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The Ukrainian Marina Revkova is a sommelier of the Kyiv restaurant Vino e Cucina. This year, Ristorante/Enoteca represented the country at the prestigious international competition for the title of the Best Sommelier in Europe and Africa, organized by ASI. D+ editor asked the Best Ukrainian Sommelier of 2020 to comment on the events which took place in Limassol: how difficult the fight turned out to be, and what conclusions Marina made.
As concerns qualifying stage, how, generally, was it? What did you remember?
The qualifying stage is the toughest stage, when you need to check people as much as possible, to understand who is who. In principle, everything is expected. As concerns the tasks: standard test implied theory – 100 questions for 90 minutes. Then, a blind tasting of one wine: this task consisted in describing it in writing for 5 minutes. It usually takes more time for a full description, for example, recently at Vootcamp ASI in Warsaw, we talked about the optimal timing of 15 minutes to complete such task properly and correctly, in compliance with the requirements of the ASI system. I would like to reiterate that 5 minutes for completing such task is not enough. It should be emphasized that all candidates had many questions: how exactly it had to be done and what exactly the jury wanted from us.
This was followed by a tasting of three drinks for one minute each. It was important to just guess the drink without a detailed description. Then, the practice of presenting wine. Usually, this task does not surprise anyone, it is included into all sommeliers’ competitions. But what surprised me this time was the task when six people come to you as a sommelier for dinner. They want a magnum of a certain wine, and it needs to be decanted. A colleague has prepared the replacement accessories for you; glasses, magnum, and everything you need to serve guests is already on the table. You have only two minutes to assess the situation and comment on how well prepared you are, and then, you should be ready to act. I understood the task, checked, whether these 6 glasses were clean. It is understood that when you work in a restaurant, you need not 6, but 12 glasses, because of “We do not like it! What about changing these? Give us something else”, which represents a classic, standard situation. But here, we were taking part in a competition, which is stressful, and you only have two minutes. At the same time, you are to comment on everything you see. Other participants said that it was important not only to find mistakes, but also to point out what was done well and correctly. Decanters turned out to be of irregular shape, just iron wine jugs. From the point of view of decantation, an iron jug is the wrong choice, because metal can negatively affect wine. And the jars were of different volumes: not enough to decant a full bottle of magnum. That meant that the bottle had to be divided into two decanters.
I emphasized that the magnum was standing upright. But, as a rule, decantation implies the possible presence of sediment, that is to say, decanting the wine standing upright is also incorrect. Another remark of mine, which I would like to share: wine should not be available on the table, it is correct to store it before serving in the refrigerator. This is because even red wine has a certain serving temperature, it should not be stored at a room temperature… And here, the time was up! And that’s all I managed to say!))
To cut a long story short, I do not know, how correct that was and how I should have acted. There were no explanations. Everything was designed deliberately to complicate the task, leave some room for interpretations and thus test your knowledge, to the greatest extent possible.
If we talk about general results and the participants, on whom the observers betted: well, there were participants among us, who were preparing for years – for five or seven years. For example, the participant from Poland was training for two years, but in the end, he did not pass. Just imagine: he was dancing ritual dances, while we all were waiting for our entering the qualifying round, when we would be called over by the numbers assigned to the participants. We posted parts of this performance on Instagram! It certainly was funny, but I should admit that each sommelier has his or her own unique approach to the competition.
Marina, tell us about your “ritual dances”.
Oh, yes, I do have some peculiar knacks, my own “ritual dances”, too. For example, I am on a special diet. This time, I refrained from eating dairy products, eggs, meat, for a month and a half: I practiced ordinary veganism. And two weeks before the event, on November 1, I started to consume exclusively raw fruits and vegetables – I ate nothing else.
Why did you do that? Is there a certain philosophy behind that?
It is simple: to cleanse the body, bring receptors to the most sensitive condition, so that all my senses could subtilize. For example, during the entire period of preparation for the competition, I continued to work in the restaurant, in the usual way, performing all my duties. And after a while I caught myself standing – I was choosing a wine – and behind me a waitress brought the ordered dish; then, without even turning around, only due to the flinging aroma, I knew, what exactly dish was ordered, what its components were, including even herbs and spices. You notice all little details, because your perception maximizes. However, I don’t know, whether it works with other people. Everything is individual. I just happen to be interested in nutrition, I am constantly studying nutrition, vegetarianism, reading various studies on this topic, watching documentaries, because it is interesting to me.
You have elaborated such system for yourself or it just came into your life as a recommendation?
At first, I was experimenting. I remember my first Ukrainian competition when I was just started to take part [in the competitions]. This nutrition system complied with my personal values; as a matter of principle, I believe that it is necessary to take care of animals, I try not to eat animal food, and to keep myself within certain limits. And before the first competition, I went even further and switched to veganism. Except for meat, I did not eat dairy foods, eggs. There was no raw food in my life at the time… On the eve of the competition, I realized how much sensitivity of my receptors enhanced, how sensitive I became: I determined all details about the wine blindfolded: country, region, method, including even vintage. When I realized that the reason for that implied the diet I had developed, I began to use it as a tool before the ASI certification, before this competition, before the Ukrainian sommeliers’ competition, where I determined absolutely everything blindfold … During the semifinals, finals, I easily guessed the information about grapes, vintages, states, alcoholic content, aging times, and other parameters. In fact, this approach works for me. But I do not want my system to be perceived as a universal tool, you need to try everything by yourself, you should start experimenting, and figure out, what is right for you.
This does not mean that due to my diet, I can accomplish any task and determine everything blindfold. No, without proper training, it is unlikely to work. You need to taste a lot of wines. Certainly, it is easier for me, because I work in the best wine restaurant in Ukraine. I have more than 200 by-glass positions, and if I taste every day, it is clear that I can distinguish Riesling from Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, etc. I can often afford tasting good wines blindfolded. I understand that not everyone has this opportunity. But training is a must. Only a diet does not win. However, I am confident that on the day of the championship, you need to eat well, still adhering to a certain diet. It is important to prepare the body for D-day.
Given your most sensitive receptors and enhanced senses, what did you feel? How did you perceive the competition? What made you emotional about it?
My blind tasting was exactly what I had always been confident in. At the same time, it should be understood that, in fact, I have been working for only three years, I have not gained as much experience as many other people I competed with. Some of them have 10-15 years of experience behind them. Corinne from Portugal has been working with wine for 20 years. 20 years ago, I was a first-grader… I understand that I have no experience with different wines, I am an expert in Italian wines: I work for the Italian restaurant, and there are 1.5 thousand wines on the wine list. I can easily identify primitivo, allianico or negroamaro during blind tasting. Easily! But when it comes to Gruner or Chardonnay from California, I lack the tasting experience. Yes, I do tastings, but that’s not it! That is when you have worked, for instance, in three different places, with different themes and concepts for 10 years – then, everything will be perceived more comprehensively, more broadly.
Back to the emotions … During a blind tasting, I tasted the wine and assumed it was a gruner. I remember this wine and the emotions that it evoked so clearly! But I don’t know, whether I gave the correct answer. We do not know the results, they will all be announced, probably, later. Nobody ever says anything at the competition stage. Mysteries are abundant. I hope that later, we will be allowed to find out, what kind of wine that was.
You did not make it into the semi-final. How do you assess your performance?
I understood perfectly, with whom I would have to compete, what level of professionalism the candidates, who came to the competition, possessed. There were Master Sommeliers, people who have passed a million of the most difficult exams, completed prestigious international certifications, and participated in international competitions. For example, Roman Sosnovsky from Russia has been teaching wine science for 10 years. And I, having worked for three years in a restaurant, had to compete with such pros. Though, I even managed to demonstrate the result. It’s great, but I think that my experience is still insufficient. Undoubtedly, I can study and read a lot of books about appellations, varieties, regions, but this is not the same as my own practical experience. And this is not enough to win a competition of such level. “Kill and drill” is not enough, you need practice, you need to go through different situations with guests and much more.
What about your major interest: wine and services? Are you also interested in the wine-related business?
In addition to working in the restaurant, I work with Swiss company AVU wines, and the British system Liv-ex.
Accordingly, I know how much and what costs, I can trace interest in different products, the dynamics, I get analytics on a daily basis, I follow the wine business, generally speaking. I get the overhaul picture: what pricing is, what vintages are popular, what ratings are and so on. I’m interested in it because I work in a wine restaurant, and I need a broad vision. After all, I deal with the people who have money and who happen to know a lot about wine themselves. With those who have their own cellars and their own collections of fine wines, which they constantly replenish. Accordingly, when Lafite on our wine list costs 80,000 hryvnias per bottle, I have to explain to my clients, why this money is worth paying for it. That is why I study both analytics and pricing, and for these purposes, I am using Wine-searcher, Vivino, and Liv-ex. I think a sommelier should understand the order of prices and their components, find arguments for selling wines, know the product and be able to convey its value to a client. I also run our restaurant’s Telegram channel: write texts, and make posts. I am convinced that such posts should be written by a professional, not just an smm-specialist; thus, attracting new clients is a task set for marketing professionals, whereas promoting, and working with wines is definitely my task.
Marina, what can you say about judges and points awarded by them?
For the most part, we were judged by the world’s best sommeliers of different years. (Incidentally, I can’t help sharing my observation, which stunned me: after the competition, they helped clean the glasses together with the staff who were directly responsible for it. There was no arrogance on their part – continuous professionalism and teamwork. :)) I am not aware of the criteria, nor do I know, how it was all assessed – no one knows, except for the judges. I think my result in this competition is absolutely fair. I did not expect to make it into the final, because so far, I have gained little experience. It should be pointed out that experienced, well-known coaches were working with many of the contestants for five years. As for me, I had only two months to prepare for the competition, because I learned that I would take part in this competition only after I had won the competition “The Best Sommelier of Ukraine”.
Who was preparing you for the competition?
There is a person who helps me – the Frenchman Henri Chapon, who has been awarded the title of the best sommelier in Great Britain several times. We met in Reims. He saw me interpreting for my colleagues during a master class, decided that I had a potential, and offered cooperation. He helped me very seriously with the preparation. He commented on my technique, gave advices, and directions. He is my mentor. :))
May I wonder – are you on friendly or, rather, on working terms?
I hired him as a mentor. A paid mentor. In such a case, no one would spend his or her time for free. This is a normal practice. But at the same time, I was really lucky. People like Henri Chapon do not teach all and sundry. He is a busy man and works on various projects, including as a mentor. But he works only with the people who, as he believes, have the potential worthy of his efforts.
BBC journalists who were covering the competition arrived in Cyprus on a special mission. Here, they filmed an episode for a new docuseries about a sommelier, which they plan to sell to Netflix. Marina Revkova became one of four sommeliers who were the main characters of the story. Follow our news.