Grape victoryIt's never easy being a pioneer. Kong Seung-sik, the winner of the recently held second National Contest of Sommeliers of French Wines and Spirits, overcame many odds to earn his stripes as that rare specialist － a Korean sommelier.
A sommelier, or wine steward, typically plies his trade in fine restaurants or wine shops. He or she usually wears a chain around his neck with a small metal cup, or tastevin, attached. There are only six active sommeliers working in Korea.
Mr. Kong, 38, has been around wines for more than a decade. What is surprising, though, is that he has hardly traveled overseas; nearly all of his expertise was self-acquired. He first began studying wine in 1987 while working as a bartender at Hotel Lotte in Seoul. At that time, he said, there were virtually no materials printed in Korean for him to study. He was able to glean some ideas from hotel manuals and textbooks, but it wasn't enough. He used to ask travelers to pick up English-language books on wine, then he would have them translated into Korean. But much of the content was mistranslated because of the profusion of professional terminology and other jargon. He often had to search to find meanings and come up with his own terms.
Mr. Kong speaks with a heavy southern accent, and when he names wines in French he still carries that speech pattern. A native of Tongyeong, a small town in South Gyeongsang province, Mr. Kong came to Seoul when he was 19. A year later he got a job at the Lotte hotel in Sogong-dong. Except for his military service he has always worked for the same company.
While working at Lotte, he swiftly earned a reputation as a wine specialist. His position at the downtown hotel's elegant Metropolitan Club enabled him to handle a variety of wines, a study he began to pursue seriously nine years ago. But his first chance to really taste French wines didn't come until 1994, when he was sent to a French winery in Bordeaux for a week. Mr. Kong continued to study wine, and later was able to visit wineries in California, France and Switzerland. Over his career, though, the time he has spent abroad would probably be less than a month.
In the mid-1990s, Korea's wine market began to open up, however belatedly, and display strong growth potential. Wine shops and bars sprang up in shopping malls; wine lovers flocked to wine-tasting classes and traveled to visit the wineries where their favorite reds and whites were made. Going back a bit, it wasn't until the late '70s that Koreans were introduced to white wine. That was spurred by the production of a local variety called Majuang, made from Riesling grapes. Today's increased public awareness for wine has made winemakers and distributors not only expand but also reinforce the market.
The French government agency, acronymed SOPEXA, that promotes France's agricultural exports decided to begin holding the annual sommelier contest here even though the vocation is still considered quite undeveloped on the peninsula.
The event, co-sponsored by SOPEXA, the Korea Sommeliers Association, Air France and Grand Inter-Continental hotel, was held at the the Grand Ballroom of the Grand Inter-Continental hotel. Some 30 competitors, mostly members of the Korea Sommeliers Association, squared off. After preliminary rounds, only five made it to the semi-finals. The panel of judges included the president of the council of Medoc wine, Yves Raymond, the president of the council of Graves wine, Francis Boutemy, the president of the Korea Sommeliers Association, Koh Sung-min, and the president of the local Wine Academy, Suh Han-jung.
Each of the three contestant who made it to the final round was given 20 minutes to prove his wine savvy in front of the judges and the audience. During the first five minutes, the contestant was presented with 10 wines and asked to give their names, regions and vintages. The remaining 15 minutes was devoted to demonstrating wine serving etiquette and decision-making skills. The competitors were given an example of a full-course meal and had to recommend the wines that best suited the food and serve the wine. Some of the judges acted as customers, and plied the sommeliers with questions about wines.
In the blind tests of the 10 wines, Mr. Kong identified the names, regions and vintages of four of them. He impressed the judges by identifying some of them on sight alone. Also, he received a perfect score on the service segment of the test. Asked how he could know so much about so many wines, Mr. Kong smiled. "That's my own know-how from years of studying," he said. "For me, it takes only one or two minutes to distinguish the vintage, and if I'm wrong it's only by a year or two." Significantly, Mr. Kong was the only contestant who served a woman customer first to test the wine － all the other contestants served a man first, which, while customary in Korea, is generally not considered proper etiquette.
Mr. Kong said that the most difficult thing about being a sommelier in Korea is that Koreans in general know almost nothing about sommeliers and what they do. "When I approach the customers, their attitude is basically 'So what do you know?'" he said. "Customers who have lived abroad are particularly difficult to handle because they like to name drop. But it's all just part of taking up something new and unknown; I find it challenging and exceedingly interesting."
Mr. Boutemy, the expert on wines from the Graves area in France, said he was impressed with the proficiency of this year's contenders, and stressed how difficult wine tasting contests are. "Wine tasting is a new culture in Korea," he told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition. "What was interesting to me was that I saw that there were signs of Asian culture reflected in the way the contenders served wine; in Europe, we serve the ladies first because women have more developed senses, but in Korea all of them served the men first." He also pointed out that all of the participants were men, and that it would be nice to see women participating next time.
Mr. Kong agreed that more Korean women should pursue the sommelier trade. He said he thought that sommelier contests like this one would provide publicity for the trade that would open up more opportunities for women, but that "deciding to become a sommelier would still be a tough choice for women."
Where was his tastevin? a reporter wondered. Mr. Kong shook his head. "It's too embarrassing to wear now, but someday I will."
Kong Seung-sik works at the Italian restaurant Venezia inside the Lotte hotel (02-411-7761~2) in Jamsil-dong in southern Seoul.
by Inēs Cho