Blinded by wine...


Hospitality Room
Ok I'm being a bit dramatic with my title. :) I decided to try the 2011 Wine Tasting Challenge this past Monday at the Four Seasons Hotel here in Toronto. This is an annual event with both Professional and Amateur categories. I've done a few blind tastings for fun but the event Monday was different.  One of the largest tasting competitions in the world,  I was really nervous and I didn't know what to expect.

View from the Four Seasons
Upon arriving to the hotel, I took the elevator up to the very top floor. I registered at the desk for my 4pm timeslot. I was a bit early so I wandered into the hospitality room to look for something to refresh my palate. I decided to keep it light and go for some sparkling wine to awaken the senses.

Just before the competition got under way, myself and a sizable group of people went into a quiet room fully setup for the tasting. I think we were the last group of the day to try the test. I suddenly got butterflies in my tummy! Images of university finals flooded back to me. What on earth was I doing there? I panic at the thought of tests. I knew the challenge was just for fun but I really wanted to do well. I guess I felt that I had something to prove to myself. I told myself that I would practice very hard for the test but that didn't happen.

Lots of wine to try - the reward
for taking the test!
The Wine Tasting Challenge is an annual event. I took the following from the website since it sums it up nicely:

"Directed, operated and sponsored by many prestigious institutions and corporations, this competition is open to all professional sommeliers, food and wine industry professionals, students and all wine enthusiasts who wish to challenge themselves. Most importantly, the Wine Tasting Challenge is all about “giving back” celebrating excellence in front line wine service and supporting the future excellence in the Toronto/Ontario food and beverage industry." www.winetastingchallenge.com


In brief, this was the challenge:

* The test itself is completely free. You just book your desired time online. You must show up or notify a few days in advance if you won't be able to attend. Failure to do so might lead you to being banned from attending the next year's challenge.

* All wines are served double blind. This means that the servers themselves don't even know the identity of the wines.

* There are two categories: Professional and Amateur.

* The Professional category receives much more prestige and notoriety. There are great prizes for both categories. Of course, the prizes for the Professional division are much better. :) Anyone who wins the Professional category also has their name engraved on a gigantic trophy. That's pretty cool. It's like the Stanley Cup...but for wine!

* The Professional category has 7 wines plus additional rounds consisting of 3 spirits and 3 VQA wines.

* The amateur category has 3 wines plus an additional 3 wines for the VQA test.

Considering this was my first time attempting such a challenge, I decided to go with the amateur round thinking that it might be a good way to get the ol' feet wet. Each person in the examination room received a tray of wine. Normally I'd be very excited at the thought of a tray of wine. This time, I was petrified. The tray consisted of 6 wines. The first 3 were for the general Amateur test and the other 3 were for the CCOVI-VQA (quality wines from both Ontario and British Columbia) round.  The questions were multiple choice. I just hate multiple choice because they're so much harder. They're designed to throw you off the right track. You had to correctly identify the grape variety, country, region of that country and finally, the vintage. I have to say that I left that challenge completely humbled.  The bonus questions were more theory-based and will be used to break any ties. I'm pretty sure I got those...tie or no tie. I love theory! Who knows how I placed as results won't come in for some time. Hey if I got one right, I'll consider it a success! Now, I know that I have some education on wine but doing it completely blind is really about honing in your skills.

I love this quote from Zoltan Szabo who won the professional challenge in 2009 after I tweeted to him that he was my hero for having won such a hard competition:

"...wine is a never-ending learning and love story."

So true! He was one of the people supervising the tasting. I've been fortunate to meet such people who have won this challenge and I must say that their palates are top-notch. A few being Evan Saviolidis (2010), Taylor Thompson (2008), Sara d'Amato (2006).

Did I get it right?!
After reading some tips from previous year's winners and talking to some people, these are the tips I gathered:

1. Assess each wine before even looking at the question sheet so you don't start second-guessing yourself.

2. Go through the process of elimination. What is the wine not?

3. Relax! This test can even stump the pros. Wine is indeed complex.

4. Try to go with your first instinct.

5. The best way to practice is to really just taste your way around the globe and compare. The more you taste, the more you learn. I like that!

I'm really happy that I tried this very challenging tasting competition. It gave me a great idea of what professional wine tasting is really about. I don't think I'll be able to taste another wine now without giving it more considerable thought as to the details of where it's from and what was going on during that vintage weather-wise. I'm sure I'll annoy my friends when we're together as they'll just want to enjoy the wine and not analyze it to death. Sorry guys!

See some of you at the 2012 challenge? Give it a go!