Sip by Sip, Tasting His Way to the Top

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Aldo Sohm is training like an Olympic athlete for the "best in the world" competition he faces in Greece next month.

He works closely with a team of coaches to condition himself physically, mentally and emotionally for the intense battle ahead. He lets Steven Schram, a chiropractic acupuncturist with a University of Maryland PhD, stick needles into his legs, arms, face and head -- which Sohm insists enables him to relax his body and focus his mind. From Sohm's native Austria, via an online chat program, holistic coach Michaela Angerer counsels him on how to work through performance blocks such as fear of failure.

But Aldo Sohm is not an athlete. He's a sommelier. America's best sommelier.

After being named the top sommelier in Austria four times since 2002 and the best in America earlier this year by the American Sommelier Association, 35-year-old Sohm is one of 46 candidates due to arrive on the Greek island of Rhodes next month to compete for the International Association of Sommeliers' top prize. Sohm is clearly out to win. The competition involves a written test of global wine knowledge, plus challenges including blind tasting and identification of wines and pairing wine with food. Sohm has advisers to help him prepare for each trial. He has adapted German author Vera Birkenbihl's strategies for memory training and improvement, and he uses Mindjet Corp.'s MindManager software to create "mind maps" that help him visualize the links among wines, regions, soils and more.

"During a competition, I'll have just three minutes to describe a wine's color, nose and taste; determine its quality level; recommend a food pairing; and come as close as possible to naming its varietal, vintage and region of origin," Sohm says. "This is where tasting experience comes together with theoretical knowledge."

Between lunch and dinner service from 3 to 5:30 p.m. every day at Wallse, one of the three New York City restaurants whose wine lists he oversees, Sohm tastes wine. A lot of wine. A typical day has him sampling 5 to 10 of them, but he's tasted as many as 100 at a time.

"Every time I sample a wine, I scan it for data," Sohm says. "Everyone eats and drinks every day, but very few people ever really taste. Concentrating on what's in the glass is essential to memorizing a wine's level of acidity, alcohol and fruit."

Even more important to his success than memorization, he says, is achieving an optimal competitive state -- or "getting into the flow." Before every competition, he centers himself by reading passages from one of his favorite books, "The Alchemist," by Paulo Coelho.

"I learn something new every time I read it," he says. "Many people are too lazy or lack courage to go after their dreams. But, in fact, life is fair and supportive. You just have to see the signs."

Who better than America's best sommelier to ask what to drink with the ham and lamb so popular this season?

"Ham is what we eat for Easter in Austria, and I definitely recommend white wine with ham," says Sohm. His picks from his native country include two Gruner Veltliners: a Bernhard Ott Rosenberg ($15) and a Schloss Gobelsburg Lamm ($46). He also suggests a Leitz Dragonstone Riesling ("a dry-style German Riesling with a bit of residual sugar, which works well with the ham," $17) or a 2005 Tesch Unplugged Riesling ("great fruit, mineral and complexity," Germany, $10) that he praised with such enthusiasm we had to taste it for ourselves.

For lamb lovers, Sohm offers three possibilities. "Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast ($23) is fantastic, and the 2004 is beautiful with delicate sweet fruit, spice from the soil, a soft oak touch and nice tannin, which gives it character," he says. "You can get a great pinot noir in Au Bon Climat's Knox Alexander ($45), which is an outstanding producer. The fruit is upfront, and the wine is not overoaked." Both are from California.

For those looking for a blowout wine for celebrating a special occasion over lamb, he suggests the Aldo Conterno Barolo Granbussia (Italy, $140). "It's a ripe, spice-driven wine, and roast lamb softens all the edges of its tannins," he says. Having taste-tested Sohm's recommended pairings of the Tesch Riesling with ham and both the Au Bon Climat and Calera pinot noir with lamb, we can attest that as his competition nears, he's in fine form.

Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg are the award-winning authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat" and several other books. They can be reached through their Web site,http://www.becomingachef.com, or atfood@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company