Compared to just a generation or two ago, modern American sommeliers are remarkably well informed about the great wines of France. And now, thanks to a unique competition co-sponsored by VinePair and the French Ministry of Agriculture, they’ll have a new opportunity to demonstrate that knowledge, as well as its practical application.

With a special focus on using wine knowledge in a real-world sales environment, the Le Best Somm Competition begins with open preliminary rounds taking place in three major U.S. cities: Washington, D.C., on Dec. 9, Seattle on Jan. 8, and New York  on Jan. 13. Two winners from each preliminary round will then move on to the final competition in New York on Jan. 27, where the six finalists will battle it out for an enviable grand prize: a trip for the winner and a guest to France. All stages of the competition will be judged by experts in the beverage industry, as well as by VinePair’s editorial staff.

Domaine d’Aussières in Corbières.

According to VinePair CEO Adam Teeter, the unique aspect of this competition is the importance it places on the sommelier’s relationship with customers, above and beyond a mastery of mere facts and figures. “While we placed a focus on knowledge, the interaction with the judges is very key,” says Teeter. “We are looking at how well you actually can sell a wine and interact with the guest. Are you accessible? Do you make the guest feel comfortable? This is what really sets the competition apart. We are looking for a somm who is relatable and puts guests at ease, not one who just possesses a ton of knowledge.”

Trimbach in Alsace.

Those real-life social skills will need to pair with wide-ranging wine knowledge. In addition to VinePair and the French Ministry of Agriculture, the competition is sponsored by leading wineries from across l’Hexagone: Domaine d’Aussières in Corbières, Légende in Bordeaux, Saget La Perrière in the Loire Valley, Trimbach in Alsace, Côté Mas in Languedoc, and the Rhône Valley’s Domaine Jean-Luc Colombo.

Sylvain Maestracci, Agricultural Counselor at the Embassy of France in Washington, notes that the regional differences in French wine can be quite challenging, even for wine professionals. “We have common techniques, but in each region and in each winery it’s not exactly made the same way,” says Maestracci. While the competing sommeliers will certainly be aware of the variety of French viticulture and oenology, that awareness will become even more clear to the first-place finisher. As part of their grand prize trip to France, the overall champion will have a chance to improve their professional development with an in-person visit to all six of the participating French wineries.

Saget La Perrière in the Loire Valley.

Géraldine Kenny, North American Export Manager for Saget La Perrière, says that this type of in-person visit can make abstract knowledge about wines and wineries much more grounded in reality. “It is beneficial to anyone to see in person where wine comes from, not only for the sights, but also to see the people and the effort put into each bottle of wine,” says Kenny. “I think it’s a common misconception to imagine that all bottles come from a beautiful villa in Tuscany or a castle in Bordeaux. Most of the time, you end up knocking on someone’s door, walking around their house and through the dirt to meet by their tractor, and you end up tasting at their kitchen table without any fuss.”

Légende in Bordeaux.

In turn, Kenny continues, such a personal experience can also greatly benefit customers. “On a professional and educational level, it definitely helps to experience what you learn in theory,” Kenny says. “Once you’ve seen it, it all falls into place and it’s easier to memorize. It’s also a better experience for the consumer at the dinner table, hearing about the place firsthand, while tasting the wine.”

With up to 25 sommeliers battling it out in each of the three cities, Le Best Somm Competition will certainly be a serious event. But there’s a fun side, too, with the final competition culminating in a massive celebration in NYC. VinePair CEO Adam Teeter says he’s particularly looking forward to meeting all the sommeliers who enter. “I think we talk too much about the profession as one that is elitist,” says Teeter. “But I find often these are some of the most passionate people in the world when it comes to wine, and they are simply eager to share that passion with you.”

Côté Mas in Languedoc.

Sommeliers with passion, knowledge, and the ability to use both while selling wine should be prepared to show off all those skills during the next month. As Sylvain Maestracci notes, being a great sommelier requires a lot more than just information. “In the end, what a sommelier does is not only being a specialist in the product, but in being able to fully explain the wine,” says Maestracci. “Knowing how it is made, the little tricks that are used in that region of the world, and those which are not used in that region of the world, and to actually truly understand the wine, in fact.”

Domaine Jean-Luc Colombo in Rhône Valley.

This article is sponsored by the French Ministry of Agriculture and leading wineries from across l’Hexagone: Domaine d’Aussières in Corbieres, Légende in Bordeaux, Saget La Perrière in the Loire Valley, Trimbach in Alsace, Côté Mas in Languedoc, and the Rhône Valley’s Domaine Jean-Luc Colombo.