A Conversation with Master Sommelier Fred Dame: Blind Tasting Like a Master at Somm Madness
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Somms are the talk of the town these days, so much as the conversations pertain to wine anyway. From the increasing consumption of wine across multiple generations to the release of the wildly popular Somm movies, as well as numerous streaming wine shows, including The Wine Show, the appreciation of a Somm’s knowledge and guidance is of increasing influence.
In some cases, these trained wine professionals are sought after for pairing recommendations, other times to develop an understanding of why we might like a certain style of wine(s), or even the stories behind a particular bottle. So, when I had the opportunity to speak to one of the world’s top Sommeliers, if not the top Somm, Master Sommelier Fred Dame, about the upcoming Somm Madness event created by DineAmic Group’s Wine Director Adam Sweders in Chicago, I jumped at the chance. (And if you aren’t yet familiar with Somm Madness, you need to be!)
Now, admittedly I’m not one to be intimidated by celebrities or status. I’ve long believed people are people and my approach to any conversation is to simply be authentic. However, authenticity in this case meant a bit of nerves. Mr. Dame 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. And as one of the first Americans to pass the MS exam, he then founded the US branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers in 1986. He has personally received nearly every wine-related honor imaginable, is the star of the Somm films, the Global Ambassador for DAOU Vineyards in Paso Robles, California, and he was in between teaching Court classes when I had the opportunity to catch up with him.
Fortunately, my nerves were quickly assuaged by Mr. Dame’s easy conversational style and charm, and the discussion that followed was both enlightening and inspirational. It is clear why he is considered a mentor by many in the wine profession.
A Conversation with Fred Dame
Winetraveler – This is your first time attending Somm Madness, and you’ll be judging the competition. What are you most looking forward to?
Fred Dame – I am very much looking forward to working with my good friends and colleagues, Master Sommeliers Joe Spellman and Serafin Alverado, but even better is the opportunity to see many students I have mentored in the Court throughout the years. I’ve never experienced a competition of this nature, but anytime someone is trying to achieve something, it can be quite interesting. The tone of this blind tasting is clearly different than that of a Masters’ exam and I’m curious to witness the level of competition here.
Winetraveler – What advice would you give to those participating in the bracket-style challenge, particularly those from outside the wine industry?
Fred Dame – Well, it’s like that old saying isn’t it, “You pays your money, you takes your chances.” I’d offer the same advice to everyone participating, industry or not, keep focused and keep a clear head. When I took my blind tasting exam in London for the Court, I was given one piece of advice and I believe it applies to any blind tasting, “Confidence is all.”
Winetraveler – At Somm Madness speed is of the essence, what’s the most efficient way to blind a wine?
Fred Dame – I’m teaching a Master Level I class now and what I tell them is that everyone’s sensory system is different. Everyone’s gifts are different. I learned the hard way that everyone has unique senses. No one can taste quite like I do, or like you do. It’s a combination of sight, nose and palate. You need to raise all three of those senses to the max, but for me, the nose is king.
Winetraveler – Speaking of the nose, you’ve famously blinded wines on the nose alone, do you think anyone in the event will rise to the challenge?
Fred Dame – Well, my gift is a strong sensory memory. Some people keep books with notes on every wine they’ve tasted. For me, if a wine is excellent, it just sticks out. There are two types of tasters: the innate tasters, which are among the minority, but have the sensory memory ability to recall wine characteristics and specific wines, and the disciplined tasters, which is where most people fall, that need to taste wines again and again to begin to understand the specific differentiators. It’s like creating a library – you can be shown all the books, but how you catalogue them is up to you.
Winetraveler – What do you view as the most difficult aspect of blind tasting a wine?
Fred Dame – Keeping your wits about you. That’s the key I stress with all the students I mentor – keep your wits about you. Go through the steps of identifying the wine based on sight, smell and palate and then you’ve done the work. If you second guess yourself, or start questioning your analysis …. well, let’s just say, those that make an assessment based on their initial work, have a higher percentage of being right.
Winetraveler – What are your least and favorite wines to blind?
Fred Dame – To understand what you love, you have to understand what you hate. When I taste I wine I don’t enjoy, I’m reminded of why I don’t like it, which in turn gives me a better understanding of the wine. All that said, I’m not a huge fan of Pinotage. As for my favorite to blind, Burgundy Pinot Noir.
Winetraveler – With the influence of Somms on the rise, what would you say are the three top qualities a good Sommelier should possess?
Fred Dame – Their influence is certainly on the rise and that’s a great question. First, humility. No one person can ever know it all. Second, a good Somm must have an appreciation for what they’re tasting. There is at least two years of hard work and the dedication of numerous people behind each wine and that deserves respect. For the winemakers, making wine is like having children, you love each one.
Winetraveler – And the third quality?
Fred Dame – That is the tough one. Language. Describing a wine to someone that has different tastes or gifts than you, must be done in a way that the wine is appreciated and understood. This is the biggest challenge.
Winetraveler – What are your thoughts on the future of the wine industry?
Fred Dame – (Laughing) We’re going there are we? Well, consumption has grown and so much more is available to the consumer. Among the factors that will make things interesting are the millennials, the cannabis industry…
Winetraveler – Will the growing cannabis industry impact wine consumption?
Fred Dame – That is the question. It’s interesting to see the number of wine companies getting into the cannabis business. It makes you wonder.
Winetraveler – As for the millennials, we’re seeing an increased interest in an overall wine experience – where it comes from, how they enjoy it. Are you seeing the same thing?
Fred Dame – Yes. They’re interested in craftsmanship in particular. In previous generations, we were brought up with consistency of product. It created a high-level of consumer confidence. Today’s younger generations aren’t as concerned with consistency. They want something more, something exciting and different. And they want to pair it with a bedtime story.
Winetraveler – No doubt you’ve had numerous wine and travel experiences. What was your most memorable chance encounter or happenstance experience?
Fred Dame – I have met so many amazing people, in so many incredible places. My most memorable, however, would have to be after the 1983 vintage of Burgundy was thrashed by the critics. I was at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and I was with several friends and the great André Noblet, God rest his soul, he was a wonderful man. Head winemaker for Romanée-Conti from 1946 to 1985, he was greatly disappointed in the reviews. He invited us down into his cellar where we tasted numerous wines across vintages including those that were lesser known. With each tasting he described the stories of the wine and the level of work that went into each vintage. This was the most memorable of moments and where I gained a real understanding, that it is the toughest of vintages where the winemaker’s gifts truly come through.
Winetraveler – Burgundy is obviously among your favorite destinations, where would you recommend Winetravelers travel for wine experiences across the world?
Fred Dame – It’s one thing to look at the Old World and its wine history. The New World is obviously a different story. But that’s just it, every region has a great story to tell. France is the cradle, obviously, but I am a great fan of the wines of Spain. It’s the whole experience in Spain for me, the food, the wine and the it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to taste something amazing.
Winetraveler – What are the wine regions currently on the cusp of greatness?
Fred Dame – Here we have to look at both sides of the coin. I certainly believe the most underappreciated region is South Africa. Like New Zealand once was, they just need a Cloudy Bay to put them on the map and they’ll be on their way. But I also believe the historic places are underappreciated – like Sherry.
Winetraveler – Yes, Jerez! Do you have a favorite Bodega and style of Sherry?
Fred Dame – González Byass, and most definitely a Palo Cortado, of course.
Winetraveler – Of course! I only regret not bringing one home with me. As we wrap up, just a few more questions. Back to blind tasting, is there anyone you would like to challenge in a blind?
Fred Dame – (without hesitation) Larry Stone. We’ve done it many, many times.
Winetraveler – And who has the winning record?
Fred Dame – I’ll say I do. Of course, he will say he does. Let’s just say it’s a draw on an everlasting battle.
Winetraveler – And finally, the winner of Somm Madness will walk away with $10,000. Is there a particular wine you would purchase as the winner?
Fred Dame – I wouldn’t suggest any specific wine, but I will offer my philosophy on wine: A great bottle of wine cannot be consumed by itself. It is best consumed with at least four people to have a true appreciation of what wine is about. So instead of a specific wine, I would just say please share it with others.
Mr. Dame, as I often find in talking to anyone in the wine industry, was kind, thoughtful and happy to share. He was also humble and down to earth. We exchanged pleasantries, talked children (ours are about the same ages) and wine (we both have a particular affinity for Spanish wines) and I left the conversation with confirmation in my belief that people are indeed just people, and that authenticity is the easiest way to truly connect. That said, if you’re competing in Somm Madness, Mr. Dame isn’t just any person…he’ll be judging the competition! So, keep your wits about you, get your senses in tune, and remember Mr. Dame’s words: “Confidence is all.”
In Chicago and want to compete, or drink wine while others compete, tickets to Somm Madness can be purchased here.