Portrait of one of our sommeliers-partners : Bertrand Eichel, the Alsatian…
The glint in his eye and the slightly rebellious beard make him look a little like a pirate and when he talks about wine, food or his students, he is unstoppable, peppering his statements with fascinating anecdotes, in the grand tradition of storytellers from his native Alsace.
This week, we introduce you to Bertrand Eichel, another of our Alfred partners-sommeliers, currently offering the sommelier training at the École des métiers de la restauration et du tourisme de Montréal, after 10 years as head-sommelier of the famous private club 357C.
A gourmet first
A bit like Audrey Bouchard would rather be called a wine consultant than a sommelier, Bertrand Eichel sees himself as a gastronome more than a sommelier.
“I will always be more seduced by the perfect pairing of wonderful food and the appropriate glass of wine than with just a glass of fabulous wine alone. I am a foodie, I love food and I choose the wines as a chef chooses his ingredients, based on harmony and flavours. “
First trained as a cook, he quickly realized that it was often a thankless job and that, despite the fact he loved the celebration of creating wonderful meals of haute cuisine during his internship, he could not envision toiling 80 hours a week to practice “petite cuisine“. Wine seemed the best alternative.
“I quickly realized that right under the head chef, the sommelier was the individual closest to the act of creation in the kitchen. The chef manages the upfront part of the taste experience, but the sommelier masters the back elements of it, becoming the perfect complement to the pleasure of food. “
He arrived in Quebec in 2003, and launched himself in the process of nurturing his passion and developing his talents. A brilliant jack of all trades, he even wrote three books about food, recipes and wine pairings, was a food critic for a while and even ran his own web radio and TV, both dedicated to wine, while becoming, in 2005, the head sommelier at the 357C, a prestigious private club created by Daniel Langlois. He was even crowned with the title of Best Sommelier of Quebec in 2009.
A child of the vine
It was inevitable that a child who grew up in the middle of the family vineyard would become interested by wine.
“My grandfather was a farmer and a passionate man; we owned orchards and every year we would even make our own walnut oil. Because my grandad loved wine, he started growing vine and naturally began to produce his own. The first year, he wanted to make red but it turned out white because he did not know he had to leave the skins of the grapes in the macerating tub. “
It was homemade wine that was not to be sold but its production deeply impressed young Bertrand.
“On the other hand, we had an output of more than 1 000 liters each year, and we made our own spirits with fruit from our orchard. When you spend a lot of days and nights pressing grapes, you understand perfectly the sense of fun that comes with wine. “
Sharing the knowledge
He also drew his deep desire to teach from his family roots, leading him first to ITHQ and now the EMRTM.
“When both your parents are teachers, you quickly understand that sharing is as important as knowing. We have fun in my class where the students quickly grasp that wine is first and foremost based on pleasure and that it needs to exist in parallel with food. In a school where we also learn to cook and serve, the match happens naturally.”
He offers individualized teaching, managing 5 different levels in the same classroom which allows him to take in new students every 5 weeks thus reenergizing the group.
“The group is fascinating, with all types of people, mostly aged between 25 and 40, who come mostly from the world of food and service, primarily. Right now, In this group, there is a Chilean oenologist and some 20 year employees of the SAQ. Despite seeming very fragmented, it is a strangely homogeneous melting pot. “
While teaching to a new generation of sommeliers, one wonders if he observes specific trends affecting the renewal of the profession.
“It is clear that these people want to democratize the practice of the sommelier, breaking, in the process, the old image of a secret society type of knowledge. They wish to change the vision of the sommelier as a master of hocus-pocus nobody understands when he talks about wine. They wish to bring simplicity to the love of wine and change the professional attitude. Now it’s ok for the sommelier to wear tattoos and earrings, this has become the norm and customers do not bat an eye.”
On the other hand, he regrets that the democratization often happens at the expense of rigor and essential skills.
“The flip side of this is that, gradually, a lot of people introduce themselves as sommeliers. Unfortunately, despite the fact that there might be a lot of good tasters who eloquently describe a wine, they are not really sommeliers. They don’t know how to create wine pairings and even fewer can intelligently manage a wine cellar… and a well-managed wine cellar cannot contain more than 10% of the favorites wines of the sommelier. It is the client who will drink the wines who should be the prime component in the choice of bottles. “
One can easily think that moving from a prestigious private club whose clients have unlimited budgets to spend on their gastronomic pleasure to sommelier training school implied an important change of milieu.
“Not really, because, basically, the main quality of a sommelier is to bring wine within the reach of its customers, to listen to the way they wish to explore, not to impose their visions at all costs. Often, at 357C, it was the customers who democratized wine because, as they were often true lovers of it, they got up in the morning thinking about what they would buy and drink in the evening. Customers who don’t worry about the cost of their bottles are guided by taste, not by price and very often stay away from trends.”
Obviously, he remembers fondly all these “gastronomic performances” held for only 10 tables where he could taste wines with the chef a week in advance, to create the most perfect pairings. The gourmet sommelier gets a light in his eyes when evoking the memories.
“I experienced extraordinary moments like a vertical tasting of every vintage since 1994 by Nicolas Joly, the master of biodynamic wines, in his ! I also remember having tasted legendary Italian vintages with their producers or very old and rare champagnes from Maison Andre Beaufort ! “
Technology and wine craft
Even if his unique smile widens at the mention of those awesome memories, Bertrand is someone who resolutely looks to the future. A self-proclaimed geek who has used the web before everyone, with his own virtual radio and TV stations dedicated to wine, he loves the association of technology and wine. This interest also led him to Alfred since the beginning of the platform.
“I discovered Alfred through a few chance encounters, starting with Guy Doucet (President of Celliers Intelligents) or the mathematician-sommelier Sebastian Légasse. I was exposed to the first version of the application (Gaspard) and it fascinated me. I firmly believe that this technological tool will allow the sommelier to better pursue his vision by freeing him from the inventory part and other less exciting obligations of the practice.”
He also plans incorporating a specific training on Alfred in his advanced classes.
Forever an Alsatian
Obviously, he stills sees himself as a kid from Alsace and though he spends his life tasting wines from all around the world, he keeps in his heart a special love for his land and its wine production.
“I will always have a very strong cultural identity rooted in the place where I come from but I am sure it also allows me to open myself up to all sorts of differences. After all, knowing where you come from helps you see where you are going. More so, I’ve always been fascinated by how the concept of a single varietal grape, result of a unique geological fault, produced such a variety of exceptional wines that constantly impress me. Besides, I cannot complain because, in Quebec, with only 14 000 hectares of production, Alsatian wines are particularly well represented. “
Creative and skilled people like Bertrand Eichel allow Alfred to be much more than a technological tool.
For those of you interested in enrolling in the sommelier classes that Bertrand teaches, you can get the conditions and prerequisites by visiting this page.