By Valeria Mortara (Vicepresident at AAS)
The contest is over, the look of concentration from the past days of the competition has gone and now, smiling with the satisfaction of having achieved an important professional goal, Pier-Alexis Soulière is calmer. Here, he reviews some important moments of his life in a natural and relaxed conversation.
How did you start out in this profession and why did you choose sommellerie?
It’s something I always knew I would like to do. At home my mother had a vision of the future in terms of the food we should eat. Before a lot of other people were into it, we already ate ethnic and vegetarian food, tofu, tamari instead of soy sauce, and so on, and wine was always part of the meals. They were never complicated or expensive wines but they were always on the table.
When I turned 18 I started working at a restaurant. I always loved gastronomy and food, and that constantly became a bigger part of my life. Before going to university I had a chat with my pre-university professor about political science because that’s what I wanted to study and he asked me what I was going to do. I told him I want to study politics, and if not, I would like to study sommellerie and he responded, "Well, you should try." So I took a course at gastronomy school and I never looked back. It was so good, I didn’t want to do anything else.
How did you prepare for this competition? How was your training?
For me it’s very important to have the right people around me, people who are dynamic in the wine world.
When I went to California I found many resources; however, when I returned to Quebec, I found even more diverse ones. In Europe and in Toronto I got in touch with people who helped me to improve. I really believe that this achievement is not the result of the past six months or the past year, it is a reflection of the 11 years I have spent in this business. I always say that the way of experiencing wine is not always studying and trying to learn all kinds of things that make no sense – it is about understanding wine. For example, during the competition I had a conversation with Anabelle from Mendel. I was very interested to know more about Paraje Altamira. That is a good example on going straight to the source. She is my contact and I asked her for information about that region. It is about listening to people. Even in the master classes, like the one I had on Argentina or Benjamin Bridge... I think that if you only go to the class but you do not listen carefully, you miss a lot of information they give you. Whenever someone talks about wines I try to pay attention because if you only try to study with books it will not be enough and you become a kind of robot. The communication of wine and in particular sommellerie are not robotic; they are alive.
How would you describe your experience during the contest? How does it feel to have won first place?
It is always about the process and progress. You learn a lot, you get involved, you are dynamic, you learn about wine and that is something unique. You meet all kinds of people who live different realities. I was working in London, New York, California, in Australia and in Montreal and it was always a different type of sommellerie. It is always the same job but the clientele is different. There are different ways of cooking and different styles of operating the restaurant. The contest was great because all these people had different realities and their knowledge was different of mine. I will never know as much about Argentine wine as Martin Bruno and I will never know as much about mezcal or tequila as the Mexicans. This is great because you have to accept that you can’t be good at everything, that you can’t know everything. But when you build a network, you can ask others "Do you know this wine? Did you hear about this?" I was talking about pisco with a guy from Peru. I know some pisco brands but not all of them. It was a great exchange and I am anxious to meet these people again. I know that at some point I will visit them or we will meet again in some activities related to wine.
The next day I felt great; however, I went back to work right away because I had to go to Nova Scotia and people asked me "What’s the plan?" and I responded "There is no particular plan, the plan is to stick to the plan". The plan is to wake up early every day, eat well, listen and understand the wines, go for visits... Those days in Nova Scotia were part of my training because I experienced all kinds of beautiful things that I’d never heard of and I was surrounded by sommeliers again, talking, exchanging, thinking about the next step.
With the Court of Master Sommeliers, in Dallas, I participated in a master class about the wine business and one about Baja California, one about Champagne. I have joined the Court not for me personally but for the students, and I was listening and talking and was part of them. I thought I was not there only as an instructor but I went to take part in those three days, being with the students and listening to them because there are people who have abilities that not even a Master Sommelier has.
It is all about opening up to this world. Sometimes I have no idea about a topic, for example Portuguese wines but I have a contact that does know about it. The same is true for everyone because nobody knows everything. There are people who think they know it all but in reality those people don’t exist. You have to accept it. This was a universal contest; one had to know about and be good in a lot of different fields. It was not about being a specialist in Argentina's Malbecs but to know enough about it. At the same time you also had to know enough about wines from Chile, Brazil and Canada. At the end of each day I have gathered knowledge about different topics but have to accept that there are people that are more specialized in different fields.
What do you think about the level and performance of the other candidates?
In Canada we have tradition in wine and we also have great product availability, especially in Quebec. When you see someone like Paz who left everything behind her to work and study in Paris and live in a more European way... it’s like an Argentine football player who has great talent and decides to play in a European club. I think she is very inspiring, not only for Argentines but for the rest of South America. It is like saying: "It is possible! If you want to make an effort and do it, it is possible."
In the contest there were two Argentines and two Canadians. I think this shows a trend that something is changing. The other competitors’ level of experience impressed me but unfortunately the contest did not go well for them. For me, being a sommelier is not about the contest, it is about attitude, class, the way you talk to people and this is something that I noticed during the whole competition. I saw people who were very well trained, great professionals; that made me smile and made me think.
I know in some countries it isn’t easy to be a sommelier because it is a rather new profession. It doesn’t matter if it is easy or difficult, the thing is you’re either a professional or you aren’t and I saw a high level of professionalism during the competition.
What advice would you give your fellow sommeliers?
I think it’s important to have a mentor. You can make an effort and reach a certain level on your own but we all have limits and we need other people to help us to grow and to push us. This is very important. I think it is something that happens every day, every day you wake up, you shave, you take a shower, put on a clean shirt and you work hard. It is a daily process but there are things that do not happen overnight. We live in times where everything is instantaneous. You would like to be a sommelier in a year, in six months or even in two months, well, maybe it is possible, nowadays things are moving faster but at the end it is always the same. If you want to be a great gaucho you have to go out and work on the fields every day. You don’t wake up one day and become a great gaucho. With sommellerie it’s exactly the same. It is an arduous road but it is also a very rewarding job because the love you can feel for the wine, consumers and your customers is incredible. It has nothing to do with money or anything like that. You are working with something that is alive; wine is alive and its consumers are as well. Interacting with them is a very enriching and energizing experience, not only for the body but also for the soul. I’m convinced no iPad or iPhone can be better than a sommelier. No iPad or iPhone can transmit information and make people feel as good as a sommelier and that’s the secret behind our work. You have the possibility of making people feel great every day. You have the possibility of giving people something much bigger than us – wine – that has been part of our culture and our daily life for thousands of years.