Top Sommeliers Compete in Chicago

Our Chicago based contestants; Aaron Sherman of The Peninsula, Amy Payne of Benny's Chop House, and Daniel Pilkey of the Elysian Hotel.

Have you ever had the opportunity to display your work talents and knowledge you have gained, in front of all your peers?  You know you’re the fastest, most accurate typist in your office and you can alphabetize an MS-Word table while explaining Schedule D to a client.  But what if you could publicly prove it?

Seven sommeliers, all well-schooled in wine service and arcana, took part in such an event called Top|Somm, sponsored by the Guild of Sommeliers, a non-profit organization, which, according to its website, is “committed to development, inspiration and exchange of information for wine service professionals and wine enthusiasts across the U.S. “

These seven represented the Great Lakes region in a competition that will conclude with a national championship this August in San Francisco.

Almost two hundred wine professionals entered this competition, which began with a timed online examination covering not just wines, but spirits, beers, sherry, and questions about wine laws and viticulture.  The top scorers in each of five regions were invited to continue to the second round, which was held at Chicago’s new Hotel Palomar.

When one of the event judges, Master Sommelier Fernando Betata, saw the test facing the regional competitors “I almost cried.”  There were three parts to the competition:  A theory test, similar to the online preliminary round, a test on restaurant service skills (such as setting up a mock dining room), and a blind tasting of six wines.  Wine professionals practice this part continuously; always trying to detect a vintage, country of origin, and grape variety just from observing the wine in the glass and taking a few deep sniffs before sipping.

Contestants Amy Payne and Dan Pilkey practiced their blind tasting with the help of a 2005 Saint Joseph from E. Guigal (Dan remarked “It probably wasn’t the best choice for Easter”).  Amy faced a whirlwind month before the test, as she was preparing for the opening of Benny’s Chop House, just around the corner from the Palomar.  “Training my co-workers, working the floor, actually gave me more time to study.”  Amy did not finish first overall, but was pleased to receive the highest score in the tasting portion.  “I used this as practice for the Advanced Sommelier test I’ll be taking in October.  The Court has very high standards”

Local contestant Aaron Sherman knew several of the other contestants already, from working with them, or dining at their restaurants.  “It’s a great group, with lots of camaraderie.”  He emphasized that training for an event like this is ongoing.  “On the floor, you are always working with new individual personalities.  Away from the floor, you work on details.  We’re always growing and developing.”  Dan Pilkey summed it up:  “Even people who know may not know the entire subject.”

While I figure out this whole Alpha-Sort-Table thing, please take a look at the videos below (links will send you to my YouTube channel).

In this video, Geoff Kruth, from the Court of Master Sommeliers, explains the Top|Somm competition and discusses the Guild of Sommeliers website:

Geoff Kruth

And the winner of the Great Lakes regional round of Top|Somm, Chris Dillman, of Sage American Bistro, in Columbus, OH, shares his thoughts in the video below:

Chris Dillman

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