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Monday, March 10, 2014

There is Nothin' Like a Dame

Me and the Man, Fred Dame
One of the perks of being a wine writer is all the winemaker dinners you attend, and hanging out with the big guns, that is to say Mr. Fred Dame. Fred was cellarmaster of The Sardine Factory in Monterey, California for 12 years helping to turn it into a wine destination and currently he is a Master Sommelier and the first American to have served as President of the Court of Master Sommeliers Worldwide and he founded the American Branch of The Court of Master Sommeliers and plays an active role in the expansion of the Master Sommelier program throughout the U.S. I included Fred in my “100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry” list (see the list INTOWINE TOP 100) and got to meet him at the tony Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara for a “Meet the Masters” wine dinner (that article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of The Tasting Panel Magazine).

Frankly wine dinners are a dime a dozen and I asked Fred why this one, and why all future ones should be different. “They get stale if you’re one winery pitching the 2 or 3 varietals you make.” The problem he suggests is that for a 4-5 course pairing, perhaps you don’t make a dessert wine, or a Cabernet to fit a particular dish, “so you try and squeeze something together to best fit Cabernet, and the dinners turn into a sales pitch.” And whether it’s Amway, or wine, no one wants a hard sell.
The autumn hued wine cellar at the Bacara holds 12,000 bottles

“Look, this is entertainment, people want to walk out of wine pairing dinners having had great food and great wine but got good information in a timely manner, and not get bored.” He looks at me with his bright energetic eyes then says, “I want to talk four minutes tops to introduce each wine, but I want to give you a really great four minutes.” Hopefully the new wave of wine dinners will feature the expansive wines that he and the Bacara put together of different producers and different regions which best reflect the food. We then talk about his influence on the younger generation of sommeliers, most clearly seen in the film SOMM. “I tell them, don’t parrot what I do. I’ll teach you the fundamentals but you need to figure out your game, develop your own personality.” The idea of mentoring is important to him, the passing of information and experience and the wine industry on the whole succeeds with this quite well. “I tell all the folks I work with, you owe me one thing - the next you - and until that debt is paid I will hold it an arrears.” And Dame is a man who can inspire the people he mentors to then mentor others.

“The next generation is looking for the next thing,” he tells me. “I was speaking with someone in the beer industry, and I think craft beer has become so successful because the last generation, and the wine and spirits industry, was built on consistency: a Budweiser always tasted like a Budweiser, Chivas tasted like Chivas. But now people want the next experience. Happily, the world of wine is built for experimentation.” And he’s correct. There is a tremendous resurgence in small lot winemaking, craft beers and craft spirits. This doesn’t mean they all turn out well, but unless and until we experiment with our preconceptions about what gin or Grenache should be, we’ll be reduced to the bland and banal drinks we consume. Your challenge? Try something new this week, something you’ve never tasted and maybe can’t even pronounce. Wine and spirits are built for experimentation, yes, but so are you.

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