The host of HBO’s “Real Sports” attends the annual Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match on an upcoming episode.
Credit: HBO

Wine tasting generally serves two purposes: 1) to determine if you like a wine, and 2) to determine what that wine might pair well with. But with any acquired skill or hobby there’s usually a way to make things competitive, which is exactly what’s been occurring between England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities for the past 66 years at the Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match. Both of these centuries-old, venerable institutions of higher learning have wine tasting societies that recruit and train students to take each other on in a wine-soaked test of proficiency and palate. This battle for oenophilic superiority, and similar events at other colleges around the world, intrigued the team behind HBO’s news magazine series Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, as well as its host, who traveled across the pond to witness this year’s bout for himself. That match will be the subject of a Real Sports segment airing Tuesday, April 23. I spoke with Gumbel over the phone to get his take — as both a veteran sportscaster and curious wine enthusiast — on watching other people sipping wine for sport.

The gist of the competition is this: Teams from each school have 40 minutes to blind-taste six reds and six whites, correctly identifying the grape, region of origin, vintage, and other key factors. Judges award points based on how close to correct those (educated) guesses are. The team with the highest score takes home the title and the bragging rights, and a special nod is given to the individual with the top overall score. If those points sound a bit subjective, they are. “They were getting points from the judges if they arrived at the right conclusion, even if they got there for the wrong reason,” Gumbel told me. He gave an example of identifying a winemaker from France who happened to be working in Santa Barbara. “They got points for knowing the taste, they just didn’t happen to be up to date on his whereabouts. They can be that good. They can detect the alcohol content down to about half a percent.”

So what makes a wine athlete versus a recreational wine drinker? Training, for one. “I think what surprised me the most is that you can actually train for this. It’s not just memory and research, you actually can train your senses to detect differences that matter.” I wondered if it sounded more like a spelling bee, where one might be able to deduce the proper spelling of a word once they ascertain the part of speech and language of origin. “You can kind of break it down, you’re absolutely right. But as one of our guests in the piece pointed out, it’s so much more complicated now than it used to be. Fifty years ago, if you tasted a Chardonnay it could only come from a very limited number of places.” These days, the number of potential vintners could be in the thousands across multiple continents. Gumbel explains that the participants consider what they do “detective work.” “You know that these grapes only thrive in certain places and certain tastes only come from certain grapes, it really is a heck of a sensorial and brain exercise.”

And apparently, an interest in math doesn’t hurt. “I asked them if there’s such a thing as a natural in the game, and they said no, that nobody is born to do this, nobody has particular insight by birth. For whatever reason, and please don’t ask me to explain this, a disproportionate number of competitors came from the field of mathematics. I don’t know what that says about problem-solving or the way the brain works or the commitment to indulge in a solitary pursuit like this. I found that surprising.” In the end, a desire to live up to the challenge seemed to be the most common trait. “These people were from a variety of countries and disciplines and didn’t necessarily see themselves going into a future with wine,” he said. “They’re much more normal than the casual observer might want to believe.”

Gumbel’s attendance at the blind tasting match was rather unusual as the event is usually held in what resembles a dining room. Unlike other college sports, there are no grand stands or cheering fans here. “They normally don’t allow people in the room. Most sports are played for the enjoyment of a spectator. This one is not. It’s not that unusual. Last year, I wound up covering the World Crossword Championship and there were no spectators there, and that had hundreds of participants.”

Of course, featuring a wine tasting match on a show called Real Sports calls into question whether or not sipping wine can be considered as such, and while Gumbel asks that question of his interviewees in the segment, I was curious to hear his own take. “We kind of have fun at Real Sports when we try to broadly define ‘sport.’ When most of us were young we thought anything outside of baseball, football, and basketball wasn’t a sport. As you get older and you start seeing some of the things that are now being contested, you tend to define it much more liberally.”

So is blind wine tasting a sport? “I think it’s a competition. I’m not bright enough to be able to know where a competition ends and a sport begins. According to the people who do define these things, there are over 10,000 sports listed in the world. I don’t think many of them would meet most Americans’ definition. But I guess if ice dancing is a sport and breakdancing is a sport and darts is a sport, then wine tasting can be a sport.”

And that’s not to downplay the intensity and difficult nature of competitive blind wine tasting. “In baseball we always joke that even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times. In wine tasting they will tell you even the best wine tasters fail nine out of 10 times. It’s very rare to get the appellation, the country, the grape, the year, and everything right. It’s akin to a hole in one or a grand slam.” In trying to pinpoint which sport wine tasting most resembles, Gumbel first mentioned golf for the ability to approach each glass with prior experience, as one would a hole on an unfamiliar course. But in the end, wine tasting may lack any satisfactory comparison. “I’d have to search long and hard to find one where you brought your sense of taste and smell into it, and I’m not sure there are many other sports where that’s the case.”

Gumbel, who at one time began amassing his own collection of wines as a financial endeavor, these day mostly reaches for Pinot Noirs from the Willamette Valley. His at-home cellars in New York and where he splits his time in Florida also contain bottles of Grüner Veltliner, his wife’s drink of choice and, therefore, Gumbel’s likely go-to white. “The days of me keeping an extensive cellar are long gone,” he admits. There’s nothing wrong with knowing what you like, and that extends into Gumbel’s culinary pursuits as well. Growing up in Louisiana, his comfort foods mostly hail from that region. “I still love gumbo, I still love sautéed okra, I love red beans and rice, I love collards. They make me feel good.” What doesn’t make him feel so good is soft-shelled crab, a once-favorite dish that Gumbel says would be his proverbial death row meal because if the executioner didn’t get him first, an unfortunate adult-onset allergy to the shellfish likely would.

But that one setback aside, Gumbel enjoys dining out and exploring restaurants scenes for what’s new and what’s native as he travels, as well as appreciating the expressive outlet the kitchen provides. “I love to cook, I love to entertain, I love to meal plan. It’s always been something that I enjoy. I love experimenting, I play with it all the time. It’s one of the few creative things that you can do that you can research, purchase, execute, enjoy, get feedback, and closure in a limited time. And I love that.”

Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel airs monthly episodes on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. The episode featuring the Varsity Blind Tasting will air this Tuesday, April 23.