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THE PALATE 2014

The Year of Men, Festivals and Red Trousers

As he stepped away from the lectern, grinning from ear to ear, Steve Saunders – AKA The Palate 2014 – burst out "s**t, I’ve won a trip to Australia too!" Wine tasting isn't known for being overly emotional, but the fact that Steve was so overcome by winning The Palate title that he forgot all about the holiday, was pretty moving. Practically the only reason we didn’t cry with joy is because we happened to glance at our Managing Director’s trousers, which, as you can see, are very, very red.

1 L-R Oddbins' Managing Director Ayo and his Trousers; The Palate 2014, Steve Saunders; and The Palate MC, Dave

Steve has fought off (not physically; he’s a nice guy) over 21,000 hopefuls to win The Palate – our five-month long, wine-stained search to find the nation’s finest amateur wine taster.

The fact that Steve, a dad-to-be from Bristol, has won is nice for a number of reasons. We’ll number them, because we’re cool like that: 1) He has been considering a career change into the wine industry, so this means a lot to him, 2) He is a man* 3) He did soooooooo much ‘homework’ (yes that means drinking tasting as well as reading) in preparation for The Final and 4) He is really lovely.

*We aren’t sexist/weird, promise – we’re excited that Steve is a man because The Palate has been won by women for the past two years…

Steve in full flow at The Final, presenting his food and wine match. Steve in full flow at The Final, presenting his food and wine match

 

But what set him apart? What swayed the judges’ decision? Well, it was "a combination of incredibly high scores in the written tests and his brilliant presentation style, which was fresh, accurate and from the heart" according to Head Judge and Oddbins Buyer, Ana Sapungiu.

Having taken in the abundance of prizes he’s won (a luxury holiday for two to Australia, the opportunity to choose a wine for Oddbins’ shelves, a magnum of Laurent-Pérrier Champagne and an engraved decanter), Steve graciously said: “I really had no idea how I’d do – there was such a range of people at the Final – all ages, from all over the country, with different levels of interest in and knowledge of wine.”

“The Palate has been brilliant. For me, it has really broken down barriers and put a fresh spin on wine tasting."

To re-cap, in case you’ve missed some of the back story, The Palate kicked off three years ago. 5,000 people took part and it produced a very shocked and humble winner in Fran Evans, from Crouch End. We ramped things up in 2013, with double the number of entrants, and a sassy winner in Chloe Dickson and, now here we stand with over 21, 0000 entrants. Many of these entered in our shops, but, for the first time, thousands entered at Taste of London Festival, The Cheltenham Food and Drink Festival, Northcote Road Fête, as well as farmers markets nationwide. The thinking? To bring competitive wine tasting to you. We want more people to realise, frankly, how easy it is, and to get stuck in.

Judges Sarah Ahmed, Peter Ricahrds MW, Susie Barrie MW and Ana Sapungiu Judges Sarah Ahmed, Peter Ricahrds MW, Susie Barrie MW and Ana Sapungiu

 

The process of getting from 21,000 to one winner is not easy, but it went something like this: there were two rounds of blind tastings, with progressively tricky questions about the wines. Just 64 people were left standing for the Semi Final Boot Camps, with four groups of 16, each with their own mentor who would later be a judge at the Final. Newcomer Sarah Ahmed was a fantastic, dynamic mentor, getting into her stride as ‘Tiger Mum’. The mentors’ approaches varied dramatically and they did their best to build their group’s knowledge and tasting skills, before picking four to go forward to be one of the 16 Finalists. As well as wanting to help the Semi Finalists, the fiercely competitive judges each wanted someone from their team to win The Palate, so that was an added incentive to train their mentees to the best of their abilities.

Held at a swanky pants venue in Bloomsbury Square last Saturday, September 6, the Final was intense, to say the least. Judges Sarah Ahmed, a leading wine writer; wine power couple and MWs Susie Barrie and Peter Richards; and Oddbins Buyer Ana Sapungiu oversaw various challenges, including food and wine matching, blind tastings, oral presentations and a sparkling wine exam. Ranging from toe-curlingly nervous to quietly confident, it was great to see such a range of Finalists. They had varied experience, from beginners to wine tasting enthusiasts, came from far and wide – from Glasgow, Bristol, Brighton, London and Winchester – and ranged in age from 30 to 60.

4 The Finalists, and Peter Richards MW, a-thinking and a-slurping

All of which pleases us greatly, because there’s one reason why we do The Palate: to show that wine tasting is not an elite activity – it’s fun and anybody can do it. Anyway, we could wax lyrical about the whys and wherefores, but we’ll skip to the fun bits…

Peter, who was Steve’s Boot Camp mentor, recited some original, wine-based poetry, while his wife and co-judge Susie busted out some Spice Girls songs. We ain’t kidding. In his blog, Peter attributes this to people’s "hunger to win… which pushed [us into it]" Well, we don’t know if it was the poetry what dunnit but Peter managed to produce a winner in Steve this year, which he was particularly pleased with as Susie has produced winners for the past two years. So, this year, Peter was (mentally) fist-punching the air to have a boy win. Peter said: “It felt sweet to have a boy win! No, of course it doesn’t matter really. The important thing is just giving people confidence. I would say, in that respect, women tend to be less sure than men so, jokes aside, it has been great to see women win The Palate so far and to see their confidence grow and grow.”

Then there was the dramatic re-count during the eliminations, in which the judges decided to go back and look again at the score of Sue Bennett, who was then put through to the final part of the day. Sue, an Occupational Therapist from Balham, ended up coming second and winning a long weekend in Veneto, Italy, as well as a magnum of Amarone, courtesy of Tenuta Chiccheri.

Runner-up Sue Bennetts, with her magnum of Amarone from Tenuta Chiccheri Runner-up Sue Bennett, with her magnum of Amarone from Tenuta Chiccheri

 

Sue, who was under Susie’s tuneful tutelage at the Boot Camp, said: “It was such an amazing day – quite extraordinary. I tried to go in with an open mind and just enjoy the experience – I wasn’t expecting to go far at all, so to come second is incredible. I think I have grown over the course of The Palate.

“But there isn’t really a right or a wrong with wine – it’s just about showing that you can appreciate the different elements involved, using a certain amount of rationale and creativity – and it’s good that the judging reflected that. Susie’s Boot Camp training definitely helped us to develop in that respect.”

Sue was followed closely by Laura Martz, from Brighton, and Robert Macaloney, from Glasgow, who were each awarded £300 to spend at Oddbins for winning ‘Most Impressive Performance’. Mark Walker, from Chiswick, received the ‘Most Likely to Grow Further’ prize, winning a novice-professional training course courtesy of the Wine and Spirit Educational Trust (WSET).

But, aside from the wine tasting, emotional ups and downs and dastardly challenges, there was one thing that really brought everyone together… and that was Ayo’s trousers. Let’s have another look:

The Red Trousers. And Ayo. The Red Trousers. And Ayo.

Known in the company for his ‘bold’ fashion choices, Ayo divides opinion. Some welcome the cheerful trousers and devil-may-care attitude to colour coordination, others do not. In his defence, Ayo said: “There’s nothing wrong with red trousers. Can we get back to The Palate please?! My trousers may be bold, but that’s as nothing compared to the effort put in by the Finalists this year.” Smooth segue, Ayo… Anyway, Odd Blogger has no intention of committing career suicide, so instead we’ll hand it over to you, reader, to settle the issue in the comments box below… as he can’t fire you.

On a safer note, we’ll leave you with a final word from returning Finalist Charlotte Cobb, who wrote to us after the Final, saying: “I learnt so much – last year I wouldn't have been able to name a single grape variety, but this year I felt far more confident. I'm not stopping – I'm going to keep learning, keep going to tastings and do everything to better myself!”

The mum-of-three, who suffered from a migraine on the day but battled through it anyway, said: “Without The Palate I would never have had the spark to try my hand at this; I would have felt far too dumb and, not being a working woman, I would have felt very out of my depth with all the fantastic contestants you get on The Palate.”

Well, Charlotte, everybody is capable, you were great and you can do it – go for it!

This post was written while drinking: Bichot Crémant de Bourgogne Reserve Privée NV. This was a naughty one to put in the sparkling wine exam. Why? It practically passes for Champagne and even our Palate winner, Steve, was gobsmacked to discover that it's from the neighbouring region, Burgundy, and is a lowly £17.50. With a copper and gold-inflected hue, it is unctuous and toasty, with an underpinning crisp acidity.