FOR MOST people, training to participate in the semifinals of an international competition involves hard work and deprivation -- running an extra few miles or swimming a few extra laps a day and, of course, cutting down on high living. But, for a few area residents the pattern is different. They are getting ready to compete for slots on the first United States Amateur Wine Tasting Team.
The competition is to pick a United States team to challenge the undefeated British wine tasting team. A few hundred contestants, all amateurs, will gather in New York City on Feb. 8 to pick an East Coast team to compete against the Midwest and West Coast teams for the honor. The British amateur team has already out-tasted the French and Germans. (There will also be a professional category for those who have earned income from wine.)
Recently, three contestants gathered in the Bethesda home of the fourth contestant, Dr. Michael M. Phillips, a gastroenterologist, to go through a dry run. As in the actual competition eight wines, four red and four white, were tasted blind. The goal was to identify the grape variety, area of origin (the more specific, the better), the producer and the vintage of each in an hour.
Participating with Dr. Phillips were Michael de Maar, an official with the Social Security Administration; Dr. Edward Lakatta, an NIH scientist; and James Gabler, a Baltimore lawyer. All have been tasting regularly and generally together for at least seven years. Basically self taught, two confided that they once took a wine course from a chain-smoking non-drinker. They then decided to form their own group.
This is their first competition, and it has involved certain sacrifices, they say. Gabler pointed out that they normally try to sample the best wines they have in their private cellars or can buy. Recently, they consumed La Mission Haut Brion '55 and Cheval Blanc '61, for example. While those particular wines were not an unqualified success, according to the four, they were far better than some of the wines which they are using for training, such as California jug wines. They don't expect to see any old bordeaux in New York. They hope not to see too many "exotic" wines, such as mavro from Cyprus or a gamza from Bulgaria.Or cheap burgundies that might be short on pinot noir.
Eight numbered bottles wrapped tightly in brown paper bags, a few dozen glasses and pens and pads were the props for the exercise. Aside from a modicum of table talk -- and a little peeking at others' notes -- the conditions were designed to approximate those in New York, where the event's sponsor, the Gold Seal Wine Company, plans to have tight controls. Wine writers from The New York Times, New York Daily News and Chicago Tribune will have the final word on the winners.
The testing was spirited, but produced mixed results, at best. A 1977 Toyon Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County was identified as a California wine by all four -- a 1976 cabernet from south of San Francisco (de Maar), a cabernet (no vintage stated) from Monterey (Lakatta), a 1977 Monterey zinfandel (Gabler) and a 1977 zinfandel from northern California (Phillips). On the other hand, an inexpensive 1979 white grapes (Bordeaux) brought forth guesses of a 1979 macon, a 1978 white rhone, a 1974 vina sol from Spain and a non-vintage New York State chardonnay. One participant wanted to know if he would get points for getting the color right.
The training will go on to the last minute. They are considering taking some wine with them on the train to New York for tasting, but the sentiment was to take the "good stuff," and maybe some champagne for the ride home, especially if they make the team.
Their optimism reflects the fact that analyzing wines is not easy for even the best. Dr. Hamilton Mowbray, the noted oenologist, was once asked if he ever confused a bordeaux and a burgundy. Drawing himself up, he replied, "I haven't done that since lunch."