We Made The US Wine Tasting Team! We’re Going to Loire, France!

that moment when we found out we’d won second place and be going to France to compete in the World Wine Tasting Championships … photo by Heber Pelayo


We can hardly believe it. We beat out three members of last year’s winning team, and we came close to scoring enough points to be in first place.

It wasn’t easy, but we never felt pressured or overwhelmed.

How did we do it?

While other teams have been practicing for this completion for one or even two years, this was a last minute opportunity for Sue and I, and we simply saw it as that — an opportunity to test ourselves.

We think we know a fair amount about wine, and we’ve certainly tasted and written about hundreds of bottles of wine in the past few years, but tasting blind is a special skill and working as a team to identify wines is completely different than what we usually do together.

Fortunately for Sue, Cantara Cellars owner and winemaker Mike Brown loves to test Sue when she’s working in the tasting room with different wines to see what she thinks of them. And we just didn’t have any time to get together and practice: during the previous week I was with my son in Big Bear Lake and even when we returned, Sue had to work at Cantara.

But you could also say we’ve been practicing since 2012 when Sue and I started working together — with Sue taking the lead with menu development and cooking, plus serving as scribe, and with me taking the lead with samples, trade events, photography, writing, and social media. And actually,. we started planning menus and cooking together when we were 12 year old Girl Scouts!

So we just met at my house an hour before the event to calibrate our palates, discuss the rules, and figure out a strategy.


As suggested, we tasted three wines to calibrate out palates: a 2017 Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, a 2012 Cantara Cellars Graffina Vineyards Lodi, and a 2016 Domaine de Bila-Haut L’Esquerda  from Roussillon.  Three very different wines, two that we knew well, and one we knew little about and that would challenge us. Then we gathered up pens, colored paper, and post-its, and walked around the block to the Pierpont Inn where the event was being held.

photo by Heber Pelayo

At the Pierpont Inn’s large Pavilion meeting room, we chose a table with good light near the glass doors of the entrance. When the competition began, wines came out every eight minutes The wines cain plain, clear, glass carafes, one after another after another. First there were six white wines, and then six red wines poured by the Pierpont Staff.

photo by Heber Pelayo

One of the tips was to manage our wines and our glasses and we did — we used post it notes with the numbers, we used color coded paper for our notes on the wines, and we took on the task of figuring out what they were, where they were from, who made them, and when.

photo by Heber Pelayo

No notes. No Google. No books. Just Sue and I comparing what we were experiencing, narrowing it down until we determined a decision.

See, sniff, swirl, swish, spit, repeat.

photo by Reed Sheridan

We felt pretty confident about the whites, not so sure about the reds, but overall we figured we were doing as well as the second and third placing teams from last year. We found the reds to be harder to identify than the whites, as they were all chosen to be very similar in color, density, and flavor to challenge us and show who the real winners should be.

Spectators could pay a fee to taste along with the competitors like our friend Diane Palette von Heyneman.

Once organizer Wine Acuity called time, eleven teams of competitors and 24 spectator/tasters turned in score cards, headed to the buffet, compared conclusions, and waited to see who would make the 2019 US Wine Tasting Team to compete for the World Wine Tasting.

First they announced third place: Lisa Stoll of Camarillo — who was on the team last year — and her new partner Elan Gasser with 59 points. They are in the runner up position and will go to France if the team in first or second place can not.

Third place finishers and alternate for the US Team: Lisa Stoll and Elan Gasser. photo by Gwendolyn Alley

Second place went to a team with 92 points. When they called my name and Sue’s, we looked at each other in disbelief and then started jumping up and down and hugging each other. AMAZING!

First place went to Texans Taylor Robertson and Jacob Fergus who scored 101 points, and we will be joining them in France to compete as a team of four for the World Championship.

First place winners. Photo by Heber Pelayo

Congratulations also goes to Colleen Murphy who came in first among non-competing tasters. If she had competed, she would have come in at fourth place.

According to Wine Acuity, “Team USA looks to be very strong for this year’s World Wine Tasting Championships!”

Wine Acuity representative Kathy Greene told me, “We were very pleased with the event. We felt all contestants were really enjoying themselves, which was most important. It was great to see new talent emerge and the top three teams scored very well. The balance of the teams scored within a few points of each other, so it was a very tight contest. Everyone scored well against a very difficult wine selection.

This bodes well for Team USA’s chances in the World Competition in France against 25 other teams. “We feel this year’s team could finish ahead of the best USA team finish,” she said. “The scores achieved in this competition given the complexity of the wines selected proves they are true contenders.”

photo by Heber Pelayo

But it really felt real when I got this email:

Congratulations on coming in as Blind Wine Tasting Champions of the United States and winning places on Team USA for the World Wine Tasting Championship. As a former team captain for Team USA I can guarantee you a truly memorable wine tasting experience at this years competition being held at the magnificent Chateau de Chambord on Saturday,October 12.

This is an annual event put on by La Revue du Vin de France, the oldest and most respected wine publication in France. Its chief editor was one of the judges in the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976 where California wines were blind judged against top French wines by French experts, with California wines coming out on top in both the white and red categories.

This year’s competition will feature 28 countries: England, Sweden, France, Romania, Spain, Belgium (last year’s champions), Luxembourg, Finland, Poland, Italy, Monaco, Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Hungary, Estonia, Taiwan, Russia, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Japan, China, Portugal, Ukraine, and yourselves, Team USA.

The competition is tough but it’s no tougher than the one you just experienced. The format is largely the same except that you’ll be working as a team of 4 people, have a non-tasting coach at your table, and have a few more minutes per wine for your extra discussions with the larger group. Otherwise it’s the same number of wines, the same scoring, and the same competitive process you just experienced.

Since it’s a French wine focused magazine, they have always chosen only one wine from any country in a given year except for France. I expect that to be the case again this year.

We will arrange and pay for accommodations near the competition venue for Friday and Saturday evening. We’ll also pay all the event fees as well as provide you with team uniform shirts. It is a contest requirement to wear team uniforms so we really want you to be comfortable for the competition. We’ll also reimburse you for coach airfare to Paris.

Curious about the wines that were tasted in the past? And as an indicator of what is to come?

The Wine Acuity website has a summary of all the past competitions (https://wineacuity.com/about/event-history). It also has the scores for the winners.

“Your mark to beat is to do better than third place, the prior best finish for Team USA,” says John who was on that team.
 We plan to arrive in France on Thursday Oct 3 and leave on Tuesday Oct. 15. From Thursday Oct 4- Wednesday Oct. 9, we are looking for places to taste and places to stay. On Thursday Oct. 10, we’d like to be in Loire. If you can help the US Team get the gold, or at least for this pair of wine writers to have plenty of content, please let us know about accommodations, travel, and tasting opportunities in France!
NOTE: A version of this story can be read at the VC Reporter in print in the July 18, 2019 edition and online here.

photo by Heber Pelayo

8 thoughts on “We Made The US Wine Tasting Team! We’re Going to Loire, France!

  1. Awesome Job!!! How exciting!!!
    Just out of curiosity how much does it cost to be a spectator at the US Open (and a competitor?) Are the competitors by invitation, or anyone can sign-up?

    Liked by 1 person

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