4th Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam Wrap-up

4th Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam Wrap-up

Day 1: The Big Cheese Challenge

Cheeses from Cheese From Spain on Day 1 of the Somm Slam
Cheeses from Cheese From Spain on Day 1 of the Somm Slam

From Mexico to Massachusetts, and Charleston to Philadelphia, 12 sommeliers gathered for the 4th Annual Somm Slam to test their mettle in blind tasting, wine pairing, and trivia skills in a game show format. Emcee and Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer kept the intensity up and the pressure on as our competitors vied for the best pairing with cheeses provided by Cheese From Spain with wines as varied as Sagrantino from Umbria and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.

In spite of our somm's recommending beer and fortified wine as their favored pairing with cheese, they rose to the challenge of finding a wine to match the variety of cheeses: rich but high acid Nebbiolos from Piedmont, and a Grenache Blanc and Rolle blend from Costières de Nîmes were among the favorites.

Correct answers to trivia questions and successful blind tasting helped the following competitors advance to Round 2:

Social Restaurant + Wine Bar – Charleston, SC
Le Du's Wines – New York, NY
Atera – New York, NY
Wit & Wisdom – Baltimore, MD
Corkbuzz Wine Studio – New York, NY
Musket Room – New York, NY

Day 2: A Pairing Party in Your Mouth

Fred Dexheimer starts off Day 2 of Somm Slam
Fred Dexheimer starts off Day 2 of Somm Slam

“I try to follow Bruce Lee’s philosophy, and ‘fit the vessel, like water in a cup,’” explained Morgan Harris when talking about his wine pairing philosophy on Day 2 of ICC’s Somm Slam. Going with the flow is definitely a winning strategy in any sommelier playbook, but so is “making a party in your mouth,” as Julie Dalton deftly summed up wine pairing success. And making the best of an ever-dwindling cellar to find a great pairing with dishes intentionally meant to stump top-notch somms, didn’t make it any easier.

Dale Talde’s Mackerel Sashimi with Pickled Ginger and Charred Onion presented a formidable challenge, which was excellently met by the six semi-finalists who not only made smart choices but eloquently explicated on their pairings. Brad Ball’s choice of Condrieu from Julien Pilon matched the dish’s weight, while Morgan Harris chose a Grand Marrenon from Luberon with its easy tannins to match the salty, acidic notes. And Erin Scala’s selection of a juicy, fruity Côtes du Rhône from Notre-Dame added a sweet element to the dish.

According to the competition rules, only two sommeliers should have moved on to the Day 3 finals. But, in a Somm Slam first, the skill, knowledge, and charisma of the contestants (translating into extremely close scores) forced the judges to choose three finalists: Julie Dalton (a finalist for the second year in a row), Yannick Benjamin, and Scott Cameron! 

Day 3: Three Somms Is Better than Two

Judge gets a pour on Day 3 of Somm Slam
Judge gets a pour on Day 3 of Somm Slam

Day 3 started off with a blind tasting of Domaines Les Hauts Chassis Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (which baffled everyone) and a secret addition of an elusive spice jar. Contestants had one minute to name as many ingredients as they could from the 10 spices and seeds in the jar. A speed round of trivia questions added to the competition (What is the best-ever Port vintage? What are the grape varietals of the Rapel Valley? What is the parentage of Marselan?), stumping some but also revealing the incredible depth and breadth of knowledge a sommelier needs to master his or her craft.

The real showdown was the wine pairing, with a dwindling selection to choose from, and food that was designed to “eff up” the somm’s palates, presented by George McNeese and Justin Warner of Do or Dine in Brooklyn. McNeese’s Steak Tartare with Espresso Aïoli was a hit with the audience, as were the Ommegang beer pairings by Scott Cameron and Julie Dalton (Ommegang Wild at Heart and Hennepin, respectively). In a bold move, Yannick Benjamin chose Taylor Fladgate 20-year Tawny Port from the cellar and reminisced of his childhood days in Burgundy when his family drank Port as an aperitif. He brought home his choice by calling attention to the “bloody” texture of the sweet wine, which he felt completed the meaty and savory tartare. Luckily for him, the judges all agreed.

Chef Warner created the second dish, Frog’s Legs with Spicy Dr. Pepper Glaze, Szechuan Pepper, and Sambal. He described the heat as numbing, but this only enticed the contestants to be a little more adventurous. Benjamin chose the Ommegang Witte to create a “wings and beer” combo, as the frog reminded him of chicken. Cameron went to the Fonseca Porto, Bin 27, which he described as a “second sauce.” Dalton chose the 2011 Argiano N C Rosso Toscano because she wanted a wine that would “hug the dish.”

In the end, although all three competitors received iPads from Uptown Network, only one competitor would get that trip to Portugal, and Yannick Benjamin pulled ahead in the scoring because of bold pairings, a little story telling, and charismatic explanations of his choices. Before wrapping up the day, Emcee Fred Dexheimer gave the microphone to Master-Sommelier-in-Residence Chuck Furuya who came all the way from Hawaii to see the next generation of wine talent in the Somm Slam. Tearing up, Furuya said, “I’m inspired by you all and what you did today.”

Photos by: Anna Beeke, Clay Williams, Ellen Wolff, Ester Soligue, John Keon, Ken Goodman, Laura Thompson, Mark Kohlman, and Shannon Sturgis