For our wedding, Bubby’s big idea for a gift was to give us a reservation for El Bulli he had made for himself but wasn’t going to be able to attend that happened to fall a week before our big day. Chopes’ idea was to give us tickets to the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen for the year after our wedding. Things like this are probably why Chopes is a life-long friend, and Bubby often ends up being struck about the head and neck when we drink together.
Day One, Wife and I kicked off our trip to the Classic with The Sommelier Challenge. Lettie Teague, Food & Wine’s Executive Wine Editor, assembled four pretty heavy-hitter sommeliers for the event: Robert Bohr of Cru, David Lynch of Babbo, Daniel Johannes of Daniel Boulud’s various restaurants, and Larry Stone of Rubicon Estates. Lettie gave them each a wine to pitch the audience, her thinking being that, ultimately, the job of a sommelier is to sell customers wine. It is a sales job that involves ordering, inventory maintenance, market awareness, presence, charm, and product knowledge. So each of these four “superstar sommeliers” was given a wine Lettie had chosen from outside their specific skill set, and assigned to sell it to the crowd (which would vote on who had done his job the best at the end).
First up was Larry Stone with a Tiefenbrunner. With spearmint and grapefruit qualities to its nose and a firm, cleansing acidity, citrus, and minerals on the palate, I appreciated it as simple, yet with a finesse that would make it a good kick-off wine. Larry discussed its universal appeal in that it was assertive enough to pair with most any starter course, yet would stay out of the food’s way. He went on to discuss the wine’s focus and add poetry with observations like hawthorn blossom and citrus notes.
Next came Daniel Johannes and an Etude “heirloom pinot noir.” A new world wine with an interesting bouquet of hickory smoke and BBQ, rasp- and boysenberry, that on the palate was crushed red fruit and wood but lacked an acidity that would have driven these fatter points home. Faced with what I consider the hardest challenge of the afternoon due to this wine being almost trite in its American-ness, Daniel went to a safe place I am sure he has spoken from before. He discussed that pinot goes with Pacific salmon and then began to geek out on the idea of varietal variation among pinot noir clones in Burgundy. He addressed attractive buzzwords like “heirloom” and the fact that this wine would be better with food.
David Lynch was given a Las Gravas from Jumilla Spain made of a blend of cabernet, syrah, and an indigenous grape named Monastrell that I found intriguing in its almost feral qualities. The nose was of morning breath, cinnamon, and diesel, while the palate was meaty like salami with driving red fruit acidity and black pepper notes. In order to sell it to us, David stepped out from behind the panelists’ table and addressed us in a more familiar pose, standing at one of the tables. He discussed the Monastrell grape bringing a spice and acidity to the wine that would make you crave food, and how dinner would be made better for its association with this wine.
Robert Bohr was given Purple Angel Carmenere from Chile, which had a vegetal bouquet with scents of green bell pepper to go along with jammy red fruit notes. To my palate it was spicy, with notes of minerals and earthiness, big extracted fruit surrounding a driving acidic core. Robert first asked we ignore the superfluous modern label with its picture of a purple angel, then started his explanation of why we should choose his wine with the information that carmenere is a little known sixth grape allowable in the Bordeaux A.O.C. rules. Robert shared this with us as one of his favorite tidbits cocktail party discussions, good for sucking the wind out of the sails of self-proclaimed wine know-it-alls. He then went on to explain that bordelaise grapes have a long history in Chile, even to some extent longer than Bordeaux because parts of Chile were spared devastation by phyloxera around the turn of the last century.
History then bridged into Robert’s appreciation of the wine as a unique offering of South America in that it straddled the line between the classic style, which tends to be aggressively linear, and the modern. Robert then did the thing that won him my vote; he used the word “spoofalated” to describe the modern wines of Chile, and the world for that matter.
For the second round, all four superstars were asked to address the same wine, an old vines Chenin Blanc from Saumur in the Loire. Gardenias, minerals, pears and under-ripe plums on the nose, it had flavors of pear with light vanilla notes and acids that would dance with the things you’d grill in olive oil. In turn, the gentlemen addressed: the large boite/new oak program; biodynamic viticulture; the perfection of a peekytoe crab pairing; the gripping acids; and the perfect spot this takes on a wine list for a customer looking for either value, or something from a less beaten path. Each added to the prior’s comments after both agreeing and complimenting the others for stealing what he would have said. In the long run, it was a team effort and as a result I think there might be a rise in the price of the bottle since a room of about seventy people was sold it by a dream team of cork dorks, and I believe only about 1000 cases a year are produced.
Ultimately, Robert Bohr won the day. Maybe it was his younger, more precocious, slightly more needy-of-approval style, maybe he just covered more of the things that make wine attractive to customers at this exact moment in time, or maybe he was given the most interesting wine. The fun as a spectator was watching talented pros, good at their games, riffing, one-upping, and enjoying each other. A large percentage of the time was spent with the panelists, the moderator and the crowd laughing and enjoying, and isn’t that the whole reason anyone would ever become or look for a sommelier?