3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam

3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam

3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam: Day 1

3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam
Emcee Fred Dexheimer and Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya get Day 1 of the 3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slamm started.

Twelve sommeliers lined up today for a fast-paced, game show-style competition, the 3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam. Fifty judges from around the country assessed competitors' skills in a series of blind tastings, food pairings, and wine geek trivia. But in Emcee Fred Dexheimer's words, "Somms don't sweat." But they do need to keep their whistles wet, and with the aid of Acqua Panna water, the competitors displayed a wordsmith's ability to charm the audience.

The highlight of Day One was the cheese pairing challenge. In two groups of six, 12 somms chose a wine to pair with Michele Buster's selections from Forever Cheese. For Round One, Buster chose an Oriol de Montbrú—a buffalo milk cheese from Catalonia, Spain—and a lightly salty and nutty sheep's cheese from Pag Island, Croatia, called Paški Sir. Round Two included a Vare Goat Cheese from Asturias in Spain, and Genuine Fulvi Pecorino Romano from Rome, Italy (a notoriously difficult cheese to pair). Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya gave the audience insight into the success of pairing wine with salty cheese. Salt, he explained, clashes with high oak, alcohol, and bitter notes, so choosing fruit-forward, sweet or lighter-style wines is the best bet. His favorite pairing was Julie Dalton's selection (via Wines of Georgia) of Bagrationi's "1882" Semi-Dry Sparkling Rosé, which was similar in style to a Brachetto: sweet, off-dry, and bubbly.

Although all the competitors proved skilled sommeliers, only six advanced to Day Two.

Christopher Bates of Hotel Fauchere – Milford, PA
Julie Dalton of Wit and Wisdom – Baltimore, MD
Mariya Kovacheva of Café Boulud – Palm Beach, FL
Justin Amick of The Spence – Atlanta, GA
Dan Pilkey of Hilton Hotels – Chicago, IL
Winn Roberton of Bourbon Steak – Washington, D.C.

By Jeff Harding

3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam: Day 2

3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam
3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam: Day 2

Six semi-finalist sommeliers started Round Two with a blind tasting of a mystery wine; guesses ranged from Spain, Washington, Italy, and Greece (answer: Gai'a Estate Agiorgitiko, from Athenee Importers and Distributors). In the next challenge, the somms chose a wine to pair with Justin Bogle's lamb carpaccio, pickled blueberries, and spruce tips, and then with roasted carrot, nori, amaranth, and toasted sesame seeds. Selections were as far-flung and varied as the judges' favorites, with rosé, whites, and reds chosen from a fast-depleting wine library. Wines of Chile proved a deft partner with both dishes, including Christopher Bates' "electric" pairing of Veramonte's "Ritual" Sauvignon Blanc with the lamb carpaccio; Justin Amick highlighted the sweet pea notes in Santa Rita's "Medalla Real" Sauvignon Blanc for a "peas and carrots" duo.

The competition ended with arcane grape trivia, and oeno insight from wine guru judges Peter Liem, Lisa Granik, and Chuck Furuya. In the end the men were separated from the boys, but it was the women who stole the show. The finalists to advance to Round Three were Julie Dalton of Wit and Wisdom in Baltimore, Maryland, and Mariya Kovacheva of Café Boulud in Palm Beach, Florida.

By Jeff Harding

3rd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam: Day 3

"This is Somm Slam, not Somm Hug," said Emcee Fred Dexheimer as he began the final round of competition. Dexheimer was referring to the two finalists (Julie Dalton and Mariya Kovacheva) and their propensity for hanging out prior to competition. But the day's challenge was the culmination of 12 top somms competing for the grand prize of a trip to the Côte-Rôtie, presented by Rhône Valley Wines, so fierce competition was inevitable. Day Three included a blind tasting, deciphering the components of a spice mixture, harder-than-ever trivia questions, and pairing wines—from a cabinet that had shrunk by more than half—with dishes by Chef Dirk Flanigan.

The spice jar (comprised of 10 BBQ-themed spices) and the "blind" wine, a Vermentino from Tenuta Guado Al Tasso (from the Chateau Ste. Michelle portfolio) confounded both contestants. Chuck Furuya, a former Chairman of Education for the Court of Master Sommerliers, explained the competitors' difficulty: Dalton and Kovacheva's analysis was spot on but incorrect (their conclusions were Georgian Rkatsiteli and Santorini Assyrtiko, respectively). The Vermentino, though distinctive and delicious, was atypical of its traditional style, and thus exceptionally difficult for a blind tasting.

In the first pairing, Flanigan's charred octopus with black pepper cream and melon was matched by Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' "Karia" Chardonnay by Dalton, which "wrapped itself around the dish." Kovacheva chose a Georgian Tsolikaori from Teliani Valley, whose rich minerality and acid cut through the cream. Flanigan's second dish was an ultra-nuanced, smoked Australian lamb tartare with Henri's house vindaloo sauce and lamb gastrique made with fat-washed apple cider vinegar. (A judge noted, and the general consensus seemed to agree, Flanigan was "a Somm Slam winner.") In this round, Kovacheva and Dalton paired in kind, both going to Rhône Valley reds (with dreams of a trip in mind?), making a winner even harder to choose.

Dexheimer (sporting a Mötley Crüe "Girls, Girls, Girls" t-shirt in honor of the two female finalists) quizzed Dalton and Kovacheva on six of the finer (much, much finer) points of wine theory, and scores were tallied. Despite a close call in every component of the Slam, a clear winner emerged by gaining a slight edge in each section. And while Dalton won't leave empty-handed—she's going home with a Nespresso espresso machine—Kovacheva is the 3rd Annual Somm Slam winner, with a future trip booked for France.

Somm Slam Winner Mariya Kovacheva
Somm Slam Winner Mariya Kovacheva

By Jeff Harding and Emily Bell

Photos by: Chaz Cruz, Max Flatow, Ken Goodman, John Mazlish, Ben Rosser, Nick Stango, Shannon Sturgis, and Clay Wlliams

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