This past Monday (January 20) marked the sixth annual B.C. Sommelier of the Year competition put on by the B.C. Chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers. Held in various event spaces of Rogers Arena, it’s an all-day affair that begins with local sommeliers who threw their respective hats into the ring. There were 15 candidates in all this year.
Their very long day began with a sit-down exam, which included an essay on the business of wine, a blind tasting, and a service component.
There were three adjudicators for the day’s events, Sebastien Le Goff (Cactus Club Cafe vice president of service and head sommelier), Master of Wine Barb Philip (B.C. Liquor Stores category manager), and Jason Yamasaki (JOEY Restaurant group sommelier). To ensure that no bias entered the fray, written exams were handed in anonymously, with each candidate having an identification number randomly assigned.
After exams and service were graded, the next phase of things began in the arena’s second-floor Captain’s Room. With well over 100 local sommeliers, wine importers, and media in attendance, the 15 candidates were paraded in to rousing applause. It was time to announce the top three sommeliers, who would then have to perform a series of tasks in front of the audience to determine the overall winner. One by one, each candidate’s number was called out.
First to step forward was Christina Hartigan, who is the wine director of Gooseneck Hospitality, the restaurant group behind places like Wildebeest, Bufala, and Bells & Whistles. This was her second time on the podium, as she came in second in last year’s edition.
Second was Leagh Barkley, the wine director of Il Caminetto up in Whistler, who also stood on last year’s podium, finishing third. Last year’s winner, Matt Landry of Stable House Bistro and fiore restaurants, bowed out of competition and hosted this year’s events.
The third to step up, for his maiden voyage in the full competition, was Peter Van de Reep, wine director and bar manager of Campagnolo Upstairs on Main Street.
The tasks at hand are tweaked each year so competitors never know what they’re walking into.
Laid out for them were seven stations. The first was having to craft a Boulevardier cocktail, followed by Champagne service of a Taittinger magnum to a table of colleagues, where (curveball!) one of the guests purports to be deaf in their right ear so prefer service on their left. When 100 percent of studying and training over the years has always been from the right, this could be rattling: with nerves at fever pitch once the bottle and glasses are collected, instinct could take over and the request could easily be neglected. The next table approached needed a Rioja wine decanted while peppering competitors with questions, and the following table wanted a six-course menu presented on a screen paired with six different sparkling wines, all from France but from six different regions.
Next up was a wine list projected on the screen, filled with many errors—from typos to misplaced regions—where as many mistakes as possible had to be called out within three minutes. That screen then flashed 20 different images of winemakers, regions, winery instruments, and such, requiring description at quite a rapid pace.
And then the dreaded blind tasting: a couple whites, a red, a fortified wine, a spirit, and a cocktail.
Barkley drew the first-to-compete spot while the others were cloistered in private suites with no phone and no Internet access, just time to sweat it out with their thoughts. He sailed through with confidence, barely seeming to break a sweat. There were a couple errors caught by the crowd, a slip of the tongue put a New Zealand wine region in Australia, and time running out on one of the screen challenges resulted in a quick drop of an F bomb. How that doesn’t happen more often is beyond me (I’d be throwin’ them out left and right).
Hartigan followed, with visible nerves and stressful breathing caught by her headset microphone. Last year’s unexpected cocktail challenge of a New York Sour threw her off her game right off the bat, but she was ready and amped for it this year. She was able to confidently answer most of the peppered questions, and service was on-point, although the clock ran out on her blind-tasting portion.
Finally, Peter Van de Reep stepped up. The cocktail component didn’t even see him blink, and his service skills were strong, although there were challenges with the screen components (there were a couple questions he couldn’t properly answer). The ones he could answer, he slayed. The guy has a geology degree from UBC, so speaking to the benefits of British soils for sparkling wine was something he could do in his sleep. And having a background in the coffee trade has only enhanced his palate for blind tasting.
Post-competition, there was a reception for competitors and those in attendance in the venue’s Encore suite, where most were on edge while the judges tabulated the results. Eventually, they emerged from their deliberations, announcing Barkley in third place, Hartigan in second place, and Peter Van de Reep as British Columbia’s sommelier of the year, each of them receiving a bottle of Champagne and a commemorative Canucks jersey.
Largely self-taught and only recently joining the fray of certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers, Van de Reep told me by phone the next morning he simply wants to always improve and be the best he can be at any mission he takes on. For right here and right now, I think he can consider that mission accomplished.