What’s Up With The 2020 World Wine Tasting Challenge: where, who, how

The 2019 World Wine Tasting Challenge at Chateau Chambord, France with the South African team on the right and the US team on the left; that’s me in the ball cap! Yes, the event was held IN part of the castle! photo courtesy of organizer La Revue du Vin de France.

UPDATE: If you are looking for the results of the 2020 World Blind Wine Tasting Challenge, go here.

It seems crazy now, but this time last year, I had almost no experience tasting wine blind, no plans to compete to be on the US Wine Tasting team organized by Wine Acuity and no intention to go to France for the World Tasting Championship, a blind wine tasting challenge sponsored by the French magazine La Revue du Vin de France..

But two weeks later, on Sunday July 14, 2019, Sue and I blind tasted our way through six whites and six reds, identifying varietal, country and region of origin, the year and the producer to earn 92 points which put us in second place in the US Wine Tasting Open.

This put us on the US Wine Tasting Team (more about that here)– which would pay for travel, food and accommodations to compete in the World Tasting Championships held at the beautiful Chateau Chambord, one of the most impressive castles in France (more about how that went here). 

Read about how the competition works with blind wine tasting tips here.

And the good news is that– even in the time of COVID with so many cancellations– 

the 2020 World Tasting Championship in Bordeaux, France, is still on for October 9 and 10!

Just a few weeks ago, on June 9, organizers posted these photos on La Revue du Vin de France’s Facebook page for the Championnat du monde de dégustation with the message: “Everything seems to be allright at Château Smith Haut Lafitte to organise our 2020 évent. Nice place Indeed ! I’ll send many informations about it in a few days. See you soon!”

I’m particularly excited about this location because they make organic wine, which I tasted at the big Bordeaux event in LA earlier this year (back in the Before Times).

Whether they let those of us from the US into France in October to compete is another question entirely…

Also due to the coronavirus, around the world team selection has been delayed or the process of selection changed. As of May 6, organizers from La Revue du Vin de France said that teams planned the following:

  1. Denmark: September competition and selection
  2. Netherlands: September 13 (moved from May 24)
  3. Taiwan: May 30 — which may mean they have their team together and are already practicing together
  4. Quebec: selecting a new team
  5. Finland: selected their team in June so practicing
  6. Sweden: June or August
  7. Ukraine: not yet defined
  8. Estonia: this summer
  9. France: 4th of July
  10. Belgium: 4th of July
  11. Luxembourg: July 7
  12. Portugal: June or September
  13. China : September
  14. Romania : same team but Sandra Cahu will take the place of Zoltan Szabo
  15. South Africa : still not known
  16. USA: Due to COVID related uncertainties, sponsor Wine Acuity cancelled the US Open. Instead of having competition to determine the team, 2016 team member, 2018, and 2019 coach John Vilja will select members from former US Open finalists who are interested, willing, and able to cover expenses to go to France, and who have already competed at least once in France (more on this below).
This is about half of the number that competed in 2019 so I imagine a few more teams have joined in the past month.  Merci à nos parters, many which are the same as in 2019: Champagne Ayala, WineandCo.com, Jean-Claude Boisset, Châteauneuf-du-pape, Bonfils wines, La Cave de Tain, Pain vin Company, Valade et Transandine, Lavinia, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, le Syndicat viticole de Pessac Léognan, Spiegelau, Château Capet Guiller and of course, La Revue du Vin de France.

Other important changes include the competition itself:

In January, organizers announced that all teams will taste eight wines and get scored. Then the top 10 teams will be announced and these teams will go on to the next round where they will taste four more wines “with projection of the results on the big screen.”

This is to provide for  better confidentiality, and while they changed this before COVID, it should allow more social distancing. Another change is that during the contest, no one will be allowed to approach the tables of tasters during the event for photos and videos. Hopefully, with everyone watching the finals, there will be stronger proctors to keep certain teams from cheating by using phones, notebooks, and other banned materials during the competition.

Photo courtesy of La Revue du Vin de France of Team USA 2019 just before the World Wine Tasting competition at Chateau Chambord: Taylor Robertson, Sue Hill, Gwendolyn Alley, Jacob Fergus, and Coach John Vilja of Wine Acuity. 

It is my understanding there are eight of us in this category of potential contenders for Team USA: the 2019 team of Texans Taylor Robertson and Jacob Fergus, plus Sue and I;  the 2018 team with Kristen Schubert (who placed 4th in 2019) and Lisa Stoll (who placed 3rd in 2019) plus Prem Sundaram and Byanca Godwin. Kristen was also on the 2016 team with Ulf who has been competing for Sweden.

While only four people compete in the event, there is no limit to the number of people who can be on a team and many of the other teams had alternates in case of an emergency. In the past, Team USA has sent four people plus Coach John Vilja. With each individual on Team USA covering their own expenses in 2020 and with COVID concerns, perhaps six people should be selected for the team.

Finalists in the US Open 2019. From left to right: Gwendolyn Alley and Sue Hill, 2019 second place; Taylor Robertson and Jacob Fergus 2019 first place; Lisa Stoll and Elan Gasser 2019 third place. All but Elan are eligible to compete for the US team in 2020. NOT SHOWN: Kristen Shubert who placed fourth in 2019 but is eligible for the 2020 team because she was on the 2016 team which placed third in France and on the 2018 team which placed fourteenth.


Organizers from La Revue du Vin de France. plus 2019 Team USA at the podium.

One of the challenges we experienced in France last year was that the Texans and Sue and I had never tasted together before we were competing in the contest. This meant that we didn’t share a tasting vocabulary or have shared tasting experiences. The Texans tasted together as they trained to be sommeliers, which includes a blind tasting component. Sue works in a tasting room, and she and I taste thousands of wines each year and write about hundreds of them but we don’t taste them blind.

While the Texans came in first place in the US Open, they scored less than 10 points more than we did, and if we hadn’t second guessed ourselves on some of the wines (hello ALBARINO!), we would have come in first. Not to mention that we’d never done anything like this before!

While I suggested that the 2019 team practice together, it never came about: they were in Texas and we were in California, and people just weren’t ZOOMing in 2019. Other teams told me about traveling together in France and practicing for the week before the contest as well as ways they practiced as a team at home. While I wouldn’t have wanted to pass up a moment of the trip we had to Champagne (read more here and here) and the Loire (read here and here), I suspect our lack of practice as a team before we got to France contributed to our poor performance.

In particular, I think Sue and I didn’t frame or argue for our opinions in a way that made sense to the Texans. To address this, and for my own edification, in 2020, I am studying for the WSET 3, taking blind tasting seminars with David Glancy of the SF Wine School, through the Napa Valley Wine Academy, and with Nick Jackson MW who wrote the 2020 release, Beyond Flavor which I just LOVE. In it, he analyzes wine in a way that really speaks to me but also gives me a language and tools to express and explain why I know a wine is what it is.

Because Sue and I want to compete in France again, make the top 10 and go on to the finals, I contacted Lisa Stoll and Kristen Schubert about practicing together in a COVID respectful way. I am friends on Facebook with both of them, and we all live in the same region of Southern California with three of us living in Ventura County and Kristen just south on the edge of LA County, making it relatively easy to practice together even with COVID concerns and restrictions.

I’m excited to taste with them (and possibly be on a team with them!) because:

Kristen Shubert is a Certified Sommelier with a Culinary Certificate, and a BS in Hospitality from UN Las Vegas where she managed top restaurants including the Eiffel Tower, Lawry’s, Smith & Wollensky 1995-2000. As a member of the US Wine Tasting Team in 2016 she placed third, the highest ever for a US Team. Named one of the “Central Coast’s Top Ten Wine Professionals” by 805 Magazine in 2019, she’s currently a member of Cellarmasters of Los Angeles, a wine maker of “SomSisters”, working with Paso Robles varietals from 2019 vintage. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram under SommSisters, KristenShubert, and VinturaTastingRoom.

Lisa Stoll is a Sommelier, Certified Advanced by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET Level 3).  Lisa placed first and third in the USA Blind Wine Tasting Championships in 2018 and 2019 respectively and participated as a member of Team USA in the 2018 International Blind Wine Tasting Challenge in France.  In 2012,  Lisa founded Explore Wines, Inc. which focuses on providing educational wine tours to boutique wineries in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.  Explore Wines offers tasting parties, cellar organization,  and Champagne sabrage for celebrations. She’s also on Twitter under @LisaStoll1.

While the first time we blind tasted was rough, and Kristen was unable to join us at the last minute, the second time went better even while keeping our distance by sitting at different tables; we tasted six whites and six reds from countries around the world.

Last week’s session went really well. We each brought 2-6 whites and 2-6 reds from anywhere but the US, organized them, and then my son picked one from each set to place in muslin numbered bags that Lisa brought. (Somehow we ended up with five very high acid whites– and then later that night we tasted Super Tuscans!)

While Sue and I have lots of experience tasting and describing what we are tasting for this blog (we’ve done 67 posts so far in 2019 which translates to almost 100k words), Kristen and Lisa have LOTS of experience and tools to do blind tastings! For example, Kristen prints out and brings placemats with six spots for glasses and Lisa has sets of glasses for us to use for our tastings. It makes a big difference for everyone to be sniffing and tasting from the same glasses! Kristen brought several books and other materials to aid in our studies.

Honestly I think if we four are chosen we could make a competitive team because we are all strong tasters who are committed to practicing together and developing communication so we understand and trust each other and know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and wine tasting short hand. Sue and I have tasted thousands of wines together during the past eight years, and Kristen and Lisa have likewise tasted many many wines together so it’s just figuring out how we four taste and understand wine TOGETHER.

We have potential.
We have time.
We have commitment.
Now to see if we are selected!
Wish us luck!

Here’s one of the white wines we opened during one of our recent blind tastings that we really enjoyed and that makes for a super summer sipper– Torrontés!

Will it be one of the wines we will be blind tasted on? They usually throw in a trendy wine, so this could be it!

While for years people thought that the Torrontés growing in Argentina was similar to the one from Galicia, and brought over by immigrants, DNA shows that it is not the same. Instead, this aromatic white grape that thrives in Argentina is likely a cross of the Mission grape and Muscat of Alexandria. Because of the Muscat characteristics, this was suspected, but the Mission grape was a surprise.

It offers a very unique and fascinating flavor profile. Something new for you to try in 2020!

2016 Trivento Mendoza “White Orchid” Reserve Torrontés
12% alcohol SRP $14
Sample for my review consideration. 

The name Trivento refers to “the three winds that influence its vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina: the Polar, a cold wind from the south; the Zonda, a warming western wind sweeping down off of the Andes; and the Sudestada, or southeast blow, which brings freshness from the Atlantic and Río Plata estuary to the vineyards. At the foot of the Andes, strains of vines originating in the Old World are at home with terroirs of generous sun and careful hands.”

This wine is called “White Orchid” but we didn’t catch that on the nose.

Color: Lemon with a greenish tinge

Nose: Petrol, gasoline, spearmint, ricola cough drop, alpine herbs, chamomile, lemon grass. We didn’t get the namesake “white orchids” but we found the wine very fun and expressive.

Palate: Tart without being overly acidic, a very unique flavor profile, jalapeño mint jelly, lemon lime, very herbaceous, some tropical fruit. Some bitterness on the finish.

Pairing: Fantastic with sushi and with grilled fish tacos.

2017 Zuccardi “Series A” Torrontés
Alcohol 14%; SRP $15
Sample for my review consideration.

“Since our beginning, we have focused on innovation, quality and sustainable production,” says José Alberto Zuccardi, owner of Zuccardi Winery in a press release union the occasion of being named by Wine and Spirits as one of the top 100 wineries in the world for 2018. “Today we believe that the future of Argentine wine is bright, and we are committed to showing the world the best terroirs that can be found in our country.”  

The wine is made from old vines grown high in the foothills of the Andes– the birthplace of this grape. A simple screwtop makes it easy to open indoors or out!

We tasted this one on our first outing and we were quite perplexed because it is so unusual. Now that we’ve tasted two different ones at different times, I’d like to think I have a better handle on it now that I know to look for those elements of aromatic Muscat.

Color: Lemon with hint of green

Nose: Fascinating but hard to identify mix of white flowers, hints of greenery, citrus and tropical fruits.

Palate: Lively but not overwhelming acidity. Refreshing herbal minty qualities with citrus.

Pairing: Fun fresh wine for a hot afternoon, pairs well with a wide range of foods at a potluck, but my favorite is with seafood from fresh salmon to sushi.

Definitely need to taste more Torrontés! To study, right?




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