Dueling Wine Dudes

By Karl Klooster

When professionals in any field are challenged to go head to head with their peers in a test of knowledge and skill, it’s a civilized equivalent of hand-to-hand combat. One’s life may not be on the line, but prestige and reputation certainly are.

In a recent contest of the wine kind, the competitive arena was deceptively serene: a private dining room at one of the Rose City’s most elegant hostelries; impeccably set tables replete with gleaming stemware, pressed linens and silver-plated cutlery.

A group of adventurous dinners had been invited to attend. Adventurous, not in the sense that they might be served wildly exotic or unusual cuisine, but because they were paying for the privilege of being judges.

Four wine stewards, called sommeliers in French, from four prominent Portland restaurants had been asked to select a wine to go with each of four courses. The date was Aug. 8, 2009. The time, precisely 6:30 p.m.

Assuming the roles of gladiatorial gourmands were Jeff Groh of The Heathman, Jack Hott of Castagna, Jeff Moore of Wildwood and Andy Zalman of Higgins.

Groh has been in food and beverage management for nine years. He is in the process of qualifying for admission to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Hott has gained his wine proficiency over the course of nearly a decade working at Castagna.

Formerly wine director for one of Idaho’s best restaurants, the Red Feather Lounge in Boise, Moore brings a dedication to seasonal cuisine and Northwest wines to his position as Wildwood’s wine director.

Zalman served stints at Jake’s, L’Auberge, Veritable Quandary and The Heathman before joining Greg Higgins when the stellar chef left The Heathman in 1994 to start his eponymous restaurant just up Broadway.

One couldn’t find a more esteemed group of dining establishments in the region or a more talented quartet of contestants. Not only can these four sommeliers boast experienced palates, they also possess marathon-level endurance.

This is the third year of the Dueling Sommelier Dinner Series and the third dinner in 2009 for these four, with two more to go. All dinners have been held at The Heathman with chefs alternating among the restaurants.

This year, host chef Philippe Boulot of The Heathman led off the series, followed by Wildwood’s Dustin Clark. Guest chef for the Aug. 8 dinner was Elias Cairo from Castagna. The fourth dinner will feature a special menu from Higgins and the series will wrap up with a grand finale dinner in the fall.

Chefs did not let their creative imaginations run amok for this competition. The were asked to prepare dishes featuring an interesting combination of flavors and textures to which sommeliers would have to match the wines.

It was then incumbent upon diners to evaluate the pairings and determine which wine best complemented each course. Neither the wine type nor which sommelier selected it was revealed until after each pairing had been ranked.

This may sound like fun but in fact, the impromptu judges took their task quite seriously. A hush fell over the tables as tasting and sampling began in earnest.

Morsels of food masticated with sips of wine brought studied looks of contemplation to their faces. More than one diner compared certain combinations several times before reaching a final decision.

Only when the tally sheets had been handed in after each course did the sommeliers identify the wines they selected. They then gave a short summation of the rationale behind their decision to pair a particular wine with a particular dish.

One lesson to be learned from the experience is that the possibilities are almost limitless.

Chevre-filled pasta with summer squash and speck—lean, crisp bacon—pairs as nicely with a South African Sauvignon Blanc as with a French Chablis. A Spanish Moscatel Seco and a French Bordeaux Blanc both go well with grilled octopus.

Differences in taste can conclude that a big red from Italy, rosés from France and Spain and a dry white from Oregon will all bond beautifully with breaded pork cutlet, tomatoes, basil and mozzarella. Forget the red.

Bittersweet, semi-sweet, sweet and super sweet dessert wine profiles are all possibilities to complement a roasted nectarine with amaretti filling and bitter almond ice cream. The lush, late harvest Gewürz did it for this sugar lover.

Yes, it was work. Pleasurable work. It was also fun, palate-pleasing fun. Yet slightly frustrating because it wasn’t possible that evening to learn which culinary combatant had emerged victorious.

But now the sheets have been tallied, the figurative blows counted, and the outcome finally known. First place, Moore; second, Groh; third, Zalman; and fourth, Hott, which just goes to show that home-kitchen advantage may not help all that much.

But wait. Let’s compare this with the two previous competitions. At the first dinner, when Groh’s chef commanded the stove, the line-up was Zalman, first; Hott, second; Moore, third; and Groh, fourth.

The home-kitchen edge favored Moore at the second dinner and he did, indeed, capture the top spot followed by Groh, Zalman and Moore. Do you see a pattern here? Neither do I.

Further evidence supporting the elusive subjectivity of personal wine preference, even when you’re a pro. 

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