By Lindsey Turnbull
Six years ago, the annual Sommelier Standoff idea came about as a great way to entertain people during the off season, while at the same time providing something of an education on the magic of wine pairings. Restauranter and Agua owner Walter Fajette teamed up with Sergio Serrano, Senior Wine Sales and Marketing Associate at Jacques Scott, to find a way of jazzing up the old format of more traditional wine dinners, which they found was waning somewhat in interest.
The Sommelier Stand Off competition was born.
Sergio explained the process of the event’s evolution:
“We sat down and decided to do something interactive. We would pitch restaurant against restaurant, whereby Agua produces three or four courses and each sommelier (two per event) chooses the wines around 10 days ahead of the dinner after finding out exactly what the chef has in mind.”
“We found that people were really engaging and having a lot of fun,” Walter said of that first year’s competition.
For the first year, diners were told what they were drinking; however, in the second year, the organisers thought it would be more fun to have the diners drink their wines blind, so as to really hone down as to what they thought would pair with the food without any preconceptions.
“You have two glasses in front of you per course and you don’t see the bottle,” Walter advised. “You just have number one and number two and you pick which one you think goes with the dish. The idea is to try the food, have a little wine, try the food and the other wine. You are not necessarily going to vote for the wine you like the best; the idea is the one that pairs the best. We want people to vote independently. Talk with the others at your table but come up with your own idea.”
“Initially people would just say: I like this wine by itself and not consider the pairing,” Sergio advised.
Votes for each course are counted and the winner per course is announced. The sommeliers then come out and reveal their choices and explain why they chose the wines.
“Sometimes, to break a tie, we pick one of our Jacques Scott wines from our cellar and the sommeliers must do a blind tasting and come up with the grape, the region, and the year. Whoever is the closest wins,” Walter said.
The first year was so successful they ended up doing five dinners once a month featuring eight sommeliers which then saw Fabio Sordinelli from Agua being crowned the winner.
“It was a huge success with everyone asking when we would be doing the next event,” Sergio advised. “It now runs over eight months every year.”
The sommeliers have a budget for all their wines. They can spend almost all of it on one wine and go cheaper on the others if they want, or spread the budget more evenly. They have the entire portfolio of Jacques Scott to choose from.
On the day, the organisers offer guests bubbles such as Cava or Prosecco to start the evening off and on the final the bubbles are always Champagne. Mistress of ceremonies extraordinaire Vicki Wheaton compares the evening and her lively commentary has really lifted it to the next level, Sergio said.
Sommeliers come from all over and are usually new contestants each year. This latest round saw Norbert Szalay from the Westin compete against Gustavo Varela from the Marriott.
Gustavo, who comes from Costa Rica, has more than ten years’ experience and began his career as a bartender at the age of 18 in a small 5-star hotel, beginning his studies as a sommelier at the age of 23 at the European School of Wine. Norbert comes from Budapest, Hungary and he has had several internships at prestigious Hungarian restaurants and hotels in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. After his graduation he went to further his knowledge and experience in the UK and New York. He moved to Cayman in 2011, and since 2014, he has been responsible for all wine purchasing at the Westin in Grand Cayman. His travels in the industry as well as his passion for wine and wine pairing led him to obtain his Sommelier degree in 2017.
Great prizes are on offer for the winner, including money for wine education from overseas wineries and also from Wineschool 3 in Cayman, as well as expensive bottles of wine and even a stay in a winery in South Africa by a top winemaker, Rickety Bridge. The total value of prizes is around USD$10,000.
“And of course, there is the Sommelier Standoff trophy, too!” Sergio said.
A Master Sommelier, Gillian Balance, from Treasury Wine Estates has been invited to come and judge the final, a big deal with just over 200 people globally making it as far as a Master Sommelier level.
The third Sommelier Standoff competition takes place on 3 March, the fourth on 31 March. The first semi-final is on 26 May and the second semi-final is on 23 June. The grand final is on 21 July.
Covid limits mean that Agua is permitted to have a maximum of 100 people as an indoors event.