Harvard, Wharton Battle Over Wine at Chateau Lafite Rothschild

Baron Eric de Rothschild and 11 other judges, in crimson velvet robes and matching hats, sweep into the candlelit cellar at Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Eight teams from the world’s top business schools and universities wait at round tables, ready for a showdown of their esoteric wine knowledge and tastebud skills.

Surrounding both at this 10th annual 20 Sur Vin wine competition in a stone-pillared wine temple are dimly lit barrels of very expensive red. The recently released futures price for one bottle of 2010 Lafite has climbed to $1,600.

I sit alongside a dozen observers, wrapping my shawl against cellar chill.

The competition held last month before trade fair Vinexpo, is organized by the Commanderie du Bontemps, an association of 200 Medoc, Graves, Sauternes and Barsac chateaux, some of whose owners are judges.

The aim is to ensure that future business leaders learn to love — and eventually spend money — on Bordeaux’s great wines. Today’s younger drinkers know less about this region than their counterparts a generation ago. Many other places now make great wine and, in the U.S., beginning wine lovers turn more to the New World.

Multiple Guess

Two teams each come from France (Sciences Po Paris, SKEMA Lille), Europe (Cambridge, Nyenrode Business university) and — for the first time — Asia (Chinese University of Hong Kong, NTU Singapore) and the U.S. (Harvard Business School, Wharton).

"Bonne chance," says the grand master of the Commanderie, Emmanuel Cruse, whose family owns Chateau d’Issan, before he reads out the questions in English and French.

All teams do well answering part one’s 10 multiple choice questions, like "What are flavonols?"

They struggle more with the second half’s 3-part blind tasting. Example: Identify vintage, appellation, and comment on the wine poured for your team.

Luckily, they can assume it will be a Left Bank Bordeaux.

"Use your imaginations," urges Baron Eric. Each team’s three tasters sniff, swirl, spit, confer; one puts his face in his hands, searching for inspiration.

Hong Kong’s Fergus Chau King Fung, 21, in black tie, describes their wine as "absolutely a sleeping beauty," winning a few judges’ smiles, though the team misidentifies the 2002 Chateau Lagrange, from St. Julien, as a 2005 St. Estephe.

No team gets its wine right, but most offer passionate commentary worth some of the maximum 10 points.

Trip to France

Silence reigns as results are tallied, trumpets sound (yes, really), then the Baron announces the winner: Harvard, with Hong Kong only one point behind; Wharton and Nyenrode tie for third.

"We never expected to win, we just had fun with it," says Harvard’s Nicole Pereira, 26, who received her MBA in May and is now associate brand manager for Dom Perignon in New York.

Harvard wins a double-magnum of 1999 Lafite ($3,500), seats at Vinexpo’s Chateau Haut-Brion press dinner and round-trip tickets to Bordeaux on Air France. Pas mal!

Later, at dinner, we slurp oysters and sip a crisp, tangy 2007 Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion white at a long candlelit table positioned between rows of polished wooden fermentation vats.

In between bites, last year’s co-president of Harvard Business School’s Wine & Cuisine Society, Katy Andersen, 26, fills me in on its history. Founded in 1997, it’s now the largest club on campus, with 450 members and two tastings a week. High demand for membership requires a lottery, though those who grew up drinking first growths are shooed in.

Networking Socials

Clearly, MBA students feel they must know about wine. Wharton’s club is 230-strong, Nyenrode’s 120.

"Our win will help us recruit more members," says Chau King Fung, chancellor of his fledgling 60-member Wine Society, the first at any Chinese school.

Unlike the disciplined Wharton team, which holds weekly sip-and-spit sessions using old black socks to hide labels, Harvard practices informally, relying on networking. The Boston Commanderie de Bordeaux, a society of collectors, tutored them with wines from their personal cellars.

Andersen’s wine and food passion won her a job as a gourmet food specialist with Lot18, a fast-growing online retailer of wine and epicurean products, while third taster, Christian Huot, 27, works for his family’s Cambodia-based company Huotraco Ltd.

After grilled pigeon and astonishingly fresh and elegant 1983 Lafite from jeroboams, Baron Eric initiates a singing contest with his rendition of "Le Sapeur Camember." It’s a love song based on the story of a brave comic book soldier he read as a child.

Broadway Vet

Harvard and Wharton’s women follow with "Sweet Caroline" and Hong Kong treats us to the Chinese national anthem.

To me, the vocal champ is Cambridge’s David C. Beall, an American getting a degree in international relations. A major in the U.S. Army Reserve, he served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, where, he says, the wine and food were definitely not this good. He belts out "Almost Like Being in Love," then downs more Lafite to a chorus of bravos.

Musicians arrive, dancing breaks out, and at the end of the evening Baron Eric and I are doing a two-step. "What I really want them to learn," he says, "is that Bordeaux is about fun and pleasure."