First contest

By Mariana Gianella (Sommelier AAS) (*)

A sheet of floating ice on the ocean’s surface like a frozen mountain range melts in the sun. The iceberg seems almost non-existent, small, discreet and moderate. But in the depths, it is immense and hides a story, like someone who relies on invisibility or a grandparent who wants to explain, in a single sentence, that some bridges are worth crossing carefully.

The people who perceive wine have to express it to the world. Carry the wine in your senses in a complete way, like a world map that transfers it to the nose, hands and eyes, carrying history and reality. When I tell people I study wine, they usually make a joke; that I’m a drunk, that being a sommelier is only an excuse to drink, get drunk and a way of not buying wine. I laugh, because it’s impossible to prevent that joke. I don’t think any of them can imagine how hard you have to work to become a true representative of this profession. A sommelier is someone who honours sommellerie with a passion, who can speak about countries, economies, history, viticulture, soils, organic agriculture, enology, markets, gastronomy and service. It’s a lot; I swear it is a lot. When you see a sommelier tasting wine, imagine that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. They are linking and connecting like a bridge. Uniting history with geography, people with nature and illusion with reality, a person with their own moment.

Our student group entered the Usina del Arte.

The Best Sommelier of Argentina 2017 contest was in progress. Three had reached the final; three had overcome all the obstacles. One of them was my teacher. Everything was new; everything was new for me. That's why I'm talking to you, because sometimes you have to talk about the unknown. At the start, I received a Sauvignon Blanc. I don’t know how the glass made it in to my hand. I didn’t think it was possible to understand anything without opening up your senses. While I thought about the first tasting notes that came to mind, I imagined myself as a competitor. Suddenly it was as simple as that, to perceive a drink and nothing else. I wondered about everything that I was missing. I asked myself about the differences between those three professionals who were fighting for first place and my nose smelling a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. 

The contest’s competitors and judges were in a theatrical setting of a "dinner" with tables and glasses, with plates, ice buckets and baskets. The stage was set up to represent an enjoyable encounter. The sommelier serving the tables must be a magician, pulling scarves, colourful ribbons and a rabbit out of a hat, producing a dove from an empty pan, guessing the diamond, heart, club and spade cards, pulling a coin out of an ear. A sommelier in this scenario must be a dancer, an adagio, a plié, a fondue; they must jump and stretch, fly and hide. They are someone who must be present but invisible at the same time, helping without invading, discovering without overwhelming and driving without deviating. It really isn’t easy.

To those who believe that being a sommelier is drinking for free, getting inebriated or being excessive, I invite you to observe those three young people, who, for years have read all kinds of books. They know how to discover a beverage’s geographical denomination; they can taste and describe a type of soil; they can recommend and present you with a wine suitable to the taste of your most desired dish; they can explain how wine is made and finally give a blind pairing, marrying, until death do us part.

The curtain goes up.

A sommelier – the maker of contexts. The three contestants took their task seriously. Their profession became a beacon at that moment, shedding light on how things can always be done better. They created, little by little, without words, then expressing themselves in all languages. They knew the context of wine and the spirit that gives the virtuosity of knowing how to be the best and to express it as a student, as someone who knows that they will always be learning. 

I went to get another drink, thinking about all that training. Knowing how to uncork an aged wine to perfection, knowing how to answer someone who asks, knowing how to decant their own knowledge and, in the light of a candle, get rid of the sediments that time left marked on our history. There are all types of sommeliers; some work in service, others in wineries or as journalists. There are also sommeliers for events and hotels, contestants and teachers. Some sommeliers are outsiders who face the system, others make wine lists and enchant others by opening up worlds. There are sommeliers who like to follow the rules, those who don’t care which glass is used, sommeliers who mix wine with soda and those with a liberal mind, sommeliers who look after wine cellars and who represent Argentina in a bright light. They all deserve my respect. All of them are an inspiration that illuminates me. They are all guarantors of the way, a signed guarantee of an iceberg deep in the roots of this profession.

And there we are, looking at the stage with glasses in our hands. More than four hours have gone by, the contest had entered its final stage but I had to go. The audience had already seen Valeria Gamper, Martín Bruno and Stefanie Paiva tasting and describing wines, guessing them, recommending and opening bottles, pouring wine, describing distillates, explaining styles, explaining photos, talking about terroirs and wine descriptors. But I couldn’t stay; I had to go while the final test was still going on. I said my goodbyes, drank the last drop of wine and left through the giant and impressive corridors of the Usina del Arte, a Cinderella-like castle where the clock struck midnight too early. Thanks to technology, I could still watch the competition on my phone while travelling. The AAS had thought of everything, even in those who were far away so they could watch online, just like me, even though as I was walking away, I could hear and see the last moments of the contest. It was exciting; they had all been great, I admired all the competitors. I felt grateful to all three, even if I am or I’m not like them. Their effort was doubtless and their effort was there. My teacher won. I wanted to give him a hug the following Monday and I thought about what would be the right words to say. I considered what might be the consequence of measuring yourself in what you are good at and what is the consequence of winning when you are the best. In fact it doesn’t matter: the light does not illuminate the competition but the light of this beacon illuminates the profession. 

Knowledge gained from the event is understood much later. An experience we have in our pocket that can be used one day, later; much later and you only have to put your hand in that pocket and you will find it. Like a shiny gemstone, saying things you have heard before, but this time they take shape and meaning. Knowledge is an invisible bridge, noticeable only to those encouraged to cross it. The skill is to see the tip of the iceberg that means everything that is in the bottom of a bottle of wine or the mountain range in the glass. I give time to all those who fail to understand what it is about. We are still learning to communicate what we are doing, and to explain this to everyone, to teach them not to see what it is, but what they are able to see.

A good sommelier is someone who knows how to listen to wine and tell its story.

(*) Mariana Gianella is a second-year student at CAVE, the Argentine Centre for Wines and Spirits, and a member of the AAS.

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