Jacques Scott’s Ross Chernin nailed a second chance blind wine tasting to earn a trip to the finals of Agua Restaurant & Lounge’s Sommelier Showdown Series.

It was the second time Chernin came from behind to win a showdown competition and the second time he won in a tie-breaking blind tasting.

Chernin barely defeated his Jacques Scott colleague Lee Royle in the semifinal on Jan. 29, and he had a little help when Agua Sommelier Fabio Sordinelli, acting as the contest referee, ruled the first tasting a draw, even though Royle had accurately identified the vintage of the wine and Chernin had not.

Ironically, Chernin advanced to the semifinal with a victory over West Indies Wine Company Manager Brandon Copico last Aug. 25 by winning a tie-breaker blind tasting in which he correctly identified only the vintage of the wine while Copico had not.

Ross Chernin, left, and Lee Royle smell their wines during the first blind tasting. Photo: Alan Markoff
Ross Chernin, left, and Lee Royle smell their wines during the first blind tasting. Photo: Alan Markoff

The Sommelier Showdown Series pits two local wine professionals against each other during a four-course dinner. Each sommelier has a budget of $76 wholesale price to choose four wines from Jacques Scott’s wine portfolio to pair with each of the courses. The guests are then each asked to vote on their favorite pairing with the course.

“It’s not the wine you like best; it’s the wine that goes better with the food,” said Sordinelli when he explained the rules before the tasting.

The pairings

Chernin got off to a great start with a 45-27 rout over Royle in the first course by pairing Oregon’s Sokol Blosser “Evolution” with “wahoo tiradito,” thin slices of wahoo topped with three different sauces. He said he chose the Evolution – a white wine blend of nine different grapes – because of its versatility.

“It’s important to have a wine that can pair with many flavors,” he said, noting that finding a single wine that went well with all three sauces was challenging.

Royle also tried a white wine blend, the Gentil “Hugel” from the Hugel & Fils winery in Alsace, France. He knew he was in trouble when he tasted the wine with the dish, especially the basil sauce.

Both wines chosen by the sommliers for the smoked duck duo paired very well with the dish. - Photos: Sonita Malan
Both wines chosen by the sommliers for the smoked duck duo paired very well with the dish. – Photos: Sonita Malan

“I think the wine fell flat against the basil,” he said.

Guests thought so, too.

For the second course, Royle came back strong, pairing the food-friendly Pfaffl “Haidviertel” white wine from Austria with chicken and Parmesan ravioli with romaine lettuce mustard sauce and anchovy oil.

“To me, this pairing is a no-brainer,” Royle said confidently.

Chernin paired Donnafugata “La Fuga” Chardonnay with the dish, a wine he felt was “more racy” to go with the strong flavors if the dish.

The round was not as much of a “no-brainer” as Royle thought, probably because the dish had so much going on, but he did pull out a 40-31 triumph, evening the contest at one course each.

The third and final savory course ended up being the closest in the competition, with both wines working very well with the “smoked duck duo” dish that featured duck confit topped with a blue cheese walnut crust and apple wood smoked duck breast. Even though Chernin’s choice, Mauro “Cosecha” from Castilla y León, Spain – a rich red wine made mostly of Tempranillo with a little Syrah mixed in – really soared with the confit and especially the blue cheese walnut crust, Royle pulled out a 38-34 win in the round with Cherry Pie Pinot Noir from Carneros, California.

“Pinot Noir and duck is a classic pairing,” he said.

Moving on to the dessert course, Chernin needed a win to stay alive. He did so convincingly by pairing Banfi’s Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Acqui from Piedmont, Italy, with Raspberry White Chocolate Cake. This slightly sparkling, low-alcohol wine with fruity sweetness paired very well with the raspberry element of the dessert and with the chocolate dust on the plate. Royle’s Vega Sicilia Oremus Tokaji Aszu 3 Puttonyos from Hungary – a fine wine on its own – did not mesh with the raspberry, and Chernin’s fun Brachetto easily won the round 45-26, necessitating the blind tasting tie-breaker.

Ross Chernin, left, and Lee Royle smell their wines during the first blind tasting. Photo: Alan Markoff
Ross Chernin, left, and Lee Royle smell their wines during the first blind tasting. Photo: Alan Markoff

Blind tasting

The sommeliers were asked to guess three criteria in the blind tasting: the country of origin; the grape variety; and the vintage.

In the first blind tasting, both Chernin and Royle guessed it was a Sangiovese from Italy and both were dead wrong. It was a grand cru Burgundy from France. However, Royle did guess the correct vintage – 2011 – while Chernin guessed 2012, but Sordinelli decided the correct vintage was not enough, so he made the two sommeliers do it again with a different wine.

This time Chernin was on the mark, guessing the wine was Nebbiolo from Italy and that was exactly what it was: Fontanafredda Barolo from Piedmont.

“Aaron Jay would be proud,” Chernin said, speaking of the western hemisphere director of sales for Palm Bay International, the company that represents Fontanafredda.

Royle was dumbfound as to why he lost.

“Ask Fabio,” he said sternly, then breaking a big smile. “I don’t really care. It’s all just good fun.”

Chernin now moves on to the final in May to face whoever wins the second semifinal in April. That contest will see Sordinelli – the winner of the first quarterfinal – square off against Catch Restaurant manager/sommelier Peter Bedocs, the winner of the third quarterfinal.

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