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Zurich’s world’s best sommelier admits: ‘I used to think wine stank’

Just 10 years before he was crowned the world's best sommelier after winning a rigorous global competition against dozens of elite beverage connoisseurs, Marc Almert, from Zurich's ultra-luxe Baur au Lac hotel, thought wine "stank."

Zurich's world's best sommelier admits: 'I used to think wine stank'
Photo: AFP

Just 10 years before he was crowned the world's best sommelier after winning a rigorous global competition against dozens of elite beverage connoisseurs, Marc Almert (pictured below) thought wine “stank.”

“Both (my parents) always tried to motivate me to taste the wines at home when I was coming of age — so 16, 17 — and I always refused,” said Almert, the slight, genteel sommelier at the two-Michelin-starred Pavillon restaurant in Zurich's ultra-luxe Baur au Lac hotel. 

“To me (wine) stank and it didn't taste nice and I didn't want to drink anything at the parties with school friends. People were having beer and spirits and I thought it was disgusting… That was my honest opinion,” he told AFP. 

In March, the 27-year-old won the title awarded by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) after a multi-round competition involving national and regional qualifiers that tests knowledge, tasting and service of all beverages typically served in a restaurant.

The contest happens every three years, making Almert — from Cologne, Germany — the 16th winner in its five-decade history. 

That he earned such an honour a decade after finding alcohol broadly repulsive is a testament to both Almert's tenacious work ethic as well as shifts in an industry that is increasingly drawing younger talent. 

AFP

'Fastidious obsession'

Bianca Bosker, author of the 2017 book “Cork Dork”, told AFP that becoming a world-class sommelier “requires fastidious obsession in the extreme.”

In her book, she described the sommeliers she profiled as “the most masochistic hedonists (she'd) ever met,” with an all-consuming regime of tasting and studying that, in at least one case, appeared to destroy a marriage. 

Almert did not immediately reveal any hedonistic traits, but he did make clear that becoming a world-class sommelier required unrelenting determination.  

“There is no big secret about it. You just need to hit the books, do your flash cards, really, really learn and dig deep, and that just takes a lot of hours,” he said.

But winning the ASI title required more than encyclopedic knowledge of wines, spirits and beer. 

Finalists also have to demonstrate graceful service skills in multiple scenarios, including one where a table declares its meal should only be paired with white wines — even if a dish seemingly cries out for a full-bodied red.  

Almert said his school experience in improvisational theatre taught him how to cope “when your voice starts shaking.”

But he also mentioned another factor that helped him relax on stage during the finals in Antwerp. 

“To me, it was clear I had no chance, because there were two great colleagues next to me, one of which was a very seasoned and very well trained sommelier…

“That was what made me so calm. I had no pressure.”

'Failed chefs'

Bosker, whose book details the history of sommeliers, told AFP it was “an incredibly old profession” mentioned in the Bible but which, in more modern times, was hardly a prestigious position on the restaurant floor. 

“There were times when sommeliers were failed chefs who were booted from the kitchen to the cellar,” she said. 

But that is changing rapidly. 

Bosker said that one of the most striking changes in the industry is that “more people are coming to it at a younger age than ever before.”

“People are really coming to the job of a sommelier as a career. It is not just a temporary stopover.” 

She also noted that more women are breaking into an industry that has always been male-dominated, injecting it with even more new talent.  

Indeed, the second place finisher at the world's best contest was Nina Hojgaard Jensen of Denmark. 

Not a 'pop star'

Almert dismissed the suggestion that the newly-crowned world's best sommelier should be the main attraction at Pavillon.

“In America you do definitely see the sommeliers becoming almost like pop stars and almost being on the same level as the chefs,” he said. 

“I think in Europe… the focus is still on the chef which I think is very good because chefs make the food.”

But he conceded in the weeks after he won the title some people booked tables at Pavillon because he “had managed to win a certain title.”

The Baur au Lac's general manager, Wilhelm Luxem, told AFP that beyond employing an award-winner, high-end restaurants needed sommeliers that were both flexible and unpretentious. 

“Sometimes a sommelier can come across very much like a professor and that is not at all (Marc's) approach,” Luxem told AFP. 

While some might perceive a sommelier as a stuffy wine buff whose goal is to nudge diners towards wildly expensive bottles, Luxem said that a growing tendency in the industry is a guest who wants to drink by the glass — but something nicer than “a house wine.”

Almert summarised his approach as an exercise in tactfully trying to figure out what a table is looking for — how much they want to spend and whether they are looking to experiment or drink something safe.

“All of this is fine,” he said. “It is just my job to phrase the questions.”   

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FOOD & DRINK

What is Swiss rösti and how do you make it?

If you thought Swiss food is just about cheese and chocolate, think again: rösti is no small potatoes.

What is Swiss rösti and how do you make it?

You can’t live in Switzerland for more than five minutes without realising what an important role rösti potatoes play not only in the country’s culinary traditions, but also in its culture in general.

It is such an integral part of local customs that the Swiss Farmers’ Association has set a new world record when its members prepared a giant rösti in front of the parliament building in Bern on Monday.

The approximately 1,300 kg of potatoes were used for the event, where potatoes were fried in a 13.7-square metre pan shaped like a Swiss cross.

This year’s record beat the previous one from 1994 by three square metres.

And it was no small feat, given the logistics involved in the project. “The potatoes needed for this had grown over the summer in all the cantons before being brought to Bern for this culinary event”, the Association said in a press release. “In a solemn ceremony opened by bell ringers from the region and alphorn players, 27 delegations from all the cantons as well as the Principality of Liechtenstein handed over the potatoes in wicker baskets”.

This event was held to celebrate the association’s 125th anniversary, which is very fitting since in centuries past the stir-fried potatoes served as inexpensive, simple dish for farmers working in the fields.

Recipe:

The main appeal of rösti in those days was that potatoes were plentiful in rural areas and the dish itself required only a very basic mastery:

  • Peel and grate the raw potatoes using a standard grater. You can grate them lengthwise if you like long strands.
  • Add salt and pepper into the mixture — season lightly or a lot, depending on your taste.
  • Melt butter (rather than oil or margarine) in a frying pot.
  • When hot, pour the potato mixture and stir-fry for around 10 to 12 minutes on each side. The end product should be crispy and golden-brown, never soggy.

With time, the dish has evolved somewhat, but not too much; as many foreign residents have observed, the Swiss like their food plain and made from locally sourced ingredients.

While various ingredients like ham, bacon, and cheese can be added to the mixture, and a fried egg sometimes tops it, the recipe is still true to its origins.

READ MORE: You are not Swiss until you try these seven weird foods

Cultural impact

Whether in its original or ‘modernised’ form, rösti can hardly be called trendy.

Yet, for such a simple dish, rösti has made quite a cultural impact in Switzerland.

While it is more associated with the German-speaking part, where it originated, it is sometimes served in other regions as well, mostly as accompaniment to meat or sausages.

But beyond the mere food, this potato dish came to represent the cultural (rather than geographical) divide between the German and French-speaking regions, called the Röstigraben

In German, “Graben” means border, gap or rift – and therefore Röstigraben symbolises the cultural rift between the two largest linguistic groups in Switzerland. 

Whether such a rift actually exists in reality or just in people’s imagination is another matter. Much of this idea has to do with stereotypes of each linguistic group, but beyond the language and local customs, they are all…Swiss.

And it is not excluded that they sometimes cross the invisible Graben to share a meal of rösti together.

READ MORE: Röstigraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland

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