Sixteen wine lovers, ranging from insiders at Long Island wineries, bloggers, a journalist, wine salesmen and local enthusiasts put their noses and taste buds to the test on Saturday, competing for a chance to be on expert panel at the April 2 Smackdown Championship.
The April event would be the third Smackdown put on by Riverhead's , a contest that asks a panel of Long Island winemakers, vineyard owners and experts to taste a series of wines blind and try to guess what kinds they are. The one who gets the most right, wins.
On Saturday, Roanoke gave a few others the chance to participate in the big event.
Dubbed the March Madness Smackdown Tournament, the event pit the competitors head-to-head for four rounds, where they each had taste a series of three wines, blind, in each round, trying to guess as much as they could about each one.
And, yes, I was one of those competitors.
Tasting wine blind is one of those humbling events any person who thinks they know a fair amount about wine should do regularly. All you get is the wine in the glass. You don't see the bottle, the label or the price. Just the yellow, pink or purple juice in the glass. What's a taster to do?
First, you look at it. If it's white, how pale is it? A straw-colored white could suggest it's not been aged in oak. A rusty-colored red could suggest the wine is older.
Then you smell it. What types of fruit does it remind you of? Is it spicy? Do you sense any defining characteristic, like the currant-cassis fruit you'd get from many cabernet sauvignons, or the leathery notes of some syrah wines? Do you smell cat pee? Chances are it's a sauvignon blanc.
Then you taste, and it's the same drill. What are the flavors? Is it tight and dry, or gooey and even a little sweet? Is it acidic or oaky?
With just those observations, Roanoke asked competitors to not only pick out the grape of each wine, but the country it came from and the year it was made. For bonus points, you could name the specific region or event the producer.
At the end of each round, the winner moved on.
As the competition went on, it was clear there were plenty of tasters who came to win. Each round often had multiple tie-breakers, and the winners were separated by a point many times.
But when the dusty tannins settled, there was a winner. Andrew Rockwell, laboratory director at Mattituck's , won in a decisive final round over avid wine connoisseur Randi Schneider, who showed off one impressive palate of hers.
I was eliminated in the Final Four round, by Rockwell, in a tie breaker. So close.
Add me to the list of the fallen, joined by Sparkling Pointe Sales Manager Mellissa Schwartz, Jamesport Vineyards Retail Manager Jake Perdie, Wine Blogger Michael Gorton and Gourmand Ralph Ron DiGennaro.
As for the wines, Roanoke's Creative Director Scott Sandell and Tasting Room Manager Adam Ehmer – who donned referee getups for the event – picked out an assortment designed to stump the competitors: a California chardonnay, a Washington Riesling, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a Cotes du Rhone, an Australian Shiraz, a California cabernet sauvignon, a California viognier, a Chablis, a Long Island chardonnay, a Beaujolais Villages, an Oregon pinot noir and a Long Island merlot.
It's also worth noting that two of the three tie-breaker wines were Roanoke's.
And though defeat did sting a bit for 15 of us, it didn't stop the event from being a blast to be a part of. We got to taste all the wine, and enjoy the camaraderie that comes about when people who share a similar passion gather to enjoy what they love as a group. The conversation might sound like gibberish to outsiders, but for the wine geeks it was gospel.
So, congrats to Andrew Rockwell. I'll be there on April 2 to cheer you on.
Were you there? Did you compete?