Revealed: The winner of The K Club/Irish Times Food Month amateur wine champion competition

Five finalists battle it out to win a prize package that includes a trip to Bordeaux and a visit to Château Magnol for lunch and wine tastings

Jonathan Staunton, from Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, is the winner of the 2023 Irish Times Food Month competition and has won a year-long wine experience with The K Club hotel and resort in Co Kildare, worth an estimated €10,000.

The final of the competition took place at The K Club in Co Kildare on Monday. The five finalists were selected on the basis of a written submission, in which they described a moment or experience which sparked their initial interest in wine. On Monday afternoon, they took part in a practical and theoretical examination, before meeting the judges, who included Irish Times wine columnist John Wilson, and the hotel’s head sommelier, Lisa O’Doherty, over dinner in the hotel’s Barton restaurant.

The prize package includes flights to Bordeaux and a two-night hotel stay for two people. The winner and their guest will also enjoy a behind the scenes visit to Barton & Guestier’s Château Magnol for lunch and wine tastings. The prize also features an invitation to a professional wine tasting, where they will shadow The K Club’s chief sommelier. Also included is an invitation for the winner and a guest to a private wine cellar tour with Lisa O’Doherty, including a tasting, followed by dinner in The Barton restaurant and an overnight stay for two people at The K Club.

The winner wrote his initial submission about his chance discovery of a bottle of 1990 Chateau Musar, the celebrated Lebanese wine, in a Centra store in Dublin. What has become a lifelong interest in wine began when he was a student. “The infinity of wine bowls me over, you can never know but a fraction of it,” he said.

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“Erasmus was my introduction to wine, I went to Turin back in the 1990s. In Ireland, then, if you were going through college Ireland had more of a beer culture. I would have been a Guinness drinker, although I was the Beamish rep in UCD because I knew someone working in Beamish and they didn’t have a rep, so I put my hand up and managed to get it.”

The other finalists were Eilish Fitzgerald, Josh Behan, Jim Waldron and Conor Killian, who were each presented with certificates of merit. The winner’s written submission, and those of the runners up, are reproduced below.

Jonathan Staunton

Back in 1990s Dublin, I had just started my first job after college, was renting my first apartment in town, and with this new found freedom my passion for wine was beginning to develop. I had started seeking out independent wine merchants like Cabot & Co in the IFSC, and was attending in-store tastings and starting to read up on any wine related topics I came across.

But my most memorable bottle from this time was bought in the Centra on Westland Row, which I would regularly pass on my way home from work. Nestled in the back of the store, amid a typically mundane selection, was a bottle of 1990 Chateau Musar. I had recently read about this storied estate, and its heroic owner, Gaston Hochar.

A wartime wine it was described as, because they had completed the vintage while the civil war was still raging in Lebanon. At the time, it was the most I’d ever spent on a bottle, but I have never forgotten the sense of anticipation and then pleasure as I savoured the rich, dry cabernet blend from the Bekka Valley. If ever there was a wine for which the elements of history, geography, and geopolitics are so intrinsically intertwined with the terroir, winemaking, aromas and textures, this is it.

In Chateau Musar I discovered the true depth of what makes learning about wine so fulfilling and infinite - all human experience is contained in a glass. I have enjoyed a long, joyous relationship with the wines of Chateau Musar ever since, and find myself spurred on by these happy memories in the hope that it may once more serve as a beacon of hope during this present time of terrible war and suffering.

Eilish Fitzgerald

It was 1976. I had a new boyfriend! He was tall, dark and handsome (he still is tall and handsome, but is no longer dark-haired now we are both grey - he unashamedly, me hiding in blonde highlights). I was mad to impress him in every way I could. I lived at home with my parents and brothers in Dublin.

It was the big Night of The New Boyfriend Introduction. I’d tidied, as in scooped everything on visible surfaces into drawers. I’d preened myself to the utmost. My poor mother was distracted in the kitchen by my constant enquiries about “the dinner”. We were having trifle for afters! Then my Daddy - who never drank and was a Pioneer - said: “Should we have got wine?”

Panic all around. Should we? Could we? Where would we get it? We only had a bottle of sherry in the house - and that was for Christmas and for the trifle. My brother offered to go to the pub on the corner to get wine. He arrived back with a gorgeous looking black bottle. We proudly placed it on the centre of the table.

I won’t go into details about offering my special guest a glass of wine and he saying that he’d love a glass of red. After a kerfuffle, we managed to open the wine. It was white. It was quite warm. He drank it. We were delighted with ourselves and our sophistication. Now, 45 years later, my husband and I occasionally try to find a bottle of Black Tower to remind ourselves of the night. He said he was so nervous he would have drank anything, and he did.

Jim Waldron

Pitching tents in mud and darkness and sou’westers is not a pleasant experience. Two tired kids complicated matters. Our drive from Swellendam to the Cape was going awry. “You’ll be needing Dougie Green,” a voice floated out of the gloom. A hand came through the flap of the canvas stubbornly refusing to be a tent. It clutched a bottle of Douglas Green Pinotage 1996, followed by a tall heavily bearded man with an Afrikaaner accent. “You need help”, he boomed, “but first you need this.”

Miraculously, he produced three glasses and made a generous pour. “Gesondheid, welcome to the Cape! First we toast your arrival, then we tackle the tents.” So, in a mud-bathed South African campsite, with the wind howling and the rain slanting in from Antarctica, we learned of the dark chocolate tones, the ruby colour, the hint of coffee, pepper and tobacco of a wine unknown to us until then.

But we also learned that the kindness of strangers really does exist. With our palates whetted, Willem rounded up the rest of his family and in an instant our bedraggled camping gear was in the campsite toilet block being assembled by eager hands.

Snuggling down that night, we drifted off to the sounds of more experienced campers enjoying their braais and sing-songs. We thought of oak spice and caramel and human goodness and assorted berries and fruits. We wished our new neighbours a hearty glass of “Dougie Green” and we wished the best for Africa. Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika. Tomorrow we would visit the bottle store.

Conor Killian

Glug glug glug. The sommelier poured the wine into my glass. It looked black. “Commencez-vous!” We took our glasses and brought them up to our noses like robots. Pour, taste, spit, repeat. Pour, taste, spit, repeat. It was tedious. But this one was different. Maroon globules streaked down the side of the glass from where the sommelier had poured the wine, before sinking into a dark, ruby-like abyss at the bottom.

The first nose. Peppercorn. Smokiness. Charred meats. Open, full, active, the scent danced passionately out of the glass. The eye. The glass was tilted to reveal, when the glass was laid back down again, light mauve curtains which coated the inside of the glass with silky lethargic tears, lazily turning into rivulets which ran back down to their purple tarn. The second nose.

Upon a simple swirl, the dance turned into a ballet, and the scent arose from the glass bolder, more passionately than the first. The smoke was thicker, the pepper spicier, with the introduction of a prima-donna to the stage: the berry. It sang centre-stage, its voice ringing out, upon this little agitation of the glass, coating the scent in juicy sweetness.

The mouth. A symphony of sensations exploded in the mouth as velvet berries, blue, black and red, lapped gorgeously the palate of the tongue while charred meats became barbecued, fattening and filling the wine’s silky-plump feel. Aerated, the wine whispered its scent from the back of my throat down through the nose, where the hairs tingled from black-peppery oak-barrel.

As quickly as it had started the sensations vanished – the symphony cut short, the dancers ran offstage. The left-over scraps of sirloin my only company during their swift exit. The wine, David Reynaud’s 2021 Beaumont Crozes-Hermitage. My Syrah love-affair.

Gina Boles/Josh Behan

In 2018, we went on holidays to Montenegro, which was quite undeveloped then. We stayed in a small village called Risan. On the seafront were a couple of neighbourhood restaurants, (konobas) so close to the water that you could reach over the low wall to it.

We ate at one konoba on the first night. There was no menu and the waiter had limited English. He said “Fish or meat?” We said “Fish please.” We asked “Wine, vino?” (in our best non-Montenegroan). He said “Vranac. We said “White wine, vino blanco?” He said “Vranac.” We asked again for white and he said “No”, and walked off!

We had no idea what we were getting to eat or drink. But we had the most spectacular platter filled with a huge fried fish, surrounded by baby potatoes and veg. And the local red wine, Vranac, was amazing with it. It came chilled, in an ice bucket, which the waiter parked on top of the sea wall beside us, as the platter took up the whole table.

Of course we drank a second bottle, and for most of the rest of the holiday, drank only Vranac, which always came chilled in an ice bucket, at all the other places we stayed in. We now sometimes drink chilled red wine, at home, with fried fish, but it isn’t ever straight out of the sea, which isn’t centimeters away over the wall, and we’ve never come across Vranac here.