Alistair Veen wins nod as B.C.’s top sommelier

Three competitors faced off in a wine exam to decide who would take the crown

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      This past Monday (January 25) was a big day for the B.C. wine community. The Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers—B.C. Chapter held its annual competition to choose the sommelier of the year for 2016. At Rogers Arena, the 10 candidates who’d thrown their hat into the ring completed a theory and tasting exam to determine the top-three finalists, who would then compete in a wine-service challenge, in addition to doing a food-and-wine pairing and a blind tasting. Not only did the competitors have to do these rigorous tasks, they had to perform them in front of an audience of trade colleagues and media—no easy feat.

      The three who made it to that final round were Sean Nelson, sommelier at Vij’s Restaurant; Shane Taylor, wine director at CinCin Ristorante + Bar; and Alistair Veen of South Surrey’s Tap Restaurant. Veen, who is the chef and a co-owner of Tap, was definitely perceived as the dark-horse candidate, if only because hardly anyone in attendance knew who he was. As the three stepped forward in front of the audience, whispers of “Who’s the guy on the left?” could be heard around the room.

      One by one, with the other two cloistered away, the gentlemen competed. First up was the service component, in which they completed a different task at each of three separate tables of colleagues acting as guests. The first was opening and serving an entire bottle of sparkling wine evenly and continuously into six glasses without topping up. Sure, it was somewhat challenging, but they were also peppered with general-knowledge questions while performing the task. As the sparkling was being poured, they fielded queries about the difference between the German sparkling being poured and Champagne, and left-field ones like, “I recently had a Sazerac cocktail and quite enjoyed it. What are its ingredients?”

      The second table requested a magnum of red wine, and to have it decanted. The query lobbed at the competitors was, “Why would you decant this wine?” While the first two competitors, Taylor and Nelson, explained the benefits of decanting—that it opens up a wine, unleashing aromatics and so on—there was laughter in the audience when Veen responded, deadpanning, “Because you asked me to.”

      The third table presented a menu and asked for wines to be paired with each course, each from a different Italian region. While all three competitors did well at the task, Veen appeared to excel, that chef background being an ace up his sleeve. Once the service of the three tables was completed, it was on to blind-tasting and explaining a white and a red wine, two spirits, and a cocktail. This was done at a high-top cocktail table, and while Taylor and Veen faced the audience, Nelson had his back to it—a move that may have eased the pressure, not having all those eyes focused on him in his peripheral vision.

      The final task saw the candidates pore over a flawed wine list projected onto a screen, trying to catch errors, which could be anything from typos to an incorrect region named alongside a wine. All in all, they were each actively in front of the crowd for close to half an hour.

      Once the competition wrapped up, the judges headed off to consider the performances and determine the winner, who would be announced at the evening’s after-party at JOEY Bentall One.

      At that after-party, there was certainly a celebratory feeling in the air, not only because the room was filled with a who’s who of B.C. sommeliers and restaurateurs relishing a night off, but also because the pressure was off, the competition was done, and both the candidates and the crowd were blowing off a little steam. Maybe more than a little—the place actually ran out of beer before the big announcement was made.

      The moment finally came, the judges ready to announce the winner. As a hush fell across the room, Sean Nelson was declared third-place winner. As Shane Taylor and Alistair Veen stood together, arms around each other’s shoulders, the 2015 B.C. sommelier of the year, Chambar’s Jason Yamasaki, announced, “Your 2016 B.C. sommelier of the year winner is… Alistair Veen!”

      Amid much fanfare and cheering, Veen jogged to the front of the room to accept his honour, which came with a magnum of Champagne de Venoge. “How about the guy from South Surrey?” he shouted incredulously to the cheering crowd. Among all of the candidates, the vast majority from fancy-schmancy downtown Vancouver restaurants, it was the chef from Tap Restaurant in Surrey who nabbed the big prize. I’m thinking business is about to get a boost.

      Veen will compete in the national sommelier competition in 2017, which will be taking place in Vancouver for the first time. We’ll certainly all be rooting for him.