My Wine Battle with Top Chef Judging

I’m obsessed with Top Chef. I haven’t missed a QuickFire, Last Chance Kitchen, or full episode in all 14 seasons. Orange County restaurateurs and “cheftestants” Amar Santana of Broadway and Vaca, and Shirley Chung of Twenty Eight give us a personal connection to the show and an opportunity to root for the hometown hero. In season’s past, wine had a focal point in the show due to a sponsorship with Terlato Wine Group. This season, there are no wine sponsors, so we typically see non-descript glasses of wine poured before the elimination challenges, with labels hidden. These hidden wine labels are my new side obsession with the show.

Wine people are food people—two peas in a pod. We understand that wine makes food taste better. Alternately, wine can make food taste completely different than intended if paired improperly. I’ve been watching like a hawk to see who drinks what. For Episode 5’s “Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em,” the judges were knocking back beer with the barbecue meals. Makes sense. In the recent Restaurant Wars challenge, the judges were served healthy pours of wine—both white and red—and one judge had a beer. I’m down with the judges getting relaxed and a bit buzzed before tasting the food. But, if I were a chef, I’d be ticked if they were drinking heavy oaked, buttery chardonnay before experiencing my light seafood fare. I would certainly want to choose or at least approve the wine.

During Restaurant Wars, I did catch a label of the white wine, a victory for me. It was a 2014 Hanna Russian River Valley Chardonnay. The label describes it as having “a creamy hazelnut flavor with buttery, tropical characters … a rich and smooth finish. After tasting it myself, I found it a heavy hitter that has spent some serious time in new oak, and possibly a malolactic fermentation, adding another layer of buttery richness. In my opinion, it would not showcase the first cheftestant’s Cured King Salmon.

Granted, I don’t like buttery, oaky chardonnays. So, this wine wouldn’t be a success for me no matter the food pairing. Did the judge know about this wine’s components prior to agreeing to the pour? They may not know what meal experience is coming, but any of the judges would know that this chardonnay isn’t food friendly. Where my theory hits the kitchen floor is the judges’ apparent universal love of the Cured King Salmon, no matter what they were drinking—red wine, white wine, or a cold beer.

But I’ll continue to pause the show, take pictures, and zoom in any time wine is on my Top Chef-focused screen.  I know I can’t be the only wine-obsessed food lover to argue this point.

Want to try Hanna chardonnay for yourself? It’s distributed by Southern Wine & Spirits, and available in most Orange County stores. I got it for $20 at Albertsons. And I have three-quarters of a bottle left if anyone wants it.





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