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Of the vine: Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018 winner announced

From Sweden to France, the UK and beyond, the finalists in Gaggenau’s Sommelier Awards are taking the appreciation of wine to new levels.

Photography Ben Reeves
Styling Victoria Lees
Words Alistair MacQueen

The Gaggenau Sommelier Awards was hosted in the Chinese capital, Beijing. China is a country with a long history of culture, pride and innovation, and its appreciation for wine is only expanding. With a burgeoning middle class, wine remains a popular choice for the rising groups of refined drinkers, and China is on course to be the world’s second-largest wine consumer by 2020.

The award celebrates young and upcoming sommeliers from across the world, all of whom have demonstrated faultless service, prolific knowledge and unswerving dedication. That this rides in tandem with Gaggenau’s own passion to serve wine-lovers worldwide with its superior wine climate cabinets only bolsters the partnership.

The entrants this year are finalists from their local heats, and are of various nationalities: from France’s Mikaël Grou, Assistant Chef Sommelier at Alain Ducasse in London’s Dorchester Hotel, to Kai Wen Lu (who spoke to us from Taipei’s Marriot Hotel where he is Sommelier and Beverage Assistant Manager). If nothing else, it proves that like the finalists and awards themselves, wine is still very much a global language.

Congratulations to Mikaël Grou, victorious in Gaggennau’s Sommelier Awards 2018. At the final, the five young and up and coming sommeliers competed against each other in tasks that tested their knowledge, skill, ability and composure. Mikaël Grou vied for the winning title after completing the tasks with dynamism and flair.

Mikaël Grou, France

I was studying hospitality in France because I wanted to be a chef. Then I met a teacher on the course who was also a sommelier and he really gave me the passion for the job. That’s how I got my start in wine. The teacher’s enthusiasm was infectious, and made me change course from food to wine. He said to be a good sommelier, you have to know how to act on the floor as it’s a performance, and understand the whole theatre around the wine. He pushed me to go to the right places, like Le Cinq in Paris, where I stayed for seven years, starting as a trainee and ending as assistant head sommelier. You also have to have humility to be a great sommelier – no one knows everything. Also, you need to be able to really taste the wine properly and break down every detail and the appellation of the vintage. You have to understand your guests, and explain the taste and colour and budget of wine. And all within a very quick time because more often than not, you’ll probably be in a busy restaurant or bar.

When I think about what wine means to me, I love the historical aspect – the monks who identified the best terroirs and cru. Can you believe they did that without any technology long ago and we still have the same borders and areas today? Whether it’s from the new world or not, the technology still hasn’t changed. For me, wine is always about the stories, elements and people behind a glass. In fact, it’s everything but the liquid!

Emma Ziemann, Sweden

I got started in the wine industry because I stumbled on a crash course in wine at Gothenburg University. I was so inspired I stayed and ended up with a BSc in restaurant management. After that I moved on to sommelier school where I fell for competing and began my first sommelier job. Though I never had a mentor, my former colleague Gustav Cansund inspired me from early in my career, and pushed me further than I’d have thought possible from our time at Upper House Dining in Gothenburg.

A sommelier can’t be without a good attitude… and a knife. After unpacking hundreds of deliveries, the tiny knife on your ‘waiter’s friend’ [a tool] simply doesn’t cut it. No pun intended! The hardest part of the job is also what makes it so fulfilling: it’s a service profession, which means that you need to take as good care of your guests as your bottles. I don’t have a particular person in mind as the ideal customer, but I appreciate it if my guests are friendly, interested and open to suggestion. One of the most fascinating parts of my job is to adapt to different guests’ wishes while still delivering good service. In the future, I’ll continue competing for a few more years and then hone my skills further in the position of head sommelier. I’d also like to lecture and pass on what I’ve learned to others.

Zareh Mesrobyan, United Kingdom

I was a server in a fine dining restaurant in Bulgaria, where we had a lot of tastings with local producers and were responsible for selling their wine. That’s when I started reading about wine, but I didn’t know I’d live off it. I admire sommelier Piotr Petras [wine director at Hide] as he’s the idea of success for me, and has achieved everything in life I want to! Also Ronan Sayburn, CEO of the Court of Master Sommeliers, is a legend: when he speaks about wine I realise how much I love my job. Next, I’ll hopefully become a leading sommelier with a wine programme at a critically acclaimed venue. Oh and I’d also hope that I could pass the MS [Master Sommelier exam] in the next 10 years! My three dream wines would be the Egon Muller Scharzhofberger 1976, the 1978 Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux and any pre-phylloxera vintage of Heitz Cellars. If I wasn’t a sommelier I don’t know what I’d do. Be unemployed, I guess!

Kai Wen Lu, Region of Greater China

I started with wine when I was 19. I was working in bars, hotels and private members’ clubs, then after university I got a job at Pollen restaurant in Singapore as a commis sommelier. After that I went to the Taipei Marriott Hotel where I’ve been assistant beverage manager and sommelier for a year and a half. In this job, it’s important to keep fit because you have to be able to handle heavy cases of wine! There’s also a lot to study because the wine world is ever-changing so I always need to be up to date. A great sommelier needs to love their customers and give them the same level of dedicated service no matter who they are or what they might order. It’s that consistency that separates them from the rest. I pride myself on being friendly, and making people feel at home. Because the restaurant I work in is a very fine place with grand decorations, some people might not feel comfortable there. So we treat a guest as a person who’s coming into our house, not a hotel. I think I can still improve more and work on my service levels so I can give my all to the job. When I’ve done enough I’ll consider sharing my knowledge about what I’ve learned as a beverage manager to those who want to work in the profession.

Joakim Blackadder, South Africa

I started working with wine after I progressed from front of house and completed a sommelier course in Stockholm in 2005. Once the wine bug bit me, I searched for opportunities overseas within wine-producing regions and ended up in South Africa. From a hospitality point of view, Ulrika Karlsson has been the biggest influence on my career. She was the service developer for Mathias Dahlgren’s restaurant at the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm, and I had the pleasure of contributing to her visionary work for a couple of years. A sommelier can never live without a stimulating variety of wine. One of the most intriguing aspects is that there’s no real ceiling for perfection so the constant search for better wine is an ongoing and exciting treasure hunt. People ask me what my favourite wine is, but that’s an impossible question. The preference for a style or type changes according to mood and surroundings – with so many delicious wines, I could never pick only one. If I wasn’t a sommelier I’d probably be an architect or business developer. I like to solve problems. But we have enough of those challenges in our day-to-day running of the business, so I wouldn’t trade the current environment for anything!

Davide Dellago, Switzerland

I got into wine in summer 2016 when I was restaurant manager on a small island near Venice. Every day this guy Massimo came in to take care of the wine, so I asked him what he was doing and he explained. From then I started buying books and increasing my knowledge about the wine world. One of the best things about being a sommelier is that you can always keep growing and attaining a new position. My goal in five years is to be one of the top five sommeliers in Europe, if not the world. To be a great, though, you need to love this job because there’s so much to learn and so much to do. But I’d also say empathy is vital, too – you need to make your guests feel comfortable and understand what they want from their experience that evening. I’d have liked to participate in a famous blind tasting in Paris in 1976, known as ‘The Judgement of Paris’, where the Californian wines were given particular prominence. Wine is art and like every piece of art, behind it you will find history, culture and stories. At the end of the day, opening a new bottle of wine is like travelling to a different country.