north of neutral dialog

March 5, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Veronique Rivest, Sommelier, Quebec

I first met Veronique Rivest when she stepped into the elevator of The Huntington on Nob Hill, San Francisco. I was on my way down to the lobby to check out and return to New York after three days of work on the west coast. Despite being somewhat shy when I meet new people, by the time we had reached the ground floor I found myself asking this stranger to share a cab to the airport so we could continue our chat.

It was on that  30-minute cab ride that I learned that she was one of the key players in the world of sommeliers, quite surprising and in stark contrast to her nonchalant and approachable attitude. In fact, as she took a sip from her mug, she burst out in an infectious laugh: “This coffee tastes strange, I wonder if it still has some wine from yesterday left in it.” At the gate we agreed to follow-up with an interview to explore her journey in the world of wine.

The role

A seasoned wine-specialist, Veronique Rivest has represented her native Canada at a number of prestigious wine competitions worldwide. In October 2010, she placed 3rd at the Sommelier World Cup in Paarl, South Africa. The same year she won the much sought-after Peter Lehmann Shiraz World Sommelier Award. In 2009 she came in second at the Best Sommelier of the Americas Competition in Buenos Aires, and in 2007 was named ‘Wine Woman of the Year’ at the renowned Wine Woman Awards competition in Paris, and finished semi-finalist at the World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Greece.

In addition to her presence in the global world of sommeliers, Rivest also consults, leads educational programs and oversees corporate events. Within this role she has created award-winning wine programs for some of Canada’s top restaurants, and runs educational programs on behalf of organizations such as Wines of Australia, Wines of Greece and Wines of Germany. She has served as a judge in global wine and food competitions and is  the wine columnist forRadio-Canada and Journal le Droit. Rivest also serves as spokesperson of the ‘Mondial des Cidres de Glace’ as well as being a regular contributor to specialty magazines and television shows.

The journey

Rivest grew up in Quebec, the youngest of three children of a German mother and a French-Canadian father. Between her mother’s career as a professional translators and her father’s as an economist for the Canadian  government, the home life of this family of fivewas always busy. Nevertheless, Rivest describes how most evenings her family would gather and share engaging discussion at the dinner table – both about daily life and world events. Food, good wine and socializing were part of her family’s fabric: “I loved eating and discovering new flavors. I was one of those horrible kids that would put everything in my mouth. It would drive my parents crazy!”

A naturally curious person, at the age of twelve Rivest had her first encounter with wine. Accompanying her father to a reception, she picked up a glass of wine and was intrigued by this unfamiliar taste. It was another twelve years though before Rivest decided to explore the world of wine more seriously…

A thirst for discovery made it difficult for her to decide on a definite career path for quite some time. “I was always afraid of specializing – as I was convinced I would miss out on so much.” Which reminded me of studies on the nature of ‘curiosity’. According to well-known psychologist Csikszentmihalyi, there exists a direct correlation between our cognitive resources and our interest in the world. In other words: nothing is truly compelling until we choose to focus our attention on it.

During her first year abroad in France, following completion of a BA in Modern Languages and Literature, Rivest signed on as an apprentice for a winery and, as a result, started to consider a career in wine:”How could you not like this job? I learned a lot, worked alongside the winemaker in the lab, was attending wine tastings and was generally appreciated for my ‘fresh palate’.”

It was a rapid learning curve from here. Rivest taught the ‘Introduction to Oenology’ at the Hotel Management School in Strasbourg while getting her MBA from Schiller University. In 1992 she trained on analytical tastings with Serge Dubs, France’s Best Sommelier at the time and recognized as the number one in Europe.

After seven years in France, Rivest decided to return to Canada with her husband. Having experienced a successful trajectory in the world of wine during her stay in Europe she now saw herself faced with a very different landscape: a state regulated monopoly of the wine industry. “The hiring of staff was not based on competence but based on the number of years and seniority.” As a woman in her early thirties she did not ‘fit the typical profile’ and her dream of continuing a career as a wine specialist seemed to have been dashed, so Rivest embarked on a career in retail sales in the restaurant industry.

The lucky break

In a fortuitous twist, however, soon after returning to Canada, Rivest came across an announcement for a competition for sommeliers in Montreal. “I thought that it would be a great way to get a sense for who the key players were in the local sommelier market.” Rivest signed up – along with about 60 other wine professionals and enthusiasts. Her personal strength equipped her with the willingness to accept the risk of failure, but Rivest was more than surprised when they announced the six finalists – she was among them. “Next was a taste test in front of a group of judges.” She recalls. “In preparation I found myself in a room with my competitors, five guys who all knew each other. I was practically a blank page after a number of years of having lived outside of the country. You could almost hear them whispering: Who the hell is that?”

Rivest lost the competition but regained her commitment to becoming one of the leading sommeliers in her native Canada. Another characteristic of intrinsically curious individuals, the heightened awareness of what Rivest did know and did not know in her chosen domain prompted her readiness to expand herself: “I realized that in the field of wine there are no boundaries as to what you can learn. That really fueled my love and desire for  learning more.”

As part of our dialog I had asked Rivest to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, a complimentary 30-minute questionnaire that measures the degree to which you identify with each of the 24 character strengths it assesses. This reliable, valid instrument is stable across cultures. It represents a solid step towards creating a heightened self-awareness, key pre-requisite to unleashing one’s full potential and to leading an authentic, fulfilling career and life. No surprise, Rivest’s number one signature strength turned out to be curiosity.


Mentor relationships in meaningful domains are known to foster a person’s desire to explore. Rivest’s professional inspiration is Gérard Basset, currently the only person in the world to hold the combined titles of Master of  Wine, Master Sommelier, Wine MBA and World’s Best Sommelier. “He competes on a regular basis, despite being 55, which is a very stressful undertaking. At the same time he remains the most approachable and  down-to-earth person. He operates a restaurant in England with his wife where he is implicated in everyday operations and mentors interns year round.”

Many competitions and global recognitions later, Rivest is looking to get her Master Sommelier Diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers:”When I am interested in something I completely sink in and devote myself to learning about it.” Part one of the Masters consists of applied restaurant wine service and salesmanship, part two covers wine theory, and part three involves the practical tasting part. Within twenty-five minutes a contestant must identify six different wines and, where appropriate, name grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages. The prestigious international examining body was established in 1977 and, given its low passing rate of 10 percent, only 174 people worldwide had become Master Sommeliers by 2011, and more than 90 percent are male.

However, Rivest’s extrinsic motivators to succeed – such as wishing to be acknowledged for her competencies – are very much balanced by her intrinsic motivation to find enjoyment in what she does. Her source of  inspiration and energy is in being able to continuously discover something new. It may be a new wine region, competition, colleague or simply discovering a new wine.

Here she laughs and shares one of her trophies of venturing out and forever discovering: “I love wines that transport you, that tell you a story. I came upon a lesser heard of creation, ‘Drappier Brut Nature Zero Dosage’.” She explains, “It comes from outside the classical Champagne région, a bit off the beaten track, and is different from other champagnes which use sugar to balance the high acid,as a brut nature has no sugar added. Of the brut  nature category, I have tasted a whole bunch of bad ones, very austere, almost hard. This Drappier stands out as it is well-rounded, of outstanding quality yet it currently sells very reasonably for under $30 a bottle.”

This feels like an appropriate note to end on and her description of her latest discovery and its attributes very much remind me of how I have come to experience Veronique Rivest myself. She’s bubbly, of superb yet  unassuming quality, and well-balanced in her drive for professional success and personal happiness. And undoubtedly, like a good wine, she will get even better over time. Surely the coveted title of Master Sommelier awaits…

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