How to Prep For a Wine Competition with Steve Robinson

Learn wine study tips from Ontario’s reigning top sommelier
by Krystina Roman

Wine competitions don’t happen often, but when they do, you’ll usually find Steve Robinson competing, and in the case of the 2014 Best Ontario Sommelier Competition – emerging as the winner.  A well known sommelier from Ottawa’s exquisite ‘tasting menu only’ restaurant, Atelier, Steve is known for his warm, professional style and his uncanny memory. Just in time for the upcoming Best Ontario Sommelier Competition, Krystina Roman chatted with Steve to get some insider tips on how to prep for the big event.

Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson

First of all what are you up to these days?

Working at Atelier, we expanded last year so now we have a somm team. I help manage the restaurant and the sommelier team, while being the wine director.

Drinking anything fun these days?

English breakfast tea and beer. Which I usually don’t drink at the same time. 

What are you reading these days?

There are always five or six wine books near my bed that I try to pickup as much as I can. I am actively reading The Quantum 10. 

What’s happening in the Ottawa Wine Community right now?

There’s a big trend towards natural wines. Alex McMahon is pushing that boundary and with Véronique Rivest opening Soif Bar à vin those types of wines are much more accessible to everyone. The wine community here has also expanded. Interestingly in the wine trade we don’t see as many trade tastings as we used to. We are definitely missing that these days compared to a few years back. Not sure what happened.

Are you preparing for a wine exam or wine competition?

I am currently preparing for the CMS, Master Sommelier theory exam. I am also studying for the CAPS National Sommelier exam in Vancouver. My goal is to represent Canada one day internationally so I’m always preparing for that. 

How do you prepare?

I’m taking a few wine programs, the Italian Wine Scholar for example. And I’m also taking French language courses as well. My somm group meets weekly to taste, review theory and do service mocks. I’m training a group of sommeliers and this is helping me prepare. By helping and teaching others I’m improving my own confidence. Giving back and supporting other sommeliers is helpful for everyone involved. My job also inherently prepares me as I constantly taste wine, pair, am on the floor and educate. 

Is there a difference in how you prepare for an exam versus a wine competition?

Mostly the same. The only main difference that I see is the blind tasting portion. In exam situations the wines are more defined and testable versus, in a wine competition setting, it’s the whole world of wine. You have to open your mind up to an endless world of opportunity …and trust your gut.

What are some of your go to wine resources for studying wine?

No doubt GuildSomm. The World Atlas. The internet. I do most of my theory studying on my own. 

What is it like to compete in wine competitions?

Nerves are high. Especially in the finals and the service portion. So it’s quite the experience. I have fun doing it, as I normally don’t get asked to do these things so there’s a thrill to meeting the demands of the “customers” in those types of situations. It’s fun and surreal. There’s no other experience like. And I’ve competed at national levels in sports. 

Steve Robinson in Action - BOSC 2014

Steve Robinson in Action – BOSC 2014

Any fun memories you’d like to share?

The two competitions, BOSC 2014 and Nationals 2015. Before the finals for both competitions, I didn’t sleep at all. It wasn’t because of nerves, 2014 I took a midnight train and barely slept. I actually ran into Bruce Wallner at one a.m. at the Ottawa bus station. We had a scheduling problem and I had to be on the floor at Atelier so I couldn’t leave earlier, as planned. At one a.m. I finally got to the bus station and there’s Bruce Wallner with his family in tow trying to get back to Toronto for the same competition. I barely slept, and caught a few hours of sleep before competition started.

The night before the Nationals someone pulled a fire alarm at the hotel where a few of us competitors were staying. It was four a.m. and we barely slept after that. It was rough both times but I ended up winning BOSC 2014 and placing second at the Nationals in 2015. 

What is the best part of writing wine exams or competitions?

The wonderment of what you do not know. It’s the best way to learn what you don’t know and work towards learning more and more. I grow the most by doing the exam and competitions. 

Who inspires you within the wine community?

Without a doubt Véronique Rivest is a big inspiration. It’s a very long list but any Canadians going for their higher sommelier levels inspire me. Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate in New York City is another inspiration. 

Why do you continue to study for wine exams or compete?

I’m a competitive person, but competitive with myself. I set some goals for myself earlier on and I want to achieve them. I was an athlete growing up and within wine I have an opportunity to hopefully one day represent Canada. Which I never got to do in sport. 

Any words of advice for sommeliers interested in competing?

Do it. There’s nothing to lose. I think the main thing people fear is their lack of knowledge or showing their weaknesses. Remember it’s confidential and it helps you grow. You have to learn that being wrong is okay and being wrong in public might be humbling or painful but it’s the best way to grow. 

What’s next for you?

I’m in the middle of planning the next 2 years. I passed the Advanced Sommelier exam in Spring of 2015 and now it’s time to reach the next levels. If we had the laws to open a private wine store I’d do that, maybe one day.  Also I will try to make a restaurant industry skateboarding video.

(Steve Robinson is also a killer skateboarder)


Who will be the 2017 BEST ONTARIO SOMMELIER?

Competitor registration fpr BOSC 2017 closes Feb 28! - Register here:

Tickets to attend this fun day are here: