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Gabrielle Vizzavona
/ 04 Jan, 2022
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[Rendez-vous with…] Salvatore Castano "I said to myself, relax, nobody knows you, try and have fun and entertain people !"

A CONVERSATION WITH… 31 year-old Salvatore Castano, recently awarded the title of Europe and Africa’s Best Sommelier, who reflects on his victory and the challenges facing the global sommelier industry:  “I said to myself, relax, nobody knows you, be yourself, try and have fun and entertain people !”
Gabrielle Vizzavona: What drove you to want to be a sommelier?

Salvatore Castano: I have always found the world of wine exciting, and I used to wonder what made the top wines so special, why they cost how much they do. I graduated as a sommelier in Italy, then moved to London in 2014 and at the same time started studying for the Master Sommelier title. When I arrived, I realised that I didn't have enough knowledge of wines other than those from Italy. Both in France and Italy, we are very patriotic, we almost only drink our own wines and our choices stay very local. The United Kingdom is the ideal country for someone who wants to learn, as we have access to wines from around the globe! I started as a commis sommelier with Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, which gave me the opportunity to bolster my knowledge of French wines, and then at Mash where we had the largest American wine list in Europe. I then worked at the private club Annabel's and am now with the distributor Friarwood as a buyer and consultant.

G.V.: How did you enter the competition?

S.C.: In the past, only Italy’s best sommeliers over the previous three years could represent the country at the World's Best Sommelier competition. But Giuseppe Vaccarini, the founder of the ASPI (Associazione della Sommellerie Professionale Italiana) decided to open it up to everyone to broaden the choice of candidates. The level of sommeliers in Italy is very high at the moment, but they mostly work abroad, in Australia, the United States, Austria or England, like me. It is a great privilege to represent your country.

G.V.: How did you prepare? 

S.C.: It's not something you can prepare for in one year. I have been preparing for this competition as well as the Master Sommelier competition for 7 years. Over the last two years, I have been studying for almost 5 hours a day. I would get up around 4.30 am and study in the evening and during my breaks. There was a lot of reading involved and one or two blind tastings a week and in the last two months, one a day. I didn't have a dedicated team like other countries, I asked my friends and colleagues to organise tastings for me. My study group for the Master Sommelier competition also helped me a lot.

G.V.: How does the competition work?

S.C.: It is structured in three stages. There were 31 candidates in the quarter-final who had to take part in a 30-page theory test as well as blind tastings with written comments, followed by two practical tests lasting two minutes each involving service and setting up. In the semi-final, there were only 10 candidates left for six practical tests performed in front of a panel of judges, combining blind tastings and service. In the final, there were only three of us left, in front of an audience of a hundred people, for seven short practical tests that lasted a total 40 minutes.

G.V.: What are the benefits of tasting the wines blind during these competitions?

S.C.: It allows us to really concentrate on the quality of the wine, without our opinion being distorted or influenced by the label.

G.V.: What was your main advantage in the competition?

S.C.: My main advantage was the emotional, psychological aspect. Two weeks before the competition, I took my Master Sommelier theory exam. I was so stressed that I failed it by a few points. It had such an effect on me that when I got to Cyprus I said to myself, OK, I'm going to enjoy this, I've worked hard, I'm prepared, so relax, nobody knows you, be yourself, try and have fun and entertain people. I was very relaxed.

G.V.: How did you your success feel?

S.C.: I only really realised what had happened 15 days after the competition!

G.V.: What are your short-term plans? 

S.C.: I'm going to concentrate on my Master Sommelier training. Maybe this is the year it finally happens!

G.V.: What advice would you give to young people who want to do this job and take part in competitions?

S.C.: For young sommeliers, it is important to work with experienced peers in Michelin-starred restaurants, to learn the practical side. There are a lot of sacrifices to be made, so you have to be passionate and enjoy competitions. Your life will revolve around wine and studying. All your friends will be sommeliers. I'm very lucky because my girlfriend is very supportive.
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