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Thailand Sommelier of the Year 2008

A.S.I. Competition

“Thailand Sommelier of the Year” Bangkok

Mr. Sombat Kaewsan,
“Thailand Sommelier of the Year” 2008
Sommelier de Thaïlande 2008
On 1st August this year, 20 finalists (all Thai nationals) from 5-star establishments around the country took part in the ‘Thailand Sommelier of the Year 2008’ competition at Bangkok’s prestigious Dusit Thani hotel. There had been sommelier contests before in Thailand, but never anything on this scale. In conjunction with the competition itself, the event included an evening reception and wine tasting at the Dusit Thani’s Napalai Ballroom. This high-profile gourmet occasion, christened ‘Sommelier 2008’, drew in nearly 1,000 people from both the trade and Bangkok’s wider wine-loving community.

Sommelier de Thaïlande 2008

M. Jean-Charles Crouin (Secrétaire général de l'ASI) remet le trophée de “Sommelier de l’année de Thailande” au vainqueur Mr. Sombat Kaewsan

Thailand’s high-end hospitality industry may be world famous, and deservedly so, but it is not flawless. That, at least, is the opinion of Joe Sriwarin, founder-editor of Wine Today, Thailand’s only wine magazine, and organiser of the kingdom’s first fully-fledged sommelier competition.

Joe, who for many years was deeply involved with wine as a sommelier and F&B manager abroad, and who has also owned a French restaurant in Bangkok, is quite clear what he’s about. “The sophistication of the hospitality industry in Thailand has outpaced the sophistication of the local wine trade,” he says. “At present, importers tend to handle wines like any other alcoholic drinks – relying mainly on big-name international brands, and hoping that these will sell themselves. Of course, at the high-end level, you cannot treat wines like this. To purchase, lay down and properly serve wines appropriate for a sophisticated international clientele, you need a great deal of specialist knowledge and expertise. At present, very few Thais have this, and it is hampering the development of our wine trade. If we want to change this, we need to start by building the people who will go on to build the local wine industry into something that can hold its own with the best in the world.”

Can it be done in a country where the tradition of wine drinking is still so narrowly based? Joe has no doubts. “Look at Japan. The Japanese are now producing the best sommeliers in the world, and the Koreans are right behind them. Some Asian sommeliers are going on to become Masters of Wine. We have a problem in Thailand with the general level of proficiency in English, but if that can be overcome in other areas of the Thai hospitality industry, it can be overcome here too. As for learning about wine itself – characteristics of the different varietals, the different wine-growing regions, food pairing and all the rest – there is no reason at all why Thais can’t do what other Asians have already done. I know it can be done, because I did it myself – I knew nothing whatever about wine when I arrived in London as a young man to embark on my career in F&B. My hope is that in the near future, our people will be knowledgeable enough to participate in the most prestigious sommelier contests internationally. And this event, which we intend to be annual, is designed to stimulate them to develop their knowledge to the demanding standard they’ll need.”

Concours Sommelier de Thaïlande 2008

L’ambassadeur d’Afrique du Sud, H.E. Mr. Douglas Gibson, et l’Ambassadeur des Etats-Unis, H.E. Mr. Eric John ouvrent le concours de “Sommelier de l’Année” entourés à gauche de M. Joe Sriwarin, fondateur et éditeur de Wine Today et à droite de M. Jean-Charles Crouin, Secrétaire général de l'ASI

The response to this year’s debut event was highly encouraging. Among those making ‘Thailand Sommelier of the Year 2008’ possible were Thai Airways, Vranken Pommery, Penfold’s Wines and Riedel Glass as principal sponsors, supported by twenty other distributors and producers. The Thai hospitality trade also responded enthusiastically. The 20 finalists who sat down for their competitive exam at the Dusit Thani on 1 August were merely the survivors of more nearly 70 hopefuls from front-rank hotels and restaurants who had already been subjected to a heavy bombardment of questionnaires, tests and interviews in both English and Thai. Come the day, the finalists were submitted to a still more gruelling five-hour test of their detailed knowledge of all aspects of wine, as well as practical demonstrations of their proficiency in decanting, food and wine pairing and wine service.

They were judged by a panel of six – two international judges (both professional sommeliers) and four Thai (all writers for Wine Today). International F&B professionals observing the proceedings were struck both by the very high standards expected of contestants, and by the latter’s ability to rise to the occasion. In the end, however, only three emerged to glory – the winner, Mr. Sombat Kaewsan from the Oriental Bangkok, and two runners-up. The former won an all-expenses-paid trip for two weeks to France, courtesy of Sopexa and Maison de la France, to deepen his first-hand knowledge of wine growing, production and service in that country. Meanwhile, Mr. Yuthapichai Polnakoo from the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Bangkok, and Mr. Nikom Puangkham from the JW Marriott Bangkok, are to go to Australia for 10 days, courtesy of Penfolds, Hardy’s and De Bortoli. As a condition of entry, all establishments submitting employees for the competition were required to pledge time off in the event of their success.

But why was an independent magazine like Wine Today organising this event, rather than others more intimately involved in the wine trade? “Well, someone had to get round to it,” grumbles Joe. “No - the truth is that although we may be small, we are something of a hub for the local wine scene. We know all the wine distributors, all the big hotels and restaurants, and a great many producers all around the world. And, of course, ours is the only Thai-language publication which deals seriously with wine – so most genuine Thai wine-lovers read us as well. In short, we have the contacts, the knowledge and the resources to put things together; and our independence of any particular vested interest naturally helps to build confidence. Apart from all that, we have the enthusiasm. No one in his right mind would publish – or write for – a magazine about wine in Thailand in order to get rich. We do it because we love wine ourselves, and we want to promote the knowledge and appreciation of wine so that other Thais can learn to love it too. This is a process of education that involves everyone from the ordinary Thai consumer just beginning to discover the world of wine, to young professionals in the hospitality industry who are thinking about making wine their life’s work. So an event like this is really quite central to what we are all about.”

Sommelier de Thaïlande 2008

From left : Mr. Nikom Puangkham, Mr. Sombat Kaewsan, Mr. Jean-Charles Crouin, General Secretary of ASI, Mr. Joe Sriwarin, President of TSY and Mr. Yuthapichai Polnakoo

The results of ‘Thailand Sommelier of the Year 2008’ were announced in the course of ‘Sommelier 2008’ - the related evening function held in the Dusit Thani’s Napalai Ballroom. Of course, the trade aside, the main drawcard for most attendees at the night-time event was the huge variety of goodies on offer – no fewer than 100 top wine labels from around the world available for tasting, plus a lavish cocktail dinner to ensure stomachs were properly lined. In the Thai context, Joe believes it is essential to promote wine as something designed to accompany food – a distinctive lifestyle product and not just an alternative alcoholic beverage.

‘Sommelier 2008’ attracted many of Bangkok’s VIPs, with ambassadors, bankers, leading business figures and high-profile wine enthusiasts attending alongside the capital’s food and beverage professionals. Nevertheless, it was the overall numbers - nearly 1,000 - attracted to such an event which shows how rapidly the international ‘wine culture’ is now spreading among Thai high society. Equally gratifying to the organisers was that the event managed to raise 165,000 baht (US$5,000) for charity from a live wine auction of wines donated by Wine Today magazine members and other local wine enthusiasts. All money raised was donated to Bangkok’s Queen Sirikit Centre for Breast Cancer, King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital, Thai Red Cross Society.

A measure of the competition’s success is that the title “Thailand Sommelier of the Year” is now recognized by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) – an organisation which has been established since 1969 and has over 40 members from around the world. Following a very supportive visit by Mr. Jean-Charles Crouin, General secretary of ASI, who both observed the daytime competition and attended the evening reception, Thailand Sommelier is currently preparing to join the association. First objectives, however, are to ensure that ‘Thailand Sommelier of the Year 2009’ is the most important wine event yet seen in Thailand, and to send the winners of both the 2008 and 2009 competitions to Japan for next year’s ‘World’s Best Sommelier’ competition.
“At this point” says Joe, “we can be confident that Thailand will be making its mark on the international wine scene. And after that, I see no reason why we can’t start taking on the Japanese and Koreans. As I said before, if they can do it, so can we.” John Campbell