Aldo Sohm, 37, is the wine director of New York restaurant Le Bernardin, which holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence for its wine list. Sohm attended tourism school in his native Austria before working at Tirol restaurants Alberg Hopiz and Bio Hotel Stanglwirt. In 1999, Sohm became exposed to sommelier competition culture through a friend, and began preparing himself to compete. He has since won the titles of "Best Sommelier in Austria" at the 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006 Austrian competitions. Sohm then moved to New York and began working with several of chef Kurt Gutenbrunner's restaurant projects before landing at Le Bernardin in early 2007. This past May, Sohm concluded his competing days by garnering the title of "Best Sommelier in the World" at the Worldwide Sommelier Association competition in Rome.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Aldo Sohm: Initially, I wanted to be a chef. I worked my first internship in an Austrian kitchen, but I felt way more comfortable in service. Although I have to admit, at that time I didn't like wine. I had the wrong approach: Wine tasted sour and bitter. I had had more contact with Bacardi and Coke; that changed though.
WS: What inspired the change in attitude?
AS: People were asking a lot about wine at the restaurant, so I started reading about it. Then, my father took me on a wine trip to Alto Adige [in northern Italy]. Bizarrely enough, I started learning about wine with Italian wines. I remember, very precisely, that it was on that first trip where I saw my first bottle of Angelo Gaja's 1983 Darmagi [Cabernet Sauvignon]. It was the second vintage that he released, and at that time it cost about $40. That was a lot of money for me. But a month later we went down again [to Italy] and I purchased that bottle. It was my first purchased bottle of wine and from that time [on] I started learning and studying.
WS: When did you drink the Darmagi?
AS: Way too late. For special bottles of wine, once in a while, you wait for a special occasion. I stopped doing that, because when you open such a bottle it's already a special occasion. And—most of the time—you wait too long. [The Darmagi] was already over the edge. I learned that. You don't learn out of winning all the time. You learn out of losing.
WS: Speaking of winning, how did you first get started with the wine competitions?
AS: In 1998, my friend was the Austrian candidate for the Worldwide Sommelier Association. So my friend asked me to help. It was right in between my [sommelier] exams: I finished one exam on Friday, jumped on the train and went to Vienna. There was a huge audience. They had around 400 visitors and a lot of TV stations. It's hard to believe how much pressure [the contestants] were under. I said to myself, "I will never do that insanity." Never say never. One year later, I finished my sommelier diploma and entered my first competition. As a total underdog, I became second in the Austrian competition. In 2000, I competed and to my big disappointment became second again. Then I won [first place] in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006.
WS: And, in May of this year you won the title of "Best Sommelier in the World." How did you do it?
AS: Initially, I didn't want to compete anymore because it was too intense. But, to tell you the truth, it was my dream. To be disciplined over a month or a year, that's OK. But over nine years … that's a long, long time, I can tell you that. You have to learn that you can't take your focus off the major goal. That's the difficult part. You have to give up your life completely. It was hell for 10 weeks, but I committed and started studying. It was hard to come home at 12:30 am, and sit down another hour just to study and read. I would get up an hour early [in the mornings], by the middle of the week [I was near] collapsing, and by the end of the week I [was] sick. I was completely burnt out, and it was every week. I trained a lot; I hate failure. I focus and push myself even further.
WS: What is your favorite wine?
AS: That's hard to answer. It changes like mood swings. I have been really keen on Burgundy for whites, but not the oakier ones. I love going for the ones where oak is in the backdrop. For reds, I have been going completely crazy on Rhône-style wines—the more Mourvèdre the better. I have no idea why, but I am very easy—I like everything that's good. It doesn't have to be a $1,000 wine; I have fun with $10 Rieslings too.
WS: Have you tasted anything especially delicious lately?
AS: Yes! A 1961 Chambolle Les Amoureuses from Roumier was mindblowing. And I recently had a 1996 Meursault Les Luchets from Roulot out of magnum. It was so good I almost collapsed on the table. It was Strauss on the palate. It had so much delicacy and power, but still retained its lightness, like a waltz.
WS: What is your favorite pairing?
AS: To tell you the truth, as soon as I find something, I'm looking for something new—that's the fun part. The crazier it is the better. I love to go against the stream.
Right now on the pairing, I am using a grape variety called Godello; it's from Galicia in Spain. This area is known for Albariño and Rias Baixas, but if you go a little further inland there is [a region called] Valdeorras. It is an easy style of wine and not expensive. It's crisp, fresh, slightly effervescent … smoking. I am pairing it with blue fin tuna and sun-dried tomatoes. It really kicks.
WS: Do you have any wine cellared?
AS: Yes, we have a cellar in Austria, but here in New York I don't have a wine cellar. If it's something really fantastic, I leave it in Austria or at Le Bernardin. [At home] I pack the white wines into the fridge, and—now it's getting really bad—I have arranged the red wines in the oven. I store them there, but I have to admit that they are not in there for long. I have a studio—where to put your wine is a problem. Of course I have a temperature-controlled wine refrigerator, but I have no room in that. Do I cook at home? No … at least not in the oven.