Neal Wavra, sommelier at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia, accepted the challenge of choosing Virginia wines for a blind tasting against some of France’s famous Sauternes. Photograph by Scott Suchman
In what was a different world—one in which financial companies rewarded valued employees with lavish vacations—my wife, Marti, and I were given a trip to the renowned Château d’Yquem vineyard in Bordeaux, France, several years ago. The chateau served a five-course dinner in which every course was matched with a d’Yquem wine from the vineyard’s most highly rated vintages.
Michelin three-star chef Michel Trama of L’Aubergade restaurant in Puymirol, near Bordeaux, paired course after course with one of the famously sweet Sauternes. A crunchy cone filled with sea scallops and osetra caviar was accompanied by the 2000 vintage. A fresh Brittany lobster poached in coconut sauce was paired with the 1998 vintage, pan-seared Gascony duck liver with the 1986, and potato en papillote stuffed with black truffles with the 1976. Dessert—raspberries topped with vanilla-scented, honey-based jelly—was served with the 1937 vintage, which wine writer Robert Parker once declared was matched only by the 1921 vintage.
On its face, the idea of pairing sweet wines with every course in a meal had seemed all but impossible. But thanks to our once-in-a-lifetime experience, we knew it could be done—and brilliantly.
A year ago, we enjoyed with friends a local twist on the famed 1976 winetasting now known as the “Judgment of Paris.” Ours was held in Paris, Virginia, at the historic Ashby Inn. The inn, built around 1829, is near the Ashby Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, through which Route 50 now passes. Confederate generals Joseph Johnston and Stonewall Jackson rested at the Ashby Inn on their way to the First Battle of Manassas the night of June 17, 1861.
Much like the 1976 Judgment of Paris, in which California wines fared favorably against French wines in a blind tasting, our blind tasting pitted Virginia wines against comparably priced wines from around the world. To the surprise of many, the Virginia wines fared well against the competition. Most tasters, who included wine professionals, serious amateurs, and recreational tasters, couldn’t tell the Virginia wines from the imports—and tended overall to prefer the Virginia ones. An article about the event, titled “Judgment of Paris,” appeared in the September 2009 Washingtonian.
How They Ranked
1. 2001 Rieussec, France (375 ml, $99)
2. 2008 Rockbridge V d’Or, Virginia (375 ml, $24)
3. 2005 Château d’Yquem, France (375 ml, $325)
4. 2006 Linden Late Harvest Petit Manseng, Virginia (375 ml, $28)
5. 2000 Linden Late Harvest Vidal, Virginia (375 ml, $23)
6. 1971 Rieussec, France (750 ml, $125)
7. 2007 Veritas Kenmar, Virginia (375 ml, $35)
8. 1975 Château Suduiraut, France (750 ml, $65)
Everyone who attended the Virginia tasting seemed to have a good time. I thought of it as a one-time event until Marti raised the possibility of doing it again—this time making it a version of our Château d’Yquem experience. We would taste some of the world’s great Sauternes—including the 2005 Château d’Yquem and the 2001 Rieussec (awarded 100 points by Wine Spectator magazine)—against sweet wines from Virginia, of which there are at least as many as there are Virginia vineyards.
At first, the idea of tasting legendary Sauternes against Virginia dessert wines seemed unfair. We imagined that the contest would more resemble the movie Rocky than Bottle Shock—the film about the real Judgment of Paris—but given the results of the previous tasting, who knew?
We returned to the Ashby Inn not only because it had been the venue of our original contest but also because chef Tarver King had taken over the kitchen and sommelier Neal Wavra the wine service. Together they’re turning the inn into one of the area’s destination restaurants.
Chef King comes from a food-family background. His grandmother was food editor of Vogue in the 1960s and ’70s and published several cookbooks in addition to contributing to Gourmet cookbooks. King began his culinary career in his hometown of Virginia Beach apprenticing for three-star chef Alain Jackmin at Le Chambord. He has worked in the kitchens of such restaurants as Le Bec Fin, the Inn at Little Washington, the French Laundry, the Fat Duck, and the Waterside Inn. In his first head-chef job—at the Dining Room at the Woodlands Inn in Summerville, South Carolina—he received Mobil five-star and AAA five-diamond ratings; both Esquire and Wine Spectator deemed him one of the top chefs to watch. Who better to take a chance on to match dishes with sweet wines?
Neal Wavra, a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before touring the great wine regions of the world on scholarship and beginning his restaurant career in Chicago at Charlie Trotter’s, where he became dining-room manager within seven months. Next he was farmstead and dining-room manager at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. Now it was Wavra’s job to choose the Virginia wines to taste alongside the Sauternes we had bought for the event.
The Ashby Inn’s veranda was the perfect setting on a beautiful summer afternoon. Four food-and-wine stations, where tasters would sip and ponder, were placed among the dining tables. Wavra handed each person a score sheet. On it were listed the bite of food served at each station and an alphabetical letter assigned to each wine. At each station were two wines, one from Virginia, the other from France. Tasters, including my wife and me, were asked to note which of the two wines they liked better and to assign each a score from one to five, with five the highest. They also were asked which wine they thought was from Virginia and which from France. Finally, they were to note which wine they liked best overall and which food-and-wine pairing was their favorite.