Find part 1 here. The waiting is the hardest part. I drew the worst possible number going in to the semi-finals, 10, meaning I would have to wait until all the others were brought in behind the closed doors to perform whatever evil tests they might have devised for us. So there I sat, for about three hours, going through every possible scenario, and trying to stay calm. The brusque Italian ladies who were cleaning the halls at the Casino in San Remo would not allow me to use the bathroom, which definitely did not add to my comfort, but probably did add to my speed in the practical parts of the tasks to come.

This is where describing the test gets tricky. It might sound deceivingly easy. Trust me, it is not. When you know you are working against the clock and the test is set up to confuse you and see where you slip up, your brain somehow says farewell and stays behind.

Product placement. I humbly await millions in royalty... - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard
Product placement. I humbly await millions in royalty... - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard

First, the practical tests:  I enter a room with three tables set up, each with two persons. Other than that there is a small table with a glass and a plate of cheese and a long service table set with glasses, decanters, candles, coasters, wine cradles and everything else necessary to perform decanting and other parts of wine service. There are also several bottles of beer, spirits, water and wine, amongst them a bottle of wine in an icebucket. Serge Dubs, the chairman of the Technical Commitée of ASI and previous winner of both the European and World competitions present the first task, while handing you a piece of paper which looks like a list of everything on the service table:

“You are the head sommelier of a restaurant. Last night you asked your trainee to prepare this mice-en-place for you. You have a table of two guests here. The lady has asked for a glass of white wine and after that they would like to share a bottle of red wine. You have five minutes.”

I get stuck on the list, somewhere on line three “Non alcoholic beer…” I am expecting a trap, but it is time to move! I quickly scan the table. There is only one white wine, in the icebucket, a 2012 Gavi from Piemonte, Italy. The bottle has been opened, plastic cork lying in front of the icebucket. I grab it, wipe it off and turn around, about to move to the table. “STOP! IT’S A TRAP!” my brain yells (thank you Brain!). I edge back, grab a tasting glass and pour a sample. I have to taste it twice to get it. It’s suble, but the wine has a TCA fault(commonly referred to as “cork”) . There is no other bottle to be found.

“The wine is faulty. Would you like me to proceed with serving it?” I ask the judges.

“Move on to the red wine.”

Phew. Dodged it! I (admittedly very sloppily) decant and serve the red wine, a 2010 Chianti Classico, not realizing that the list I was handed said 2011. Damn! My brain is about halfway across the room laughing at me now.

“Time! Next task: Taste and discuss the combination of these two cheeses and this beverage. You have three minutes.”

I sit down by the small table. On the plate are two servings of cheese, a mozzarella and a parmesan. In the glass a pleasantly familiar beverage – a sake of pretty decent quality! Score! Unbeknownst to the judges of course, I do work with sake quite a lot at Umami in Copenhagen. And I am lucky enough to have inquisitive, curious students.

Last year, after service at Umami one of them asked “What about sake and cheese – wouldn’t that work?” Honestly, I did not know, but it was worth a try. We went over to our French sister restaurant Le Sommelier and got a bunch of classic cheeses. As it turns out, sake served chilled is probably one of the most universal good matches with cheese. It tackles creamy cheeses, also the sharper ones based on goat’s milk by playing on it’s suave texture and roundness, while it allows saltier cheeses to shine through while kind of coating them in an oddly refreshing layer. And somehow it works magic as a palate cleanser. The only problem is selling the match. Most people will react with skepticism. My solution would be to serve it in a black glass and reveal the combination after the fact.

I tried to express as much to the judges, and I think I got the message across. I found sake and parmesan especially to be a good match. With the mozzarella it was just smoothness with more smoothness, but the parmesan and the sake was fun combination.

Then it was time to move on. With sake and parmesan still on my palate, I went on to the blind tasting. Same format is in the quarter-finals: two wines and three “beverages”. But this time it was an oral presentation. Ten minutes in all. I won’t bore you with the whole thing. You're basically trying to descibe the wine, recommend how to serve it and with what and draw a good conclusion on what it is. The first wine was a rosé, pink in color and young and fruity. I placed it in Navarra, Spain with a Garnacha base, mostly due to the color. The red was a pretty elegant wine with dark fruit and eucalyptus-toned spice. I went with Victorian Shiraz, even though the high acidity didn’t quite fit in. I was later told by another candidate who had managed to get word out from a judge that the rosé was indeed Spanish Rosado and the red was a South African Shiraz. Pretty decent.

Oral blind tasting - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard
Oral blind tasting - Photo by Pictures Jean Bernard

On the spirits I did not do as well. I struggled with the first one, again showing how difficult it is to work with taste under pressure. It was a Vieux Prune (a an aged plum distillate). I went for old Calvados. The second was an aged Tequila. Score on that. And the last was obviously a Bitter, but light in color. I went for Italy, but it turns out I really ought to have known it – being a national Danish treasure – Gammeldansk Bitter!

I will admit, I felt like I was not quite sharp enough on the practical part, as I got on the bus that would take us to lunch and touring in Monaco. I felt like I had blown it. But all candidates seemed to have a sense of dread about the whole test. Only two or three had picked out the corked wine. Silent glee! Maybe I was still in the game!

Part 3 coming soon….