Sommelier South African Smackdown Part II: And the Winner Is…

It was serious somm competition at the Astor Center last week, with New Yorkers placing second and third.

Serious Somm: NYC placed 2nd and 3rd at Astor Place last week.

While yesterday’s fantabulous sunshine lured many of us to linger a little longer at lunchtime, or even ditch the workday entirely in the much more noble pursuit of varietal food-truck dining (and why can’t New York State liquor laws allow for a wine truck? Seriously–how great would that be!), 16 sommeliers were trying to out-sniff, out-savor, and out-finesse each other at the Astor Center in the U.S. semi-finals of the first annual Sommelier World Cup.

The prize? The opportunity to compete against some of the world’s savviest schnozzles and take a week-long vineland and winery tour of the best South Africa has to offer (which is, according to judge Roger Dagorn of Porter House, pretty darned great) this coming fall.

And the winner was… sommelier Chris Bate of the Hotel Fauchere in Milford, PA, with two NYC somms coming in close on his heels at second (Robert Hamilton of Porter House New York) and third (Marissa Copeland of Watty & Meg).

In addition to the written exams and the blind tastings, Bate says one of the hardest parts was the tricky faux wine list that each somm had to eyeball and fix, which was chock full of South African wineries listed in the wrong region, wines never made, incorrect vintages, and a host of other maladies that only the eagle-eyed and well-trained would spot.

According to judge Bernie Sam from Jean-Georges, however, it was the tableside service part of the competition, where each contestant had to properly present, open, and pour Cap Classique (South Africa’s answer to Champagne) that really set Bate apart from the pack. “He’s passed the advanced level of the Court of Master Sommeliers, so he’s very proficient in the service aspect—the cream rises to the top.”

As to Bard’s upcoming visit to South Africa, he’s pumped: He’d visited the country nearly a decade ago as a young sommelier, and the great changes in the industry since then have only served to further pique his interest. “A lot has changed [in South African wine] over the last 20 years, and I’m excited to taste the difference in the wines and to watch them compete on the global stage in the post-Apartheid era. This is not a developing wine growing region—they have 350 years of tradition.”

Lisa Granik, an instructor at the International Wine Center and fine wine manager at Charmer, who was also on hand for the competition, concurred that a return trip to South Africa is timely: “Top South African wines have become more elegant, balanced and refined.”

If you want to sip for yourself, do what Bate did after the end of yesterday’s SA Wine World Cup—check out South African-centric wine bar Xai-Xai on 51st Street just off Ninth Avenue.

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Amy Zavatto is the daughter of an old school Italian butcher who used to sell bay scallops alongside steaks, and is also the former Deputy Editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She holds her Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from the WSET, and contributes to Imbibe, Whisky Advocate, SOMMJournal, Liquor.com, and others. She is the author of Forager's Cocktails: Botanical Mixology with Fresh, Natural Ingredients and The Architecture of the Cocktail. She's stomped around vineyards from the Finger Lakes to the Loire Valley and toured distilleries everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to the Highlands of Scotland. When not doing all those other things, Amy is the Director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.