Snow fell furiously outside as 27 young oenophiles swirled, sniffed and sipped fine Bordeaux. They huddled in teams of three to discuss the wines -- not to appreciate the subtleties but to answer the types of questions that can befuddle even lifelong devotees of the grape.
These three wines are from the same vintage; which year? Which one is from Listrac? Which is from Margaux? The second flight are all from the same appellation; which one? Rank them from youngest to oldest. Which one is Chateau Giscours?
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This was the U.S. qualifying round for the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup, an international wine competition designed to promote knowledge of Bordeaux among what its organizers call "the world's future elite" at top universities, business and law schools. A wine region whose top products have become inaccessible to all but the richest collectors wants the collectors of tomorrow to be dreaming of the best today.
Unlike marketing efforts such as Duclot La Vinicole's campaign to convince sommeliers that Bordeaux is fun and hip, the cup competition revels in Bordeaux's history and terroir and the arcana of the 1855 classification that established a hierarchy of chateaux that continues to this day. It was an evening of geeky fun, held Jan. 21 in an ornate ballroom of the French Consulate overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. The snowstorm practically shut down the city, but nothing could keep these competitors from their wine. Two of the nine teams would be chosen to compete against others from Asia and Europe in the cup final in June at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.
The competition was created in 2002 by the Commanderie du Bontemps de Medoc, des Graves, de Sauternes et de Barsac. One of the oldest French wine appreciation guilds, the commanderie represents chateaux along the left bank of the Gironde River, which bisects the Bordeaux region. (Bordeaux red wines are typically blends, but the left bank is considered cabernet sauvignon country, while the right bank favors merlot and cabernet franc.) Initially for French university wine societies, the competition was later opened to British teams so Oxford and Cambridge could participate. It became a global contest in 2011, when a team from Harvard Business School won the cup in the first year that U.S. teams were eligible.
Nine U.S. teams tried out this year. Eight hailed from schools in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast: MIT's Sloan School of Management, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Yale Law School, Harvard Business School, New York University's Stern Business School, Columbia Business School, Columbia Law School and Cornell University's Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. Stanford Business School was the lone West Coast entrant. The contestants -- 14 men, 13 women -- ranged in age from their mid-20s to early 30s. Many had been exposed to wine throughout their lives.
"Some of these young people have been drinking from their parents' cellars for years," said Philippe Newlin, director of the New York office of Duclot La Vinicole and a mentor for the Columbia Business School team. Even with that experience, they still need to train for the cup competition.
And they train hard, with a regimen similar to those for professional wine certifications. "They practice blind tasting and do an immense amount of drilling on geography, appellations, the classifications and literary quotations," said Robert Cunningham, a lawyer and wine collector who mentors the Columbia Law School team. That team was formed last spring and trained throughout the year.
Knowledge of Bordeaux history and trivia was put to the test through 10 multiple-choice questions presented by Emmanuel Cruse, owner of Chateau d'Issan in Margaux and world grand master of the Commanderie Bontemps. Cruse and his fellow judges from the commanderie and from U.S. chapters of the Commanderie de Bordeaux, another wine appreciation society, wore the traditional red-and-crimson robes of their guilds. Their costumes conveyed a sense of formality, yet also playfulness. Consul General Bertrand Lortholary, serving as a judge as well, looked relatively proletarian in a suit and tie.
Why would students do this in addition to their studies? For a variety of reasons, in addition to a love of wine: to build friendships, network and even develop important job skills.
Conner Esworthy of Frederick, Md., is the 29-year-old co-president of Columbia Business School's wine society, which boasts more than 400 members. She credits her wine knowledge with helping her establish business relationships at the New York equity firm where she will work after receiving her degree this spring.
"Since I love wine and have traveled to several wine regions, I'm often asked to select a wine at business dinners," Esworthy said. "I've found that if I can impress someone with a good wine selection, it tends to build trust."
The analytical skills developed in wine tasting can help in professional careers, says Rumbidzai Maweni of Alexandria, Va. Maweni, 26, went to the 2010 cup final as a member of Oxford's team and has competed for the past three years for Columbia Law School.
"The greatest skill a lawyer has is the ability to analyze a large amount of information quickly and efficiently with close attention to detail," she said. The competition requires contestants to rapidly determine a wine's provenance, appellation and vintage; the climate conditions that year; whether the wine is overripe or in decline, and other factors, she adds.
For 30-year-old Adam Teeter of Auburn, Ala., who will complete his business degree studies at Stern Business School in the spring, the competition was further research to help with his new start-up wine company, VinePair.com. Teammate Alex Reicherter, 30, of Westchester, N.Y., said he hopes to work in marketing for wine or spirits.
Consumers enjoy the history and culture behind wine but are too easily intimidated by it, Teeter explained. He rattled off statistics with a marketer's ease, noting that "35 percent of Americans say they experience stress when choosing a wine." He said his company aims to allay that anxiety and make consumers more comfortable with wine.
In making wine more accessible to consumers, Bordeaux might seem an odd place to start. Even the lower-classified growths tend to cost $40 and up, while astronomical prices for the top bottles add to Bordeaux's image as a luxury product (helped along by adoring wine media). With high-quality wines available from around the world, many consumers have looked elsewhere.
The Left Bank Bordeaux Cup targets a small demographic of the affluent and upwardly mobile and gives them that experience.
"It takes these dedicated young wine lovers, the best and brightest, and teaches them an awful lot about Bordeaux," said Donald Zilkha, head of the New York chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux and one of the judges for the U.S. round. Once they leave school and their university wine societies, they will still have that knowledge and experience.
Yet the competition is also narrowly focused on the classified growths of the left bank: recent questions skipped over the less exclusive Haut-Medoc region and the unclassified cru bourgeois category that covers the majority of Bordeaux wine, much of it quite affordable. To attract a broader customer base, the industry will have to focus on the wines people can afford, Zilkha said.
"Bordeaux will recapture its historical significance in the market if we can shine a light on the unclassified wines of the cru bourgeois," he said after the judging.
Teeter, ever the marketer, agreed. "They need to target the shops," he said. "Get someone to take a chance on a $15 or $20 bottle on the way home from work. Then you can change perceptions."
He will have a chance to explore Bordeaux in person in June, when Teeter, Reicherter and teammate Michael Modisett compete in the cup final. Their team tied for first place with Yale Law School.
The Stern team took a more relaxed approach to the competition, forgoing intensive practice sessions and flash cards.
"We didn't want to over-think it," Teeter said shortly after learning his team would compete in the finals. "Wine can just intimidate people."