Should we call it a smackdown?
Blind Tasting and the Sommelier Showdown
One of the most difficult (and humbling) events in the wine word is called a blind tasting. This is where someone puts a glass (or two or six) of wine in front of you and says, “Okay…what is it?” You’re supposed to tell, just by seeing, sniffing, and sipping, the grape varietal, what country and region it’s from, and whether it’s an older or more recent vintage. It isn’t easy, and even the most experienced tasters sometimes get it wrong. (I happen to be terrible at it).
If you decide you want to be a sommelier, and you pursue an official certification in the field, the ability to taste blind – and nail the answers – is a major part of the final exam. So I was pleased to be invited to a new event staged by a wine boutique near me. They’re calling it the Sommelier Showdown. The idea is that every Tuesday afternoon through May and June, two wine directors from clubs and restaurants in the area go head to head and blind taste four wines, attempting to identify them. Paying guests taste along, and test their own skills against the pros.
The first Showdown was held on May 1, pitting two wine directors from local clubs and restaurants head to head. Along with those two experts, there were about 20 of us trying our luck at the two whites and two reds that were set before us.
There’s a method to this. First, a professional certifying organization like the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) gives you a document specifying the probable wine varietals and regions that are fair game for the test. For example, if they give you a Sauvignon Blanc, it will be either from the Loire Valley in France, or from New Zealand. They’re not trying to fool you with some almost-extinct varietal from an obscure region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Second, there’s an evaluation sheet (they call it a tasting grid) you fill out that classifies all the qualities of the wine you’re guessing at: color, fruit and non-fruit flavors, structure, like acidity and alcohol levels, and finally, your determination of the primary grape, where it comes from, and the type of climate. As if.
Well, as it turns out, the two wine managers didn’t get every single one right, but they did better than the rest of us. Anybody can do better than I.