Swimming with Wine Sharks: SOMMSummit

Chinese wine? 1937 Kopke Colheita Port? Quilceda Creek retrospective? Probing questions for top Washington winemakers? Learning Washington AVA geology? My brain is full. I’m totally exhausted from only the first of THREE days of SOMMSummit, a symposium on wine and spirits.

I’m back swimming with the wine sharks in tasting group. That leads to a call for help on Facebook. That leads to inquiring about the design project I’m working on: SOMMSummit. And that leads to attending the three-day symposium with trained sommeliers, winemakers, and brand ambassadors–all the great white sharks of the industry. I’m still a guppy–and that’s okay. Turns out, so are many attending. It’s a great time to learn.


We arrive in the massive auditorium. I’m early. After checking in, I gravitate to my spot: front-and-center. My brain is empty, ready for the tidal wave of information about to pour in. I meet a couple other attendees whom I sit with for most of the symposium: a Portland Certified Somm on the fast-track to Master Somm, looking very serious for 23 years old; another is a laid-back mom from Chelan, running a tasting room there. Both are here to learn, share, and meet folks. We’re all excited.

My title is a joke, but the wines are very serious: Washington geology and soils explained.

Morning session begins with a high-level geology lesson by Dr. Kevin Pogue, Professor of Geology, Whitman College. We taste through the first flight of 7 wines, taking notes from his presentation slides. There’s so much to take in, I’m missing a lot already. Focus. Then Tim Donahue, Walla Walla College’s Director of Winemaking further explains vintage and place. Very informative and dynamic.

We take a quick break, then back into smaller, separate classrooms for specific courses we signed up for: Washington AVAs, led by Chris Upchurch, (Delille, Upchurch), John Patterson (Patterson), and Kit Singh (Laura Ashton); all explain their philosophy while tasting through another 7-wine flight. They field questions, creating a lively discussion.

It’s time for an addendum to the symposium: Quilceda Creek Vintners retrospective. We taste through vintages 2010-2014 with John Ware, GM, while he explains his business. Sadly, a lot of poured wine was dumped due to missing attendees.

Quilceda Retrospective: 2010–2014
Is Washington state the new northern Rhone? Joel Butler, MW takes us through wines from Rotie, Alain Graillot (Rhone), Saviah, Betz, Amavi, and Avennia, with their winemakers.

Now back to the giant auditorium for a Washington state vs. northern Rhone (France) syrah panel tasting led by Joel Butler, MW. A selection of top wineries are represented by their winemakers. We taste through another 7-wine flight, the makers speaking about their wines, and how they capture unique characteristics of their respective vineyards. Delicious. Especially, Saviah Cellars 2013 ‘The Funk’ Syrah Rocks District of Milton Freewater. Whoa.

Meaty, irony, chewy, funky. But with beautiful blue flowers. And smooth. So smooth.

Q&A for the group turns informal, personal. Chatting up Rotie Cellar’s winemaker Sean Boyd about visiting for crush. Swooning over ‘The Funk’ to Rich Funk, winemaker. Hearing Joel Butler talk about terroir. Marveling at all the talent, Impressive first day.

Classes are over. Onto the tasting reception, showcasing wine, beer and spirits. Tasting Rob Newsom’s (phenomenal) Boudreaux Cellars 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with the man himself? Trying three different clonal selections of chardonnay? Discovering Chinese wines? Tasting through some of the best Kopke Colheita Tawny Ports, including the legendary 1937 and 1941? Oh yes.

I missed the Kopke Colheita retrospective class, but was able to taste through most of this stunning lineup. Worth the price of admission for only these wines.

Surveying the room, I realize the profound Ports have essentially sealed my palate. 43 wines tasted today. I’m completely exhausted. Not drunk–I’ve been spitting all day. Taking in that volume of information and wine in one day is more than I anticipated. And, I have two more full days of lecture and tasting, including another add-on: a field trip to Woodinville wine country. Time to get home and sleep, after a solid meal.

Day 2: Morning session was all about South African Methode Cap Classique.

We start with a group tasting in the auditorium: Sparkling wines of South Africa, led by Jim Clark. I taste through my pours quickly–I have another event to attend in the middle of today’s symposium. The wines are excellent. Before leaving, I have a great discussion with fellow tasters about different methods of wine education, what might work best for me. Gold.

I’m sad to be skipping class to attend another tasting–featuring hundreds of wines–but it’s an annual lamb roast, and some of my favorite wineries will be there. Hell yes I’m going. My buddy and I taste 60 wines in 2.5 hours, meet some favorite wines’ makers, and enjoy a few tiny roasted lamb sammies. Perfect.

I jet back to South Seattle Community College just as today’s final class is beginning: Médoc Wines: An exploration of left bank Bordeaux vintages and Cru categories. Wendy Narby takes us through the geology, climate, and vineyards while we taste 8 wines, representing a variety of ages, soils, styles. Fascinating.

Day 2: Afternoon session was all about the Médoc

Now onto reception Day 2: different wineries representing. But I’m feeling like chewed up chum. I opt to grab a bowl of pho with the Chelan tasting room manager. Later, I tally: 97 wines tasted today. No wonder I’m hashed.

Sherry certification class and test: tests have to be shipped then graded and certified IN SPAIN

Final day begins with a Certified Sherry Wine Specialist Course and certification test led by Lucas Paya representing Lustau. It’s been awhile since I took a written test. Like forever. And I don’t know much about Sherry. So I take copious notes while we taste 6 wines. A first in the U.S., the test seems simple enough as I attack it, leaving unknowns for last, confident in correctly answering 27 questions. I’ll keep you posted.

A LOT of note-taking while tasting

Onto our last breakout seminar: Touriga and Terroir: Dow’s Components. We’re led by Paul Mugnier of Symington, who shares history, climate, and grape growing for Dow’s Port. He also notes how rare it is that the winemaker lets component wines out of the country. We taste through a 6-wine flight, including two finished wines. The black, viscous components are shocking, but it’s easy to see how they all work together. We finish with the spectacular Dow 1994 Vintage Port.

Vintage Port component wine tasting
That’s some thick, black wine

Alas, it’s time for the party bus to Woodinville. I call it that, because it reminds me of a similar bus in Las Vegas some years ago. Guests are loud, jovial. Conversations span from mundane to salacious. Traffic allows for long, interesting interactions.

We file off at our first destination: Januik/Novelty Hill. Tasting a few of their wines along with antipasti, we tour their production facility. Pleasant. We move on to WT Vintners, quickly tasting through 8 wines with winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen. I like their syrahs. Then, Patterson Cellars production facility, where it’s explained by winemaker John Patterson how a custom crush pad works. We snack on gourmet apps, tasting a few of their wines. Lovely. Lastly, we taste at Pondera Winery with winemaker Shane Howard. A delicious light Italian meal also awaits. Very nice. Again, I like their syrahs.

Barrel room at Januik/Novelty Hill
WT Vinters: Boushey Mourvedre in barrel
Group tour: production facility at Patterson Cellars

Now, it’s time to head back to Seattle. The party is over. Or, at least, SOMMSummit is. 32 wines tasted today. I need a beer.

We exchange business cards and numbers, having made great connections over the past three days. Fun folks. Huge knowledge base. Great opportunities. And 112 wines tasted. I’ll be back.


SOMMSummit is the brainchild of Christopher Chan, also director of Seattle Wine Awards. I highly recommend anyone who enjoys wine in any capacity register for this 3-day symposium. So much to learn and share. Worth your time and money.

All images and content copyright ©2017 Eric Schadel. All rights reserved.

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