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Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018: meet the finalists

Next month, Beijing will play host to the third Gaggenau Sommelier Awards. Here, we interview the finalists.

Words Alistair MacQueen

There are few more prestigious accolades in the wine industry than the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards, which will be held in Beijing on October 16.

For Gaggenau, the awards are not only an opportunity to celebrate the world’s best sommeliers, but also a chance to enjoy and appreciate every aspect of global viniculture.

In this feature, we catch up with the finalists and ask how they got into the wine industry, why they’re so passionate about the drink and what makes a perfect sommelier.

Emma Ziemann, Swedish finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Emma Ziemann, Swedish finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Emma Ziemann, Sweden

Gaggenau: How did you get into the wine industry?

Emma Ziemanne: I stumbled on a crash course in wine at Gothenburg University and 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.

Gaggenau: Did anyone inspire you early on?

EZ: Though I never had a mentor, my former colleague Gustav Cansund helped push me further than I’d have thought possible from our time at Upper House Dining in Gothenburg.

Gaggenau: What can a sommelier never be without?

EZ: 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!

Gaggenau: What’s the most difficult side of the job?

EZ: The hardest part is also what makes the job so fulfilling: it’s a service profession which means that you need to take as good care of your guests as your bottles.

Gaggenau: Do you have an ideal customer?

EZ: I don’t have a particular person in mind, 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.

Gaggenau: What are your future plans?

EZ: 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 UK finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Zareh Mesrobyan, UK finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Zareh Mesrobyan, UK

Gaggenau: How did you get the wine bug?

Zareh Mesrobyan: I was a server in a fine dining restaurant in Bulgaria, when we had a lot of tastings with local producers – we were responsible for selling their wine. That’s when I started reading about wine, but I didn’t know I would live off it .

Gaggenau: What sommeliers do you admire?

ZM: Definitely [wine director at Hide] Piotr Petras as he is the idea of success for me, and has achieved everything in life I want to! Ronan Sayburn, CEO of the Court of Master Sommeliers, is also a legend: when he speaks about wine I realise how much I love my job.

Gaggenau: Where next, career-wise?

ZM: Hopefully becoming 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!

Gaggenau: What would your three dream wines to taste be?

ZM: Wow, what a question. I would love to taste Egon Muller Scharzhofberger 1976, the 1978 Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux and any pre-phylloxera vintage of Heitz Cellars.

Gaggenau: Please complete this sentence: if I wasn’t a sommelier, I’d be…

ZM: I don’t know… Unemployed I guess :)

Joakim Blackadder, South African finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Joakim Blackadder, South African finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Joakim Blackadder, South Africa

Gaggenau: When did your relationship with wine begin?

Joakim Blackadder: 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.

Gaggenau: Who’s been the biggest influence on your career?

JB: From a hospitality point of view, Ulrika Karlsson. She was the service developer for Mathias Dahlgren’s restaurant at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, and I had the pleasure of contributing to her visionary work for a couple of years.

Gaggenau: What can a sommelier never be without?

JB: A stimulating access to a variety of wine. One of the most intriguing aspects of wine is that there’s no real ceiling for perfection so the constant search for better wine is an ongoing and exciting treasure hunt.

Gaggenau: What’s the most difficult question you’ve been asked?

JB: “Name your favourite wine”! That’s an impossible question. The preference for a style or type of wine changes according to mood and surroundings, with so many delicious wines, I could never pick only one.

Gaggenau: Where you most like to be a sommelier?

JB: Probably London, seeing that the world of wine is centred on the UK and you can get access to anything you desire to work with. The food scene is amazing as well. But, that would entail living in London as opposed to Stellenbosch.

Gaggenau: Where next?

JB: Developing our business within South Africa, the greater Africa and Europe. Hopefully with lots of exciting wine moments along the way!

Gaggenau: If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be?

JB: Probably an architect or business developer. I like to build stuff and 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!

Kai Wen Lu, China finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Kai Wen Lu, Region Greater China (Taiwan) finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Kai Wen Lu, Region Greater China (Taiwan)

Gaggenau: Where did your relationship with wine begin?

Kai Wen Lu: At 19 I was working in bars, hotels and private members’ clubs, the 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.

Gaggenau: Is it a hard life? If so, how?

KWL: 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.

Gaggenau: Who’s been your biggest influence?

KWL: The head sommelier at Pollen, Amir Sollay, inspired me to continue. When I first started, I was struggling in terms of knowledge, service and understanding English too. During periods I wanted to give up, he encouraged me to persist because it would be good for my career.

Gaggenau: What qualities does a great sommelier need?

KWL: They need 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.

Gaggenau: Why do you think you’ve been given this award?

KWL: Because I’m the friendliest sommelier and make people feel at home! Also, because the restaurant is a very fine place with grand decorations, some people might not feel comfortable in it. So we treat a guest as a person who’s coming into our house, not a hotel.

Gaggenau: Where next?

KWL: 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.

Mikaël Grou, French finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Mikaël Grou, French finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Mikaël Grou, France

Gaggenau: How did you begin working with wine?

Mikaël Grou: 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.

Gaggenau: What was it that he did that made you change course?

MG: His enthusiasm about wines and all the job’s elements was infectious. He said to be a good sommelier, you have to know how to act on the floor as it’s a performance, and know 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.

Gaggenau: What makes a great sommelier?

MG: You have to have humility – no one knows everything. Also, being 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.

Gaggenau: What does this award mean to you?

MG: Representing my home country in an international competition is something I’ve always thought about – it’s really special. I’ve represented Australia before because I was working over there, so had their flag behind me in a competition, but being able to do it for France is amazing.

Gaggenau: What advice would you give to a sommelier starting out?

MG: Exactly the same as a chef: start your career by listening and studying, not just doing competitions. There are many ways to study – one of the best is to visit the vineyards and to start at the bottom. Whether you work in a no Michelin-star restaurant or a royal palace, it’s important to understand that being a sommelier isn’t just taking orders and pouring bottles. It’s more about taking time to really listen to guests and the head sommelier.

Gaggenau: What does wine mean to you?

MG: When I think about it, 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!

Davide Dellago, Swiss finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Davide Dellago, Swiss finalist in the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2018

Davide Dellago, Switzerland

Gaggenau: How did you get into wine?

Davide Dellago: In summer 2016 I was restaurant manager on a small island near Venice. Everyday 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.

Gaggenau: How do you see the next five years panning out?

DD: 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 in the top five sommeliers in Europe, if not the world.

Gaggenau: What makes a great sommelier?

DD: First of all you need to love this job because there’s so much to learn and so much to do. But I’d also say empathy – you need to make your guests feel comfortable and understand what they want from their experience that evening.

Gaggenau: Is there any particular bar, or period of history, where you would have love to have been a sommelier?

DD: Of course I’m happy where I am now and with the wines I am working with. But 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..

Gaggenau: What does wine mean to you?

DD: 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.

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