Blind wine tasting competition pits Long Island against Europe

JAY WEBSTER PHOTO | Winning team members Christopher Tracy, Louisa Hargrave and Michael Cinque at the 4th Winemakers Smackdown sponsored by Luce and Hawkins restaurant on August 13th.

When the participants in a wine tasting competition bring boxing gloves, you know it’s going to be more than just a genteel afternoon at the winery.

The competition was fierce when Roanoke Vineyards held its fourth Winemakers’ Smackdown on Aug. 13. It was the first smackdown at which the winery kept score, and it was also a team competition. And the teams couldn’t have been better stoked for rivalry.

In one corner of a tent behind the winery were three local wine lovers with a winner-takes-all attitude: Louisa Hargrave, co-founder of the first North Fork vineyard,  Channing Daughters winemaker Chris Tracy and Michael Cinque, who owns Amagansett Wines & Spirits.

They opened the evening by singing, off-key, to the tune of “God Bless America”: “We are the home team. We win every time….”

In the other corner were three fierce competitors who were billed as three guys with romantic European accents: winemaker Miguel Martin of Palmer Vineyards and Spain; German winemaker Roman Roth of Wölffer Estates, Grapes of Roth and Roanoke Vineyards; and sommelier Pascal Zugmeyer, who is from of France.

“The smackdown lines are drawn,” said Mr. Roth, adding that his team intended to win “with German precision, Spanish pride and French oh-lå-lå.”

Their task seemed simple, at first blush: taste seven wines poured from unmarked bottles and try to guess what wines they are.

Variety and region of origin were the easiest questions to answer, but stabs at the winemaker’s names or the exact vintage year of the wine were risky bets. Each of the wines in the competition rated at least 90 points from Wine Spectator, which helped narrow down some of the competition.

An audience of more than 100 wine enthusiasts also had their chance to taste and rate the wines, and the audience acted as an unofficial third contestant in the group competition, which was sponsored by Luce & Hawkins restaurant in Jamesport.

The competition was moderated by wine writer George Taber, who was the only journalist who covered the 1976 Judgement of Paris, where California wines first gained a foothold as a serious competition for European wines.

The first tasting that was poured was a dry white wine, and true to their roots, the European team guessed that it was a Riesling from southern Germany.

The home team agreed that it was a Riesling, but described it as a “Protestant” wine whose origins were likely in the New World. It turned out to be a 2009 Ravines Cellars Dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes, which retails for $16.

The home team was on a roll.

The second wine retails for $80, but the blind taste testers weren’t impressed.

“My notes said cheap and sweet,” said Mr. Cinque. Though the European team overall had a more favorable impression of the wine, Mr. Roth described it as “oily.”

Ms. Hargraves called it “the Barbie doll of wines.”

“We agreed we would never serve it to our friends,” she said.

It was a 2008 Arietta called “On the White Keys,” a California blend of Sauvignon blanc and Sémillion.

“It’s a screaming chicken,” said Ms. Hargraves.

When they were done insulting that wine, the teams got serious about the five remaining tastes, all of which were red wines.

Both teams loved the next wine, which tasted well-aged with warm cinnamon notes to it. But while the home team thought it was a Long Island wine, the away team again thought it was probably European.

“It seems inherently Long Island,” said Mr. Tracy. “It’s probably one of Roman’s wines.”

Mr. Martin guessed that it was a Spanish Tempranillo, while Mr. Roth thought it had an American oak-aged character that is popular in Spain. Mr. Zugmeyer, however, thought it could have been one of Mr. Roth’s wines.

It turned out to be a 2008 Merliance Merlot, made from a blend of Long Island Merlots from eight different Long Island wineries.
The home team was tasting victory.

They then sampled two blends that were heavy on the flavor, and on the alcohol content, both of which were products of winemakers Orin Swift and Dave Phinney. Both groups didn’t get much closer than an accurate description of the wines’ heady natures, which Mr. Taber said were characteristic of both winemakers’ work.

The first was a 2008 Papillon Napa Valley Red and the second was a 2009 Orin Swift D66, which was the product of Mr. Phinney’s 60 year-old vines at his vineyard in Maury, France.

The trans-Atlantic competition confused matters further in the sixth tasting. Members of the European team got ahead of themselves in their thinking, believing it was a New World wine that wanted to be an Old World wine, while the Americans wondered if it was an Old World wine that wanted to be a New World wine.

The away team was right. It was a 2004 Scholium Project wine called Babylon, grown in California’s Suisun Valley but aged for 18 months in French oak barrels. It was described by its winemaker, Abe Schoener as “fierce, nearly barbaric.” The contestants loved it so much that they had a hard time spitting it out.

With one wine left to taste, it was pretty clear that the home team had the advantage. But how much of an advantage they wouldn’t know. The scores were tallied at the end of the evening.

“This is getting almost as confusing as the 2000 presidential election,” quipped Mr. Taber as the contestants tasted their final wine. The home team members wrinkled their noses at a slight whiff of what smelled like nail polish remover coming from their bottle.

The tension mounted as they were brought a new bottle, after which they decided that, yet again, they were drinking a Long Island wine. The European team thought they were either tasting a modern Italian wine or moldy grapes, and that it was likely a merlot.

The last wine turned out to also have been made by Abe Schoener, this time from grapes grown at Mattituck’s Macari Vineyard that were processed at Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn in 2008.

There was some nail-biting as the judges calculated the score, giving the international team demerits for misspelling Alsace, the region of France where Mr. Zugmeyer is from, in their notes.

The international team walked off with 120 points. The local team took 215 points. And the audience team quietly took the day with 240 points.

And the home team was singing again, this time to the tune of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls”: “I wish they all could be Long Island wines…”

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