Agua's Sommelier Stand-off: Good wines, good food, good fun

In addition to being able to recommend good wines, a restaurant sommelier should be able to suggest wines that will pair well with the type of food being served. This key aspect of a sommelier’s job was the focus of a wine dinner at Agua Restaurant & Lounge on July 14 that featured the wine-pairing talents of its two in-house wine professionals, Jenna Mayle and Fabio Sordinelli, in a competition against each other. 

After a welcome reception and a glass of Prosecco, the 61 guests were treated to a four-course dinner paired with two wines – one chosen by Mayle and one by Sordinelli. Guests then voted on which wine they thought paired best with the dish. 

The two sommeliers were able to choose any Jacques Scott wine priced between $22 and $29 per bottle wholesale, before discount. Each was given a description of the dish and a list of its ingredients, but neither sommelier was able to taste the dish with the wine beforehand. 

Mayle, whose idea it was for the event, explained to guests that successful wine pairings were those where the wine complemented the flavors of the food or accentuated the flavors of the wine. 

The first course was duck liver pâté served in blueberry jelly with Port wine reduction and toasted brioche. With the course, Sordinelli chose Schloss Johannisberg “Rotlack” Kabinett Riesling from Germany, while Mayle chose Domaines Ott Clos Mireille Rosé from Provence, France. 

The Riesling, partially because its sharp acidity stood up to the rich fattiness in the pâté, was the clear winner with guests. The blueberry jelly and Port wine reduction did help accentuate the red berry flavors in the Rosé, but the richness of the pâté overpowered the delicate body of the wine, making it seem thin in the mouth. 

Mayle was the easy winner of the second course by pairing Tenuta Sant’Alfonso Chianti Classico with the grilled octopus salad that included ingredients with a wide array of flavors like confit tomato, smoky red pepper coulis, Kalamata olives and red onions. Sordinelli paired the dish with a white wine, a Viognier called Fontarca from the Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro in Tuscany, Italy.  

Even though Fontarca is more earthy and less floral than Viognier from France, the pairing couldn’t carry the many strong flavors in the dish. 

The Chianti, while perhaps not the perfect pairing with the dish in its entirety, worked wonderfully with the octopus. 

The third course of black pepper bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin finished with rosemary jus and served with blue cheese souffle and vegetables, turned out to offer the most interesting pairing of the evening.  

“When Fabio and I threw our cards down and said what wines we chose, for this course we chose the same varietal [of grape] from the same region, only different producers,” Mayle told guests. 

So as to not have two wines so similar, Mayle decided to choose another grape – Grenache – from another region – Rhone, France – in Domaine des Saumades Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Sordinelli served Zinfandel from California from the historic producer, Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley. Both pairings were good and guests were almost evenly split as to which pairing worked best. In the end, Sordinelli’s powerful Zinfandel with its lush, black fruit flavors narrowly won over Mayle’s elegant Grenache with its fresh red-fruit flavors.  

“I played more to what people like, not what I like,” said Sordinelli. “I played to win.” 

The final course was dessert, a chocolate chip brownie served with homemade vanilla gelato and strawberry sauce. 

On paper, Mayle’s late bottled vintage Port should have been the winner – Port and chocolate are a classic pairing – but it failed to pass a basic rule of thumb for dessert pairings: The wine should be at least as sweet as the dessert. Particularly because of the sweetness of the ice cream and strawberry sauce, the less-sweet Taylor’s 1998 late bottled vintage Port ended up tasting bitter in the mouth. In hindsight, a less expensive ruby Port would have probably worked better. 

Sordinelli decided not to try a classic pairing, instead choosing the slightly sparkling – “frizzante” in Italian – Vietti Cascinetta Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont, Italy.  

“On that one, I played more on the wine; everyone knows that wine and loves it,” Sordinelli said. 

By winning the pairing for dessert, Sordinelli was the 3-1 winner of Agua’s Sommelier Stand-off. 

“He saved his job,” joked restaurant owner Walter Fajette. 

Even though she lost the competition, Mayle, who joined Agua less than a year ago, said she was thrilled with how the event turned out. 

Guests were thrilled as well, not only because the Sommelier Stand-off offered a unique twist to standard wine dinners, but also because it was interactive, allowed them to taste a number of different wines, and showed them how some wines pair well with certain dishes, while others do not. 

“It’s my first event at Agua and I think it was amazing,” Mayle said. “I want to do more of them.” 

Based on the feedback, Fajette said he would like to invite other sommeliers to compete at wine dinners hosted by the restaurant every two or three months. 

Guests of Agua’s Sommelier Stand-off enjoyed getting to taste many different wines with food. – Photo: Sonita Malan


Agua Restaurant and Lounge Sommeliers Fabio Sordinelli and Jenna Mayle. – Photo: Sonita Malan


German Riesling with sharp acidity paired better with the duck liver pate served with blueberry jelly than the Rose from Provence, France. – Photo: Alan Markoff