Canadian hopes to be named world’s best sommelier
Veronique Rivest is currently Canada's finest sommelier, as well as the Best Sommelier of the Americas. (Courtesy the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers)
Published Tuesday, January 1, 2013 2:00PM EST
Most Canadians probably know enough about wine to be able to pick up a glass and decide whether it’s light or full bodied, dry or off-dry; a few might even be able to spot hints of oak.
Ask Veronique Rivest to pick up that same glass and she probably could tell you within a few minutes what kind of grape it was made with, simply by analyzing its colour, its aroma or "nose," and its feel in her mouth. She might even know what kind of cask it was aged in, or what kind of soil it was grown in. And maybe, just maybe, she might be able to recognize the precise vineyard it came from.
Rivest is currently Canada's finest sommelier, having earned that designation this past September. A month later, she was named Best Sommelier of the Americas. This March, she hopes to be crowned the World's Best Sommelier at a competition in Japan that will pit her against some of her toughest peers.
If Rivest captures the title, she would become not only the first woman to ever win, but also the first sommelier to wrest the title from the perennial winners in Europe and Japan.
Rivest has tried twice for the title and knows how rigorous the exam can be. So to prepare, she has stopped working her regular job as the sommeliere at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Que., so she can devote all her time to training, just as an Olympian would.
She spends all her days studying, reading up on wine, beer and liquor chemistry, reviewing weather records, poring over maps of the world’s well-known growing regions such as France as well as nascent regions, like Croatia.
"It’s hugely demanding," Rivest recently told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview from her home in Gatineau, Que. "I would love the competition to be in March, 2014 instead of 2013 so that I could really prepare well."
Her training also involves sampling wine after wine, giving herself mock blind taste tests to see if she can distinguish between a Riesling and a Gruner Veltliner, for example.
“Keeping my palate in tune and in shape requires lots of practice,” she says. Of course, much of what she tastes ends up going down the sink, because getting tipsy isn’t part of the training plan.
For the March competition, Rivest will have to write a gruelling, timed theory exam; perform a table-service exam; and of course, take part in blind tasting - sampling unknown wines to analyze and identify them in just a matter of minutes.
If the competition were only about wine, it might be a little easier, expecially to one as well schooled as Rivest. But it will be so much more than that: it will also be a test of her knowledge of spirits, sake, beer -- even tea, coffee, and mineral water. And of course, she will be tested on food pairings, so she also needs to have a good understanding of just about every cuisine in the world.
It’s all a lot of work for what will be her only shot at the title for the next three years. To Rivest, though, all the preparation is actually fun.
"I love studying. I always have. There was only ever one thing I knew I wanted to do and that’s to be an eternal student. Wine lets me do that," she says.
While Rivest feels confident about the written exam, the service exam, which will test how well she helps mock customers make drink selections, has her a little more nervous -- not because she doesn't know her stuff, but because the competition is notorious for employing “nightmare” customers who try to throw competitors off their game.
"They're trying to see how you react in different situations, such as angry customers,” Rivest explains. “Are you able to keep your cool? Are you diplomatic? Do you keep the customer’s best interest at heart? That's what they'll be watching."
Though Rivest has been doing these competitions since 1996, she knows it can be pretty hard to stay cool while on stage, in front of cameras, family and fellow competitors.
"I always say half the difficulty of these exams is managing your stress,” she says.
So, just like an Olympic athlete, Rivest is working with a sports psychologist to learn how to perform at her peak during the intense pressure of competition.
To many Canadians, the whole thing might seem absurd: all that sniffing, swishing and spitting just for bragging rights? And does one really need to know a lot about the soils of Bordeaux to enjoy a good wine? Absolutely not, says Rivest.
“I’m all for making it as easy and simple and fun. Because it it’s not fun anymore, what’s the point?” she says.
The problem, she says, is that many people have become intimidated about wine when there really isn’t any need to be.
“People aren’t like that with food, for example,” she says. “Put a plate of food in front of someone and they’ll just tell you if they like it or they don’t and they aren’t afraid to say why. But give them a glass of wine and all of a sudden they’re intimidated to talk about it.”
What makes wine fascinating for Rivest is learning and understanding all about what goes on behind the scenes before that bottle makes it to your table: how the grapes were planted, tended to and cared for, what choice the winemaker made along the way or what challenges the winery had to conquer.
The end result, if done right, can actually speak to you, she says.
“To me, it‘s more than just a beverage, it‘s cultural. There are so many stories, and history and geography and actual people behind a bottle of wine. It's like a piece of travel,” she says with the enthusiasm of someone who is clearly passionate about what she does.
As for the rituals of wine service -- the rules about which glassware to choose for what, or who should be served first at a table -- Rivest doesn’t see any of it as a form of snobbery, as some might. Instead, she believes it’s a little bit of formality can heightens the experience.
“Sometimes we like a little ceremony, if it fits the occasion,” she says.
Formality is not limited to wine, Rivest point out. The Japanese have a ceremony for serving tea, for example, and many espresso baristas are just as stringent about what makes for a good cup of coffee.
“There are a lot of people who are as geeky about coffee as we are about wine,” Rivest point out with a laugh.
If you want to learn to love wine and understand it enough that you can tell the difference between “plonk” and Chateauneaf du Pape, Rivest offers this straightforward advice: drink more.
“It’s just a question of practice. Try lots of wine. Take notes on what you like and don’t like. Learn the language of wine. And taste wine with others and compare notes,” she says.
“Anybody, if you put in the time, can become a good taster.”