Q&A: Sommelier Will Predhomme on Mastering Wine
Sommelier Will Predhomme of Canoe recently returned from a trip to London, where he undertook the grueling Master Sommelier Diploma examinations. In the world of wine, the badge of Master Sommelier is a highly coveted prize as it indicates that the candidate has received the highest level of proficiency in wine knowledge and service. Governed by the Court of Master Sommeliers, a rigorous testing process ensures that only the best in the field qualify for the prestigious title. In Canada, there are three Master Sommeliers, all of whom reside here in Toronto.
Aspiring candidates train for years before attempting to pass examination through the Court. Will is no exception: he's been training to be a MS for a decade, honing his skills through daily tastings, group study and a variety of research trips to wine regions around the world. He noted that on his recent trip, over 20 candidates from around the world were in London to compete with him.
We caught up with Predhomme at Canoe to chat about his MS experience and the wine world.
Zagat: When did you realize that this was what you wanted to do?
Will Predhomme: I've always wanted to do this. I was 20 when i discovered this career path, I'm 32 now. I realized it when I was growing up in Windsor, Ontario. I've been training to finish the MS for 10 years now. I've noticed the scene change so rapidly in Ontario the last five years or so.
Zagat: How has it changed?
WP: It wasn't until recently that people started to accept Ontario as a noteworthy winemaking region and were willing to give the wines a chance. I've been working at Canoe now for six years and I've seen this evolution from the front row. The quality of wine has certainly improved in the last few years, even though the market has become a little saturated and I find myself going back to the same quality producers.
Zagat: You've always showcased Canadian and, particularly, Ontario wines on the menu here at Canoe.
WP: Ontario wines have always been featured on the menu here, especially on the tasting menu. We used to have two separate choices when it came to accompanying wines with food - Canadian wine pairings and International pairings. Recently I changed this and now feature the Ontario wines along with some of the top beautiful wines from around the world. I want my customer to see that Canadian wines can step up to the plate.
Zagat: What challenges have you faced being a champion for the province's wines?
WP: Prices. Ontario wines are pricey. It's challenging when I can present a variety of wines from around the world at a fraction of what Ontario wine costs. Wine prices in this province need to come down to a level where they are more acceptable.
Zagat: So tell us about your recent trip to London.
WP: I was recently in London for the second time to try and complete the MS examination. The Master Sommelier exams are broken into three parts: Theoretical Knowledge, Practical Tasting and Practical Service. The pass mark for each of the three sections is 75%. You're allowed to complete one portion and come back for the remaining with three years in total to finish all parts. So this time I completed the Practical Service successfully and was very close with the Theoretical test. The Practical Tasting includes six blind wines over 25 minutes. You have to identify climate, style, region, sub region, grape varieties, vintage.
Zagat: That sounds quite rigorous.
WP: It is, the pass rate is really really low. But it is what it is. I know sommeliers who have been trying to get the certification for many years. On average people attempt the exams about four times. Three people passed this year out of 24. It's incredibly stressful, it dominates your life. You need a lot of understanding from loved ones. It's a pretty big journey.
Zagat: What are some of the highlights of this experience
WP: Realizing just how much time it takes to train for this, and how much support you need from loved ones as you take each turn on this journey. I've enjoyed meeting many wine geeks from around the world. We're a tight bunch, and the camaraderie is great. But ultimately, I didn't expect that my perspectives and attitudes would be so fundamentally altered by this process. Had I not been doing this, I'd probably be a very different person today. That's the single biggest thing, just based on the sheer amount of time I've put into this.
Zagat: What kind of dedication are we talking here? What does it take to gear up fro the MS.
WP: I'm constantly reading, studying all the time. It took me two years to find out the study system that would work for me. A few months before examination you ramp up on your daily wine tastings. There's also a group of sommeliers in Toronto who get together often to take part in blind tastings. That really helped me a lot, I find group tastings are the best way to learn about your palate and bounce thoughts between people about wine.
Zagat: Wine wise, what are you excited about these days?
WP: There's so much cool stuff out there. Wine culture in general is on a rise, people are drinking more wine and there are some interesting wines coming from various pockets around the world. Anything on the fringes of viticulture. I had a great experience in South Africa a few weeks ago, man they have some great raw materials. I'm also loving some of the Eastern European wines. I love dry German Rieslings, just stupid good stuff, it's hard to find it here. New Zealand Syrah!
Zagat: So you have some exciting plans for 2014, I hear.
WP: I'm leaving Canoe at the end of the year. It's been a fantastic six years here and a wonderful journey. I'd really like to get into wine education. I'll be teaching the WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] courses in Ontario at a variety of public and private institutions. I want to present wine in a way that is more approachable to people, without the pretension or the intimidation. I'm hoping to focus on this in 2014. I'm also producing some wine myself with Jonas at Hinterland Wine. We've been sourcing grapes from the Lake Erie North Shore region for the last few years.
You can follow Will on Twitter at @sommwillpred where he shares his daily wine experiences.