How to Win a Somm Slam

by Jeff Harding with Emily Bell and Caroline Hatchett
Steve Jackson, Matt Noel, Mike Gross
October 2011

At the 2nd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam at the 6th Annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress, we not only learned what makes a star sommelier, we got to watch them in action. We've all eaten out as industry pros and had a snooty sommelier or a forgettable dining experience. But neither was the case in the beautiful Tasting Room at the Park Avenue Armory—in a competition where food and wine were in full harmony, married by a group of 12 charismatic sommeliers from around the country. The wine cellar included over 50 wines from various regions and organizations such as Sud de France, Wine Australia, and Rhône Valley Wines, as well as few individual wineries in California (Vineyard 7 & 8) and Chile (De Martino, Viña San Pedro, and Kingston Family Vineyards to name just a few).

When a sommelier helps a guest choose a wine, he or she has to consider the customer and his or her preferences, whether the "star" should be the food or the wine, and whether to go with a proven success or take a risk with an unusual choice. These factors are especially relevant in a sommelier competition like the Somm Slam. And in this year's competition, excellence at each skill helped participants advance through each day and challenge.

Sommelier contestants explain their wine selections in the wine and cheese pairing

Round 1: Wine & Wisconsin Cheese

Somm Slam Emcee and Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer opened the competition with brief introductions and a blind tasting of a Marsanne-Roussanne blend from Fleur de Roc, St. Peray in the Rhône Valley (that Jill Zimorski nailed to the year and AOC). Then he blindsided contestants with a peppering of wine theory questions. Worth a point apiece, the questions would keep contestants afloat even if their blind tasting guess or pairing choices were off.

After the trivia round, the competitors split into groups of six to pair wines with three artisanal cheeses from Wisconsin Cheese. Introduced by Bob Dilcher from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the cheese selection included Dunbarton Blue (subtle blue and earthy cheddar), Hook's 10-year Cheddar (sharp with a little sablé texture and smooth finish), and Bellavitano Reserve (nutty, fruity, and creamy). After tasting cheeses, the sommeliers dashed to the wine library to quickly taste and choose a wine. As they explained their selections, judges received pours and began to critiquing the choices. Up first, Julian Mayor chose a Maury Blanc, by Domain Mas de Lavail from the south of France, considering it a seasoning to complement the cheese. Thomas Pastuszak wanted acidity and aromatics to stand up to the cheese, and poured Eden Valley's Mesh Riesling from Australia, looking for a "laser to cut through the richness of the cheese."

Jill Zimorski was the only somm to take a chance on red, choosing Les Hauts du Fief, from Crozes-Hermitage. Alexander LaPratt sought to complement the complex, earthy fruit notes in the cheese and selected Australian Hunter Valley Semillon, a simple wine to refresh the palate between cheeses, and thus bringing the focus back to the cheese, not the wine. Thomas Perez also kept the focus on the cheese by presenting a young and ripe, clear, aromatic contrast with the Domaine Felines Jourdan Picpoul de Pinet.

In the second group, Matthew Carroll also picked the Australian Mesh Riesling, looking for a crispness to cut the fat in the cheese, and employing the "funk on funk" theory. As a Wisconsin native, Brooke Sabel loves her cheese and quickly grabbed the Saint Peray blanc, Fleur du Roc because she wanted a wine "that had balls!" Class clown Paul Einbund poured the Domaine de Cabasse (Côtes du Rhône Villages) Seguret blanc, looking for something tannic that would soften with the cheeses. Brent Kroll also chose the Maury, counting on the sugar in the wine to take away the saltiness in the cheese, accentuating its fruitiness. Nick Robinson went next with the New Zealand Mount Difficulty Pinot Gris, figuring a modern cheese needed a slick, modern wine. Greg Majors served as grand finale, selecting a Banyuls by Chapoutier. Again, the sweetness in the wine balanced the salt in the cheese, leaving the fruit notes to shine.

Ultimately judges didn't always agree with pairings ("the wine and cheese are arm wrestling") and risky choices didn't always work, but six made the cut and rose above the common dining room quandary of pairing a single wine with a cheese board.

Round 1 Winners:

Julian Mayor of Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons Hotel – Washington, DC
Jill Zimorski of Volt – Frederick, MD
Paul Einbund of Frances – San Francisco, CA
Alexander LaPratt of DB Bistro Moderne – New York, NY
Thomas Pastuszak of Colicchio & Sons – New York, NY
Matthew Carroll of Rogue 24 – Washington, DC

Sommeliers taste and write notes for the blind tasting

Round 2: And Then There Were Six

Round 2's first challenge was a blind tasting that threw off a number of competitors. Was it Syrah? French? Try a lush Chilean Cabernet. Though their palates (largely) failed them on the tasting, the somms had to quickly rebound for the food pairing portion of the day, for which the unintended lesson was pairing wine with a memory. Chef R.J. Cooper of Rogue 24, in Washington, DC, served a one-bite smoke-bomb of a dish: Quail's Egg, Duck Ham, Chicken Skin Cracklins, and Corn Silk. The aesthetic naturalism of the dish harmonized well with the environmentally-friendly Verterra dinnerware, made from fallen leaves. The six semi-finalists had to taste and choose their wines with but a memory to compare, as there was no going back for second bites. Winning pairings included big Grenache and Syrah-based wines from Australia and the France's Rhône Valley, and a Carmenère (Casa Silva "Los Lingues" Gran Reserva) from Chile that held up to the smoke element.

Cooper's next dish was composed of freshly-picked, boiled green peanuts in barbecue sauce with liquid corn pudding. Judges especially liked the Bindi Composition Chardonnay from Australia and "in fine" Ventoux blanc from the Rhône Valley—complementary pairings that highlighted the corn pudding. Pastuszak said the barbecue dish called for "summer in a glass!" and chose Domaine de la Berthete "Sensation" Côtes du Rhône blanc. Between pairings, judges refreshed their palates with Nordaq Fresh water, filtered especially to enhance food and wine flavors.

Memory came into play again as Dexheimer asked another round of wine-geek trivia questions: What is Chile's largest wine growing valley? (Maule Valley) Who is credited as the Father of Australian Wine? (James Busby).

And who emerged ahead of the pack for their prowess in blind tasting, pairing wine and food, and retrieving wine knowledge from the inner-depths of their vino-soaked brains?

Round 2 Winners:

Jill Zimorski of Volt – Frederick, MD
Alexander LaPratt of DB Bistro Moderne – New York, NY

Emcee Fred Dexheimer

Round 3: Indian Spices

Round 3's blind tasting was perhaps the highlight of the entire Somm Slam. Each competitor took a solitary turn with the glass of mystery white. And as the audience watched the gears grind, they sat in hushed amazement. In turn, Zimorski and LaPratt quickly called out visual clues, aromatic hints, and palate signals: pale straw, cool climate; bright fruit, New World; grassy, Sauvignon Blanc. This basic sensory information led both contestants to correctly identify the wine as a 2010, New World, Sauvignon Blanc blend. But LaPratt edged ahead by nailing the specific region and inclusion of Semillon in the Moss Wood Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend from the Margaret River region in Australia.

After the blind tasting, the somms were presented a spice jar—a portent of the culinary challenge to come—that they had to sniff and taste to identify the spices inside (among them cardamom, turmeric, ginger, orange peel, cumin, cinnamon, clove, garlic, black pepper, and star anise). Although LaPratt scored higher on the blind tasting, Zimorksi gained ground by pinning down more of the jar's aromatic elements.

For the third challenge, Chef Hemant Mathur of New York's Tulsi made a spicy spinach soybean cake and some incredibly tender Tandoori Australian Lamb, both delicious but challenging for a sommelier. And with an even further reduced wine cellar, the somms had to make some tough choices. For the soybean cake, Zimorski chose a 2009 Cave de Tain l'Hermitage St. Joseph Esprit de Granit. Knowing that spinach and red wine is potentially a ruinous combination, she took a chance on this spicy, moderately alcoholic wine to work with the dish and not burn or overburden the palate. LaPratt took a different route with a crisp un-oaked 2009 De Martino "Legado" Chardonnay from the Limari Valley in Chile. He was looking for something off-dry to calm the spices in the dish, but having no such options, he thought the tropical fruit in the wine would "fool your tongue" into thinking it was sweet.

Incredibly, for the lamb pairing, both finalists chose wine from Mt. Difficulty in New Zealand. Whether it was personality or philosophy (or attendance at the ICC Indian food pairing seminar by Scott Carney of Junoon) both wines were winning combinations—for opposite reasons. Zimorski chose a Pinot Gris to soften the spice and accentuate the Mustard Potato Salad and Apple Chutney, magically turning the side dishes into comfort food. LaPratt poured the Pinot Noir for its cool acidity, which held up to, and even accentuated, the Tandoori lamb's meaty warmth.

Finalists Alexander LaPratt and Jill Zimorski in her Alvaro Palacios t-shirt, with StarChefs.com CEO and Editor-in-Chief, Antoinette Bruno

The wine world is chock-full of varying perspectives, pairing strategies, and personalities. But unlike pairing wine, where—if you've done your job—everyone wins, there could be only one winner of the Somm Slam. And this year, despite Zimorski's attempt to influence Dexheimer and the judges with a cool t-shirt (nice try, Jill!), LaPratt—by a single point on a 100-point scale—ultimately took home the grand prize. Courtesy of Wine Australia and Meat & Livestock Australia, he will enjoy a two-week sojourn among some incredible grapes and vineyards, and a whole lot less pressure.

Grand Prize Winner:

Alexander LaPratt of DB Bistro Moderne – New York, NY