Le Cinq chief sommelier at top of A list

In the beginning, Enrico Bernardo set out to be a cook. But a fragrant 1985 vintage Gewurztraminer he sipped nine years ago during a trip to Alsace in eastern France helped the young Italian discover his talent for wine. «It’s the first wine I recognized blindfolded,» said the 27-year-old after his coronation in Athens Tuesday as the world’s best sommelier (wine waiter). «There were 15 of us, cooks like me and sommeliers. We made a sample tasting and I was the only one who recognized the wine,» Milan-born Bernardo told AFP after his triumph over 42 rivals from across the world in the demanding five-day competition. Giuseppe Vaccarini, who taught sommellerie at Bernardo’s hotelier school, was impressed. «He told himself: ‘We’ve got to do something for this boy, even if he’s a cook,’» Bernardo remembered. Vaccarini, himself former sommelier world champion and current president of their international union, the ASI, took Bernardo under his wing and invited him to attend the 1995 World Championships in Tokyo. «That triggered something off in me and I wanted to do that job,» Bernardo said. Starting at the bottom After cuisine internships at the Troisgros restaurant in Roanne, in central France, and Stockholm’s Grand Hotel, he was conscripted into the Italian army for his military service. On his discharge, Bernardo returned to France to learn his new trade. «I started at the bottom – cleaning the glasses and silver plates, getting bottles from the cellar,» he remembered. «I had only a few contacts with clients because my French was poor at the time.» His thirst to learn shot him ahead, helping him to cut several corners. Taken on as sommelier at La Poularde in Montrond-les-Bains, central France, he moved on to La Mirande in Avignon. Within a year, he was working at the celebrated Clos de la Violette restaurant, also in Provence. Experience in the two-star establishment in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence was a real opportunity. «I was very young and had to lead people that were older than me. That helped me shape my personality at work and get more confident,» he remembered. In March 2000, at the age of just 23, Bernardo got his current job as chief sommelier at Le Cinq, the restaurant of the high-prestige Hotel George V in Paris. «It’s an institution which requires a high degree of quality and excellence. To let people down is not an option.» But adapting to the George V proved easy. «I felt friendliness and no rivalry at all.» Le Cinq’s predominantly French sommelier team stressed the point in Athens Tuesday, enthusiastically cheering their colleague’s success, appropriately dressed in the green-white-red colors of the Italian flag. Didier Le Calvez, director-general at the George V, helped his young Italian employee to clinch the title he had dreamed of ever since attending the Tokyo sommelier championships. «He gave me free time and allowed me to travel and prepare in peace, free of stress,» Bernardo said. The Italian had visited Greece five times in the last 12 months to study the wines and dishes of the event’s host country. But that did not spare him from competition-related stress. «I lost 7 kilos in two weeks,» he said. The hardest part came at the preliminaries. «We had to serve and decant a wine that was corked despite the fact that it was sealed with a silicon cork. It’s a scenario that cannot happen in real life. It was meant to destabilize us.» Tuesday’s final at the Athens Concert Hall pitched Bernardo against three remaining candidates. Asked among other tasks to correct mistakes in a wine list, Bernardo was the only one to spot all the errors and carried away the ASI trophy – a silver Methuselah (eight bottles) offered by champagne-maker Moet et Chandon on which the names of all 10 previous champions since 1969 were engraved. But the title will not change much for him. «I work in the world’s best hotel and now I’m the world’s best sommelier. I think we’re well suited to each other.»