Rookie wine drinkers are constantly being coached to plunge their noses in their glasses. At Thursday morning's Top Sommelier competition, dozens of the city's leading wine professionals were reminded that they need to do the same during tasting exams.

"Smell all three of the same color before you start talking about any of them," urged Richard Betts, one of three master sommeliers leading the 25-minute blind tasting, which is fashioned after the notoriously difficult master sommelier exam. According to Betts, many test takers make the mistake of declaring a Chardonnay before thoroughly investigating the lineup.

"And then they pick up the next glass, and it's actually Chardonnay, and their whole life melts down," Betts said. "It's so sad."

While determining which Charleston area sommelier has the most developed tasting skills is the overriding goal of the 7-year-old Charleston Wine + Food Festival program, the session also gives local sommeliers an opportunity to collect blind tasting advice from fellow wine professionals who've achieved their industry's highest honor.

Betts, Devon Brogile and Sara Floyd counseled the competitors to smell more, drink more and drink beyond the esoteric varietals that have lately become popular with restaurant-goers.

"It may not be hip to drink that amount of Cabernet, but you need to know it," Floyd said.

Floyd's wisdom became clear after the judges graded the entries: None of the tasters correctly identified all six wines, and many of them were tripped up by a Zinfandel.

"I think that's because none of you drink Zinfandel," Floyd said.

Brogile added, "I was shocked by how many people called Chablis new world."

Winner Garth Herr of The Sanctuary at Kiawah slipped up on an Australian Riesling.

"I won a bottle (of Australian Riesling) for third place last year, and I'm still not getting it," said Herr, who also won the title in 2010 and calls himself a Riseling fan. "That's what I'll be drinking this year."

Patrick Panella of Bin 152 claimed second place, followed by Brad Ball of Social.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.