On Friday, March 15, after a week of highly demanding, hotly disputed competition in Antwerp, Belgium, a young man of 27, Marc Almert, from Germany, became the 16th person in the world to hold the title of Best Sommelier of the World. In the finals, he was joined by two remarkable candidates: Nina Højgaard Jensen, of Denmark, and Raimonds Tomsons, of Latvia, who respectively finished second and third.
During the finals – and throughout the week – the skill and knowledge displayed by all the candidates was incredible. The level of difficulty has been rising constantly, over the years, and more and more candidates are rising to the challenge. That’s how we had to select a 19th semi-finalist, this year: the scores were simply too close. The growing talent and ability of new candidates also explains why some who were seen as favourites by many saw their contest end at the semi-final stage: the general level of excellence is just that high, nowadays.
It cannot be stressed enough how impressive it is to come out on top of such an amazingly qualified international field. And for us at the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, such high-level performance means every competition is also an opportunity to adjust and learn, strengthen the tests and improve the scenarios, logistics and judging.
The results are about excellence in skill and knowledge, and maybe more about grace under pressure than perfection. When doing a sommelier’s work, on a restaurant floor, all sorts of unexpected things can happen. To be at the top of the profession, one must stay focused despite occasional adversity, keep one’s ears and mind open to the needs of the people being served, and remain humble and adaptable. If everything has gone smoothly one night, it doesn’t mean it will go the same way the next night: adjusting to the circumstances is key to turning the skills into an art.
During the finals, Marc Almert impressed the crowd with his skill and precision, but he charmed them with his presence and his detailed attention to the “clients” seated on the stage for the final tests. In some ways, one could say that he became the champion because he used his skills and knowledge to put his clients first. At the highest level of performance, the sommelier profession remains all about service.
As we take stock of a highly successful event, I want to give special thanks to the whole ASI team, from the Board and the Technical Committee to the communications and marketing team, including the social media and film crew who have helped give the event unprecedented worldwide visibility. I’d also like to praise the work of the presidents of the national associations and their teams. Organizing the national contests, encouraging young sommeliers to compete, supporting their training, all that means long hours stolen away from family and holidays, often for years, always without remuneration, and limited recognition. This commitment, at the national level, is what makes ASI great and is pushing the level of sommellerie around the world.
Last but certainly not least, I want to deeply thank organizing committee president William Wouters and all his team for the incredible amount of work they put in to ensure the success of this most important event. As the competition grows, this becomes ever more challenging. Many thanks also to the international delegations who travelled to the contest, and everyone else who joined in the preparation and organisation of the week, as well as the many partners who provided essential support and opportunities for learning for our sommeliers – and delicious wines.
President, Association de la Sommellerie Internationale