It was a clash of the Jacques Scott wine titans: Sergio “The Matador” Serrano versus Lee “007.5” Royle in perhaps the most anticipated first-round match-up of the Agua Restaurant & Lounge Sommelier Showdown series on Dec. 15.
Serrano, known equally for his love of big red wines as for his dislike of green vegetables, came to the venue beaming with confidence, even though the odds-makers had him as a slight underdog in the contest. Royle, on the other hand, seemed nervous and unsure of himself, knowing the ridicule he faced if he lost to his Mexican friend.
On paper, the competition was evenly matched, with both men starting out in the restaurant business and then moving over to wine.
“We have 45 years of restaurant experience between the two of us,” said The Matador. “We’re the same when it comes to experience.”
After a Prosecco reception, the guests took their seats at the large tables set up throughout the dining room. The air was thick with anticipation as the competitors were announced, with Royle’s cheerleaders – Nancy Harrison and Jane Schweiger – pumping their pompoms in the air.
“That’s my boy,” said Schweiger.
The rules for the competition were simple: Each sommelier was to pair the Jacques Scott wine of their choice with each of four courses served at the wine dinner. The total cost of the wines was not to exceed $76 wholesale. The dinner guests didn’t know what wines they were drinking or which competitor chose which wine until after every round. After tasting each wine with the served dish, the guests only had to vote – wine #1 or wine #2 – for the one they thought paired best with the food.
Agua co-owner Cristiano Vincentini stressed the last part.
“The wine you choose is not the wine you like best, but the wine you think goes better with the food,” he said.
The first course consisted of baby octopus with black olive sauce, a hard-to-describe smoked tuna cake, and polenta.
Royle, who is a big fan of German Riesling for food pairings, played it safe with Schloss Johannisberg Rotlack Riesling Kabinett Feinherb, while Serrano took a bigger chance, choosing Torres Viña Esmeralda, an inexpensive but very aromatic white wine from Spain made from a blend of Moscatel and Gewürtztraminer. Unfortunately for The Matador, the delicate lightness of the Viña Esmeralda couldn’t stand up to the pungent spice of the dish. The Riesling overpowered some of the more delicate flavors of the course, but held up to its heat and Royle easily won the round, 41-23.
The second course was risotto made with Italian Taleggio cheese, topped with duck bresaola and served with a Port wine reduction. Both sommeliers chose red wines with good acidity to counter the cheesy creaminess of the risotto, with Royle going with Marchesi di Barolo “Ruvei” Barbera d’Alba and Serrano opting for Au Contraire Pinot Noir from California’s Sonoma Coast. Much to Royle’s surprise, the guests preferred the exotic spice-flavors in the Pinot Noir, which is one of the classic pairings with duck, by a 40-24 margin.
The key round of the battle came next, though, as the sommeliers tried to pair wines with wasabi-crusted short ribs served with a mushroom and snow pea stir-fry in a Hoisin-demi sauce. The dish presented a challenging array of tastes – pungency in the wasabi, fattiness in the short rib and sweetness in the hoisin sauce. Royle chose Seghesio Family Vineyards Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley California. The sweet fruitiness of the Zin played well with the hoisin sauce.
Luckily, the wasabi wasn’t too pungent or the high-alcohol Zinfandel might have seemed too hot in the mouth, but in the end, the fruitiness paired well with the crust. Where the Zin didn’t stand up was in pairing with the fatty short rib, which actually made the big red wine seem thin in the mouth.
The Matador went back to Spain with a rather obscure but well-crafted wine called Ramiro Ramiro’s that is made in the garage of Chef Jesus Ramiro Pastor in Castilla y León. It is made from 100 percent Tempranillo grapes in a modern, fruit-forward style. With a deep purple color and juicy black fruit flavors, many of the guests were guessing it came from South America or the United States. The wine’s fruitiness helped balance the heat of the wasabi and held its own with the sauce, and its tannins kept pace with the fat in short rib. In the end, however, the guests chose Royle’s pairing over Serrano’s by a single vote – the vote cast by The Matador’s friend Kara Phillips, who had the wine with chicken instead of short rib, skewing the pairing.
Even Royle was shocked by the outcome.
“I actually thought his pairing was better than mine,” he told the guests.
The Matador had used a good portion of his budget on the Ramiro’s wine and after losing the third course, he needed a miracle to force a tie-breaking blind tasting with Royle. It didn’t happen. Royle crushed him in the dessert round by a score of 46-18 by pairing the slightly sparkling Italian Roscato Rosso Dolce – basically a red Moscato – with white chocolate sponge cake served with mixed berry compote. The berries proved to be a little too tart for Serrano’s Rickety Bridge Late Harvest Chenin Blanc. Ironically, Woodbridge White Zinfandel, one of The Matador’s long-standing “surprise” wine choices, would have probably paired better with the dessert course.
With the quarterfinals now complete, the Agua Sommelier Showdown series moves to the semifinals, with Royle joining fellow Jacques Scott wine expert Ross Chernin, Agua’s sommelier Fabio Sordinelli, and Catch Restaurant & Lounge’s manager/sommelier Peter Bedocs in the final four.
The tentative date for the first dinner is Jan. 26, and the second semifinal sometime in April. The final will be held in May.