2010 Somm Slam Wrap-Up
“Most [sommeliers] are very competitive,” said Alexis Kahn of the French Culinary Institute. And it shows—competition was fierce at the 1st Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam. On September 20, 2010, eight competitors gathered in the historic Park Avenue Armory at the 5th Annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress. The three-day competition put world class sommeliers head to head to see who could create the best pairings on the fly with wines provided by Constellation and Wines from Spain and poured in Steelite Rona glasses.
To kick off the event, Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth of Forestville, California’s The Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant acted as MC. Kruth decoded the dishes, picking out potential ingredient trip ups, and asking competitors about their pairing approaches. The challenge of pairing a mystery dish with just minutes to savor its myriad flavor combinations made for palpable excitement. In the end, only one sommelier could emerge victorious. Sommelier Andrew Myers of CityZen (inside the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, DC) rose above his peers to win the Grand Prize, an all-expense-paid trip for two to three of the vineyards of the Ruffino Estate Vineyards in Tuscany, presented by Constellation.
The sommeliers weren’t pairing for an audience of wine consumers. A total of 40 sommeliers and wine professionals, including Mark Slater, Derek Brown, Rick Schofield, and Beth von Benz, gathered to give their verdicts on each sommelier’s pairing. Each day, the competing sommeliers paired a wine with three dishes prepared by a rotating guest chef. Every judge received a tasting portion of each dish and sommeliers’ wine selections with that dish. They mulled over the merits and submitted a ballot that included their favorite pairing for each dish. Each of the judges had a singular palate and their own preferences, so the pressure was on to please all of them.
The eight participants gathered for the first day of the competition: Capital City Somms Myers of CityZen and Brent Kroll, formerly of The Oval Room, joined Big Apple-based wine professionals Kahn, DB Bistro Moderne Sommelier Alexander LaPratt, Christopher Bates of Milford Pennsylvania’s Hotel Fauchere, Boston Sommelier Kate Moore of L’Espalier, San Diego Sommelier Jesse Rodriguez of Addison, and Vegas Sommelier William Sherer of Aureole.
The competition began with the first group of four sommeliers on Day One: Myers, Rodriguez, LaPratt, and Moore. San Francisco Chef Mourad Lahlou (Aziza), known for his Moroccan-influenced cuisine, was the first guest chef. The competitors had a few minutes to wait for Lahlou’s dish to arrive and consider the prospect of finding the perfect match for the complex and diverse spices in Moroccan food. The challenge proved to be daunting, evident in more than one tight-lipped, pensive face.
The first course of Warm Corn Pudding with Tomatoes and Smoked Roe posed some serious challenges—the roe was quite potent. LaPratt’s pick, a 2009 Iberian Remix white blend from Wines from Spain, was a crowd-pleaser, its high acid accenting the corn’s sweetness.
Lahlou’s second course of Hamachi with Black Garlic, Compressed Cucumbers, Sea Beans, and Borage arrived and with it, yet another monkey wrench. The sea beans were intensely salty. Moore chose to pair the dish with Viognier; Rodriguez went with a 2009 Etude Pinot Gris from Carneros; Myers, 2009 Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough; and for LaPratt, it was a Wachau Valley Gruner Veltliner. Myers' New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc won by a tiny margin.
The final dish of the day, Poached Hen Yolk, Short Ribs, Charmoula, and Potato Foam clinched it for the judges—Myers’ Iberian Remix Tempranillo-based blend was a slam dunk. Myers walked away a winner, ready to face the next day’s competitor in the final heat of the competition.
Round 1 Winner
Andrew Myers of CityZen – Washington, DC
On Day Two, Christopher Bates, Alexis Kahn, Brent Kroll, and William Sherer paired wines with Latin-influenced dishes from New York Chef Adam Schop of Nuela. Would they prove to be an appropriate match for the wines provided for Day Two by Wines of Spain? Master Sommelier and MC extraordinaire Kruth skillfully nudged the competitors into revealing why they chose their picks.
Chef Schop’s first dish was New Zealand King Salmon Ceviche, Green Apple, and Horseradish. Kroll went for a sparkling brut vintage Cava that he thought would cleanse the palate after the fatty salmon. The pairing that won the crowd for the first dish, though, was Sherer’s choice of a perfumed, somewhat sweeter Muscat that elevated the salmon rather than counteracting it, and married well with the onion and citrus in the dish.
For the second dish, Schop put that king of trendy meat cuts, pork belly, to the test with caramelized figs, heat-packing aji panca, and fennel. While pork belly is usually easy to pair, with pork’s innate sweetness and the sumptuous fat of the belly cut, the figs brought extra fruit to the the dish, and the fennel’s anise flavor was an offbeat addition. Most of the competitors went with a fruity red wine, but Bates opted instead for a sparkling Pinot Noir Cava. “I am a champion of the odd,” Bates said.
The final dish of the day, Schop’s Beef Short Rib with Acidic Tomatoes and Green Onions, prompted brave, alternative pairings from every Day Two competitor. Sherer’s Oloroso Sherry brought out the caramelized flavors of the browned beef and coated the palate for an out-of-the-box win. Sherer walked away as Day Two’s winner, pumped to compete the next day against Day One winner Andrew Myers of CityZen for the Grand Prize.
Round 2 Winner:
William Sherer of Aureole - Las Vegas, NV
The Capital City and City of Sin faced off in the final round—Myers and Sherer competed to determine who would be the winner of the first ever StarChefs.com Somm Slam and take away the Grand Prize. Constellation Wines provided the wines for the final face-off, ranging from a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to a Ruffino magnum. The dishes of the day were Italian-influenced, prepared by New York Chef Iacopo Falai of Falai. With cheeky irreverence, Falai threw challenges like raw horseradish and Jerusalem artichoke at the two finalists. Sherer was more focused on the texture and flavor of the wines with the dish, with the wine “fill[ing] in where the dish was deficient,” as he put it. Myers had a more old-school approach, focusing instead on the main component of the dish and the tannins, and offering complementary pairings.
Falai’s first dish was Foie Gras with Pine Nut Biscuit, Moscato d’Asti Caviar, Pickled Butternut Squash, and Horseradish Foam. Dishes prepared with wines, like the Moscato d’Asti, can present some difficulties for sommeliers, as a pairing can compete or clash with the flavors of the wine in the dish. Sherer chose a 2008 Robert Mondavi Fumet Blanc for its melon-cucumber notes, acidity, grassy aroma, and oaky back notes. Myers’s pick—a 2009 Columbia Valley Hogue Gewürztraminer—was a bold move, with its spice and slight sweetness.
Falai’s second dish was Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Agnolotti, Peas, Di Palo’s Burrata, and Tomato Granita. Sherer worried about the flavor of a spring vegetable—like the pea in autumn, but opted in the end for a delicate Ruffino Orvieto. Myers, who seemed to be enjoying himself, made a brave choice again with a 2008 Marlborough Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc.
The final course of the Somm Slam was Falai’s Milk-fed Piglet, Pear, Hazelnut, Smoked Lardo, and Jerusalem Artichoke. Sherer selected a 2007 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon for the final pairing. It had a velvety texture and lacked the signature of American oak. Myers went for a complimentary pairing, picking a 2007 Clos du Bois Tempranillo to showcase the fruit in the wine and pear in the dish. Ballots were collected and tallied, and the announcement was made on the Main Stage to an expectant crowd—Myers won the Somm Slam, and all the bragging rights, not to mention a substantial Grand Prize—a trip to Italy!
WINNER OF THE SOMM SLAM:
Andrew Myers of CityZen - Washington, DC
Join Us Next Year!
Everyone took away different things from the 1st Annual Somm Slam. Rodriguez thinks this kind of competition “means a lot, as sommeliers are often left out of the mix.” Von Benz loved “getting to watch the somms in action.” Slater called it “a great skill sharpening exercise” and “immensely entertaining.” Kahn thought “it was a great way to get people excited about wine and about food and wine pairing.”
Competitor Bates added, “hopefully it will help open up eyes about food and wine pairing in that there is no definitive [pairing].” Myers loved that it was “fun and pretty low key. Usually at the top somm type events it’s really tense and nerve wracking.” “Winning didn’t suck,” he added.
Could you be one of the eight competitors vying for the Grand Prize in the Second Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam? Join us October 2 – 4, 2011, for three days of intense wine sniffing, swirling, and swilling (not to mention pairing).
Advice from the Pros for 2011 Contestants
“You can come up with a brilliant pairing or terrible pairing, but it’s important to sell your pairing.” – MC and Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth of The Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant – Forestville, CA
“Play to the audience. Pairing is not just about taste and texture; it is about the impression you leave with the guest.” – Sommelier Christopher Bates of Hotel Fauchere – Milford, PA
“The way people explain what they recommend is often more important than what it actually is.” – MC and Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth of The Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant
- Forestville, CA
“Roll the dice. Good will not get you to the finals; go for great.” – Sommelier Brent Kroll, formerly of The Oval Room – Washington, DC
“Be yourself, be outgoing, [demonstrate] showmanship, have fun, don't be afraid. Taste, don't think.” – Sommelier Christopher Bates of Hotel Fauchere – Milford, PA