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Sommelier Hyunbin Park achieved ASI Gold Diploma

Solbam's sommelier, Hyunbin Park, has achieved the prestigious ASI Gold Diploma, a distinction earned by only 14 individuals worldwide for outstanding performance in the 2024 ASI Diploma.

Established in Reims, France, in June 1969, the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) administers the ASI Diploma annually. This credential, the highest for a sommelier, attests to one's mastery in the field and is globally recognized as the pinnacle of sommelier qualifications. Attaining the ASI Diploma entails comprehensive knowledge not only of wine but also of various beverages, making it a rigorous and specialized certification process.

Earning an ASI Diploma places sommeliers on par with the world's finest and qualifies them for entry into the national team category of the Korean National Sommelier Competition, which selects representatives for the world's premier sommelier contest.

In the ASI Diploma of 2024, Solbam's Park Hyun-bin sommelier distinguished themselves by securing the rare Gold Diploma, an achievement attained by only 14 individuals globally, showcasing exceptional performance and expertise.

What led you to take this test?

I worked at Solbam since its opening - shortly before the restaurant's official launch, Dongyeon Ko, the head sommelier, achieved the ASI 2021 Gold Diploma. This event ignited my aspiration, even though I hadn't yet started working as a sommelier. Witnessing this achievement inspired me to pursue my own dream. Thankfully, Ko Dong-yeon's sommelier encouraged me to take on this challenge, and I prepared meticulously step by step to participate in the test.

Balancing work at a restaurant and studying to be a sommelier must be challenging.

Balancing work and studies is indeed demanding. However, being a sommelier inherently involves working in a restaurant setting while studying. Simply put, a sommelier is someone who serves wine professionally, and this naturally requires simultaneous work and study. The key is efficient time management. Personally, I dedicate my mornings to studying rather than evenings or late nights. Rising early not only aids in my studies but also promotes a healthier lifestyle. By maintaining a well-structured schedule and good health, I can dedicate several hours each day to wine studies.

How did you prepare for the ASI exam?

The ASI exam is held annually with a set application period. Aware of this timeline, I began preparing well in advance, around six months before applications opened. With guidance from Ko Dong-yeon, who attained the Gold Diploma two years prior, we strategized effectively. Three months before the exam, our preparations intensified to align with the test format. Unlike other exams such as CMS, which focuses on blind tasting classical wines, ASI's scope covers a wider variety. This necessitated thoughtful planning on how to identify and recommend wines to guests.

What are some unique aspects of the ASI Diploma?

One interesting feature is blind tasting spirits, requiring you to identify the raw materials, alcohol types, and brands of five different spirits. This component demands not only wine expertise but also familiarity with spirits. Additionally, you need knowledge of wines from diverse member countries like Turkey and the Czech Republic, not just renowned wine regions.

Knowing from wine to spirits seems challenging if you're not fond of alcohol. How did you manage?

I initially enjoyed drinking, which made the journey fun for me. Before becoming a professional sommelier, I used to drink casually with friends or to unwind. However, as I delved deeper into the world of wine through study and work, it became more about understanding and appreciating its nuances. It's almost like an occupational hazard that naturally limits excessive drinking. I also make an effort to remember and appreciate the unique characteristics of each wine. (laughs)

Is there an effective way to study wine?

Being around experienced mentors, colleagues, and peers is invaluable. Joining a tasting group accelerates learning and reduces costs when shared with like-minded individuals. Practical experience is crucial, so we collectively explore important wines, exchange opinions, and assist each other's learning. While tasting every wine isn't feasible, a strong theoretical foundation enables you to infer characteristics even in unfamiliar wines, enhancing your ability to reason through blind tastings.

Reflecting on your journey at Solbam, how has it shaped you?

My path at Solbam began as an open member, and now I'm in my third year, witnessing significant shifts each year. Initially, I served as a junior on the hall team, progressing to a senior within a year. In my second year, I aspired to deepen my knowledge as a sommelier, learning extensively from the head sommelier and participating in various competitions. Initially focused on wine service as a junior sommelier, this year I've transitioned into a new role, continually pushing myself to evolve amidst evolving circumstances. It's been a busy journey of growth, driven by personal determination and adapting to changing opportunities.

What's your role at Solbam and your vision as a sommelier?

As I enter my second year as a junior sommelier, my primary aim is to excel in my role. Previously, my focus was on rapid growth and recognition due to my perceived shortcomings. Now, I strive to contribute more to the team, bridging the gap between senior and junior sommeliers, fostering collective growth.

What makes being a sommelier appealing to you?

One of the great perks is being able to confidently enjoy wine while working! (laughs) Engaging in conversations about wine with guests is truly enjoyable. We discuss the latest trends in beverages, especially given the sharp rise in prices, notably in French wines from renowned regions. It brings me joy to connect with customers and introduce them to new, lesser-known wines that are incredibly attractive.

Could you share your most memorable wine experience?

I often recall a 2013 vintage from Champagne Bruno Paillard. Personally, rather than focusing solely on expensive luxury wines, I appreciate wines that offer excellent value for their price. Among champagne producers, I admire Blanc de Blanc Champagne for its well-crafted character. It exudes freshness and power, showcasing a delightful range from delicate acidity and minerality when mature, to nutty and savory flavors, all perfectly balanced in weight and lightness. It's like a reflection of what I aspire to be. (laughs)

What's currently your main focus?

As I navigate my sommelier career for decades to come, I emphasize maintaining a balanced pace and stamina. While I continuously prepare for additional certifications and competitions without becoming complacent, I also prioritize self-reflection. Over the past two years of intense dedication, I've realized the importance of making time for my family and personal well-being. Taking breaks to spend quality time with my loved ones has become crucial. Even during travel, dining at fine restaurants is not just leisure; it's a learning experience, observing service styles and contemplating how cultural aspects can inspire and enhance restaurant experiences back in Seoul. (laughs) It's all part of the journey, blending work, life, and inspiration into every vacation.


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