The Italian and American wine worlds collided Thursday night, Jan. 18, as guests at Cougar Vineyard and Winery got to compare and contrast Italian-made wines with their American counterparts. The only catch? They didn’t know which was which.
That was the setup for the second night of the third annual Cougar Meets Italy event. Guests got to swirl, sniff and sip such varietals as fiano, arneis, montepulciano, negroamaro and primitivo twice: One version of each varietal was produced at Cougar, and one was produced in Italy. The wines were covered with paper bags to be indistinguishable.
The competition is the brainchild of winery owners Rick and Jennifer Buffington, who are big fans of the movie “Bottleshock.” The movie depicts the 1976 Judgement of Paris, in which underdog California wineries in the then little-known Napa Valley wine growing region beat out their French counterparts for both red and white wines.
Similarly, the Cougar Meets Italy event puts the Temecula winery’s vintages to the test – by putting them head to head against their Italian counterparts in a blind tasting.
The event began Wednesday, Jan. 17, with a screening of the movie, starring the late Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, a French wine expert who decides to hold the blind tasting in a bid to save his business and also introduce Parisians to wines from elsewhere in the world.
He heads to Napa Valley and is surprised to discover wineries turning out quality vintages that he can take back to the tasting.
The film, also starring Chris Pine, Bill Pullman and Rachael Taylor, generated laughs and enthusiasm from the audience as they munched on popcorn and sipped a complimentary glass of wine.
Night two marked Cougar’s own rendition of the famed competition.
Using the UC Davis 20-point system, guests and a panel of judges graded Cougar’s wines and their Italian equivalents on such criteria as clarity, acidity, astringency and bouquet. The bottles were covered in paper bags to hide their labels.
Before the tasting, Dr. John Piconi, one of the judges, reminded guests that the two most important determinants of wine’s quality are its taste and its aromas.
Piconi said that it’s important to wait about 30 seconds to a minute after smelling a wine, to smell it again.
“The olfactory nerve has a direct line to the part of your brain filled with emotions and appetites and that has to register,” Piconi said. “So after about a minute, re-smell the wine and get an idea whether that wine has good aroma or not.”
Some guests were very careful in how they tasted and looked at each wine. Some went as far as turning over their placemats to the white underside and held their glass against that to determine clarity. Others rolled the wineglass on its side to coat the inside of the glass with the wine and make the wine’s bouquet more potent.
Then came the big reveal. Judges preferred two of Cougar’s wines to Italian wines this year, and they were both reds: the primitivo and negroamaro. It was the first time judges had preferred a red from the winery against an Italian red, according to Jennifer Buffington.
The audience preferred Cougar for three out of the five wines: the negroamaro, arneis and fiano.
Jennifer Buffington said that winning is great, but the competition has never really been about that.
“I just want to get close to the standard and the standard is the Italians because they’re the ones that are doing the stuff that we’re trying to do here,” she said.
When the competition was over, guests got to enjoy a four-course dinner along with additional tastes of wine to accompany each course.
A salad complete with black olives, tomatoes, peppers and feta cheese was dressed in a homemade Estate Verjus and paired with the Cougar 2016 Arneis.
A hearty red meat sauce lasagna from Mama-n-Papas Pizza Grotto in Vista was served with Cougar’s 2013 Montepulciano.
Hearty cuts of smoked ham and roast beef from Wrangler Barbecue in Escondido were paired with Cougar’s 2015 Estate Primitivo.
For desert, guests were given cannoli that was paired with the limited bottling of the Cougar Negroamaro, both an audience- and judge-preferred wine.
Jennifer Buffington said she’s glad so many people enjoy Cougar’s wines and that some are very reminiscent of what’s found in Italy. She said a lot has gone into that.
“I think the trips over there are helping us figure out some of their styles, and how they make their wines, but it’s also the soil, the teroire, the techniques in the vineyard,” she said. “It’s all that; it all makes a difference.”