In November of 2015 I had the utmost honour to represent Australia at the Asia/Oceania finals of the ASI Sommelier competition, held in Hong Kong.
These competitions are held every three years, and act as preliminary competitions for the Best Sommelier of the World Competition.
In the 2012 competition, one of my mentors Franck Moreau MS had come first, taking glory for Australia.
Competitors from 7 countries gather to sit exams, take part in blind tastings and be put through difficult tests in real-life situations, all in front of a large crowd. All competitors must compete in a second language other than their mother tongue, and this must be either English, Spanish or French!
I hadn't spoken French in years, but i'm far more proficient in it than I am in Spanish, so French it was.
No pressure then.....
The first day was (relatively) gentle, with a written exam, followed by a blind tasting that included food matching - quite challenging given the food component was sweet and sour pork! To finish, the service of one bottle of champagne. All 18 competitors sat this, with some to be knocked out for the subsequent days.
I felt really comfortable with the written exam, having successfully sat the theory component of the Master Sommelier exam in London one week earlier. There was no denying the toughness of the questions though, with many obscure appellation questions and plenty of sake, beer and tea questions. The other two sections went ok, and luckily enough I made it through to the next days semi-finals.
Here, we completed another blind tasting, followed by a decanting exercise. Dirty glassware, wrong vintage bottles and awkward decanters were all thrown into the mix in an effort to confuse.
Somehow, my feeble French held up and I was granted a place in the finals!
The final day was certainly the most intimidating - a large crowd had gathered to observe the finals, with a large contingent of journalists taking photos!
I was in the finals with Hiroshi Ishida of Japan and Wallace Lo of China. Hiroshi was certainly the favourite here, having finished 3rd in the world competition back in 2000 - an experienced campaigner!
One by one we competed on the raised stage. 2 wines and 6 spirits, all tasted blind. Food and wine matching to an entire menu of dim sum. Correction of a wine list. Service of a bottle of riesling to 4 guests. Decant and serve a bottle of Cabernet to 3 guests, who were upset it hadn't been decanted earlier! All done in a limited time frame. I raced through, stumbling over my schoolboy French, thankful to finish within the time limit and no obvious mistakes.
Thinking I was done, I sat in the crowd and removed my tie, only to be called back up 15 or so minutes later! The three of us on stage this time, looking at photos of famous faces and vineyards, attempting to identify them.
Finally, the finale - service of a magnum of champagne to 18 glasses, equally. The trick? There were 19 glasses on the table! I was the only one to pick this up, and finished on a high.
Everyone had put in a mammoth effort, and we waited for the judges decision eagerly....
In the end, experience paid off, and Hiroshi Ishida was announced as the winner of the 2015 competition!
This guaranteed him a spot in the world competition to be held this year in Mendoza, Argentina.
I was so happy to have been able to compete - such a steep learning curve, but thoroughly worth it.
I'll be catching up with Hiroshi in Mendoza later this year - hopefully I can improve on my result!
Banjo Harris Plane