Last Saturday, on a cold October afternoon in Montreal, many restaurants were full, the patrons heartily laughing. But in a mock dining room in the center of the Hilton Bonaventure's ballroom, four tuxedo-clad gentlemen were sweating buckets.
Before the day was over, one of them would be crowned the "World's Best Sommelier." This was the Paris-based International Sommelier Association's 10th international competition for the title and the first time in the event's 30-year history that it was held in North America.
Thirty-five of the world's top wine service specialists -- one from each country that is a member of the association -- had struggled through days of intensive oral and written testing in theory and practice. By the morning of Oct. 7, 31 of them -- all of whom had been nominated after winning their country's top sommelier competition -- had been eliminated.
"The most imposing and daunting issue for me was the language barrier," said U.S. candidate Larry O'Brien, the head sommelier at Emeril's in Orlando, Fla. "I can guarantee you that my service score was one of the lowest."
According to the international association's rules, participants must compete in either English or French, provided the language used is not their native tongue.
"I have a real ease at the table," O'Brien said. "Typically, service is what wins competitions for me, but excusez-moi, je parle only un petit de FranAais. It was painfully obvious what a major issue language was."
This was further proven when the first of the four finalists, Canadian Alain BHlanger, whose native language is French, misunderstood a rule explained by a German judge in broken English.
Hiroshi Ishida, representing Japan, conversed well in French, though his strong accent was difficult for many in the room to comprehend. Runner-up Paolo Basso, from Switzerland, and winner Olivier Poussier, from France, both spoke several languages fluently, giving them a distinct advantage.
Each of the four finalists had to compete in four separate tests. The first involved tableside interaction with a pair of customers. The sommelier had to put the couple at ease, explain their menu and propose matching wines. The diners, played by QuHbec singer Jean-Pierre Ferland and his wife, Dyan Lessard, interjected questions at preset times during the test.
The menu consisted of six courses: goose foie gras, scallops "a la nage" with small vegetables, seared monkfish with caviar cream sauce and pureed parsley root, a main course of sautHed venison medallions with juniper-cranberry sauce, mature ComtH cheese and a dessert of passion-fruit soufflH with mango sauce.
After each finalist suggested a red wine for the main course, Lessard was to object that she is "allergic to tannin," and the sommelier had to propose a suitable white. Later in the meal, Ferland's job was to switch the ComtH for goat cheese and ask for a new wine recommendation.
Competitors also had to decant and serve a bottle of "old wine" said to be Château Palmer 1961, while explaining to the diners what he was doing and why. They also had to blind-taste three wines and describe them, then identify two spirits. Each contestant identified one correctly and missed four.
The final test was to correct the errors -- in names, grape varieties, vintages and so on -- on a list of wines. Belanger breezed through the wine list easily, but he fell behind in the tableside test. Ishida worked the table and decanted with grace, but had problems finding the errors in the list. Basso showed total professionalism, but with superior style and charm, Poussier won the day.
As the band played the French national anthem and the hall of 750 guests rose to give him a standing ovation, Poussier -- the sixth sommelier to capture the title for France -- was unable to contain his tears as he raised his arms in triumph.