You could hear the whooping all the way down Charlotte Street. No, it wasn't England scoring, but a Caterer food-and-wine matching workshop at London's two-Michelin-starred restaurant Pied … Terre.
We invited readers to participate in one of US wine producer Trinchero Family Estates' riotous wine education sessions. And the response to education director Barry Wiss's games reached fever pitch, especially during his World Wine Challenge, a kind of wine Trivial Pursuit played in teams.
I had heard about the wine education programme in Napa Valley, California, back in January, and went to see it for myself. Vine to Dine is in its fourth year and, aimed at the on-trade, holds about 300 events a year for groups of between five and 1,000 people.
"We have a tremendous amount of trade customers and we needed somewhere to entertain them," says company president Roger Trinchero. "Restaurateurs are craving to find out ways to sell more wine. And if you have informed waiting staff, your chances of selling more wine increases dramatically."
"The customer is getting more sophisticated," adds Wiss. "But when the customer asks: ‘What can you tell me about this wine?', the server invariably replies: ‘It's $26 a bottle or $5.50 by the glass'. Service staff need to exceed customers' expectations."
Trinchero Family Estates ranks as the fifth-largest wine company in the USA, with an annual production of 10 million cases. Its wines are sold in 70 countries around the world. It includes the on-trade-friendly Montevina Winery in the Sierra foothills, a joint venture with Australian wine company Reynolds, and the Sutter Home Winery, home of Sutter Home White Zinfandel.
White Zinfandel has been a huge success for Trinchero. It was invented in 1973 by Bob Trinchero, now chief executive officer of the company, and sales are still booming. Sutter sells 4.5 million cases a year, out of a total of 20 million cases sold in the country annually.
So it seems appropriate that its creators should develop such an upbeat education programme. "It's a rare group that's not yelling by the end," says Wiss. "One of the most important elements is team-building, so it has to be fun."
As well as the World Wine Challenge, there's the Tongue Fu Challenge, in which participants learn the meaning of terms such as thin, flabby and hot, and are challenged to identify wines that have been altered to accentuate fruit acidity, volatile acidity, sugar, tannin and alcohol. The Aroma Wheel of Fortune teaches you to define wine aromas, understand faults and develop an aroma vocabulary. And in Iron Chef teams prepare their own recipes and accompanying wines, visit markets, and even go on the odd fishing trip (for Dungeness crab off the Farallon Islands, west of San Francisco).
Fishing for bass in the Thames didn't have quite the same ring to it, so for the purposes of this workshop we focus on the other games. Wiss travels with a digital version of the Aroma Wheel of Fortune, which he keeps on his laptop and projects on to a large portable screen. The wheel itself (displayed in his office) is made of wood and resembles a casino roulette wheel.
Each contestant spins the wheel and has to sniff the corresponding phial according to where it stops. Each phial comprises a wide range of aromas, from tree fruits and spices to sulphur and cork taint, and points are awarded for each correctly identified aroma.
"You don't take the time out to do this kind of thing normally," says one participant, Doug Pestell, chef-patron of the La Petite Maison in Topsham, Devon, one of the many chefs taking part in the workshop. Customers are becoming more and more receptive, especially younger customers. You can become a bit blinkered when you're running a restaurant, so it's good to be open-minded. I think you look at flavours in much more depth when you're trying to match wine with food."
Alan Humphrey, a chef lecturer at Eastleigh College, Southampton, adds: "There's not enough wine training in catering colleges. The courses are geared entirely to NVQs with nothing left over for looking at the wine side of things. That's why I'm here today."
South Africa-born Andre Pienaar was a chef until last November, when he switched to front of house at the Holiday Inn, Woking. "I noticed how much I needed to learn, and that's why I'm here. I can bring my food knowledge on to the floor but I haven't got enough wine knowledge yet," he admits.
After the Aroma Wheel of Fortune, participants settle down to a pairing lunch devised by Pied … Terre's head chef, Shane Osborn, and owner, David Moore. They're dab hands at matching wine and food and have had a pairing menu at the restaurant for at least five years.
Wiss has left the trickiest exercise, the Tongue Fu Challenge, until after lunch. For this exercise, all but one glass of Trinchero Family Estates Pinot Noir has been doctored by Wiss and we have to identify the taste anomalies in each. We all get the first one right - there's nothing wrong with it. Most of us identify the alcohol-altered wine to which Wiss has added vodka. But the tannin-laced sample in which Wiss has used chestnut tannin proves elusive, while the acid and sugar-heavy Pinots confuse everyone.
"Taste balance is the most important aspect of food and wine pairing," says Wiss. "And sugar and acid levels in grapes are the two most important taste components. Fruit sweetness and sugar sweetness - people often confuse the two."
Finally it's time for the World Wine Challenge quiz. And that's when the decibels really start rising. What's the primary grape used in ChÆ'teauneuf-du-Pape? "Grenache!" Pestell shouts first. Oregon's leading grape variety is Merlot: true or false? "False; it's Pinot Noir," calls out another participant, Caterer reader Tim Elwine. What is sparkling wine in Spain called? "Cava!" everybody shouts. Pessac-Lâognan is known for great wines made from which grapes? "Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc," guesses Aurora Diaz from the Thistle hotel, St Albans, correctly.
Diaz sums up the day perfectly: "This wine lark's fun, isn't it?"