Pascaline Lepeltier – Best Sommelier of France 2018
Pascaline Lepeltier still has trouble believing that she is Best sommelier of France. But indeed, she is! Right after graduating with a Master’s degree in Philosophy, she celebrated with a glass of wine that revealed her new life path. After more than a decade of learning and working, notably with the Belgium-based Rouge Romate group of restaurants, she is now a managing partner at Racines, a wine-focused restaurant located in New York City’s Tribeca district. She is now looking at participating in the 2022 Best Sommelier of the World, and in the meantime, she told us about how she sees her profession, its challenges, and the skills it requires.
Q: This your first title of Best sommelier of France, how do you feel about it?
It was unreal. I was already very lucky to have been a finalist in 2008, 2010 and 2012, and from those days, I knew how good you have to be to win. I was not ready at that time, and I felt I would never be ready. I took 6 years off competition to focus on my restaurant, on travelling, on writing, on passing my MS. It was fantastic, as I was building a real understanding of my work. So in 2017, when I decided to go for the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” in sommellerie, a diploma that I had been dreaming about, studying for the Best Sommelier of France became an “ally” for that other preparation. It took some pressure off my shoulders. So in 2018, I was finally ready. But I still can’t believe it.
Q: What does it take to be Best Sommelier of France? Did you have a team helping you prepare for the competition?
It took me roughly 2 years to prepare both the Best French Sommelier and the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” competition. I prepared with some of my co-workers at the restaurant who were also going for certifications, and with French friends (as most of the competition was in French, I had to practice in my mother tongue a lot!). I had daily study and tasting time, and weekly practical tests.
Q: France is considered as the cradle of the sommelier profession, so a lot of sommeliers work there. What was your biggest challenge when you started to work as a sommelier?
When I started, I had to learn a lot really quickly, as I was working in a restaurant with a spectacular list of more than 4000 references. I understood right away I had to study a lot – vintage, producer, cuvée – to be able to provide my guests with the right information. I could not lie to them, if I did not know. So I dug into my books, and I started to travel.
Also, I had never worked in restaurant before. I was 25, quite clumsy with my hands (I am still pretty terrible at carrying trays), and my knowledge of French gastronomy was not great. So I had to work a lot to catch up with my colleagues on the floor.
Q: What is your formal education? Where did you study to become a sommelier?
Before becoming a sommelier, I studied philosophy at University. I have a Master in Philosophy. Then, when I decided to change careers to go into the restaurant world, I passed a DESS and a Master in Hospitality Management, and when I realized it was really wine that I was interested by, I did a professional diploma called “Mention complémentaire”, a year when you alternate between one week at school and three weeks in a restaurant, as an apprentice.
Q: How did you choose this profession? What are its rewards and challenges?
I fell in love with wine thanks to a glass shared with my philosophy teacher, during my sabbatical year, after my Master in philosophy. It became evident that it had to be my path. Wine doesn’t really take anything away from me, but this world brought me so, so much – all the incredible people I met, the travels, the cultures I discovered, the beauty of landscape, the passion…
Q: Do you have a “feeling” about who could become the next Best Sommelier of the World? Any favorites?
The level is really fantastically high. I was able see a lot of the candidates in action during the Somm360 event in Montreal, last fall, and I know the finals will really be of superb quality. Of course I think that with his experience and knowledge, David Biraud is a great contender! Julia Dupouy, Carl Villeneuve-Lepage & Pier-Alexis Soulière, Raimonds Tomson, Piotr Pietras, Loic Avril, Julia Scavo and Eric Zwiebel are also very, very serious candidates! It will be a top-notch event!