By Eric Barton
Shari Gherman drank nothing but French wine before Chef Allen Susser changed her ways one night some years ago.
This was back when Susser had his flagship restaurant in Aventura, Gherman explains, and she was eating there three nights a week. She’d always order dinner with the same wine, she says, a Puligny-Montrachet white from Burgundy.
“Look,” Gherman recalls the chef telling her. “I’d love for you to keep ordering the most expensive bottle on the menu, but you need to try something…”
Susser poured her a glass of Les Pierres from Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, a chardonnay redolent with oak and fruit flavors. That did it, Gherman says, “he made a monster out of me.”
She first became a connoisseur of American wines, and then an advocate. So much so that seven years ago she decided she wanted to do something to help recognize American winemakers. Gherman and Monty and Sara Preiser, of Boca Raton, co-founded the American Fine Wine Competition, a South Florida event now that’s both wine competition and glitzy gala. And it’s also expected to raise six figures this year for Deliver the Dream.
The competition accepts only the best of American wines, Gherman says – “there are no $10 bottles here.” American-grown grapes get their own category, broken down further into price points up to $250. A team of experts tastes thousands of entries before narrowing it down to about 700 wines, nearly double the first year. In January, the judges spent two days picking the bronze, silver, gold medalists and the Best of Show winners (see story, cityandshore.com)..
Last year, the Best of Show/Class honors in the white wine category went to a 2009 White Riesling from Hagafen Cellars in Napa Valley. A 2010 Pinot Noir from The Donum Estate winery in Sonoma took Best of Show/Class honors in the red wine category.
Charlie Arturaola served as one of the judges, this year and last. He’s a freelance sommelier who sees the event as a chance to sample everything this country is producing. “You can taste what’s going on in Yountville and the Willamette Valley and Oregon,” Arturaola says. “That’s amazing from a tasting standpoint because you’re tasting real diversity.”
It’s also a chance to meet and talk with winemakers from across the country, says Mike Hampton, dean of the Florida International University School of Hospitality, a partner in the competition. “We’re very involved at FIU in the business of wine, and this is a tremendous way to expose our students to that world.”
For Gherman, the competition is about getting people to realize just how good American wines are these days – just as Chef Susser did for her that night long ago. She had a friend who drank only Italian wines before she brought him a killer cabernet recently.
“He took a sip and goes, ‘OK, you’re right,’” she recalls. “This is what it’s all about.”
If You Go
The American Fine Wine Competition culminates in an April 4 benefit gala at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. A $300 ticket buys you a five-course dinner, entertainment by singer Hilary Kole and access to hundreds of high-end American wines. Proceeds from ticket sales and the silent and live auction go towards Deliver the Dream. Ticket information, americanfinewinecompetition.org, 305-627-3409. The Boca Raton Resort & Club is also offering group rate accommodations, call reservations at 561-447-3000 for details.
For first-timers, American Fine Wine Competition President Shari Gherman offers a few tips for navigating the wines poured at the gala, coming up April 4.
You’ll make it through only a small portion of the wines. Do some research on what’s being poured, and plan out the wines you’ll try.
On that list, include favorites, things you know you’ll like, and then a few varietals or regions that might stretch your palate.
Meet the winemakers. The craftspeople responsible for the award winners can explain just how that sample ended up in your glass.
Drink lots of water, bring lots of business cards, and ask for only half-ounce pours. “People say, ‘I love this wine, so I asked for a whole glass,’” Gherman says. “But the next one might be even better.”