A Silver Lining in Challenging Times: Getting to know the candidates in the BEST SOMMELIER OF EUROPE & AFRICA contest!

18 Oct 2020

Starting this month, we’ll take advantage of the Corona-related delay in the BEST SOMMELIER OF EUROPE & AFRICA contest to get to know the candidates! With a series of interview questions, we’ll host a roundtable discussion with selected candidates to talk about similarities, differences, challenges and successes on the road to BEST SOMMELIER OF EUROPE & AFRICA.

First up: Eric Zwiebel of the Summer Lodge Hotel in Dorset, England, representing the United Kingdom; and Salvatore Castano, Head Sommelier at Friarwood Fine Wines, representing Italy.

Can you each introduce yourself?

Salvatore Castano: I was born in Sicily but moved to London about 5 years ago. I have been working in hospitality for 12 years and as a sommelier for the last 5. My dream is to become an ambassador for Sicilian wines around the world.

Eric Zwiebel: I have been Head Sommelier at Summer Lodge since July 2004. Born in Alsace, I began my wine career early on by helping my parents in their restaurant. I worked as a sommelier for 5 years in Paris, after which I moved to England to broaden my knowledge of the many different wine regions and to take courses offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. I achieved the MS qualification in 2001, just as important is the debt of gratitude I owe to the great Gérard Basset MW MS OBE / ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2010, who offered invaluable mentorship.

1) Why did you decide to compete in BSEA?

SC: I started taking part in sommelier competitions in 2017 and enjoy how it pushes me to improve my knowledge and always try harder to achieve a better result. I dream of representing my country in the World competition.

EZ: It was a hard road. I was bitter after Antwerp and I really wanted to stop. But I spoke with a few friends and asked them what they thought about trying again. Miroslav told me: don’t let anything stop you from trying again, because competitions are your passion. He was right… in my soul I love competing, having a challenge and that feeling of meeting all the candidates from around the world.

2) What do you hope to take home from the BSEA competition — besides the title?

EZ: The BSEA is good experience, replicating the high level and fantastic training needed before the BSOW scheduled for 2022. Through the competitions, I have met so many people that later became friends, and I have then visited them and their wine countries, learning about their cultures too.

SC: I think that such an important competition is sure to send you home with great experiences. Getting to know the Best Sommeliers in Europe and Africa and thinking that you are competing amongst them has no price. This is the best thing that can happen to someone who loves this job.

3) How have you been preparing for the competition over the last few months? Be as specific or general as you would like.

EZ: Tasting, travelling (not easy with Covid 19!), different scenarios. I have a fantastic team of colleagues, friends and family around me to help.

SC: I have been preparing already for a year. The hardest part is the theory, you need to find the time to study while working, meaning that you cannot sleep that much. You also need to focus on the blind tasting of wines and spirits. I am very lucky because I have a few friends in London who are helping me with that every day. For the practical part I think that the best service training is at work on the restaurant floor.

4) How have you handled the extra time compared with pre-Corona competitions?

SC: It’s 5 more months to prepare myself even more!

EZ: The time to study has been amazing, I never had so much time to find information and to be relaxed at the same time. Because we’ve been back at work since the 4 July, I’ve been able to catch back up on the practical and the tasting elements. It was a different context this time, because we are so busy at the hotel the business came first.

5) What sort of measures have been taken in your country to help the gastronomy and sommellerie?

SC: The UK has been helping the hospitality industry with the Furlough scheme. Where the Government is paying up to 80% of salaries for businesses hit by the crisis this pandemic has caused. This is coming to an end in October and after that there will be another scheme ready for those who have managed to keep their job. As soon as restrictions were eased the government also put in place a “Eat Out Help Out” scheme, where a percentage of your meal was covered by the government. But this didn’t cover wine or alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately all this will end soon and after October, so we have no idea what is going to happen to the hospitality sector. There have been so many losses already, every day I hear of someone leaving the country and their dreams behind.

EZ: I agree. And like every country: masks, sanitizer gel, tablet for the wine list, and a safe distance to respect!