Somm Like It Hot
Disarming, laid back and just 31 years old, Jon Arvid Rosengren might not be who you picture when you hear the title "best sommelier in the world." But just a few minutes of talking to him will wash away all of your preconceived notions about the masters of the wine world, and you'll never want to look back.
Over coffee at Charlie Bird, the New York City restaurant where he works, Arvid, as he's known, tells me about his most recent accolade, the World's Best Sommelier for 2016, which he earned just last week.
Held every three years by the International Sommelier Association (or ASI, for Association de la Sommellerie Internationale), the competition for the World's Best Sommelier is predictably grueling. This year, 60 sommeliers from around the world competed over the course of three trying days. Speaking about it after only a week of recovery, Arvid is as excited to describe the details as he is nonchalant about the whole thing—a combination of relief and adrenaline from the three-day competition still visibly present.
"This is something you only do once," he explains. "You can compete more than once, but once you win, you don't try again. It's such a commitment of time and effort."
Arvid has been competing in sommelier contests for almost seven years, he tells me. The first competition he entered was in his native Sweden, and in 2013, he won both the Best Sommelier of Europe and competed in the Best Sommelier of the World, which was held in Tokyo.
After years of training for these kinds of competitions, he knew what to look out for and how to study for this year's exam, he explains. Preparing for the contest, which was held in Mendoza, Argentina, Arvid would wake up every morning and study for at least an hour with a series of flash cards. He also carved out time over the last six months to try to meditate and exercise daily. Finally, he trained by reading extensively for the theoretical portion of the test.
"I've spent a lot of time extracting information," he says, "so I think I gamed the system in a good way in terms of the theory." To go far in these kinds of competitions, he says, contestants must have a strong grasp on wine theory. Arvid credits his university education in nanotechnology in Sweden, before he left to pursue wine professionally, for teaching him how to study.
Each day of the competition consists of a written theoretical exam with a wide range of questions, from identifying geographical regions to obscure grapes. Though the focus is of course on wine, the test includes questions on beer, spirits and cigars—"everything that's related to classic French service," Arvid explains.
This year, the exams focused more on "useful questions," Arvid says, as opposed to the more esoteric questions of years past. After the written exam each day came a blind tasting, followed by a service scenario that required the somms to act out different situations. One day it was serving customers Champagne, but the glasses were dirty, so not only did they have to determine the right kind of bubbly to serve, they also had to be mindful of all aspects of the service.
Arvid appreciates this year's focus on experience. "It wasn't as classic, and they focused on speaking," he explains. "This is probably the first time someone's won an award like this from a restaurant like this." Pointing to his casual clothes, he says, "This is what I wear to work."
Proselytizing the recent groundswell away from fine dining, Arvid says, "Causal elements don't diminish the level of service. You can have great food, great wine and great service without white tablecloths and penguin suits." Charlie Bird is a case in point; it seems the wine world is starting to catch on.
The competition being in Argentina, Arvid celebrated his award by eating empanadas and drinking pisco sours until four in the morning with a group of friends who went down there with him. Two days later, he was back to work.
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