As I sat with Aldo Sohm at his namesake bar in midtown, I was hoping to gain a little insight on how he trains to win. An innate affinity for recollection? A freakishly sensitive palate, with the intellect to boot? Or does he just work harder than everyone else?
Voted the Best Sommelier of Austria in 2002, just four years after passing his sommelier exam, Aldo held the title for four consecutive years. And then, he moved to America “because of competition,” he said, and won the title of “Best Sommelier in America 2007”, before conquering the world in 2008, as the “Best Sommelier in the World 2008”, as awarded by the World Sommelier Association.
Starting his sommelier diploma “late” in 1998, Aldo found his song after a trip to Alto Adige with his father. When in the midst of his two-day sommelier exams a few years later, Aldo followed his trainer to the Austrian Sommelier competition in Vienna. “I wrote my exam on Friday, stepped on the train right after, and went to Vienna,” he said. “All of my colleagues said, You are absolutely nuts. Shouldn’t you focus on the exam? I said listen, if I fail, I fail. But over there, there is so much to learn. I came back on the overnight train for the exam on Monday. But when I saw the finals, which are public,” he continued, “I saw the intensity and the tension, which was enormous. I said, I will never do that, because this is just insane. The strange part is,” he added and laughed, “never say never.”
When Aldo finished his diploma, his coach offered to train him for the competitions. “You would be the perfect candidate,” he told him. “You have the right mind set, the right determination.” But for the first two years that he competed, Aldo couldn’t shake second place.
“The third time,” he said, “I didn’t give up. I was very disappointed after the second time, as you can imagine. Those are life tests. You get certain rejections, you start questioning yourself. You get desperate. I became very competitive. My mindset became very competitive.” And his focus knife-sharp.
“When you study that hard, you get combative. You look at other people,” he continued, “you analyze them. Your whole life starts narrowing down, and it becomes like a drug. It’s a whole lot of endorphins.” And in this environment he thrived, winning the title, and being the only Austrian sommelier to maintain it for four years in a row.
“The challenge is, if you win it once, you win it twice. From then on, it becomes very hard because the judges are not on your side any more…In 2007, I didn’t want to do it again. I said, I’m done. Eight years of this insanity, I want to have a life.” Moving to the States in 2004, Aldo returned to Austria to compete for the fourth time, when a friend inquired, “Are you sure you want to go back there? It’s not too late to back out. Nobody there wants to see you winning again. And unless you’re 20% better, you’re not going to win, you know that.” But Aldo took the chance and won the title. “I won it with one point difference,” he said and laughed. “One point.”
In New York, he joined Kurt Gutenbrunner’s team at Café Sabarsky and Wallsé, where he learned “what not to do”. Encouraging Aldo to focus less on his job and more on adapting to his new culture, Kurt knew from experience that integration was the key to his success. Learning how to communicate and intuit the needs of his American audience, Kurt felt it was important to recognize that Americans have different needs to satisfy than their clientele in Austria. “Another thing is,” Aldo learned, “you realize very quickly that your jokes aren’t funny!”
When Aldo moved to Le Bernardin in 2007, it was expected that he would immediately tear up the list to make his mark. Instead, he held respected the work that had come before him and focused on learning the restaurant. “I said look, I’m not going to create a revolution here because the revolution will swing back,” he said. “It’s like a bell. You set a reaction, and it comes back and then you have to be able to hold it. It’s a very young person’s thing, to change everything from your predecessors and what they did. But there’s no constant and you don’t do the restaurant a favor. You work with the chef and you make the restaurant look good.”
And while acknowledging that he is “spoiled” by his access to high profile wines, Aldo remains grateful. Managing a 15,000 bottle collection at Le Bernardin, with 900 selections, including some from the nineteenth century, Aldo is keen to educate and share with his team at the Wine Bar. “It’s a mission for me to instill the fire,” he said. “Find the talents in the team, even for the people who don’t have the fire yet, to just keep trying.
“I always try to involve my team as much as I can,” he continued. “Me? What am I without my team? I am nobody. I need a strong team, then I can be strong. I give them responsibilities, and they see how it feels.” But like everything else, this was something that Aldo had to learn.
“I worked myself nuts,” he recalled. “I became agitated because they didn’t do shit. I worked like a maniac. Then, Chef threw it in my face. He said, You don’t do your job. I said, What? I don’t do my job? I work insane and I don’t do my job? And he said, Look, you need to work with your people.”
With a highly calibrated palate, Aldo also needs to work with his guests. “What you experience in tasting a wine and what your clients experience is not necessarily the same,” he said. “How far can I go, before I lose them in the connection?” he asks himself. “How much creativity can I bring in? How far can I push the envelope?” However, he continued, “you don’t come to Le Bernardin to have a California Chardonnay with your lobster, because you can get that at every steak house.
“To me, as a European sommelier, food and wine go together. What’s the point of writing a wine list that goes completely against your chef? You need to be a team. A sommelier without a chef is like a conductor with no orchestra.”