The Yale Law School Wine Society: they came, they drank, they conquered

Dubra? What Dubra? Wine tasting is the Big League, punk.
Dubra? What Dubra? Wine tasting is the Big League, punk. // John Aroutiounian

The Yale Law School Wine Society, formed in 2012, is fresh off a win on Tuesday evening at the French Consulate in New York. There, the students took part in the U.S. Intercollegiate Bordeaux tasting championship, where they defeated teams from rival Ivies including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. The U.S. champions will head to Bordeaux this summer to face off against teams from around the world, and they say that the hundreds of bottles of wine they’re sure to consume between now and then will prepare them well to compete against European and Asian rivals. WEEK- END sat down with the victorious wine tasters to discuss their origins, their friendship and their strategy for future success.

Q: What was the inspiration for entering the U.S. Intercollegiate Bordeaux tasting championship?

Tyce Walters LAW ’13: I was told about the competition by Lisa Granik LAW ’93 ’97, a Master of Wine and Yale Law alum, who suggested we put a team together and prepare for the event. In fact, the Wine Society really got going for the purpose of competing in the wine-tasting competitions.

Q: The Yale Law Wine Society is a relatively new organization. How did it come into being? How did you find each other and discover you were all wine connoisseurs?

Webb Lyons LAW ’14: Tyce is the person who deserves all the credit. He had worked in the wine industry before, and when Lisa contacted him, he sent out an email to the Yale Law Listserv letting everyone know about the chance to compete. One day last fall, a bunch of people came to Tyce’s apartment to participate in the wine tasting he had orchestrated. It really was Tyce’s leadership that put this together. Soon after, the team was formed. We really got going this fall. This year, we decided to prepare more fully and to perform better. Over the course of the fall, we did a number of tastings. We did our best to learn as much about the Bordeaux region as we could, and really tried to bring our knowledge and the tasting process together.

Daniel Weisfield SOM ’14: We are the Mighty Ducks of wine. We were a scrappy band of ragamuffins under the leadership of one connoisseur, Tyce. He plucked us from the halls of Yale Law School and taught us everything we know about wine.

Q: Has the organization grown?

WL: When we had the tastings over the fall, six or eight people would come with some consistency, but the core group has been the same: Tyce, Laura Fermino LAW ’14, Dan and Webb. It was Tyce, Laura and I who went to the competition in New York. Now, we’ve also brought in Joe Pomianowski LAW ’15.

Q: Were you friends before the competition? Or did the Wine Society really bring you together? 

DW: We were united by the adventure of getting to know new wines and each other. From this process, there’s been a tremendous amount of camaraderie.

WL: In fact, I didn’t particularly like Dan before this.

DW: Our success is built upon Webb’s Southern charm — he talked a woman into giving us three bottles of Bordeaux for free — along with Tyce’s leadership, Laura’s intellect and our shared dream of going to Bordeaux.

WL: And Dan’s vision!

Q: The process of learning wine tasting seems so inaccessible, obscure and difficult. How does one study to be a wine taster?

TW: You read books about wine, and you consume close to 600 bottles (which I tasted in the course of writing my most recent wine book). It’s like anything else — you do it, you practice and after a while it stops tasting just like wine and starts tasting like a particular region or a particular grape. You start to experience the subtleties. It’s also a lot of fun just to drink, because, well, it’s wine.

Q: Wine tasting obviously involves more than one sense. What goes through your mind as you’re swishing the wine in your mouth?

WL: It’s a pretty complicated process. When you put the glass to your nose and try it, you discern a lot. In your mouth, you take what you got in the nose and round it out. Everything we taste is Bordeaux, so they’re all going to be similar. You have to be cognizant of the nuances to get it right — it can be a pretty stressful process.

Q: How did you nail the vintage in round one of reds? I hear that was one of the toughest calls to make. 

TW: For that one, we all agreed it must have been a cool year when it was produced, because we detected a lot of green, vegetal flavors. That ultimately meant it was a 2007. And it was fairly young. From that, we decided it was either a 2004 or a 2007. Then ultimately we took a shot and decided it was a 2007.

WL: In a hot year, the fruit is very ripe. That particular wine didn’t have the ripe flavor. So we thought, “Which vintages in the last 10 or 15 years came from cold production seasons?” That’s when we narrowed it down to 2004 or 2007. We then turned to the team leader, Tyce, who felt that ’07 was the right answer. We were the only team to go with ’07, and it was right.

Q: What are your expectations for Bordeaux this summer? Can you give us details about how you’re preparing?

TW: Nick Jackson, who was a wine-tasting competitor at Cambridge, is coaching us, along with Lisa. Nick is frequently sitting down with us, and we’re all drinking a lot of wine to make sure we’re in as good form as all the teams coming from Europe and Asia to compete.

WL: I don’t know about you, but I’m from Alabama, and I’m a huge college football fan. The coach at the University of Alabama, Nick Saban, has a policy where the 24 hours after a win are dedicated to celebrating, and then it’s back to work. We’ve extended that a little. We’ve given ourselves 72 hours to celebrate, and we’re still in celebration mode. But tomorrow morning, the studying begins again. We’ve got a competition to win.

Q: Is Law School getting in the way?

DW: There’s no way we’d let law school interfere with our wine tasting.

TW: The law school has been very supportive of the team — we’re all very grateful.

Q: How do you reward yourself after a win?

JP: The competition at the French Consulate rewarded us with a three-course dinner, and that was great because we met a few other people involved in the process, including the judges. After that, there was another type of celebration — we all had wine in New York with a big wine producer.

Q: Does the Wine Society ever hold public events?

TW: We’ve put together a few events for the Law School, with the help of the Zelia & Oscar Ruebhausen/Debevoise & Plimpton Student Fund Committee, but we haven’t done anything for the greater Yale community yet. Perhaps we’ll look into it.

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