Home to some of the most important winemaking regions in the world, you’d think the United States would be an active member of Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI), or the Association of International Sommeliers.
However, the U.S. has only occasionally participated, says Kansas City-based Master Sommelier Doug Frost. But, with a new competition launching in Missouri this fall, he aims to change that.
“There hasn’t really been a formal organization to promote and support the United States’ participation in this kind of competition,” Frost says of ASI’s quest to crown the world champion sommelier every three years. “COVID willing, we’ll hold the U.S. competition in Hermann at the old Husmann [farm], flying in competitors from around the country. The winner will be the U.S. representative to the global competition, which is scheduled for 2023.”
The new nonprofit organization, known as Best USA Sommelier, will serve as the de facto American chapter of ASI. The competition is planned for October at the Husmann farm and nursery (now known as Hermann Farm), the historic home of George Husmann, a 19th century Missouri vintner who was key in saving the French wine industry from phylloxera, a tiny aphid that causes grapevines to rot from the inside out.
In 1868, something was ravaging the vineyards of France.
Frost didn’t even consider holding the competition in the obvious locations of New York or San Francisco, though he originally planned on New Orleans. A friend said to him, “If you’re going to do it in New Orleans, why not do it here?”
“As important as [Hermann] is for Missouri, it's important for American wine in the larger picture,” he says. “Certainly, Husmann was crucial in the development of Napa Valley too, so it's pretty cool thing.”
There have been attempts in the past to launch an American chapter of ASI, but Frost thinks the main reason it has failed thus far is the ASI competition’s language component. A sommelier can compete in English, French or Spanish – as long as it’s not their native tongue.
“The United States, as compared to most other countries of the world, is famously monolingual,” Frost explains. “I think the [American] sommelier community saw it as too great a hurdle to overcome, but it's a different world today than it was 10 and 20 years ago. To me, that seemed to be an opportunity, and I have to admit as well, that I looked at the cultural shift that was happening in 2020.
“I've been in this business my entire life, and I've always thought, why is it we're so bad at involving people of color? And why is it that the Latinx community, which is the only reason any of our restaurants or vineyards function, are never really participants aside from back of the house and vineyard efforts? [There are] Spanish speakers who are wine professionals...why shouldn't we be supportive of their efforts in a larger picture? Why shouldn't we enjoy the fact that there are more bilingual speakers in the United States?”
Because this will be the competition’s first year, Frost doesn’t anticipate a larger roster of events, though the competition will be open to the public. Spectators will be able to watch the sommeliers taste and answer service and theory questions in real time. For now, Frost wants to focus on the competition, though in the future he could see an entire weekend of events, tastings, lectures and more in Hermann.
“We will actually bring in international judges, because I need our people to be as fully prepared for the international competition as possible,” Frost says. “If nothing else, this whole event gives me an opportunity to show people the grapes that we’re growing in Missouri, the wines that we're making in Missouri. It just blows people's minds because they had no idea that this quality was happening here. So that'll be fun.”
To learn more about Best USA Sommelier or to register for the competition, visit bestusasommelier.com.