Seated behind an array of wine glasses, a group of three tasters were huddled together in quiet discussion. They weren’t chatting about which wine they preferred; rather, the task at hand for this team from The Wharton School was to rank the wines – poured blind – from youngest to oldest and guess the appellation of the wines.
Tricky, to be sure. And the stakes were high, since this was the qualifying round of the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup, an annual competition of (mostly) business schools from around the world. Wharton had represented America in the finals for the past two years. Would this squad again advance to this year's final, being held at Château Lafite-Rothschild?
The contestants gathered under the soaring ceilings and tapestries larger than the raft of the Medusa at the French consulate in New York City. For a stab at winning the chalice on this frigid winter evening, the Wharton crew would have to defeat ten other teams – from the Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to Columbia Law School and beyond. The teams first had to navigate ten questions before arriving at the three flights of blind tasting.
Questions ranged from the general (who is the patron saint of wine growers?) to the Left Bank specific (how many classified growths are in St. Estèphe? Which château will host the Fete de la Fleur in 2013?). Unfortunately, there was no jumbo leader board, so the participants had to stoke their competitive juices only with a thirst for victory (and observers couldn’t follow the standings in real time).
The Wharton team had sailed through the questions, scoring eight out of ten. On that first tasting flight, they also correctly ranked the wines by age and identified the appellations. On the second flight of reds, however, they weren’t able to identify the appellations or the vintage, and the sweet wines (from Sauternes and Barsac) threw them for a loop.
“The blind tasting was humbling,” said Hubert de Blignieres, a Wharton participant. “We were very lucky.” He also admitted to having drunk the sweet wines of Bordeaux only “three or four times” in his life.
The Left Bank Bordeaux Cup (LBBC) started in 2002 with students of French business schools. It soon went international as British schools joined the fray in 2004, followed by a global expansion in 2011. Now there are four regional qualifying rounds (France, Europe excl. France, USA, and Asia), each of which sends two teams to the finals. The event’s organizer is the Commanderie du Bontemps du Médoc, Graves Sauternes and Barsac, a goodwill society of Left Bank wines whose robes add pomp to any festivity.
Americans have done well at the LBBC, with Harvard Business School winning the final in 2011 and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business placing second last year.
It’s a clever idea for the Bordelais, whose wines have fallen out of favor with the current generation of sommeliers and young wine enthusiasts, in part because of price. This competition shrewdly targets millennials who will likely be able to afford the wines.
Each team had its own methods for preparing for the event. The Wharton team divided the trivia questions into three categories: Emma Wang, a team member who has taken WSET classes, handled the winemaking and history; de Blignieres tackled possible questions about the Commanderie; while Nora Varela Cardenas studied up on appellations. They pooled resources and tasted for months in advance.
Pooneet Kant, a member of the team from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, which placed second in the finals last year, said his colleagues included two wine industry veterans, who had worked at Zachys wine auctions and Momufuku restaurants. Their team also pooled resources and got together to taste wines twice a week while reading up on the geography and history of Bordeaux.
Matthew Daniel, a member of the Columbia Business School team, used to work for the wine importer Vintus. He said the Columbia crew took their budget to a local store whose manager got so into the competition that he helped find rare back vintages for the team to test. “It was the most welcome studying I did all semester,” Daniel said.
But in the end, it was Yale Law School's tasting prep that paid off best as they took home the victory and bragging rights in this round. Wharton placed second and will also be sending their squad to Bordeaux as the other U.S. team.
De Blignieres of Wharton pledged that they will keep training and try to work with their local Commanderie chapter in Philadelphia. Is he nervous about the competition in June?
“I know we’re going to have a good time,” he said.