Chatting with BC's top sommelier of 2020

Every year, The Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (British Columbia chapter) hosts its annual top sommelier competition. 2020 was its 6th annual installment of the much heralded event.

This year's winner: sommelier and wine director of Campagnolo, Peter Van de Reep.

I reached out to Peter shortly after the event took place in hopes of him answering some of my burning questions, which he graciously agreed to.

Here is our conversation:

You just recently became "BC's top sommelier of 2020". For those who are not familiar with the competition, tell me a bit about the process, and what's involved in preparing. 

The competition is in two parts. The first part is behind closed doors, with every candidate registered writing a very difficult theory exam, alongside a business of wine test, a blind tasting and a service component. The exams are all written and graded anonymously, the scores are tallied up and the top three scoring candidates move on to the live final. This was my first time in the finals, which tests bartending, champagne service, decanting, menu pairing, wine list corrections, identification of wine and food photographs and a blind tasting. All of this is done in front of a hundred of your peers, colleagues and industry professionals.  My preparation involves a lot of reading. Theory questions range from describing French cheeses to classic cocktails to intricacies of Spanish wine law, so a very broad knowledge base is required. My bookcases are stacked, and I subscribe to several publications all of which help. Tasting is critical as well. I had honestly been slacking a bit on that but had recently gotten back in the saddle. There are some really amazing tasting groups out there in Vancouver that help immensely. I owe them a lot.  There's also mental preparation - visualizations of service, trying to play out all of the possible things they can throw at you during the service portion. You never predict what they might do in the exam setting.  I followed along on Instagram stories while the competition was happening live; I have to be honest, it made me sick to my stomach watching. It looked so nerve wracking! What was it like being there, and completing the challenges?

It's pretty intense! I was the third and final competitor to go, which I am pretty grateful for. I spent a good part of the time waiting, trying to calm my nerves and breathing to try and calm my heart rate down. Thankfully, what I did seemed to work for me. I've watched the competition every other year, and it's almost more stressful for the audience. You know how much is on the line, but when I went on stage, I tried my best to forget the audience was there and just focus on serving the tables as I would in my bar. Though, one of the challenges was to serve a magnum of champagne to a table of four, but with your left hand, as the guest was deaf in their right ear. It takes a lot of experience to not let that rattle you! Part of my job involves public speaking - something I always get super nervous doing. With the upcoming sensory symposium in Vancouver (thanks for agreeing to be keynote, by the way!), I keep having "imposter syndrome" nightmares - it's such an impressive lineup of sommeliers, winemakers and industry pros, I want to make sure I show up prepared. Do you ever experience the feeling? If so, how do you overcome it?

Impostor syndrome is tough. I was explaining to someone earlier about how sometimes I feel like I lucked out - that the questions just happened to line up exactly with my knowledge base. Then I read an article about impostor syndrome and how it's linked to perfectionism and people who experience question themselves constantly. For me personally, I need to step into more of an industry leader role but knowing that it is absolutely okay not to know everything. I have a drive to know everything of course, but that is an impossibility with wine. It's such a deep dive. To beat the effects of the "syndrome", I think you just need to tell yourself that you have what it takes and eventually you will believe yourself. At least, I hope this is the case. Why "BC's top sommelier competition"? What are you hoping it'll do for your career?

I'm not really super competitive. As a bartender, I don't participate in bartending competitions as they don't generally reflect what I do as a bartender daily. The CAPS competitions are different. They're essentially high pressure simulations of our day to day lives as sommeliers. We serve wine, we talk about it and act as hosts. The competition just amplifies the pressure. I hope that the win opens a lot of doors for further learning here and internationally. It's also a really amazing practice for the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Exam I'm writing in October. Tell me about some wines that have really knocked your socks off lately.

There have been a few! The most recent is one of my all time favourite, Gaston Chiquet Special Club Champagne 2011. Perfectly balanced, elegant and an amazing "value" Champagne. You're getting their prestige cuvee for about a hundred bucks. It's always so delicious. Over Christmas, I opened up a magnum of the 2015 vintage of Synchromesh Stormhaven Riesling from the Okanagan and it was showing amazingly well, with a huge potential life in front of it. Great purity of fruit with a beautiful balanced acidity and texture. I have two magnums left and they are going to age for quite a bit longer. Two more bottles that stood out were ones I picked up in New York City at Chambers Street Wines. They had some old cellar bottles from a collector in Northern Italy. One was an Avondo Gattinara 1964 and the other a Bersano Nebbiolo 1966 from Nizza but also the Val Maggiore. Both were exceptional with beautiful crunchy red fruit and tons of mushroom, soil and forest aromas. Amazing to taste wine from 50+ years ago that is still so alive.  When I was compiling Vancouver's Wine Bar Guide, your list at Campagnolo came up again and again - what's your approach in building a list?

I look for wine that I hope fall under Dr. Jamie Good'es term "Authentic Wine". Wines made by people who care about their land, who try not to intervene much in the winemaking and whose wines then represent a time and place. They also just have to be delicious. Value is another qualifier, trying to find wines that taste much more expensive than they actually are. It is asking a lot, but these wines are out there. I also look for balance on the menu. I run small lists, so I try to make sure there is a little bit of everything stylistically, though sometimes it's not perfect. What has surprised you most about working in the wine industry? What has humbled you the most?

I don't know if it's surprising, but the BC wine community is incredibly supportive, warm and welcoming. I owe so many people thanks for their help on my route to this title. I hope to repay and pass on the favours! The generosity of people is what's humbling. There are some people out there that are so selfless I can only aspire to that. I was listening to Brian McClintic's Viticole podcast the other night, where he interviewed Nate Ready of Hiyu Farm. Nate mentioned a sentiment I keep hearing over and over again (I hear you, universe) "whatever your modern instincts as a human tell you to do, you should probably do the opposite." Do you agree with this? Why or why not? 

That's an interesting statement. I do not agree at all, but perhaps I like to trust my gut. Maybe it's a signal to noise ratio problem, as in you really have to filter out all the noise to find your true instinct? That's more what I feel. However, Nate Ready makes some of the best Pacific Northwest wine I've ever had, and I'd love to taste his Floreal ciders. Hiyu's motto is also "guided by nature" which says everything. It appears to work for him so that's his style I guess? Mine is more a "calculate everything and go from there".  I've been reading Luke Whittall's "Valleys of Wine" - a historical recount of the BC wine industry. It's fascinating, despite it being such a young region. What are you most excited about, living and working in the BC wine industry?

What's so exciting in BC is the evolution of young wineries and winemakers taking such big chances on newer styles that show off what BC does well - aromatic and bright whites, sparkling and crunchy reds highlighting that lovely acid that is a hallmark of cool climate regions. Doing more site selection and really planting the right things in the right spots. It's a young and dynamic region and a new generation is starting to make their mark. I got to taste some aged Orofino wines this week and they blew my mind in terms of how beautifully they're aging. Hearing how humble and passionate people like John Weber are about their wine is very inspiring. It's also super fun to call up your friends to buy their wine! What's a guilty pleasure wine? Or drink?

I honestly don't drink as much as I used to. However, who won't finish a whole bottle of Moscato d'Asti in one sitting? Lastly, what's your next travel destination?

Next up is Germany. I'm super stoked. Riesling is my favourite, and I have more German producers than anything else in my "cellar". I'll be visiting as a guest of Wines of Germany and spending time at Geisenheim and in the vineyards. I can't wait!

Thank you Peter, for your thoughtful and insightful answers!

You can follow Peter on Instagram: @peter_van


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