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Solbam’s Head Sommelier Dong-yeon Ko Wins 19th Korea National Sommelier Competition

Solbam's Head Sommelier, Dong-yeon Ko, emerged victorious in the national team category of the 19th Korea National Sommelier Competition, an event orchestrated by the Korea International Sommelier Association.

* All Photos by Sommeliertimes

Dong-yeon Ko, the Head Sommelier at Solbam, consistently delivers exceptional experiences to patrons each evening through his warm, witty service and a meticulously curated wine selection. Driven by a relentless pursuit of growth, Ko has continuously ventured into various domestic and international sommelier competitions and qualifications. His remarkable achievement in winning the 19th Korean national sommelier competition stands as a testament to his unwavering passion for the world of wine, beverages, and service. Notably, Ko also earned a spot in the finals of the 2021 International Young Sommelier Competition, where he secured second place, proudly representing South Korea.

Can you provide an overview of the Korean national sommelier competition?

Certainly. The Korean national sommelier competition stands as a prestigious event designed to identify the foremost sommelier within the country. Organized by the esteemed Korea International Sommelier Association, this competition is currently commemorating its 19th anniversary. The selection process unfolds through a series of phases, including preliminary, semi-final, and final rounds, ultimately culminating in the crowning of the victor. Its overarching objective is to progressively impart a heightened appreciation for beverage culture to the general populace while simultaneously advancing the recognition of Korean wine, spirits, and beverages on the global stage. This mission is carried out by a cadre of consummate professionals, covering the entire spectrum from wine and water to tea, traditional liquors, and the associated cultural aspects.

Could you elaborate on the preliminary round, semi-final, and final round of the competition?

The competition unfolds in several stages, with concurrent events across various domains. In the preliminary round, the selection process commences with written tests and blind tasting assessments, where 20 participants are chosen to advance. Those progressing to the finals are further scrutinized through rigorous evaluations encompassing blind tasting, the art of food and wine pairing, and impeccable wine service.

Upon advancing to the semi-finals and ultimately reaching the finals, competitors encounter a total of nine distinctive challenges. These include seven individual events and two team events, conducted either in English or French. The individual events entail pre-food and beverage service, table service, a quartet of white wine blind tastings, wine taro analysis, food and wine pairing expertise, wine list refinement, and two distinct red wine blind tastings. The crowning moment arrives with a comprehensive four-hour final that includes a blend of quizzes and a captivating champagne service team competition.

I understand you also secured victory in the Portuguese wine competition. Could you share more about that experience?

Prior to the national team competition, there are additional specialized tests that could be likened to a "competition within the competition." This year, we had the privilege of hosting the New Zealand and Portuguese wine competitions concurrently. I'm grateful to have emerged victorious in the Portuguese wine competition, which brought with it the exciting opportunity to embark on a memorable winery tour in Portugal.

Your preparation involves a wide range of tests in various beverage fields. Can you share how you readied yourself for these challenges?

Indeed, the preparation for such competitions demands not only a profound understanding of wine but also a breadth of knowledge spanning various beverages, including spirits, tea, and beer. In fact, during the tests, it's often more crucial to correctly identify the category of a beverage and understand its brewing process than to pinpoint the exact brand name. Continual exposure to these beverages is paramount because you must be familiar with their taste profiles as well. Even while I was immersed in my professional responsibilities, I made it a personal habit to pick up different types of beverages, even if it meant grabbing a convenience store beer on my way home, and then comparing them.

For instance, in a recent beer-related question, I suggested "Kelly" as the answer, but it turned out to be "Cass." However, such instances are not solely about being right or wrong; they serve as opportunities to elucidate my judgment regarding whether it's a lager or ale, which hops were utilized, and the intricacies of the brewing process. When you think, study, and taste continuously, you cultivate the ability to make more reasoned judgments.

In essence, the process of studying involves developing both knowledge and sensory acumen in tandem. Knowledge provides the essential framework upon which experience can be constructed, yet it's the actual experience that significantly enriches this foundation. Ultimately, it boils down to a combination of extensive study, tasting, and the harmonious cultivation of knowledge and sensory perception.

Can you share any tips on acquiring knowledge and experience in your field?

I believe there's no substitute for firsthand experience. So, I make it a point to purchase and sample various beverages myself. There's a unique satisfaction in knowing exactly what you're enjoying, especially for someone who has a genuine passion for drinks like me. Whenever I have the opportunity to share a drink, whether alcoholic or non-alcoholic, with friends or colleagues, I engage in deep conversations, approaching each drink with a "serious" mindset to learn more about it.

While it's a noble aspiration to experience every drink in the world, it's not always feasible or practical to purchase and consume every bottle. This is where my network of "colleagues" and "seniors and juniors" in the field comes into play. Collaborating with others who share a similar dedication to their craft is invaluable. I also find it beneficial to explore different businesses or pay visits to industry veterans, gaining insights and knowledge through these interactions.

Speaking specifically to my line of work, there's a distinct limit to how much you can learn in isolation. When you connect with fellow professionals who are equally committed to serious study and open to sharing their experiences and knowledge, it not only accelerates your own learning but also creates opportunities for others to benefit from your insights. That's why we approach our studies as a team, working together to expand our collective understanding.

How did you feel after securing victory in the competition?

To be honest, it still feels somewhat surreal. When I clinched the championship, it took me completely by surprise, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude to the point of shedding tears. This competition holds such a venerable status, and it's been a lifelong dream of mine to make a career out of my passion for wine. Although it was my first time participating in this competition, I've envisioned myself standing in that spot every year as I've followed articles and YouTube coverage of it. I'm an avid enthusiast of celebrities, often watching videos and photos, and yet, this competition felt different—it felt like a familiar event that I'd always been a part of. It's as if I'd always belonged there, much like Solbam's service table.

I reflected upon the many individuals who supported me on this journey. Without the guidance and encouragement of my mentors, peers, and fellow students, I'm convinced that achieving this result would have been an incredibly challenging feat. In particular, I'd like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Chef TJ Eom, who consistently dedicated time to help us refine our blind tasting skills two or three times a week. The chef's unwavering trust and support played a pivotal role in constructing a strong foundation for Solbam and establishing a formidable sommelier team. Since the inception of Solbam, it has flourished into a business boasting three sommeliers, all thanks to the chef's profound interest, comprehension, and endorsement of beverages and wine. As a united team, we are now more determined than ever to cultivate an even richer wine service culture for our patrons.

What are your future aspirations?

I see myself as a sommelier who still has a long way to go before becoming truly outstanding. I recognize that there are areas where I have room for improvement. Much like the accomplished and respected seniors in my field, my goal is to fill those gaps by gaining expertise in every aspect. I firmly believe that becoming a proficient sommelier necessitates more than just emphasizing or shoring up specific skill sets. It involves a holistic understanding of beverages, coupled with comprehensive knowledge across the realms of food, culture, and sometimes even political contexts to deliver exceptional service. Equally important is the manner in which we interact with people. While I continue to seek visible knowledge and certifications, my ultimate aspiration is to amass knowledge, experience, and cultivate a personality that will make me a better sommelier.


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