This past week our very own Véronique Rivest, long time sommelier at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec, reached a pinnacle in the world of wine by taking the runner-up position in the Best Sommelier in the World competition, held every three years by l’Association de la Sommellerie Internationale. She is the first woman ever to reach the finals in this competition. Many congratulations and bonnes félicitations, Véronique. We have even greater hopes for you in the future – remember, this year’s winner (Paolo Basso of Switzerland) was runner-up in 2010!
Sure, you say, that sounds wonderful, but then, what exactly is a sommelier? Well, we usually think of a sommelier as the person responsible for the wine selection and wine service at a decent restaurant, but in days gone by the sommelier had a broader mandate than just wine, being responsible for all aspects of customer service. Even today, a sommelier must have a deep understanding of dining and particularly of the menu being served, since food and wine pairing is the most important and visible component of the job. Therefore even the most expert wine lover, when dining out, will consult with a sommelier in order to choose wine, since the sommelier will have a much more intimate knowledge of the food and its preparation in that establishment. Never be hesitant about calling on the sommelier for assistance – he or she will love to provide you with the best wining and dining experience possible, while respecting your tastes and your budget.
Sommeliers are professionals whose on-the-job experiences are the greatest teachers. These days, however, most have had professional training to some degree, at the very least completing a sommelier program at a nearby college. But, please remember that such training does not make one a sommelier. For example, I am a graduate of the Sommelier Certification Program at Algonquin College in Ottawa, but I am not a sommelier. Only those working in a professional food and wine service environment should have that distinction. Even so, there is a wide range of wine education available to the interested wine lover, amateur or professional.
Along with the professional sommelier accreditation programs offered at community and technical colleges, a range of similar courses is also available in Canada, the US, and China through the International Sommelier Guild. Their most advanced course also provides accreditation.
Somewhat in parallel with, and ultimately moving beyond the standard sommelier programs, we have the series of courses offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. This institution is headquartered in the United Kingdom, but its program is now offered worldwide by various contract organizations. In Canada the courses may be taken through Fine Vintage Ltd. in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and some smaller centres, through the International Wine Education Guild in Toronto and on-line, through the Vendange Institute in Ottawa, and through The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver, in Vancouver.
Beyond the WSET, there are two paths that one can take when shooting for the highest levels of wine certification. The best known is “Master of Wine” (MW) from the Institute of Masters of Wine. Also headquartered in the UK, its accreditation was originally only available to wine professionals but, although most MW’s continue to be in the wine trade, the institute now also welcomes amateurs who are willing to invest the time and money required to follow through with the program. Working towards the MW can be a full time occupation and requires upwards of three years to complete. There are three parts to the examination – theory, practical, and dissertation. Currently there are some 300 MW’s worldwide, of which approximately one third are from outside of the UK. There are four in Canada – James Cluer, Rhys Pender, Barbara Philip, and Igor Rijenkov.
The alternative to MW is through the Master Sommelier (MS) route. This distinction is strictly reserved for professional sommeliers and is even more difficult to achieve than the MW. Only 186 individuals have ever succeeded in attaining the MS designation and just two of these are Canadian – John Szabo and Jennifer Huether. Even our own silver medallist at the Best Sommelier in the World competition is still putting in the thousands of hours required to attain the MS designation. The organization that certifies an MS, the Court of Master Sommeliers, is once again headquartered in London. It also offers courses and certifications at several levels below and leading up to the MS.
So if you want to follow in Véronique’s footsteps, you will need years of experience and years of study. If you only want to add to your enjoyment of wine, take a couple of courses and then pour your own experience! Either way, you can be proud of your accomplishments and we can all be proud of our new wine superstar. Way to go, Véronique!