Thursday, April 23, 2020

Anatomy of a Sommpetition

Welcome to this running diary of the 5th Best Young Sommelier Competition held on November 22, 2019 at Kyperounda Winery, way up in the heart of the Troodos mountain range!

9:30 am: I park across the street from Kyperounda Winery, the best halloumopitta on The Rock warming my lap and innards following a brief stop in Astromeritis' Ste-Ma Bakery, as they set up the winery's reception area for the sommpetition.

There are three separate tables of judges consisting of the crème de la crème of The Rock's wine and food world. There is Andreas Kyprianou of Vinocultura, Paola Papacosta of Cypriot & Proud, CySomm's trio of Georges (Kassianos, Loukakis & Zacharoglou), Vassos Manoli of Pralina Experience, Stalo Arambantzi of Four Seasons, Charis Stylianides of O'Vrakas Taverna, Minas Mina of Kyperounda Winery, Teddy Kandylis of 67 Pall Mall in London and countless others. Serving as Master of Ceremonies, Sotiris Neophytides, now Head Sommelier at Amara in Limassol. Just as in the case of the annual Cyprus Wine Competition, if the soirée had been somewhat less sophisticated and legitimate, I might have been invited as a judge to muddle things up.

We're informed that 3 of the 9 sommeliers move on to the final where they will go through a blind tasting of wines and spirits and a serving component while being bombarded with questions by the judging panel who pretend to be not-so-petulant customers at a high-end restaurant.

10:00 am: To avoid any biases, all judgments are done blindly. Hence, each participant is donned with a unique number and the judges do not know what number is assigned to whom. If only justice out in the real world were this straightforward and transparent.

MC Neo starts rifling out numbers like a race caller at the Kentucky Derby. 306! 482! 920! I'm waiting for an excited octogenarian with bad hips, a flowered ankle-length dress and patchouli-scented perfume to yell out "Bingo!" and jump on stage to claim her prize. What does she win? A  camouflage crock pot, of course.

The deserving finalists!
Jessica-Stella Thoma of Parklane Resort and Spa in Limassol, Adrian Andronache of Rous Restaurant in Nicosia, and Konstantinos Grigoriou of Fereos Fourpoint Distribution are the designated finalists.

10:40 am: More numbers are barked out; this time to determine the order of the proceedings. To my disappointment, no one yells out "Bingo!" Adrian goes first, followed by Konstantinos and then Jessica. Game on, somms.

“I'm excited. It's the first time I manage to reach the final. I'm glad to be here, everything is a plus from this moment on,” Adrian tells MC Neo.

Each table before the somm poses a set of specific challenges. Table 1 orders two glasses of Commandaria (one on the rocks) and an ice cold Cypriot beer. Table 2 is looking to pair a set menu designed by the executive chef of Pralina Experience in Nicosia with individual wines. Table 3 requests a bottle of red wine, which the somm has to properly decant and serve, and a chilled shot of Cypriot firewater. Each table has to be cleared in six, seven (with one minute to look over the menu) and seven minutes, respectively. About the time it takes me to write half a sentence for this post while Little Miss Muse chooses to go out boozing with her girlfriends and leaves me stranded on the deserted island of ineptitude.

Adrian's somm style is obvious from the get-go. He is super chatty, delivering plenty of information to his clients and offering up suggestions, many times at a supersonic (give me gin n' tonic) speed. When Stalo asks for an ice cube in her Commandaria, Adrian brings up dilution, talks about the Cypriot landmark wine being better as a digestif and suggests instead serving her a sparkler, G&T or other cocktail. Besides being accommodating, Rous' somm is also very thorough in providing extra information on the drinks requested, from the aging process for Kyperounda Winery's Commandaria to the history behind Leon, The Rock's first beer.

The menu for Table 2 (as we later find out) consists of actual dishes served at an event hosted by the Cypriot President for foreign dignitaries.

For the sake of simplicity and as a tribute to my past life as a number cruncher for an energy consulting firm, I'm going to break out a table to summarize this portion of the event.

Some observations from Press Row, the best seat in the house:
  • A relative dearth of red wines are selected, which is understandable considering the menu. My one question mark would be Konstantinos' choice of Yiannoudi to match the grouper.
  • Kyperounda Winery's Chardonnays, which I love, got mentioned more than Donald Trump tweets. Maybe the somms thought said choice would endear them to the judges and the event's official sponsors?
  • I appreciate the sommeliers' efforts to (almost exclusively) list Cypriot wines for each dish.
  • Commandaria is king, queen, prince and princess of this wine court.
Now back to your regular programming.

Table 3 involves serving a red wine and zivania. A quick play-by-play analysis of Adrian's "performance" offers beginners like myself a good introduction to the world of wine service.

Adrian Andronache
Adrian sets up a wine basket with a napkin and towel and checks each single glass to make sure they are not smudged with magenta lipstick or suspicious fingerprints or streaks of lamb grease before setting them on a tray and distributing them among the judges. He lights a candle. Gently, with nary a sound, he uncorks the bottle of Kyperounda's Andessitis he's picked for the guests. He asks who would like to taste the wine and makes sure the cork is in good condition. He pours himself a glass, swirls it in the decanter and returns it to his glass. Takes a whiff and tastes the wine to make sure it does not smell/taste like wet cardboard or rotten eggs or [insert wine fault of your choice]. Then he decants the bottle over the candle to make sure there's no sediment being transferred into the receptacle. Serves a glass for the table's designated taster. Adrian wraps up by offering a pairing for the wine of choice, asks to remove the cork and pops out a fancy gold gadget—it looks like a mini bell or a thimble attached to a rod—to tactfully burn out the candle. Personally, I would have gone the licked fingers or birthday cake blowout route. Andreas Kyprianou probably trained him well.

11:00 am: Now we enter what's probably the toughest part of any wine competition or certification—the blind tasting (or random guessing game if you have the level of training of an Ecuadorian wine blogger).

There are six black glasses with spirits that must be identified correctly, and one glass of wine that must be described in great detail (think a three-minute run-on sentence on your favorite beverage). Of course, the candidate must also venture a guess based on their sensorial talents.

Again, to cut through my wordiness, here's a table summarizing the candidates' tasting notes and guesstimates.

More observations from Press Row, the best seat in the house:
  • From where I sit, the three seem to do a decent job describing the wine, despite their guesses being all over the place. They move from point to point quite quickly and offer enough detail for the audience to get an idea of what they were experiencing.
  • Considering that the event is sponsored by Kyperounda Winery and Photos Photiades Ltd., I wonder whether the candidates studied the company's wine portfolio ahead of time. As a participant, I might have assumed that the wine before me was one provided to the competition by the sponsors.
  • The wine is the 2018  Roxani Matsa Estate Malagouzia from Attica in Greece. Yes, imported to The Rock by Photos Photiades Ltd. [Editor's Note: Insert your favorite smart-ass GIF].
Finally, the six black glasses are a combination of Commandaria (fortified and non-fortified), Zivania (oaked and unoaked) and citrus liqueurs, a selection that didn't pose too many challenges to the participants.

11:20 am: – Konstantinos is up next.

“As expected. Stressed,” he tells MC Neo.

Konstantinos Grigoriou
As soon as he gets started with Table 1, it becomes quite apparent that Konstantinos' style is the polar opposite of Adrian's. There is hardly an introduction and very little talking and information shared. He jumps straight into the serving, pouring the couple glasses of Commandaria, setting a glass with ice next to them, and offering up a Carlsberg, which, if we're being honest, wouldn't fly had I ordered a Cypriot beer. There's little flare to his presentation; Konstantinos works his way through the challenge, seemingly more focused on getting the job done in a fast, efficient and satisfactory manner rather than charming his customers or offering them interesting insights into their selections.

Once he hits Table 3, his nerves are rather visible. The wine glasses rattle on the tray as he places them on the table. Konstantinos says the wine he has picked does not necessarily need decanting but he will do as the client wishes. He cracks a joke about the candle also offering ambiance and uses his fingers (unless I imagined it) to burn it out once it's done romancing the room. Then, he runs out of time while suggesting a beef filet to pair with the wine.

12:05 pm: Last but not least, it's time for Jessica's shot at the title.

“Where’s the exit?” she quips.

Jessica-Stella Thoma
She follows in the same style established by Konstantinos. There's no small talk or introduction or second-guessing the judges. Jessica asks the judges if they want to try the Commandaria and what beer they'd prefer—Carlsberg or Leon. [Editor's Note: Leon. Duh.] Like Konstantinos, she seems nervous and doubts some of her moves.

This pattern continues onto Table 3 where again there is hardly any chitchat or questions to the judges. She stumbles while trying to light the candle, asks a judge whether she should try the wine for him, presents the table the cork and wraps up her waltz by suggesting braised veal cheeks as the perfect accompaniment to the red wine she has decanted.

She recovers following a shaky start and bumps Konstantinos off second place in my final podium predictions.

12:40 pm: Oh! A surprise! We love surprises!

The candidates are asked to identify the grapes behind some of the world's most famous labels, a few more obscure than others but an entertaining exercise nevertheless. Each bottle is flashed on a screen for 10 seconds and the somms have to write out the grape on their flip chart.

Of course, I decide to play along and make a fool of myself. From 1 to 10, here are my guesses: Merlot & Cabernet Franc, Shiraz (GSM), Sangiovese, can’t see (squinting), Shiraz, my eyes fail me again, Nebbiolo, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc (?) (stop blaming your poor eyesight) and Malbec.

Did I get any right? I doubt it. Now back to my cave.

Wine Scribble was there too & here's plenty of footage better than my writing.

12:50 pm: What's a sommpetition without wine for the attendees? We are handed glasses of Kyperounda Winery's 2018 Akti Rosé, its Provence-style, coral-toned blush rendering the overcast and cold morning forgotten.

13:15 pm: It's finally time. The scores have been tallied and the results are in.

Press Row, the best seat in the house.
Pralina Experience's Vassos Manoli thanks Kyperounda Winery and Photos Photiades Ltd., for hosting the event and reminds us we have a date come November 2020 for the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale's (ASI) Contest for the Best Sommelier of Europe & Africa that will be hosted in Limassol. [Editor's Note: This was pre-COVID-19 so things are now up in the air. Bonus question: If Coronavirus were a grape variety, what would it be? We vote for Zinfandel. Wait, should I duck or are we all in agreement?]

Drum roll please.

In third place, Konstantinos Grigoriou. Second place to Jessica-Stella Thoma. And this year's grand winner is Adrian Andronache. As I had *cough, cough* predicted.

A few final observations from Press Row, the best seat in the house:

I believe a huge part of a sommelier's job involves charisma. Personalities, however, vary to large degrees. Some are more personable and engaging while others are more reserved and strictly focus on efficiently serving customers without any unnecessary interruptions or fanfare. Both of these personalities were on display during this competition, and I guess a customer's preference ultimately depends on his or her own personality and needs. Of course, proper etiquette, wine connoisseurship and respecting your cash-carrying customers are non-negotiable.

In any case, all three candidates, despite the understandable nerves amassed by performing as young professionals on a big stage before peers and fanboys like myself, did admirably well and have bright futures in the hospitality sector on The Rock.

Congratulations to all three and until next year!

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