Bachelder Szabo Wallner

Winemaker Thomas Bachelder (centre) confers with Master Sommeliers John Szabo and Bruce Wallner at the Third Annual Master Sommelier Challenge, sponsored by Lifford Wine Agency in Toronto.

Pity the poor sommelier and sommelières. How often is their role in hospitality given notice, let alone respect? Everyone at the table gets to see the chef’s menu, but only one the somm’s list. Contrast and compare the etymologies between the word chef derived from chief and the word sommelier derived from a French word for butler; literally a wine steward. And yet, while Gordon Ramsay yells his way to fortune and fame between flinging out truffle cappucini, the women and men who bring us sunshine in a glass are eternally cheerful, full of smiles and compliments (excellent choice, madame).

Natalie Goldenberg-Fife and Jennifer Huether

Event organizer Natalie Goldenberg-Fife and Master Sommelier Jennifer Huether.

And how many even know what they do? Buying and selling wine, cellaring some, discounting others to move before they fade out. Building a wine program that balances the needs of the house and compliments the food of the chef. Considering the margins on their product, and the share of the cheque that makes up the wine (or, at least on my bill), it’s amazing these neglected stars of the floor aren’t celebrated more. Steven Campbell must feel this way, too, for as Grand Fromage of the Lifford wine agency he sponsored the third annual Master Sommelier Challenge at Stock restaurant at the Trump this week. For one night, the sommelier and his or her work are the focus of the evening.

Steven Campbell seriously at work

Lifford’s Steven Campbell working very hard at the serious business of sponsoring the Sommelier Challenge.

Master Sommelier is not merely a term of art, but specifically refers to members of the Court of Master Sommeliers who, after years of study and rigorous examination earn the honour of adding the initials MS on the back of their signature. There are only 135 wine professionals in North America who’ve earned the MS designation since the UK body began conferring membership on the side of the Atlantic in 1973. From that elite group, there are only three Master Sommeliers in Canada, all of whom live and work in Toronto: John Szabo (2004), Bruce Wallner (2009) and Jennifer Huether (2011). It was for these three, and for the benefit of the evening’s patrons (who attended as part of a Visa Infinity series of dinners) that Mr. Campbell opened up the Lifford cellars, offering their selection of French wines.

Anton Potvin MCs

Anton Potvin, whose been known to open a bottle or two, MC’s the event.

The ground rules were straight forward, by drawing straws each sommelier had first, second and third pick of a wine to match the menu which had been presented to them in advance. Before every course, each sommelier would be invited to a podium by MC and fellow sommelier Anton Potvin for a chance to address the diners. They championed their choice and trash talked their competitors’ selections. It helped that the sommelier world is tight, and Szabo, Wallner and Huether are familiar and friendly enough to not to pull any punches. The short speeches drew laughter and the occasional gasp.

Bruce Wallner scopes out the room

Bruce Wallner prepares to address the room.

As a guest, one was presented with three marked glasses with every course, and a score card. The object was to choose which wine on the table paired best with the dish served. This proved harder than it sounds. Or at least it did for me – I often work the other way around, selecting what looks like an interesting wine fromthe list, then searching the menu for the dish that complimented it best (which can also be a way of saying doesn’t get in its way). More than once, the wine (and they were all beautiful wines from sought after and respected houses) that I though might be the best on it’s own would lose something with the dish, or vice versa. I’d like to say that there were some amazing pairing discoveries to be had, but the traditional pairing of region to main ingredient (i.e. protein) usually seemed to work the best. Anyway, the excercise proved how difficult the sommelier’s job can be, and in this case everyone at the table was eating the same thing and, thanks to Lifford, there was no question of price.

John Szabo seizes victory

John Szabo is magnanimous in victory.

This third Master Sommelier Challenge was particularly exciting because Huether and Wallner competed as returning champions. As if to prove that sommeliers always work towards customer satidfaction, John Szabo delivered a Hollywood ending and triumphed. This ought to make next year’s event even more interesting.

Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the company that publishes it. Follow him at