Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Armand Melkonian
I’ve already interviewed a large number of Sommeliers in the past 2 years, but this one is extra special. It is with great honor to introduce to you Armand Melkonian!! Armand Melkonian was 31 years old when he won the first edition of the Best Sommelier of the World Championship in 1969 hosted in Brussels!! I know that over the last 50 years the world of wine and sommellerie has evolved massively, but it is thanks to people like Armand this evolution took place :-) . It is also with lots of respect that many sommeliers talk about Armand.
Although Armand was raised in France and has always defended the French Tricolor with lots of pride, his love for France is shared with that one for the country from his parents' heritage, Armenia.
It was in 1962 that Armand started his brilliant career as second barman at the Château de la Chèvre d’Or in Eze-Village, followed by a job as sommelier at hotel Versailles in Villefranche-sur–mer. To eventually working over 30 years at hotel la Voile d’Or in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat as head-sommelier. I don’t think today there to many people in general working for whichever company that many years.
As most hotels were closed in the ‘low season’ for 5 months, Armand started teaching wine courses for professionals. In the 1990’s he also succeeded in persuading supermarkets in the Alpes-Maritimes to have a professional sommelier be present during the end-of-year celebrations and wine fairs. This to help people during their wine shopping for the holidays and festivities… today it is not that uncommon, but back in those days ‘du jamais vu’.
Even today at age of 80, Armand his days are still all about the wine :-)
We’re also looking forward welcoming him back in Belgium 50 years after his victory in ’69 in Brussels. I do regret not being able to share more pictures with you from back in 1969… if only they already had smartphones and knew how to take selfies back then... although you're never to old to learn so it seems ;-) :-)
What is your favorite wine region to work with?
Without any doubt ‘la Bourgogne’
What does it take to be a good sommelier according to you?
The main quality of the sommelier is, first and foremost, to have the perfect knowledge of the wine he offers at his restaurant. He must also be a skilled propagandist, able to encourage the promotion of our wines around the world. It might speak for itself, but he must be humble, non-ostentatious towards the guests. He must be welcoming, friendly and impeccably dressed
Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?
The work of a sommelier has never been underestimated, far from it actually. For a restaurant owner, it is the employee who, thanks to his skills, brings in the most net profit :-) .
The differences between ‘before’ (back when I was younger) and now exist. Before, a sommelier practically elaborated the wine list himself and worked for decades in the same establishment (30 years in my case). Today, it is often the restaurant manager who takes care of everything, including the cellar and the wine list. Maybe they leave a little more freedom to the sommelier if he is World Champion? Nowadays, according to my colleagues, a sommelier does not stay so long in the same establishment.
When and how did you get the passion for wine?
In 1962, in collaboration with the sommeliers association of Paris, the Association of Sommeliers of the Côte d'Azur was born with as first president Jean Nicolas (who became second in the contest of the Best Sommelier of France). I immediately registered myself as a ‘commis’ in the profession. I received member card n ° 1 ! So I might actually rephrase this question into ‘Who gave youthe passion for wine’.
The President was so dynamic, super proficient in oenology that he awakened a beginning of a passion. Why? because, unlike other jobs in the restaurant business, wine is a living product that evolves like a human being: it is born, matures, ages more or less well and dies.
It is this constant follow-up that has fascinated me, not to mention the more than interesting visits to French and foreign vineyards where we are always received as very important personalities in the world of wine.
Then, of course, to complete my knowledge, I followed, at the Ecole Hotelière de Nice, a specialized course in sommellerie. It was our President, Mr. Nicolas, who pushed and encouraged me to take part in the competitions.
Who is your big example in the wine/sommelier world?
I think you can already guess my answer to this question, but just make sure I’ll confirm it to you. A person I have always looked up to and that has inspired me throughout my entire career in the world of sommellerie is Jean Nicolas, the first president of the Association des Sommeliers de la Côte d’Azur.
What is your approach for pairing wines (or other beverages) with dishes?
Matching, or ‘mariage des vins’ with the dishes, only depends on the skill of the sommelier. Before the service, it must be familiar with the composition of each dish offered on the menu.
Which wine region would you recommend everybody to visit and why?
All wine regions are beautiful to visit. Each of them has its own particular style. Therefore I propose you to: visit Alsace, the vineyards of the Loire valley, La Champagne (obviously), Burgundy, Côtes du Rhône, Provence and Bordeaux which, in my modest opinion, is not only the most extensive in production and also, apart from the very varied quality of its prestigious wines, has the most beautiful castles in the world.
I would also recommend to visit, one of the smallest vineyards of France that I particularly like: the wine of Bellet A.O.P. which is located on hills of the city of Nice. It is the only urban vineyard in France where 9 wine growers exploit 600 hectares(organic), from local grape varieties, Braquet, Rolle etc ....
For which wine would you make a big sacrifice to be able to taste?
Yes, I would like to taste again, one day, the "Chambertin" of Armand Rousseau, one of the best of this appellation that I will qualify as ‘Grand Seigneur’.
What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school or viticulture studies?
At the Nice Hotel School, I only followed a specialized sommelier course, but I do have some nice memories from that period. My best memory of this period is the exceptional competence of our professor of oenology, who was finalist of the contest of the Best Sommelier of France in the 60s, Mr. Blandin.
A culinary or wine experience everybody should have had besides have a meal at your restaurant, shop, winery, etc..?
I would recommend, as part of the professional training as sommelier, to follow a training course of a ‘culinary experience’ concerning the pairing of food/wines. I admit having learned a lot from it, and even sometimes to have been astonished and surprised by curious agreements.
How did you prepare yourself for the World Championship you won in 1969 ?
Winning a contest? I will compare this performance to that of a high level athlete who has only one ambition: to be the best in his category.
Originally it takes a passion and hard work. You have to be tenacious, have "the rage to conquer", be meticulous and demanding and even rigorous. A secret: these traits are useful in your entire life. So, while nobody had any hope for me when I had cancer, I got through it after 7 surgeries with many complications following and after months in intensive care. The doctors are still talking about it.
Equally essential is an investment of time and energy in order to acquire the perfect knowledge of the profession, without neglecting any detail, including the deepening of the ‘language’ and the ‘codes’ of the profession. Listening to what the winemakers in the cellars have to say is definitely useful.
I speaks for itself that before I was able to participate the World championship I already had some miles on the counter and after winning a few local contest and becoming 2nd Best Sommelier of France (1967), in 1968 I won the title of Best Sommelier of France.