• In what has now become a Division I wine league, the fifth iteration of the international Left Bank Bordeaux Cup took place this past week. The university wine competition now features 40-plus teams participating in the prelims, and eight teams from the U.S., Europe and Asia taking part in the finals, which featured both a quiz and tasting challenge.
Last week marked June Madness—the finals of the 2015 LBBC at Lafite. It’s a four-day affair, with tastings and dinners across Bordeaux to warm up. This year’s fantasy itinerary included visits to Guiraud, Pichon Comtesse, Pape Clément and several others. Horace Yu, of London’s Imperial College Business School, told Unfiltered that “one of the most memorable experiences from that time was Château Haut-Marbuzet, because the owner is really generous. He gave us a lot of years across the 1990s, 2009, 2010, even 1975. That is probably one of the oldest wines I’ve ever tasted!”
At a five-year reunion hosted in March at Sotheby’s, 2011 competitor Nicholas Jackson, who “knew nothing about wine” when he started at Cambridge and has since become the retail buyer for Sotheby’s New York, said he “thought I had put the loss behind me, but it came back to haunt me.” Now he coaches the Yale Law team. Stories such as Jackson's and Yu's give the Bordelais good reason to pull out all the corks. “You are the new generation of Bordeaux ambassadors,” Emmanuel Cruse, the grand maître of the Commanderie du Bontemps e Médoc, des Graves, de Sauternes et de Barsac that runs the games told the five years’ worth of alums in March.
Imperial College, a first-time competitor, is an unusual team in that the school has no wine club, its team no coach. Instead, the three players, all from Hong Kong, “came up together,” bonding over wine, picking out new regions to explore when they caught the bug three years ago. In preparation for the Cup, Yu estimated he and his friends tasted 60 bottles over the course of the year.
On the night of the big event, teams put their heads together to field questions from the panel of Burgundy-robed and velvet-topped maîtres. “Where is Château Rieussec located?” isn’t so simple when the choices are actually the hamlets of Bommes, Fargues or Sauternes. “How many third classified growths are there in the Haut-Médoc appellation?” “What is the shape of the new Carmes Haut-Brion cellar, designed by Philippe Starck? (Fargues, one and a boat.)
Then the blind tasting, in which three sets of three wines demanded identification by vintage and appellation. “The hardest part is really down to the wine tasting,” said Yu. On one appellation question, “because of the restraint, power, we thought it would be St.-Estèphe or St.-Julien.” None of the eight teams correctly answered Margaux.
In the end, Yu’s unit prevailed over rival Cambridge, which had bested them in the British prelims. And then all the assembled teams dined and drank 1979 Lafite among the vats, a global celebration of Bordeaux well into the night. If the reunion was any indication, the experience will lead to a few future wine careers.
• When it comes to drinking alcohol and all the joys (and occasional pains) it brings, we humans share a lot of similarities with lesser primates. Last December Wine Spectator reported on the findings of Dr. Matthew Carrigan, who identified the branch in the family tree that resulted in ancestral primates possessing the ability to metabolize alcohol. Now a recent study published by the Royal Society’s journal Open Science, led by Dr. Kimberley Hockings, confirms that at least some of today's primates habitually seek out ethanol in the wild—at least when it comes to chimps and palm wine.
The study, 17 years in the making, observed chimpanzees of Western Africa “sampling” palm wine from the collection vats set up by local tappers. The sap from the Raffia palm ferments remarkably fast, yielding a three to seven percent alcohol beverage in as little as 24 hours, but still sweet enough to be acceptable to a chimp’s palate. The study also noted that these chimps didn’t just view the palm wine as a food source: Independent of the feast or famine level of their food sources, they still enjoyed the palm wine. Who says you need a meal to enjoy a glass of wine? Bringing the chimps' behaviors even closer to home was the observation that there were two types of “inebriates”—there were the quiet ones who simply found a nice place to lay their head and sleep it off, and there were the loud ones who weren’t happy until everyone in their group knew just how loaded they were. Some chimps were seen drinking as much as a liter of the wine, and one chimp in particular accounted for 14 of the 51 observed drinking events, demonstrating his clear love of the beverage. We all know that guy.
• There's a bit of a kerfuffle percolating between Canada and the U.S. wine industry. One of the issues that has the U.S. wine industry in the crosshairs is a U.S. law called COOL (Country of Origin Labeling), which the U.S. has in place despite being decried as unfair and in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement by both Mexico and Canada. When no one in the U.S. really listened, Canada took the matter to the World Trade Organization (WTO) with the understanding that there would be financial repercussions for imported products from the U.S. into Canada, one of those targeted products being wine.
As we reported last month, when the WTO agreed with Canada, the country was free to draft up a schedule of proposed retaliatory tariffs that could effectively double the cost of a U.S. bottle of wine over Canadian bottles, or even wines from around the globe. Canada, as the sixth largest consumer of wine in the world, is also the single largest export market for California wine. Needless to say, the message was received loud and clear. On June 10 the House of Representatives passed a bill repealing the COOL law in a vote of 300 to 131. Now the matter goes to the Senate where it is hoped that the bill, or some form of it, is passed quickly—ahead of the tariffs which could be in place as soon as this fall.
• At this year’s Auction Napa Valley, guests were treated to outstanding wines, a riveting auction and… a flash mob! Yes, one of the Internet’s most beloved YouTube trends came to life at the annual wine fund-raiser. On June 5, day three of the four-day affair, Hall Wines hosted the Napa Valley Barrel Auction. Guests descended upon the St. Helena property to sample and bid on sought-after wines still in their casks. Outside the winery, hundreds of producers poured their current releases. Attendees noshed and mingled, completely unaware of the surprise that their host Kathryn Hall, vintner and former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, had coming. “I have been a big fan of flash mobs for years,” Hall told Unfiltered. “We thought that this was the perfect opportunity, and audience, to do something really spectacular.” Hall worked in secrecy with Festival Del Sole, Napa’s annual music, theater and dance showcase, to bring together local musicians and vocalists for the stunt.
Beginning with a single bass, the opening notes of “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony trickled through the chattering crowd. Other string instruments joined soon after, and then seemingly out of nowhere, a total of 40 musicians and 40 vocalists joined the performance. Standing side-by-side with guests, renowned conductor Ming Luke’s musical mob executed a viral video-worthy rendition of the joyous composition. “The reaction from the attendees was great. People were surprised, moved, and overwhelmed,” Hall gushed. “In fact, a few of the attendees told us that the performance was so emotional that it brought them to tears. We were thrilled with the performance and happy that we could bring a smile to the faces of those who were able to experience it."