Tiebreaker needed for Agua's second sommelier standoff

In the end, no one knew their Zin, but Jacques Scott’s Ross Chernin still won a tie-breaker blind tasting to earn a come-from-behind victory over West Indies Wine Company’s Brandon Copico in the second quarterfinal “sommelier showdown” at Agua Restaurant & Lounge on Aug. 25. 

The competition pits two wine industry professionals against each other to see who can choose the best food pairings with a four-course dinner. Jacques Scott Wine & Spirits provides the wines, all priced under $30 per bottle wholesale. The diners serve as the judges, with each guest submitting a card indicating their favorite pairing after each course. 

The events, which are held roughly every month, will involve four quarterfinal competitions, with the winners advancing to two semifinal match-ups, followed by one for all the corks. 

Agua sommelier Jenna Mayle, who competed unsuccessfully in the first standoff, welcomed the guests and gave them some guidance on how to cast their votes. 

“It’s not about what you think about the wines individually,” she said. “It’s about ‘how does this wine work with the food that I’m having?’” 

Copico said both he and Chernin spent a lot of time thinking about the wines they would pair with the foods. 

“Yes,” added Chernin, “and we did a lot of tasting leading up to the event.” 

There were reasons to predict strong showings from both competitors: Copico because he has worked in restaurants that paired wines with food and because he gets to sample many wines at West Indies Wine Company; Chernin because all the wines were coming from Jacques Scott’s portfolio. 

Early on in the evening, it looked like Chernin was going to get thrashed by Copico. 

For the first course, which was house-cured smoked yellow fin tuna carpaccio with local mahi tartar, Copico chose 2009 Vie di Romans “Dessimis” Pinot Grigio, a pink-hued Italian wine that many believed was rosé, while Chernin offered 2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard Côtes de Tablas Blanc, a white blend from Paso Robles, California. The rich fruitiness of the Pinot Grigio was as able to stand up to the smoky flavors of the dish, while the floral aromas and feminine softness of the Tablas Creek was not, leading Copico to a 44-35 victory. 

The score for the second course was as close as it could get, with both pairings working well with the Thai Coconut Seafood Pot that featured shrimp, clams and fish in a lemongrass, chili and kaffir lime broth. For this course, Chernin went with 2007 Trimbach Pinot Gris from Alsace, and Copico opted for 2006 Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec from Loire, France.

The heartiness of the Pinot Gris seemed to pair best with the seafood, and the sweetness of the demi-sec Vouvray best complemented the savory pungency of the broth, which was sopped up with bread by many diners. When the votes were first tabulated, it was a 39-39 tie, but then the one missing vote came in and Copico earned a one-point victory.  

At that point, Copico needed to win just one more course to move on to the semifinals, but Chernin wasn’t to be denied. With the duck leg confit third course, Chernin went with Pinot Noir, a classic pairing with duck.

He chose 2012 Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir from Oregon, a wine that offered both an appealing fruitiness and rich earthiness. Copico thought a bit out-of-the-box, and, at least in the opinion of many diners, too far out of the box.

He chose 2012 Vietti Perbacco, a fine, bold wine made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes from the Langhe region of Piedmont, Italy. Although it comes from a very good vintage, young Nebbiolo can be astringent, and the tannins on this one were still tight, masking the wine’s elegant flavors. The vote wasn’t close in this round, with Chernin easily winning, 55-24. 

The dessert course featured two different kinds of mousse: banana and peanut butter, served with a dark chocolate cookie and a piece of caramelized bacon. Both wine professionals went with Italian sweet wines, with Chernin choosing 2007 Donnafugata “Ben Rye” from Sicily and Copico going with 2010 Marchese Antinori Vin Santo del Chianti Classico from Tuscany.

The Ben Rye paired best with the banana mousse, and the Vin Santo del Chianti Classico paired better with the peanut butter mousse. The score was close, but diners preferred Chernin’s sweeter Ben Rye by a score of 43-35, tying up the competition. 

As a tiebreaker, each competitor was given a red wine without knowing what it was and were asked to guess the grape variety, the place of origin and the vintage. Chernin guessed it was a 2012 Argentine Malbec; Copico thought it was a 2010 Sangiovese from Tuscany. The wine was actually Seghesio Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley California, so neither competitor was close on grape variety or origin, but it was from the 2012 vintage, so Chernin moves on to the next round. 

“I said to Brandon afterward, ‘It’s obvious neither of us drinks Zinfandel,” Chernin said with a laugh. Chernin will now join Agua sommelier Fabio Sordinelli, who won the first standoff against Mayle on July 14, in the semifinals, but not before two more quarterfinal match-ups take place.  

Both white wines chosen paired well with the Thai Coconut Seafood Pot. – Photo: Sonita Malan


Brandon Copico, left, and Ross Chernin unsuccessfully attempt to determine the grape and origin of a California Zinfandel served in a blind tasting. – Photo: Sonita Malan


Wine professionals who have competed in the Agua Sommelier Standoff so far include, from left, Ross Chernin, Fabio Sordinelli, Jenna Mayle and Brandon Copico. – Photo: Alan Markoff