Michaël Engelmann on Becoming the Best Sommelier in America

Photo: Ira Fox, Gramercy Park Photo, (from ASA website).

Michaël Engelmann is currently a sommelier at restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco. He has worked in high-end restaurants in France and England, including Georges Blanc and Chewton Glen. A native of a small village in Alsace, France, he has lived in the U.S. for three years. He won the title of Best Sommelier in America last week.

Michaël Engelmann on Becoming the Best Sommelier in America

I have an intense story to share with you. Last weekend I decided to go to New York City to put my skill and knowledge towards trying to win the title of Best Sommelier in America 2009 in a competition organized and hosted by the American Sommelier Association (ASA). This contest is the wine world equivalent of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And, coming into it, I was a 16 seed going up against a field of number ones. For me to win, in the words of Bill Murray from the movie Caddyshack, would truly be a "Cinderella story."

Upon arriving in New York, I was in total awe of its size. I was raised in a town with a population of about 5,000 people and an overall area that could be fit into two standard NYC city blocks. Walking the streets of this goliath city, I became acutely aware of the difficulty of the task ahead of me and of my place as a tiny fish in a very large pond. The competition would be a great challenge, but for some reason I felt calm because I believed in myself and I really had nothing to lose.

Vini Portugal

The contest began at 9am Sunday morning at the historic Jumeirah Essex House. I arrived early, knowing of many of the talented sommeliers from across the country who were there to compete. They all knew each other as well, but none of them had any clue who I was. After standing around by myself for several minutes staring at the floor and the ceiling, I approached the group nearest to me to introduce myself.

The group consisted of a Master Sommelier from Chicago and a sommelier who presides over arguably the finest restaurant wine program in New York. Okay, I thought, now things get interesting. Before I could get completely spooked, an announcer mercifully cut in to welcome us and go over the rules and format of the competition.

There would be two rounds in total. The first would whittle the field of nearly 25 contestants down to four. The next day the "final four" would compete for the championship. For round one, each contestant would complete a written exam covering general wine knowledge, grape growing, winemaking, and specifics of the many vineyards of the world. This would be followed by a series of written and oral blind tastings, food pairings, and wine service challenges critiqued in front of a panel of judges.

After the overview we were ushered to a few long wooden tables. I was seated in the back with two full table lengths separating me from my nearest competitor. Everyone knows the kids in the back always get the worst scores, right?

We were given 90 minutes to complete the written exam. I felt good after the first five questions, but five more questions deep I became less comfortable when they asked us to name a minimum of three coastal wine regions of China. That's a tough one to bluff your way through.

The rest of the day had its series of ups and downs but overall I was happy with my efforts. We finished at 5pm, and celebrated the close of the semifinals with a glass of Champagne provided by one of the sponsors: Pommery Cuvée Louise.

The results of day one's competition would not be announced until the following morning, so several of us with more modest expectations decided to hit the town. Be advised New York City stays open way later than San Francisco or my hometown in Alsace (the alarm clock very rudely informed me of this fact the next morning).

Bleary eyed, I arrived at the Essex House at 9am to hear the announcement of the four finalists. As they made the announcement for fourth, then third, then second place my heart was threatening to beat right out of my chest. I thought, "Who knows, why not me?" And then I heard them call my name. I had actually finished first in the semifinal round. I had made it to the finals.

For the finals they separated the four finalists from the rest of the competitors. We each had to go into the main ballroom one at a time in to perform in front of all the other semi-finalists, judges, and spectators.

I was the last candidate to go, and had to wait three and a half hours in a room with nothing but a view of Central Park to entertain me. It was pouring rain which made it seem dark as night outside. The solitude turned my thoughts to the efforts of the individuals, my family, friends, and mentors that led me to this point in my career. If it all ended with just winning the semi-finals, I would already be proud of my accomplishments. Maybe because I was so tired from the previous night's festivities or because the finish line was clearly in sight, I started to become acutely focused on the task ahead. I wanted to win the whole thing--and when it was my turn to compete, I charged into the event poised and confident.

The first challenge was a blind tasting of four wines and four spirits. The panelists fired questions relating to the wines' color, aromas, flavors, age, and origins. The spirits were served in black glasses and we had to answer questions about them without the use of our eyes. My confidence surging, I even felt good enough to make jokes with the panel.

For the second test we were asked to create a seven-course food and wine pairing, choosing a different wine from a different country for each course. This went well and my confidence continued to build. There were no more questions about Chinese wines to scare me.

The focus then shifted to service. We were graded on proper Champagne service, decanting and serving a red wine, and cigar service. I was hopeless during the cigar service. Thank you, California, for all your anti-smoking laws.

The contest ended with two final challenges. The first involved a general knowledge test of correcting an error-ridden wine list and a list of obscure grapes that we had to identify by color and origin, including such oddities as romorantin, fer, and bastardo. The last step was to pour a bottle of Champagne into 12 glasses without having anything left in the bottle at the end and without going back to any glass after it had already been poured into. Throughout all the tests there were time limits and traps designed to see how we would react.

Like the day before, the final round finished at 5pm, and we celebrated with more Champagne. That night we were treated to a gala dinner and had to wait until 10pm when the evening concluded to hear the judges' decision. I knew that I had a very good day and performed well but when they called my name I couldn't believe it. In that moment I was on cloud nine and was so grateful for all the people who I met through my career, but also my beer companions from the night before.