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Guy Fieri's Big Gulp

Plus, the American prelims of the Bordeaux Cup brought together more student wine teams than ever before, but the winners remain the same

Posted: January 24, 2013

• When Unfiltered last checked in on celebrity chef Guy Fieri, he was cooking up some steaks at Rock'n'Roll Fantasy Camp in Hollywood. Nearly four years later and a few hundred miles north, Fieri has been quietly setting up shop for his newest job: Sonoma County grapegrower and potential winemaker. As first reported in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat last week, Fieri, best known for his Food Network shows Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Guy's Big Bite, purchased a 5-acre Russian River Valley Pinot Noir vineyard last year, and has applied for permits to open a wine tasting room and commercial kitchen on the property. Fieri sold his vineyard's 2012 grapes to La Crema, part of the Jackson Family Wine empire, and to Williams Selyem, whose director of winemaking, Bob Cabral, told Unfiltered, “I'd been buying the grapes from the previous owner, Jan Goodrich. It's an older Martini clone, something I use to blend into my appellation wines.” Late last year, Fieri infamously took a beating from the New York Times over his new Times Square restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, but his Sonoma County neighbors are standing by him, and welcome his presence on the winemaking scene. “He's a big supporter of Sonoma County, and anything he does to promote our local wines is only good for us, because he has such a broad national audience,” said Cabral. Michael Browne of Kosta Browne concurred, saying, “There's an energy he brings to Sonoma County food and wine, and for him to get some roots in the ground with agriculture is cool. I'm stoked that he's getting into the vineyard and wine business here.” Sonoma County officials have requested a noise study be conducted before approving Fieri's plans due to some neighbors' concerns for the size and number of events Fieri may hold there.

How do you prepare for the world's biggest wine competition? Unfiltered caught up with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business team before the American prelims of the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup of university wine clubs—they took the silver in the international finals at Lafite this past June—before the main event. "I told my mom no spices," said Pooneet Kant, a returning player staying with his folks in New Jersey the night before the competition. Soup, coffee—anything that might scald the precious palate was absolutely out of the question in the days leading up to the events. Flu shots were mandatory; Allison Fortune, another returning champion, had a scare the week before the big game, but recovered. This followed months of study and tasting practice for two or three hours a week.

The Booth team knew the stakes because they had won the fabulous prize last year. No year's supply of Rice-a-Roni at this show: The top two teams win a three-day jaunt through Bordeaux, which last year included lavish luncheons, dinners and tastings at 10 different châteaus including Suduiraut, La Mission Haut-Brion, Margaux and Lafite, where the final showdown is held. The competition is organized by the Commanderie du Bontemps Médoc, Graves, Barsac et Sauternes, a coalition of château owners, merchants and other wine interests, and as president Emmanuel Cruse, of Château d'Issan, told Unfiltered, "Every year, [the teams] are improving."

Two years ago, when the competition was opened to American universities, five schools showed up at the French Consulate in New Yoek; this year there were nine. Unfiltered and one other journo comprised the press section; this year, chairs lined the room with all manner of blog folk live-Tweeting the proceedings. "At the beginning, it was a bet," Cruse told Unfiltered; some of his colleagues had been skeptical about taking the annual France-England wine tiff worldwide. "We didn't know how many schools would even show up." For 2013, 40 teams are scheduled to clash in prelims in total, with Asia and Europe still to come.

The Commanderie judges filed into a salon right out of Versailles, replete with gold-framed mirrors, ship-sail curtains and a tapestry the size of Unfiltered's apartment, contestants at their tables waiting. The judging panel wore their traditional billowy claret robes, sashes and medals awarded for exceptional service in the line of drinking. Some had matching hats. After some brief remarks, the competition got underway with a 10-question multiple-choice quiz. This was the question a panel member described as the easy one: Which Médoc château has a boat as an emblem? Oh, you know that one? How about which artist will adorn the 2010 Mouton label? Who's the patron saint of winemaking? How many Grand Cru Classé estates are in St.-Estèphe? Which is a classified-growth—La Mission Haut-Brion white, Laville Haut-Brion white or Haut-Brion white? (Answers: Beychevelle; Jeff Koons; St. Vincent; five; Laville Haut-Brion, the discontinued label now known as … La Mission white, which, well, hmm with that one.)

Then it was on to the blind tasting. Two flights, three glasses each, of red, plus one of stickies. Flight one: Rank in vintage order, pick the Pauillac. Flight two: Name the appellations blind. Flight three: Which is the odd vintage—and what vintage are the other two? "In Sauternes [vintage] always makes a difference," intoned one panel member. Apparently not: Virtually every team had a different answer. The consensus among returning teams was that this year's questions were much better than 2012's, but the tastings much more difficult. To Unfiltered, that part looked like essentially a matter of luck, but all the teams Unfiltered spoke with were mainly just happy for "the opportunity to drink wine and learn about Bordeaux" throughout their training and on the big day, as John Fossum of Harvard Business put it. Over a dinner of Lynch-Bages, Lagrange, Doisy-Daëne and Bouscaut, the winners were announced, and in an impressive three-year streak, Wharton will again wear the red, white and blue at Lafite in June, joined by Yale Law.

Serge Laporte
Canada —  January 25, 2013 11:24am ET
Please, enough of Jethro boy Guy Fieri. I unsuscribed from The Food network to avoid him. Don't they have a wine column in the "Daily Hilbilly".
Daniel Greathouse
Ohio & Kentucky —  January 25, 2013 12:53pm ET
Congratulations to Wharton and Yale; I wish you the very best of gustatory joy!

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