If you’re a winemaker, should you be able to tell the difference between a California chardonnay and a French chardonnay? Or, to narrow it a bit, if you’re a winemaker on Long Island, should you be able to tell the difference between a California chardonnay and a Long Island chardonnay? Let’s go one step further. If you’re a Long Island winemaker who makes chardonnay, should you be able to tell another Long Island chardonnay from your chardonnay?
It may not be important in the grand scheme of things, but in April at Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead, it was pretty fun. Welcome to the first Winemaker Smackdown, in which five winemakers tasted seven wines blind to see what they would, or could, come up with. To make it even more festive, a roomful of wine lovers had bought tickets to taste along with the panel.
There was a fair bit of theater. Greg Gove of Peconic Bay Winery entered the room carrying a bottle of Pilsner Urquell (secret: winemakers drink beer). Eric Fry from Lenz showed up in a chef’s jacket with duct tape around his head, a not-too-subtle joke about moderator local chef Tom Schaudel’s usual attire. Jim Waters of Waters Crest, the only self-taught winemaker in the group, held his own. And Roman Roth of Wölffer Estate, who’s a known ham, arrived with a leopard-print robe and boxing gloves hanging around his neck, and taunted his colleagues with poetry-evocative of Muhammad Ali. The crowd loved it.
The final contestant, Christopher Tracy from Channing Daughters, a student in the Master of Wine program, took extensive notes on each wine, recording its color, aromas, flavors, body and alcohol level. His training paid off. He identified the appellation and vintage range of a 1989 Château Pontet Canet, Paulliac. At the start, he declared it was from the left bank of the river that divides Bordeaux from the strength of the cabernet. And then he said, “Let’s narrow it down. It doesn’t have the power of a St.-Estèphe, nor the elegance of a Margaux, so it’s probably a St.-Julien or a Paulliac.” Bingo.
But, as moderator Schaudel stated at the beginning, the event was more about education and entertainment than competition. Seven bottles is a lot to taste blind in one sitting; the room got louder with each unveiled wine.
See footage by searching for “Roanoke Smackdown” on Youtube, and learn about the next Smackdown at www.roanokevineyards.com.