Sommelier v. Sommelier
World Wrestling-style wine-and-food pairing competitions have spread from Philadelphia to the West Coast.
On a warm evening in the Napa Valley late last summer, Master Sommelier Chris Blanchard donned a blue satin cape and laced a Luchador mask over his head. He strode onto the patio of the Martini House in St. Helena to receive the adoration of 60 screaming fans. He unsheathed his weapon, a Laguiole waiter’s corkscrew, and proceeded to wow the crowd with a three-ounce pour of the Cade 2008 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc.
Moments later his rival, Martini House sommelier Rob Renteria, bounded in to pour the Orsolani 2008 Erbaluce di Caluso. The smackdown was on.
Suddenly, wine pairing has become a spectator sport, taking a no-holds-barred form known as a sommelier smackdown. Two sommeliers go head-to-head with prospective pairings for a multicourse meal. It is loud and boisterous, and it’s filling seats during a difficult time for the restaurant industry.
Keith Wallace, at The Wine School of Philadelphia, claims to have coined the phrase when teachers and restaurant wine directors competed in their first Sommelier Smackdown in 2005. Recently, his application for a trademark on the phrase was contested by World Wrestling Entertainment. Similar events have been held by Boston area retailer Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors since February 2008.
The prevailing restaurant version may have developed out of the pairing competitions held by Master Sommelier Emily Wines at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco. Each evening, sommeliers would select different libations—wine, cocktails, sake, beer—to pair against the same dish. Soon Wines changed the format, focusing less on the beverages than on the professionals selecting them. In her broader role as wine director for the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, Wines has conducted smackdowns at Kimpton restaurant properties all over the country, including Nios in Times Square and Urbana in Washington, DC.
“The aim has always been to educate,” says Wines, aka The Blue Nun. “We want to give people a glimpse at what goes on in our minds when we’re making pairings. But that doesn’t mean we’re not seriously dishing on each other in the process.” Guests assess the pairing on a scale of 1 to 5. At the end their scorecards are tallied and praise heaped upon a winner, who is honored with a garishly bejeweled wrestling belt.
Back at the Martini House, Blanchard tried to live up to his Luchador alter ego (¡Uvas Gigantes!) while Renteria (¡El Robco!) threw down two more pairings alongside chef Todd Humphries’ locally driven dishes.
It came down to the final round, after Blanchard had won the first two. “I could have gone for something big and appealing,” says Blanchard, who poured a youthful Priorat, “but I undercut the dish.” Home-restaurant favorite Renteria won with a convincing margin of votes on his final pairing. “It was huge fun,” says Renteria. “Everyone had a great time and we sold out the house.” This past fall Renteria hosted follow-up smackdowns, and is thinking of working with a willing winemaker or two—if they can fill out the costume.
—Patrick J. Comiskey