You’ve heard of sommeliers. They’re wine experts who’ve studied the grapes, varietals, winemaking methods, sugar levels, acid levels, chemical compounds—everything that makes a good wine, and determines how well it will pair with your dinner. This isn’t a self-appointed title, like “social media guru.” Joshua Orr, an Advanced Sommelier who oversees the wine program at San Diego’s Marina Kitchen, just won Top Somm, an annual competition crowning the best sommeliers in America. Participants are heckled, flustered, and harassed by Master Sommeliers. They’re tested on service and theory, and have to execute a blind tasting. We asked Orr about the experience:
What’s the blind tasting like? You’re presented with six glasses of wine. You just know they’re gonna screw with you. We had an Australian Riesling and they threw two sparkling wines at us. Then the questions come: How do you think it’s made? Is there lees contact? What style? What are the primary grapes? How old? I got the first one—a Pinot Noir-dominant Champagne from Bollinger.
There’s a “service” part of the competition? I got quizzed on Calvados and brandy. They were peppering me with the minimum alcohol, which apple types are used, name three small producers, what’s the alcohol level when it’s shipped, whether it’s batched still or continuous still, all while I have to walk around a table and serve wine.
Go back to the contest. You’ve just picked up a glass of white wine. What’s in your head? Wine No. 1 was herbal and super mineral, but had a little elevated alcohol. It had a Sauvignon Blanc character, but it’s not super herbal, so maybe it’s a riper style of white, like Blanc de Blanc or Assyrtiko. There’s a chive character to it. It ended up being a Sonoma Valley Sauvignon Blanc.
How do you break that down? Certain grape varieties have certain markers. There are chemical compounds called pyrazines. They put off a green bell pepper note that’s prevalent in Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Merlot. If you can identify that, it makes the world of possible answers much smaller. From there, it’s structure. Sauv Blancs have high acid. Gewürztraminers have low acid and high alcohol. Sangiovese has a distinctive orange color, high acid, and high tannin.
I’m thirsty. Give me a recent “find” that you’re excited about at Marina Kitchen… Samsara’s Turner Vineyard Syrah from Santa Rita Hills. It has that dark berry flavor but it’s not over the top. It’s got that peppery, smoky, olive, almost bacon character. I’m also huge on dry Rieslings. We do a great one called Wagner-Stempel.
The ultimate bottle on your list? The 1991 Vega Sicilia Unico. That’s arguably the most heralded wine out of Spain—a Tempranillo. A crazy wine, made by a family so wealthy that they don’t have to worry about the bottom line. So they have 100-year-old vines and age it as long as they see fit. On our list it’s $525.
How’d mom react to the Top Somm win? She was on the East Coast, waiting up in a hotel room for me to call. I’ve done well, but never great, in competitions. So my dad joked, “Well, you picked a hell of a time to break through.”
Follow Orr’s wine selections at @somm_morr.