Today, Winetraveler’s Sommelier and Wine Director for Chicago’s DineAmic Group explains the Somm Madness blind tasting event, hosted annually at the Builders Building in Downtown Chicago.
A few years ago, I was asked by a good friend and colleague, Jon McDaniel, to participate as one of the featured Somms in his annual “Somm Slam,” an event the wine community grew to love and look forward to on a yearly basis here in Chicago. As part of the event, I was asked to pair one course, in this case a suckling pig dish, with one wine and to compete with another wine professional in a guest-voted competition.
My decision for that particular year was a Cru Beaujolais and like any other Somm I wanted it to be perfect; after all, I wanted to win. To confirm the merit of my selection, I called my old friend and mentor, John Laloganes, one of the two people I give credit for getting me into and advancing in the wine business.
In typical John fashion (he’s both a professor of wine and author), he went on at essay-length about why he thought it was a good choice, and as I was about to end the call, he asked a question that not only stuck with me, but also changed the course of my career and the wine industry, “Why aren’t you doing an event like this?”
A week later I was sitting poolside in the Wisconsin Dells celebrating my daughter’s fifth birthday. As I sat with a glass of wine, I caught a news segment about the upcoming NCAA March Madness tournament. It was in that moment John’s words sparked a thought and as I sat looking back and forth between the brackets and my wine, lightning struck. What if I created an event that brought the art of blind tasting together with the format of March Madness? And what if I could combine the two into an event that would not only attract my peers, but the wine drinking consumer as well? After returning to work, I proposed the idea to the DineAmic Group and Somm Madness was born.
Many have the impression that blind tasting is a parlor trick, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. While a skilled palate is certainly helpful, blind tasting is an art form enhanced through extensive study and experience (yes, you need to drink a lot to be good at it). Sight, smell, and flavor all play specific roles in detecting what the wine may or may not be, but an understanding of how certain wine regions and varietals tend to present can also offer clues to naming the wine in the glass. If I had to put this into numbers, I’d say blind tasting is 80% based on knowledge, and 20% based on one’s palate. And Somm Madness demonstrates this at the most entertaining and dynamic of events.
Held in the Builders Building in Chicago, which can host up to 500 guests, 64 blind tasting contestants as well as 300 ticket holders will witness an event unlike any other in the world. Combining the excitement of March Madness brackets with the skill and art of blind tasting, oh, and the dramatic elements of speed and a cash prize of $10,000 (nowhere in the wine drinking world is there a prize or event of this magnitude), the event attracts Sommeliers from across the country to fill 32 reserved slots. However, this isn’t an ordinary wine industry event. Making it even more unique, we also reserve 16 slots for non-Somm, wine industry professionals as well as 16 more for any wine consumer wanting to participate.
Anyone from anywhere can win this event. (IF registered in time!) I always tell anyone contemplating entering the competition, “A poor taster cannot win this event, but a great one can lose in a heartbeat.” Making it seven rounds on pure luck is impossible, but even if you are among the very best, one small mistake can end your chances in any round. Case in point, a Master Sommelier exited in round one of last year. So, no matter who you are, on any given matchup, anyone can win or lose.
Somm Madness 2019: Bigger and Better
April 14th, 2019 will mark the 3rd annual Somm Madness and this year we’re gearing up in epic proportions. New to the event this year will be a massive pre-party, the “Tailgate Tasting.” The Tailgate will feature a buffet dinner where we’ll be pouring more than 400 wines, including some of the world’s most recognizable and highest quality producers. Both the Tailgate Tasting and the Somm Madness competition are available for anyone to attend. With the purchase of a $100 ticket, you’ll not only attend an amazing party, you’ll also get to participate in the competitive fun with an NCAA-style tournament bracket pool. Everyone filling out a bracket, which is then scored during the event, is eligible to win a grand prize (provided you’re in attendance at the end of the event). Last year’s prize? Oh, just two tickets to the only three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago, Alinea.
As for what to expect, aside from amazing wines, outstanding entertainment and prizes? Just watch the trailer from last year (but knowing this year will only be more epic):
No question Somm Madness is designed to drop your jaw, but about halfway through the event, things turn serious. After all, we’re playing for $10,000. While participating blind tasting contestants are asked to assess the wine on paper in the early rounds, if they are lucky enough to make the final four they must compete in a verbal assessment in front of 300 people. This is not for the faint of heart. Here are the points on which each Somm Madness contestant will be graded:
Is the wine fruit forward or not Is there evidence of new oak The acid level in the wine The alcohol by volume Is the wine from the old or new world What country is it from What is the region/state What is the varietal What is the vintage
Still not intense enough? This year we’re adding a new judge to the panel – the most famous Sommelier in the world, Fred Dame. The star of the Somm films and basically the man credited for the Sommelier profession even being a thing here in the United States, Dame is the founder of the American Branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers and the former Vice President of Prestige Accounts for American Wine & Spirits of California. He was the first to pass all three components of the Master Sommelier examination in one year, earning him the Krug Cup of the British Guild of Sommeliers in 1984. Rockstar doesn’t begin to describe him. And he’ll be joined by Master Sommelier Joseph Spellman, Master Sommelier Serafin Alvarado, and my mentor, John Laloganes. This outstanding panel alone is worth the price of admission!
Speaking of admission, you must have a ticket to attend and they are only available on a first-come, first-serve basis. So, be ready, March 1 at 12 p.m. CST to purchase your tickets to the most exciting, dynamic and star-studded event in the wine industry – Somm Madness.
- Sunday, April 14
- 4 p.m. Tailgate Tasting Party
- 6 p.m. Somm Madness Competition
Competition registration and ticket purchase begin at 12 p.m. CST on Friday, March 1. Limited availability.