and everyone seems to have an opinion concerning the merits of education, examination and competition. There are normally two schools of thought:

  1. Competing with, learning from and being compared to your peers is awesome and a great motivator
  2. Competing is unnecessary—why let someone else (whether person or entity) label you?

I am sure there are other nuances to how people feel, and I see the case for both sides of the dynamic. But ultimately I come down on the “you should compete” side of the equation. (My apologies to those of you who are now turning the page!)

Find Your Competition

There are many organizations that organize sommelier competitions. I recommend you research, think and explore all aspects of what you might be eligible to compete in—and then hit the ground running. I am a huge supporter of the dynamics of competition for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I am hugely competitive—an unintended consequence of being sixth in a line of seven very competitive siblings, but that is not the point. American Sommelier holds the Best Sommelier in America Competition (BSIA) every two or three years and it is great fun to organize, participate in and observe. I think most candidates would agree, though they might tell you that the fun comes after the studying is over; competitors spend many grueling hours poring over books and tasting to hone their skills.

The BSIA competition, like most, consists of three separate parts: theory, service and blind tasting. The theory questions are often somewhat outlandish in their level of difficulty—to the point that there are critics who call it superfluous. There is a need for difficulty in the theory exams in order to help clearly define the best candidates. At most competitive levels, nearly all competitors excel in the service portion of the exam, for it is what they do best. As such, the scoring on service is nuanced and very meticulous, but subjective. The scoring criteria are well defined and the judges are given a range for scoring; however, usually the highest and lowest scores are dropped in order to make the candidate’s average the most precise possible consensus. That is exactly why theory plays a very important role.

The last item in the exam is written blind tasting. Three products are served in three glasses when the tasters walk in the room. They are given 30 minutes to write out a story detailing all of the visual, aromatic and degustatory data points that led the taster to set up primary and final conclusions as to what is in the glass. In the final round—usually the next day—the top three or four candidates blind taste again, only this time it’s out loud in front of the judges and an audience of spectators!

This is an awful lot of information; why do I like it so much? When you walk through the room where the candidate sommeliers are speaking to each other, learning about each other’s lives, programs and wine predilections, I feel that there is a real sense of camaraderie and community. The competition still looms; however, the candidates are as supportive of each other as they can be competitive, and in these tense moments friendships have been born that last a lifetime.

American Sommelier Special Class
January 9th, Seminar #1
Back by popular demand: “A Brief History of the VinoVerse”—American Sommelier’s seminar covering people and events that have had major impacts on the history of wine. This seminar will be led by American Sommelier President, Andrew F. Bell. Eight wines will be poured to illustrate the lecture. visit americansommelier.com


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