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B.C. trio take on top sommeliers in Canada

Best Sommelier of Canada 2017 competition took place at Rogers Arena
0914 WINE sommeliers
From left, Shane Taylor, Alistair Veen and Jason Yamasaki represented B.C. at the sommelier competition. Contributed photos

Do you know what a Kingston Black is? How about a synonym for Kadarka? And what sake would you pair with grilled veal heart in ginger, chili and lime?

These were just some of questions competitors in the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers’ Best Sommelier of Canada 2017 competition were required to answer.

The contest played out in Rogers Arena on Sept. 4-5, 2017. It's the first time ever that B.C. has hosted this national competition. Among the 11 candidates from across Canada, three hailed from our province: Jason Yamasaki (group sommelier for the Joey Restaurant Group), Alistair Veen (owner, sommelier and executive chef at Tap) and Shane Taylor (wine director of CinCin Ristorante).

These gents respectively earned Best Sommelier of B.C. in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and were vying for the national title.

The competition puts all participants through a gruelling first round that includes a theory exam, food and beverage pairing, blind tasting and service test. The top three from this go on to the final round; a practical service exam conducted live in front of an audience of peers.

The national level takes it up a notch from the provincial. Not least, entrants must compete in a second language.

"It was properly challenging," says Yamasaki. All three B.C. competitors expected the theory portion to be difficult.

Both Taylor and Yamasaki referenced the question on Kingston Black as an example. "It's a cider apple," Taylor informs me.

Veen reminds me that Kadarka, an Eastern European red grape, is called Gamza in Bulgaria.

As for the sake question, I still don't know the answer. The food and beverage pairing presented contestants with an esoteric four course menu asking for a sake recommendation with each and justification of the match. This seemed to stump all three.

"I can't think of an area that I'm weaker in in the beverage world," admits Veen, who generally considers food and wine pairing his strength.

Alas, none of our lads made it to the final round. The three finalists were Carl Villeneuve-Lepage (sommelier, Restaurant Toqué!, Montreal), Pier-Alexis Soulière, master sommelier (Manresa Restaurant, Los Gatos, Calif.) and Steven Robinson (sommelier, Atelier Restaurant, Ottawa).

Despite their inevitable disappointment, all three B.C. contenders were inspired by the performance of their colleagues from Québec and Ontario.

"It made me realize I have to work that much harder to get to that stage," says Taylor. Tipping his hat to Villeneuve-Lepage, who ultimately won Best Sommelier of Canada 2017, Veen adds, "knowing that the best guy won makes me believe in the process."

Yamasaki, Taylor and Veen have everything to be proud of. Besides studying wine, beer, spirits and beyond anywhere from two to six hours a day leading up to the event, they also set time aside to polish their French. Yamasaki see the challenge as a vehicle for personal growth.

"It takes a lot to schedule your life around getting better at this every day," he explains. "For me, it is a tool to become more organized, more efficient and more committed."

All three are keen to try again in the next national competition two years from now. Veen's response was simply, "oh yeah, I'm going to win."

Bravo boys!