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So You Think You Know Wine, Eh?: Competitive Wine Tasting

It should come as a surprise to no one that I took my new hobby of wine tasting to the extreme. I warn you that this is more of a story than an exposition and one where I quite flatter myself. Read on at your own risk. After’s virtual wine tastings became sparse I found myself looking for new ways to experience wine tastings and I stumbled upon a Canadian YouTube show called So You Think You Know Wine. My life will never be the same. Here’s the basics. Three or four wine experts on a zoom call with three wines in a blind tasting. They have to identify the varietal, the country, the region, the appellation, the vintage and the price. They get a point for each. The expert with the most points at the end of the session wins. It’s competitive wine tasting!

The little voice inside of me that tells me everything is a competition went crazy over this show. But it’s highly entertaining to Pat who does not feel the need to race me up the stairs on a daily basis. When I discovered the show, before I really knew what was happening, I ordered all of the wines I could find that I knew they would be tasting. We chose to start with a Sauvignon Blanc, our favorite white, from New Zealand. Pat and I set up our usual tasting charcuterie board, appropriate tasting glasses, wine journals, a copy of wine folly and a pad of paper and pens. We had no idea what laid ahead of us. Fortunately we had the good sense to hook up the TV to the laptop so we could watch the show on the big screen.

Twenty minutes later we found ourselves yelling at the TV like we were watching soccer on Telemundo. It’s boring when they all get it right, it’s hilarious when one expert is totally off, it’s exciting when the experts think a $20 wine is a $40 wine and you cringe when they think a $50 wine is a $15 wine. That first night we ended up watching two episodes and then discovered pre-pandemic they did this live for individual wines in a 10 min episode. We have since watched a dozen of those.

But as I said at the beginning, I took this too far. Or not far enough. It’s hard to say. A few weeks ago Pat had a hard day so we left our offspring with her grandparents and headed to our local wine bar, Iron Bridge. They have great wine flights that change seasonally. We started with the sparkling wine flight that always has a cava, a prosecco and a champagne in it. All of which we can both identify and price pretty easily. But then we ordered a mixed red and white flight of new wines we have never tasted. The waitress put them down by name but since the menu is now via QR code, we didn’t have the details handy. I tasted the first one and said, oh this is a California Chardonnay, probably Sonoma, but Pat was quite disappointed I couldn’t name the appellation, Russian River Valley. Then the shenanigans began.

I blind tasted the three wines and got four to five points each. I could guess the varietal on all three, name the region on all three, knew the appellation on one, guessed the price on two, and got the vintage on two . Either I have been tasting way too much wine lately or I have a really great pallet. Maybe both. The wine I was off on price was $20 wine I thought was a $40 wine, so we bought that one to take home. We were making a little too much noise, although due to social distancing there wasn’t anyone close enough to us to be bothered by it but the staff was curious as to what we were doing.

We decided to let Pat pick one more glass that he thought would stump me. When the waitress came over she asked and we told her about So You Think You Know Wine. She was very excited to watch it herself. She approved of Pat’s choice and when she came back she had three wines. The wine Pat picked and then two others for me to taste. She said the staff does this on slow days, partially for fun and partially to make sure they know what they are serving. I nailed the one Pat tried to stump me with but I over shot the price which is always a good thing. I got three points on the first wine the waitress brought us. It was South African and I didn’t know the region or appellation. I definitely need more practice on South Africa.

The second wine the waitress brought us, totally and completely stumped me. The only thing I knew was that it was a red grape, not a blend, from a cooler region. Not a bad start but it left a lot of points on the table. I knew it was new world, meaning not French, but I settled on a Spanish Tempranillo. Pat told me I was in the wrong continent and then I said it tastes like northern California, but it’s too smooth to be Napa at my assumed price point and it doesn't have the sweetness of Sonoma. Could be Monteray? I don’t know anything about Monterey reds. Do they even make them? I didn’t know anything else.

It turned out to be a Wagner Petit Syrah. I was thrown by the price. Utterly and completely. I assumed it wasn’t from Napa because it would have cost so much more than they would give me an unpaid sample. Thus laid my failure. It was a $60 (which they were selling for $90) Petite Syrah from a Wagner Estate. A 2018 Caymus-Suisun Petite Sirah Grand Durif Suisun Valley. The Suisun Valley is northwest of Napa and has those cool nights I tasted. They got me. A week later I saw the experts on You Think You Know Wine do the opposite and confuse a Spanish Tempranillo or a Californian Syrah. I slapped my hand on the table and said "see!"

Of course I now have two bottles of Syrah, one California and one not, and I am on the hunt for more South African wines to try. The bug has bitten me. My competitive nature and the high of a bit of success has me expanding my usual repertoire of wines in my rotation. Fortunately my local wine shop, River Hill Wine and Spirits, has an excellent selection and a knowledgeable owner. I haven’t fully explained why but she’s giving me more expansive recommendations beyond my usual French Bourdeauxs, Napa CabSavs, Monterey Chardonnays, and of course my quarterly case of Moet.

Fast forward to Easter and my cousin Sarah, of Simply Sarah Story, brings two bottles of reds made locally. She has me blind taste them to get the true measure of my skill. Maryland wine is a tricky business. Unlike Northern Virginia where you can throw a stone and hit an award winning winery, the Maryland wine scene is a little less solid. She’s been stalking the MoCo wine scene gathering her favorites, but I personally am hesitant to head to a Maryland winery unless someone I trust has given it two thumbs up. Like everyone else I love Black Ankle but it’s been so hard to get a reservation during the pandemic and I think the prices are a little high for what you are getting. Especially when sitting there for a day drinking multiple bottles. We love Hidden Hills reds for the price and the beauty of the estate, but stay away from the whites.

I digress. Sarah brought Rocklands Montevideo and Windridge Encampment. One I could tell was a Bordeaux style blend but clearly made with what are frankly inferior Maryland grapes. I got pretty close to a CabSav, CabFranc with a little Merlot and a relatively young vintage. There is no guessing price on Maryland wines. The second I was sure was a Syrah with California grapes after my slip up at Iron Bridge, but made locally. I was quite pleased with myself and have become the parlor trick. Of course my failures at Iron Bridge is what led me to my success at Easter. Never doubt the power of learning from your mistakes and never underestimate the part of me that needs to get to the top of the stairs first. Until next time wine...until next time.

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