Somm Camp 2014

Top 13 Things We Learned at Somm Camp

This past November the Guild of Sommeliers hosted our second annual Somm Camp, bringing 12 American and Canadian CMS-certified sommeliers to Napa Valley and Sonoma County for a three-day immersion in winemaking and viticulture. For making this incredible opportunity a reality, we are very grateful to our sponsors: Jackson Family Wines' Spire Collection (including Vérité, Lokoya, Cardinale, Anakota, and Galerie), Mayacamas Vineyards, Wind Gap Wines, Kistler Vineyards, and Frog's Leap Winery. We got a chance to visit them all!

We asked each of our 12 attendees to share a few things they learned while out in California. Following are their thoughts... 

1. The “hills” are alive. Before the trip, we lumped together Napa Valley's mountain AVAs into one specific style: mountain fruit. After our Howell Mountain and Mt. Veeder visits with winemaker Chris Carpenter, we really grasped the differences between the AVAs. Don't equate the two!

    • Howell Mountain: On the northeastern end of Napa Valley, Howell Mountain is part of the Vaca Mountain Range. It faces west and is sheltered from Pacific breezes, with a wall of conifer pines protecting much of the western side. The soil—soft and crumbly volcanic ash with red clay intermixed—is known as tufa (not to be confused with the limestone tuffeau of the Loire Valley). Chris considers this the coolest of the mountain AVAs, and typically this is the last mountain AVA to ripen.
    • Mt. Veeder: Mt. Veeder is on the southwestern end of Napa, amid the Mayacamas Mountain range. It is in direct view of San Pablo Bay and faces southeast. It is also protected by dense forest but is more vulnerable to cool marine breezes flowing north up the valley than Howell Mountain. Soils are more rocky and sedimentary.
    • These terroir distinctions between Howell Mountain and Mt. Veeder are much more clear when you can taste them side by side. Lokoya wines express the terroirs of the individual AVAs, while Cardinale wines showed the balance of blending different sites from each. Even the challenging 2011 vintage showed depth, complexity and ability to age in both wines. 

2. Get out in the vineyard! Regardless of how much you read or study, it really helps to be in the vineyard to fully understand training and pruning methods. We visited Pax Mahle's Nellessen Vineyard (planted to Syrah) and watched as concepts of viticulture materialized in front of us. He explained a year in the vineyard and demonstrated exactly what is done to maintain vines annually, from winter pruning through harvest. Pax was transforming theory into practice, right there in the vineyard!

3. Speaking of Syrah... Syrah is pretty vigorous. The vine produces two crops with the lower crop containing a “wing.” This wing causes uneven ripening, so it is frequently cropped out. To balance growth a double row of cordons (a “quadrilateral cordon-trained” vine) is used to control vigor. Topping (vines are trimmed at the top where sunlight is drawn) then causes the plant to respond by growing down and outward, focusing on ripening the fruit rather than vegetative growth. 

4. Sometimes all you need is a growler of Trousseau Gris and a shot of tequila to get you through the day... No need to elaborate. 

5. What's better than Napa Cabernet? 10-year old Napa Cabernet. We were, shall we say, "#blessed" to taste many mature bottles of Napa Cabernet during a dinner at Mayacamas Vineyards. All these older bottles and all these sommeliers, yet only Jimmy Hayes has an ah-so on hand! Simple but necessary: if you call yourself a somm, you better always have one on you. And Jimmy? He is a master with the ah-so. Watch and learn, and you too can one day attain this legendary status. (Yes, it's the quickest way to open a bottle of wine. Short of breaking it.)    

6. Being treated like a guest is glorious. When you consider that our standard daily routine involves dumping spit buckets, standing for hours, polishing endless glasses, making dozens of pairing recommendations—not to mention distributor appointments, office work, and the constant deluge of emails—we got to leave all that behind for a few short days. This trip gave us unfettered time to learn and appreciate wine without our daily regimen of worries. Instead, menus and wine pairings were tailor-made for us! (Our names were even spelled correctly on the menus!?) These people were ON IT. So–what does it all mean? Take note: this experience was a reminder of what it feels like to be the guest, and reaffirmed the importance of hospitality and guest service in our restaurants, hotels, and stores. Do not underestimate the significance of hospitality.    

7. The sommelier community is small. Whether you’re hosting or someone's guest, always be gracious and put your best face forward. You never know where or when you’ll meet someone again, at another time or place, and make a lasting connection. Get to know winemakers, master sommeliers and anyone else involved. How rare for sommeliers from all over the country (and Canada) to meet without the lurking stress of a Certified/Advanced test in the background?    

8. Have you met John Williams, Frog's Leap Winery's enthusiastic, passionate and charismatic winemaker? We walked through the gardens and olive groves while John explained the winery’s dedication to dry farming. “Vines are not stupid!” Irrigation directs a vine to put out shallow roots and changes their natural “brain” signals—signals that would otherwise direct the vine to slow growth during a drought. Green flavors come from vigorous vine growth. "If a vine grows like a weed, it tastes like a weed.” The folks at Mayacamas agreed, explaining that vines respond to drought stress naturally by producing grapes with more color (grape sex drive!) to preserve themselves. “You have to think like a grapevine,” Williams explained. “It’s the power of thinking along with nature.”    

9. Know that smell. During our tasting at Kistler Vineyards, Geoff Labitzke MW demonstrated how to understand the underlying reasons why a wine tastes and smells the way it does. Using reduction as an example, we describe wines as “mineral” and “flint” as if this came from the soil. But this isn’t the case. (Flint isn’t soluble in wine!) Reduction creates these aromas. Extreme reduction may be unpleasant (think rotten egg hydrogen sulfide aromas). A small amount can be pleasant. It adds the mineral element—"flint"—and complexity to a wine. As sommeliers, we’re responsible for understanding and verbalizing what’s really going on in our glass, even when it’s highly technical. But perhaps we'll choose a different language tableside... 

Tasting tips... Are you ready?

10. Listen to your peers. If you are in the Certified-swing-of-things and hoping to move towards Advanced, it is incredibly helpful to listen to others go through their tasting routine. Their rhythm, timing, and vocabulary are helpful examples to pull from. Some key factors to successful tasting: 1) Understanding the science behind a wine’s flavors and knowing which varieties carry these characteristics (pyrazines, terpenes, thiols, rotundones) will improve your conclusions. 2) Taste wine non-blind! Work on understanding how a classic wine is meant to taste rather than how you think it should taste. 3) Learn to taste wine in 2-3 sips. It builds endurance for longer tastings. Plus you look like a pro. Yes, well... easier said than done.

11. "Experience the wine." Geoff Kruth had us taste through the wine without making either initial or final conclusions, and it was incredibly helpful. When we took away the pressure, it allowed us to take time to experience the wine. What should we remind ourselves and emphasize to our peers? Allow the wine to speak to you and speak for itself, rather than taking one note from the wine and running with it (e.g., white pepper always equals Grüner.)

12. Choose wisely. The quality of your tasting group is just as important as what you taste. Consider how the group selects wines and ensures that they are classic examples. Try acquainting your own palate with the classics by writing your own descriptions of them at all levels of quality. “What are the classics at village, premier cru and grand cru levels?” John Blazon asked. "That’s thinking like a Master.” Make sure members of your group are (1) providing classic wines, (2) are serious, and (3) have the same goals as you. Hold everybody in the group accountable. It’s okay to make friends too.

13. Internalize the tasting grid. No, we mean it. Put a ring on it. Take it to meet your mother. Sure, like any system, the grid is faulty. Despite its imperfections, it’s better than any other system we have. Internalizing the grid is like practicing service—it will help you become confident and smooth. Put another way: Knowing the grid backwards and forwards is like doing scales in music—you have to know and practice this type of pedagogical method before you can become a master. In the words of John Blazon, MS, “The grid is your roadmap. If the grid is internalized, then the wine will start to speak to you and tell you what’s there.”