Toast of the Town: Lorraine Hems judges Chilean wine competition this summer

RIT faculty member and sommelier represents U.S. on international panel

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Lorraine Hems, left, was part of an international panel of sommelier judging at the 2013 Catad’Or in Santiago, Chile. Here she stands with Christian Wylie, commercial director of Carolina Wine Brands.

Lorraine Hems was a Catad’Or this summer.

Cata is Spanish for tasting, or sample, and Catador is a taster,” says Hems. “Oro means gold, so Catad’Or is a little play on words meaning, we are tasting for the best wines.”

Hems was on a distinguished jurado, a group of wine experts from around the world, tasting the best Chilean wines at the Catad’Or W Santiago Wine Awards in Santiago, Chile, in June. The trip was business, but it also offered her the chance to learn more about Chile’s flourishing wine industry. She’ll bring this regional perspective to the students she teaches in her popular World of Wines course in the hospitality department of RIT’s College of Applied Science and Technology.

More than 300 wines were entered in this year’s competition, many featuring the country’s signature red grape, carmenere. The panel judged in the mornings over three days, then traveled in the afternoons.

“We were taken to wineries in different regions of Chile to meet with owners, winemakers and marketing personnel. This gave all of us a better understanding of their terroir —the environmental impact on the vines—and culture,” says Hems, who became a certified sommelier in 2006.

She often judges regional and national competitions, and it was during the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in Rochester several years ago that she met Carlos Tudela, who worked the Chilean Trade Commission. He recommended Hems for the Chilean competitions. Her first trip was in 1993, and 20 years later she has seen the country’s wine industry grow, and been a part of its catad’or. This year she was part of an international judging panel with representatives from Canada, Mexico, Spain, France, New Zealand, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil and Chile.

“I was the only judge representing the U.S. this year,” she says. “These sommeliers were authors, writers, taught in universities, worked in restaurants, and ordered wines for a grocery chain. Older or younger, they were all lead professionals in their countries.”

The group also traveled with Claudia Olmedo, a Chilean sommelier, author and pisco expert. She described pisco history and production and led tours of three pisco distilleries. Pisco is a grape brandy produced in South America, although its production in Chile is regulated.

“What intrigued me the most this time was we were going to be flown to a region north of Santiago called Coquimbo. It includes Limari and Elqui Valleys which had been known primarily for pisco production, but had also seen some vineyards planted and wineries opening.” At the end of the three-day tour, the group held its own competition tasting piscos made from different grapes in aged and un-aged versions.

“I hope to use some of my connections to assist with visits by others from RIT heading to Chile. I’d eventually like to lead a student group there as well. So many opportunities,” she says. “How lucky to be able to have a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience again.”