Somms Under Pressure - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Somms Under Pressure

at Somm 360 in Montreal

photo of Alexandre Bilodeau courtesy Jeff Jacobson Agency

Alexandre Bilodeau

Alexandre Bilodeau, whose speed and agility skiing moguls earned him two Olympic gold medals, recently sat with a circle of sommeliers to talk about stress management. They were mesmerized by the videos of Bilodeau taking the moguls at speed, jumping into a back double full and then a back iron cross. But what challenges did they share with an Olympic skier? What had Bilodeau learned from his first Olympics, where he missed a perfect landing on his jump, that led him to his first gold, and his second, on a seemingly perfect run? These 50 sommeliers were all competitors, whether for their Master Sommelier accreditation, or in sommelier competitions internationally.

Vincent Lafortune, who organized the meeting as part of Somm 360 in Montreal, recalled his own disappointment in a competition early in his career. He was in sommelier school in Quebec City, at Ecole Hôtelière de la Capital, and had worked his way up the Côtes du Rhône Challenge when a time keeper made a mistake. “I was supposed to get a cue at eight minutes, and got the cue at two minutes. I was devastated to have spent six months working and studying, and no one was there to say, ‘It’s okay. You failed this time, but there will be something else after.’”

Vincent Lafortune
Pier-Alexis Soulière
Raimonds Tomsons
Julie Dupouy

Somm 360 is his effort to build a support system for sommeliers in competition. He started small, with short “crash courses” for local sommeliers in Montreal and Quebec City, then full-day “Boot Camps” for 50 sommeliers at a time. For Somm 360, he expanded that Boot Camp concept to 22 sommeliers from 20 countries, invited for a week of events in Montreal, with a three-day program for another 280 locals in the trade.

Pier-Alexis Soulière, based at La Chronique in Montreal, who won the Best Sommelier of the Americas competition in 2018, appreciated the conversation Somm 360 encouraged among people working in different markets. “I was never the same sommelier in New York as I was in Sydney,” he told me. “You don’t interact with people at The Modern as you do with people at Est.,” where he worked Down Under. “There’s not only one way of seeing wine and there’s not only one sommellerie.”

Raimonds Tomsons is the sommelier at Restaurant Vincents in Riga, Latvia. Winner of the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa title in 2017, Tomsons came to Somm 360 to hone his skills before the world competition in three months. “You can see how are your tasting abilities, and work on your stress management skills,” he said. Bilodeau’s comments resonated with him. “Before the competition, you should be perfectly ready, then just let it go. You have to stay concentrated and believe in yourself.” For Tomsons, talking with the skier helped strengthen his confidence.

Julie Dupouy, from Chapter One in Dublin, and the Best Sommelier of Ireland in 2018, has also participated in a number of international competitions, and found Bilodeau’s talk inspirational, as well as the Boot Camp meeting with Fernando Mora, who came from outside the wine business and set his goal of earning the MW. “It was about a dream that seemed unachievable. He surrounded himself with good people, worked hard and passed the MW the first time around. Everything is in a book; anyone can learn it. What is important is what’s outside the book.” The connections Dupouy made at the event were her most significant take away, she told me. “You might feel this could happen to you if you believe it.”

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.