The Philippines’ best bets for best sommelier in Southeast Asia, Ian Santos and Odie Pineda.
Food & Drink Features

The PH’s two top wine pros are vying for the Southeast Asian sommelier crown

At this year’s “SEA Games” for sommeliers, Filipino “next gen” sommeliers Ian Santos and Odie Pineda are pitting their wine knowledge and service skills against their Southeast Asian counterparts.
Marilen Fontanilla | Dec 04 2019

Today’s new breed of sommeliers no longer evoke staid images of cranky and pompous wine stewards, ready to pounce on every wine label mispronounced by clueless diners. Filipino sommeliers circa 2019 are quite the opposite—enlightened, approachable, usually millennial, and hyper-knowledgeable about the fast-evolving world of wine.

These “next gen” sommeliers are helping spearhead the Philippines’ growing wine lifestyle. They curate wine lists, not just for fancy hotels and restaurants, but for casual bistros and wine lounges as well. They train waitstaff on proper wine service and basic wine knowledge. And they act as essential sources of information about new wine regions, grapes, winemakers, winemaking techniques to help consumers, restaurateurs, and chefs alike. 

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ANCX caught up with two of the best sommeliers in the country who exemplify this new breed—Ian Santos and Godofredo “Odie” Pineda. Crowned just this year as Best Sommelier in the Philippines, Ian Santos currently serves as Assistant Restaurant Manager and In-House Sommelier of Dusit Hospitality Management College, handling both the service and education aspects of the trade. Pineda, on the other hand, works on the supplier side as Account Manager, Off-Trade at Moët Hennessy Philippines.

Santos participating at last year’s Southeast Asia Sommelier Competition.

Santos and Pineda are the chosen Philippine representatives at the 8th Southeast Asia Sommelier Competition happening this December 6 and 7 at the dusitD2 The Fort. They will be competing against 14 other sommelier champions from Southeast Asia during a grueling two-day affair that involves, among other tests, a wine knowledge Q&A, blind tasting, wine service demo, and culminating in a nerve-wracking Champagne pouring. The team of judges will be headed by the first Filipino Master Sommelier, Luis de Santos, now based in Las Vegas. For those curious to learn how the sommeliers will be competing, the grand finals will be open to the public on December 7 at 2 pm.

Heading the judges, Luis de Santos, the first Filipino Master Sommelier, one of less than 300 master sommeliers in the world. Photo by Erin Cooper

The week before the big competition, both Santos and Pineda took time out from their preparations to take readers into the secret world of “somms” and share what it takes to reach this peak in their profession. 

What lured you into the sommelier world?

Santos: Curiosity and my dream to travel the world as a child. I have always believed that the best way to understand one’s culture is through food, and wine being an expression of terroir.

How did you become a sommelier?

Pineda: Immediately after graduation, I got accepted to work for a wine shop/restaurant in Clark. I’ve always been interested in beverages in general, but didn’t think that wine would be such a big broad subject. We had a basic beverage course in college (BS HRIM in UP Diliman) but I had to take specialized certifications such as Level 3 Advanced WSET, Certified Wine Sommelier at the Court of Master Sommeliers, and Certified Specialist of Wine at the Society of Wine Educators as I progressed.

Pineda’s wine certifications and pins, the pride of any sommelier.

Santos: I was always curious about food and wine, but it wasn’t until college when I discovered my knack for all sorts of beverages. My wine appreciation class during college really sparked my interest in wine and to pursue a sommelier career. While taking my internship at the Hyatt Regency in Jacksonville, Florida, I decided to take the Level 2 Awards in Wines and Spirits by the WSET Napa Valley Wine Academy. A few months after, I took my Level 1 Introductory Sommelier Certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas in Nashville, Tennessee. And in 2016, I took the Level 3 Awards in Wines by the WSET in Napa Valley Wine Academy. During those years, I worked as a wine steward and sommelier for country clubs and resorts in the United States.

Santos visiting the vineyards at Napa Valley, California with friends.

What do you think is the role of a sommelier?

Pineda: A sommelier is there to help you find the perfect wine based on what you need on the table and what you want to have. They are there to help out and not to terrorize you or make a fool out of you when you don’t understand what’s on the list.

What qualities are required to make a good sommelier?

Santos: Throughout my career, I have met sommeliers of different cultures and backgrounds. I noticed that there are consistent similarities every successful sommelier carries: confidence, humility, and enthusiasm. Any sommelier who is enthusiastic about what they do is passionate and free-spirited. You’ll never hear them talk down wines from anywhere in the world. They’re always up to try almost any type of wine or beverage for educational enhancement. A good sommelier also never claims that he/she knows everything, as it is all about continuous learning. A great sommelier must be able to confidently educate and guide consumers on their wine choices without making them feel intimidated.

 How are you preparing for the SEAsia Sommelier competition?

Pineda: It’s very hard as I’m working in a different aspect of the industry now but reading manuals, checking current news, and refreshing what one has learned before is a big chunk of the preparation, together with group tastings. Practicing proper service rituals even when you are opening a bottle for yourself also helps. It’s really nothing compared to how somms in other countries prepare. Some stop working months before just to prepare for the competition.

Pineda perfecting his Champagne pouring.

What is the wine drinking scene in the Philippines like today?

Pineda: The wine scene is changing so fast. Ten years ago, the wine selection wasn’t that great and there weren’t a lot of specialty wine stores, let alone learned drinkers. Now, there are a lot of educated drinkers. Social media has been a big tool for spreading wine love, with people sharing IG stories about what they drink and how they drink it. Being a sommelier was an unheard-of job before. Most of the wine stewards back then were experience based but lacked the knowledge or education behind, as there were no opportunities locally for wine education. Experience and knowledge work hand in hand. The wine drinkers and the sommeliers in the country are now seedlings versus then when they were basically seeds. There’s a lot of room to grow, but it has finally started to grow.

What do you think is the current status of sommeliers in the country today?

Pineda: Although there are a lot of opportunities in the metro, there aren’t a lot in other areas. I was lucky to work as a sommelier with probably the biggest wine collection in the country but not everyone would have access to see, touch, serve and sample bottles from what you read in the books. Price is a very tricky point, as well as the alcohol taxes probably make it a little harder for people to get into better quality wines. The main goal for a lot of sommeliers right now is to get people to drink wine, as we are culturally still a beer-drinking country and our food, although it can pair very well with wine, is preferred by people to drink with beer, soda, or juice.

Odie Pineda on the job.

Santos: There are great opportunities to grow beyond for future Filipino sommeliers. We have always been known for our hospitality and enthusiasm, therefore, creating endless possibilities for Filipinos. Through sommelier competitions, certifications, and other educational events continuously happening around the metro, I believe there will be a great number of Filipinos leading the wine market in the future, not only in the Philippines but around the world.

For both Santos and Pineda, their roles as sommeliers go beyond the few soundbites often doled out to interested consumers. Pineda affirms that while people often think it is all about drinking, it also involves continuous studying. Santos adds, “If there’s one trait us sommeliers must always apply in our career, it would be the ability to relate to anyone’s wine preferences and provide them with a beverage that suits their particular taste. At the end of the day, our role is to guide consumers and make them feel comfortable.”

 

The 8th Southeast Asia Sommelier Competition finals will be held on December 7, 2019, together with Manila Uncorked 2019, at dusitD2 The Fort, Bonifacio Global City. For tickets and more information, email [email protected] or visit bit.ly/ManilaUncorked2019