Secrets of a sommelier
By Valérie Charbonneau
Becoming a sommelier is a life’s work. Truly getting a handle on this work means, first of all, not worrying about what others think. University of Ottawa alumna Véronique Rivest (BA, German, ’88), who came in second in the Sommelier du Monde competition in 2013, says trusting herself has been the key to her success.
“You can’t let yourself be intimidated. I have a mission in life and it’s to make this scene less threatening. There is such arrogance and snobbery. People who claim to have all the answers, to be wine know-it-alls. But pretty often the people who sound pompous talking about it are those who know the least about it. You’ve got to watch out.”
Everyone has the right to say “I know what I like.” But how do you know which wine has a wood-like aroma and which is more fruity? In short, how do you practise to become the absolutely perfect sommelier?
“It’s not hard to learn and it’s really fun,” says Rivest. “Your tastings have to be thorough and structured. You’ve got to surround yourself with wine books and friends who know a bit about the topic. Wine brings people together!”
To train your nose to recognize aromas, Rivest recommends these games.
“For example, you can recycle opaque yogurt containers and fill them with anything with some smell: herbs, Nutella, fruit, soap, soya sauce, absolutely anything. Then cover the containers with a wrap with three holes punched in it. Number the containers, put them in the middle of the table and ask your guests to figure out what’s inside by the smell.”
Most of all, remember this: taste is very much a personal thing.
So there you go! With a little practice, you’ll become the best sommelier in the world … or not.
Many people think that wine stewardship competitions only involve wine tasting, when wine tasting is only a very small part of them.
“Tasting is indeed one of the parts of a competition. But it doesn’t stop at wines. It also includes spirits, beer, sake and even coffee, tea, juice and mineral water. Among other things, you have to try to determine the acidity in a drink. But the way we taste can be affected by our environment, the climate in our region of the country and even our age, which often complicates things.”
The second part has to do with etiquette, as judged through simulation exercises where the competitors have to face all sorts of situations, some difficult and some funny.
“During these simulations, you have to use your diplomacy and good customer relations management, and always stay professional,” says Rivest.
The third part, the most important according to Rivest, is to really know everything about everything.
"We have to learn all the appellations and vine varieties in the world. You also have to have a thorough knowledge of ingredients and production methods, and have a good background in cooking and the world’s great cuisines. To give you an idea, France itself has hundreds of appellations, laws and vine varieties grown under different conditions. It’s super-complicated. And now, China is the fifth largest wine producer in the world. That means that you have to really know Chinese vine varieties.”
Our memory is a muscle that needs exercise. And we have to know how to give it a proper work-out, particularly olfactory memory, which “has almost withered away for your average person,” according to Rivest. But don’t they say that exercising one’s memory is the best way to fight aging and ensure brain cell regeneration? Chalk one up for Rivest!
“There’s no rest at all during the competitions. They’re super stressful and require considerable concentration. Since this field is evolving at a faster and faster pace, I have to find all sorts of ways to remember the information, which is constantly changing.”
Maybe Rivest doesn’t do crossword puzzles to develop her memory, but she certainly has ways to make up for the mental lethargy that can take hold when we’re used to having gadgets think for us.
“I’ve got my little tricks. Blueberries are excellent for memory, so I gorge on them!” she says, laughing.
The mental training doesn’t stop at food. The learning is ongoing, through all kinds of reading, classes and experimentation.
“It’s rare for a 27 or 28 year old to win a sommelier competition. Being a sommelier is the result of a lifetime of learning.”
Rivest has been passionate about wine and food in general since she had a student job in an Outaouais restaurant.
“I taught myself on the job,” she says. “I learned from books and I’m continuing to learn through all kinds of courses.”
When she was younger, Rivest dreamed of being a student for life… Fortunately, her job lets her do just that.
Rivest has also made another dream come true. Recently, she opened a wine bar, Soif, in Gatineau. The bar, which reflects her personal preferences in wine, offers a very diverse selection for a clientele that’s ready to try new wines.
“I don’t want to serve wines that you can find anytime at the liquor store and in more mainstream restaurants. The keyword is discovery. As for me, I like things that are totally off the beaten path, weird stuff that your average person isn’t used to drinking. That’s sort of why I see myself as a ‘wine geek!’”
The bar’s menu also includes snacks, tartines and small plates. Soon, the bar will offer workshops for both the general public and people in the field. If Soif really takes off, will Rivest open branches elsewhere in Quebec, across the country or around the world? “Time will tell,” she says.
If you visit Soif, you may be in for a pleasant surprise: sometimes Rivest herself serves the customers. Furthermore, all of her staff are highly trained, and above all, passionate and motivated. So you’ll learn a lot by asking them questions.
Except for one …
“Which wine do I like best? That’s like asking me which of my children is my favourite! It depends on the day!” says Rivest, laughing once more.
Véronique Rivest. Photo: Robert Lacombe