Patrick Tabhan emerges as Champion of the 1st Philippine Sommelier Competition

To some of us, “wine” and its corresponding trimmings are reserved for celebrations, or occasions when we want to show off. To some of us, it’s the expensive treat “we deserve!” Still, to some, it’s a hobby, a passion, a cellar in the basement of our everyday lives.

Patrick Tabhan

However, to the candidates of the 1st Philippine Sommelier Competition – especially for the three finalists of the professional division – it’s not only serious business, but the center of their career’s gravity. That is why, as the finalists themselves will admit, the competition – from elimination to the finals – was humbling, nerve-wracking, and gut-checking. And perhaps, that is also why they were all very proud to have represented well, and come out on top.

Patrick Tabhan, Mathew Rae de Guzman, and Jose Carlos Tongco
Patrick Tabhan, Mathew Rae de Guzman, and Jose Carlos Tongco

The Philippine Sommelier Association organized the event with the support of major sponsors such as Vintec and Lucaris, and with Enderun Colleges, which hosted the event on their school grounds. The competition, which took place last March 27, drew over 20 candidates for the professional division. These contestants are at the top of their game, and among the country’s best when it comes to wines. They represented no less than hotels such as Shangri-La, Raffles, Okada, restaurants such as Wolfgang, and wine stores such as Premium Wine Exchange and Titania Wine Cellar. The competition also featured a junior division where college students battled it out.

The panel of judges was composed of both local names respected in the Philippine food and wine scene, as well as international names that are not just known for being wine masters, but as sommelier competition experts in the region.

Cyrene de la Rosa, John Hung, Joe Sriwarin, Patrick Tabhan, Tommy Lam, Stephanie Zubiri Crespi, Eric Wang, and Jay Labrador

Patrick Tabhan, Sommelier at the Makati Shangri-La, emerged as the first-ever competition champion. Coming in at second place was Jose Carlos Tongco of Okada, Manila. Matthew de Guzman of Raffles Makati came in at third. All three participated in the final rounds and received gift prizes from the sponsors. It was Patrick, However, who, by virtue of winning the competition, won the right (and the all-expense paid trip) to represent the Philippines to the sixth Southeast Asia +Taiwan’s Best Sommelier Competition in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Junior division, meanwhile, was topped by Yvette Belleza, of Enderun Colleges.

Gemelle Mae Lim and Yvette Belleza

The elimination rounds, held from morning until early afternoon, featured different tests that challenged the participants’ wine knowledge. The finals in the late afternoon consisted of three rounds of pressure-packed theoretical and practical challenges.

Round One of the finals featured a restaurant simulation: three tables that seated the different judges, who acted as guests with different needs. They were tested in terms of practical skill (Was it the right glass? When asked, can they recommend which foods pair best with a particular Chablis and a particular Shiraz? Can they decant a 1982 Chateau Lafite properly?), as well as theoretical knowledge (This wine list has 10 errors. Please spot them.). The audience was tense, and they exhaled as they applauded for the candidates after each one finished serving the third table. Round Two had more of a game show feel, where the candidates were given glasses of unnamed liquids, which they had to guess in 15 seconds. Round Three tested the finalists by giving them one champagne bottle each, and a set of 16 flutes arranged in a 4×4 grid. They were asked to pour equal amounts of champagne into each flute without going back to a previously poured flute, emptying the bottle as best they could.

To Matthew, the toughest part was the theoretical. His background is in bartending, and wines aren’t second nature to him, as it probably was to the other candidates. To have been able to finish third in a tough competition despite this handicap, though, makes him feel very proud of his accomplishment.

To Jose Carlos, the tough part was not knowing what to expect. Sure, they were able to prepare (some of them watched wine documentaries on YouTube, or Somm on Netflix), but they didn’t know exactly which challenges were going to happen.

To Patrick, the difficulty lay in finding enough time to study amidst the demands of his current job, as well as all the pressure packed into the competition. “I’ve served different heads of state, but this was different,” he said.

And yet, to win, for Patrick, was “everything.” Not only were all the years of study and certification worth it. His decision to be his own sommelier when he began his restaurant was also vindicated. He hopes his win can reassure his current managers that they chose the right guy for the job.

It was also a win for the industry.

Tommy Lam, chair of the Board of Judges, has helped establish competitions and helped judge talent all over the region. Thus, it is no small thing when he said that the level of the Philippines’ candidates were the best he’s seen for an inaugural competition.

President of Asia Wine Institute and Co-founder of China’s Wine List of the Year Award, Tommy Lam

This has to be just a beginning for the winners, though, explained judge John Hung, who is founder of the Taiwan Sommelier association. He added that they have to be exposed to, and learn more about how it is done internationally.

Ms. Pierre Angeli Dee Addison, the president of the recently established Philippine Sommelier Association, underscored the importance of holding these competitions. They help to elevate the standards of sommeliers in the Philippines, and hopefully, they inspire everyone to be on the same page when it comes to excellence. For her, one shouldn’t have to be in a hotel to be guided by a competent sommelier.

For Bel S. Castro, Assistant Dean for the College of Hospitality Management of Enderun and one of the organizers of the event, this competition is a “tipping point” for the Philippine sommelier industry. Eric Chang, Vice President of the Philippine Sommelier Association, agreed. They were not only ecstatic about the event finally pushing through for the Philippines, and proud of the winners, they were also excited about the future of the wine industry.

Everyone in the whole wine-loving community undoubtedly lifts their glasses to the organizers, candidates and winners of this inaugural competition. They shout “cheers” for the feat of raising the standards of sommeliers in the country, for the candidates’ overcoming the gauntlet of tests and emerging victorious, and most of all, for pushing the boundaries of loving wine – and all the art, science and passion that come with it.

2017 will thus be remembered as a good year for the Philippine wine industry.


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