Members of Cornell Cuvée, the University’s wine education and blind tasting society, returned from their travels to Europe earlier this summer with two first place honors from blind wine tasting competitions.
A team of students from Cuvée won first place at EHL Millésime competition in Lausanne, Switzerland on June 3, and another group of Cuvée students took first place at the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup in Bordeaux, France on June 10. In addition to the tastings, the competitions involved examinations and subject-matter presentations on the wines.
Earlier in the spring 2022 semester, several Cuvée students also attended and participated in the Sciences Po International Tasting (SPIT) competition in Ay, France. Professor Cheryl Stanley ‘00, faculty advisor of Cuvée, accompanied the Cuvée teams to all three competition locations.
This is not the first time that Cuvée has placed highly at such competitions.
Warner Hazell ’17 MBA ’22, who competed at Millésime this spring, was a member of the Cuvée team that won the SPIT Blind Wine Tasting Competition in Reims, France in 2017 when he was an undergraduate student in the School of Hotel Administration. He said that while he felt some pressure having competed previously at a high level, he felt confident in his team’s preparation.
“It was fantastic to have another opportunity to represent Cornell on the international stage,” Hazell said. “Having been there before, I tried to use the opportunity to train my teammates mentally for some of the different challenges of competing abroad.”
Kate Wang ’22, a recent graduate of the Nolan School of Hotel Administration, said that in the March 16 qualifier for the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup her team competed against eight schools from North America, including Yale Law School, the NYU Stern School of Business and the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Cuvée was the only team with undergraduate students.
“Honestly, we were beyond excited to even enter the final — that was our goal for the qualifier,” Wang said. “Before us… Cornell only went to the final once.”
Wang noted that the team was able to advance to the finals at Chateau Lafite Rothschild after winning first place during the virtual qualifying round.
According to Lukas Bredo Gundersen grad, a member of the Left Bank Bordeaux team alongside Wang, team practices for the competitions consisted of a combination of studying wine theory and blind tasting wines from various world regions, including almost 100 different wines from different Left Bank regions and vintages.
Jake Rallo ’22, captain of Cuvée, said that team dynamics were crucial to Cuvée’s accuracy in identifying the specific producer, vintage, or region of any particular wine.
“When you connect people that are all knowledgeable about different areas of wine or different parts of the world in terms of wine regions and allow the teams to operate as one brain, that’s when the true magic happens,” said Rallo, who attended the Millésime competition, noting that it would be much more difficult for him to “call” any particular wine by himself.
Another important part of preparing for competition involves increasing students’ “pallet mileage,” something Stanley took a significant role in during preparations.
“Tasting these wines and having our own sensory perception — having each individual person become comfortable with wine, become comfortable with talking about wine, and also become confident in their own wine knowledge… [—] is just another step in their journey with wine,” Stanley said.
To students like Rallo, Wang, Gundersen and Hazell, Stanley’s dedication, training and commitment to the team is behind a great deal of Cuvée’s success.
“Because we have formed a relationship over the last 4 years, I definitely wanted to be successful for her,” Rallo said. “I don’t think people understand how much time Ms. Stanley invests into Cuvée to allow us to be successful… I wanted to do it for Ms. Stanley because she does so much for us.”
Gundersen also credited Glycine Jiang, Ph.D. in yeast biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for helping the team hold specialized practices in preparation for the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup.
“Glycine is highly knowledgeable of Bordeaux wines as she has spent several years as a winemaker in Bordeaux before she came to Cornell,” Gundersen said. “She was an integral part of us winning the semi-finals as well as the finals.”
The club also stays successful through its unique membership structure. Cuvée is comprised of Level I and Level II members. Level I members, who are primarily juniors, are able to smell the wine during practices but do not participate in tastings. These members study by listening to the descriptions of wine flavors as provided by the Level II members, who are primarily seniors and graduate students and are able to be involved in the blind wine tasting.
For Level I members, the experience is still significant.
“I think what’s most important is sitting around people that are actually tasting the wines as you smell the wine and learn from their experiences,” Rallo said.
Level I members also sometimes choose to undertake extra training. William Melancon ’23, a Level I member of Cuvée, said he and many other members are working in the wine industry over the summer.
The membership tiers allow the club to train members earlier, thereby improving the quality of their competing members — which makes Stanley optimistic about the club’s competitive future.
“Because we have the Level I members who have been building their confidence and foundational knowledge, they are going to feed into next year,” Stanley said. “I think we are going to have a very strong team next year because they have attended practice and learned the same wine — they are going to hear some of this information a second time. By the time they go to compete, they will have three full semesters under their belt working with wine.”
Rallo noted the significance of the sharing of information and knowledge amongst all the participating Level I and Level II students in Cuvée’s success.
“Everyone comes to Cuvée with a different background, whether you’re in CALS and study food science or you lived internationally and studied in France so you’re more of an expert on French wines… or you come from the restaurant industry like me,” Rallo said. “When we bring them together as an organization, it is truly powerful.”