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Our Head Sommelier, Dongyeon Ko Wins 2024 Korea Sommelier Of The Year

Solbam's Head Sommelier, Dongyeon Ko, has been named the 2024 Korea Sommelier of the Year.

At Solbam, every team member is dedicated to pushing themselves to excel in their respective fields. On April 19th, Dongyeon Ko, Solbam's Head Sommelier, achieved this honor for the eighth time. The Korea Sommelier of the Year competition, established in 2015, aims to elevate wine culture by fostering domestic expertise and professional competition. It stands as one of Korea's most prestigious sommelier contests, evaluating mastery of wines from around the globe.

In the Korean sommelier competition, five finalists—selected from rigorous preliminary rounds—showcased their knowledge through wine theory, food pairing, beverage and decanting services, and blind tastings. The top three competitors then faced the challenge of the Magnum Champagne service test in the finals.

Dongyeon Ko, the victor of this year's championship, will be rewarded with a tour of Moët & Chandon Winery, a special Riedel Awards Tour, and an invitation from Wines of Portugal to serve as a judge. We are delighted to share Dongyeon Ko's sommelier journey with you.

How do you feel about winning this award?

I'm still incredibly stunned. It's a precious and significant achievement for me. I first encountered this competition while serving in the military. After being discharged in April 2017, I joined a restaurant where the head sommelier at the time, Kyung Min-seok, was gearing up for the competition. Shin Dong-hyuk, the previous year's winner, also helped me prepare. It was only my first week, but I stayed up until dawn watching them practice. Witnessing their dedication and excitement for the competition sparked a strong desire in me to pursue the same path.

The following year, in 2018, I participated in the Korea Sommelier Competition. This competition became a significant goal and benchmark for me, especially as there were two winners from our restaurant at the time. I naively thought that if I worked hard, studied, improved, and won this competition, I could one day stand alongside the esteemed sommeliers. (laughs) This competition held immense value for me, but they say the more you desire something, the further it seems. Unfortunately, things didn't go as smoothly as I had hoped. Each attempt brought unexpected challenges, despite my thorough preparation.

Last year, I was consumed with achieving certification as an advanced sommelier, barely spending time with my wife even after our marriage. I even found myself competing on our wedding anniversary. This time around, I tempered my expectations, and surprisingly, that shift in mindset led to success. I discovered that when you're on the verge of giving up, sometimes you find the way forward. Thanks to this approach, I achieved favorable results in this year's competition after another determined attempt.

How did you prepare for the Korean Sommelier Competition?

Consistency is paramount. It's a cliché, but much of what I know today was absorbed through dedicated study and work over time. The knowledge that once felt like a chore to memorize became ingrained naturally. Those challenging days contributed to where I am now, but if I had grown weary, I might not have persevered. Beyond the formal study hours, valuable experiences from seminars, tastings, interactions with seniors and juniors, and conversations with customers all contributed to my growth.

Merely passing through isn't sufficient. I had to actively convert everyday experiences into knowledge. In the month leading up to the competition, I intensified my preparations. I stayed at the restaurant until 4 a.m., meticulously planning every detail. I visualized and rehearsed each aspect—wine service, blind tasting, incorporating humor into my presentation, body language—down to the smallest nuances. It was mental imagery, replaying every second in my mind. I trained myself to condense a six-minute blind tasting into four and a half minutes, scripting and practicing rigorously. Such time investment was essential to my success.

As a sommelier, how do you approach continuous improvement?

Being a sommelier requires a blend of work and study. Simply filling working hours without learning won't suffice. Work and study should intertwine, but they must also be pursued separately to truly excel. My goal is to merge these aspects seamlessly, becoming a sommelier who embodies both through ongoing effort and dedication.

What's your vision for Solbam as Head Sommelier?

As the head sommelier at Solbam, I aim for a superior wine program compared to other restaurants. Our team ensures that every sommelier treats customers with the same professional respect, regardless of rank. It's crucial that each team member possesses excellent expertise and customer care. Rather than a singular head sommelier dictating style, I envision our team organically shaping a culture together. A restaurant doesn't thrive for just a few years; I'm here to instill the right mindset and attitudes in the team. Ultimately, the Solbam sommelier team's culture will flourish when our actions reflect good values. I challenge my team on work, growth, and everything in between, knowing that maintaining the right mindset is key. My hope is that in 15 or 20 years, when I return to Solbam as a guest, the future head sommelier will embody the same vision and dedication.

What do you believe are the most important qualities for a sommelier?

Over time, I've come to believe that the most crucial quality is 'attitude towards wine'. Starting as a young sommelier, I thought success depended on selling wine, knowledge, and accolades. However, as I gained experience, I realized the true essence lies in how we enhance the customer's experience. 'Attitude towards wine' encapsulates this sommelier mindset. With limited knowledge, there's a risk of hastily judging wines or serving based on personal preferences. Sommeliers often taste wine while working, but it's important to avoid forming premature opinions. Maintaining the right mindset and approach towards wine prevents falling into these traps.

What challenges lie ahead for you?

One of my dreams is to win all three prestigious sommelier competitions in Korea, with only Sopexa remaining! Additionally, becoming a master sommelier is a significant career goal. I approach these challenges with the mindset that this journey is just beginning, striving to maintain effort and focus while keeping my eyes on distant horizons.


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