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Wisdom of the Somms

Robert Whitley on

When the Sommelier Challenge was conceived in San Diego more than a dozen years ago, the profession was undergoing a renaissance. The image of a snobby sommelier full of condescension (never really an accurate portrayal) was melting away as a generation of young, eager wine professionals embraced the quest for advanced and master sommelier status.

What struck me as founder and director of the challenge was the remarkable thirst for knowledge exhibited by the first participants. Several wrote afterward thanking me for organizing such a splendid blind tasting.

Tasting blind, or unaware of the producer or price of the wine, is a useful tool in the ongoing education of sommeliers. The challenge allowed them to do just that with a broad cross-section of wines from around the globe.

It also levels the playing field for entrants. Wines are judged solely on the basis of quality, as opposed to reputation. The end result (and all of the results are available at SommelierChallenge.com) demonstrates a number of truths that cut against conventional wisdom.

First, the idea that price is the final arbiter of quality is false. The Sommelier Challenge awards silver, gold and platinum medals, platinum being the highest rung on the ladder. At the 12th annual challenge, last month in San Diego, numerous platinum winners cost $100 or more retail. And there were a number of platinum wines below the $20 mark. Bottom line: It's what's in the glass that matters.

Second, there is no question superior terroir produces outstanding wines, but that doesn't mean Monterey and Temecula and France's less desirable regions, such as the Languedoc, can't produce wines on equal footing with those from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Napa Valley. This week's tasting notes include a petite sirah from Temecula Valley and a syrah from Monterey that are world-class. Each earned a platinum at the challenge.

 

Finally, there is a lesson in all of this for the rest of us. Preconceived notions about wine often prevent us from experimenting with less renowned wines, depriving us of untold tasting experiences that could deliver untold pleasure. Sometimes it's good to sit back and let a passionate sommelier be your guide.

Best Value

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Marques de Caceres 2015 Excellens Cuvee Especial, Rioja Crianza DOCa, Spain ($19.99) -- This lovely crianza is 100% tempranillo. It shows excellent depth and palate weight for a crianza, with notes of earthy black cherry and blueberry, dusty tannins and excellent balance. It's sure to improve with another few years in the cellar. Rating: 92.

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