"I may not win this competition," conceded Alan Richman, with a laugh, mid-exam at Sunday's 2011 Best Sommelier in America competition in New York City.
This at the end of a 22-minute live dining room simulation test in which he was told he would be the sole person responsible for table service ("That's a bad room!"). Just minutes before, while serving (er, spilling) Champagne, he was referencing the motto of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Chuckles the Clown: "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants." (When the judge didn't pick up on the joke fast enough he continued, "You should watch more YouTube young lady.") And somewhere in between, to the couple requesting wine pairing suggestions, he quipped, "It seems as though the chef loves to prepare food that doesn't work with any wine whatsoever."
It was a welcome touch of levity at the start of what was Day Two of a seriously challenging competition. Of course, the renowned food writer was only participating as an honorary contestant — the first to run through the no-doubts-about-it difficult set of practical tasks required of the four finalists. Narrowed from 31 of the country's top sommeliers, the esteemed group vying for the title included Jared Fischer (Le Bernardin), Alexander LaPratt (db Bistro Moderne), Michael Meagher (Treasury Wine Estates), and Christopher Bates (Hotel Fauchère).
This round of the Olympics-style test had the experts blind tasting, fully describing, and offering pairing suggestions for four wines; identifying four spirits by smell alone; correcting an erroneous wine list; simulating table service; naming defining characteristics of obscure grape varieties; and demonstrating their knowledge of fine cigars. Oh, and as a final surprise, each was tasked with pouring 20 equally-measured glasses of Champagne from a single bottle without being allowed to re-pour or add to a single glass.
The winner, Alexander LaPratt, was announced at a private gala reception Sunday evening, and though Richman wasn't in the running, his "Do you lose points for dribbling?" performance certainly earned plenty for entertainment value. And despite having confessed to nearly setting his "very nice" suit on fire while attempting to decant wine in the previous day's exam, he at least convinced one person of his sommelier prowess, who at the end asked what restaurant he represented.
"Me? I'm a journalist, I've never done this before in my life — but thanks, that's a great compliment."