A Grape Escape

On the occasional day off, the city’s top sommeliers go underground to cook up a passionate little competition

The idea was simple at first: Gather a bunch of wine geeks at one of their homes to do a cook-off; a winner is declared, a great deal of wine consumed and the good times roll.

“We wanted it to be fun,” says Aureole wine director William Sherer, who came up with the idea a couple of years ago. “But at the same time, we wanted it to reflect our passion for great food and wine matching.” That’s a lot of passion, and so, somewhere along the way, the informal Sunday get-togethers turned into a spirited freestyle competition among the city’s top wine experts.

There have been about 10 “Sommeliers in the Kitchen” events, which are held about every two months. (The reason they’re held on Sundays is that many soms are off—remember that when next you make a restaurant reservation.) The first started with huevos rancheros, because Sherer used to live in Texas and New Mexico, and it seemed like a simple way to launch. But the soms’ natural competitiveness surfaced, and this led to the decision to have judges and make the contest formal.

Today, it’s almost a blood sport among those who’ve earned advanced degrees from the Court of Master Sommeliers. A recent gathering was at the home of Marche Bacchus owner Jeff Wyatt, and one of the contestants was the Southern Wine and Spirits Corporate Sommelier Carmelo Messina. He’s Italian, and the main ingredient was pasta. Guess who won?

Nonetheless, his was no mailed-in effort. To defeat Henry Davar, former wine director for the Mario Batali restaurants here, Messina cooked tagliatelle with a tomato lobster sauce and crabmeat-stuffed ravioli in Parmesan nutmeg cream with zucchini and vongole (clams). And his masterful pairing sealed the deal: a tony Italian white, Terlano, from the Italy’s mountainous province Trentino Alto Adige, with a good enough edge to cut through the richness of the cream and lobster.

From what he’s witnessed thus far, Wyatt would have expected nothing less out of Messina. “This is a venue that gives sommeliers the chance to express their culinary creativity,” he says. “The direction wine is taking is pairing wine with food, and some of these guys are phenomenal chefs.”

No less than 85 people showed up at Wyatt’s house—the biggest turnout yet.

The last cook-off, held at Messina’s home, featured Sherer; Paolo Barbieri, master sommelier from Alex at the Wynn Las Vegas; and Benito Martinez of Wynn Encore’s Botero. They were allowed to cook whatever they wanted. Barbieri went to his strength, with cioppino, while Martinez did a yellow beef curry.

Sherer delivered an excellent green chile posole. But the wine he chose may have won the day. It was Iberian Remix, a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes from the Central Coast of California. And he made it himself.