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The Hard Side Of Being A Sommelier (ish)

The annual Sommelier Wine Award is a pilgrimage any Sommelier should be part of at some point in their professional life. Daniel Jonberger tells us about his experience judging at these awards.

Six days of tasting wine from all over the world. And you are tasting them blind. It is an endurance in wine. And yes, we do spit out otherwise you would be horizontal before lunch.

A motley gang of fifty sommeliers, mainly from London, gathered at St Mary’s Church in Marylebone on the 25th February to begin judging. After splitting up into teams of six we started to taste. Each table had a category, like NV Champagne or Turkish Red. Three ratings are set. Out: if the wine is horrible. Commended: if the group felt it was not too bad and Medal: the wine in question went straight to the Medal round.

As a group we tasted at our own pace and wrote down our thoughts. Then we discussed the merits of each wine and sometimes re-tested until we all agreed on a result. Then on to the next table and so we went on for two days.

People have said to me, what a dream job that is! Tasting wine for two days. Yes, it is in a way. The camaraderie between us sommeliers is great. But try to get through tasting twelve bottles from Barossa Valley in the afternoon. That is when you earn your stripes! The tannins in the wine are assaulting your gums and teeth. Each wine is biting harder while you need to keep a neutral mind to judge. That is hard.

By this time you had around 100 wines under your belt and the brain is desperately trying to kick start your taste buds before each table of new wines. On the other hand, on day two, I had the luxury to start with Champagne.

Day two had its surprises. Red wines from Sicily. I was quite excited for that table but left severely disappointed. I do like Sicilian wines and I stock some real gems on my list, but the twelve we tried were a let-down. Very generic and boring, no identity. I was pleased to hear that there were two more tables of other Sicilian wines. After conferring with the judges on those tables, we knew we drew the short straw in quality.

It is not just looking, swirling, tasting and spitting that we have to do. Each wine needs a description of the flavours. Some are being used in a final book due to be released in May. So another challenge is to concentrate on your writing and how to explain a wine as it tastes. And with my terrible hand writing, it was interesting to go back to see my notes from day one and compare to day two.

Day two notes had much more different associations of flavours. It’s like the brain had opened up over the constant influx of wine and gave more nuanced versions.

At the end of day two, the last table consisted of red full bodied Chilean wines (that was tough!). Afterwards, I was handed a very cold beer that I have to say, tasted glorious. 

Would I do this judging again? Try and stop me!

Daniel Jonberger
Head Sommelier