The Art of Blind Tasting and More, SCS Bootcamp 2018

In wine writer Jon Bonné’s new book, The New Wine Rules, he writes Rule #3 for a consumer is  “a good wine store employee is your best friend” and Rule #75 “ordering wine is a conversation not a test”.  All the sommeliers and wine trade at the full house that was SommBootCamp 2018 organized by Dan Pilkey, Director of Education and the indefatigable Second City Sommeliers, Board members Pilkey, Greg Spaulding, James Bube, Katie Espinosa, Rachel Spekan and Rebekah Mahru,  held at City Winery Chicago , were all about communicating what kind of wine was in the glass.  Ultimately, through educating and training the group of wine professionals at the bootcamp, the experienced gained by these folks will result in more quality, enjoyable experiences for their customers at the restaurants, wine companies or wine stores where they work. Perhaps at the same time, sewing seeds of wine curiosity in the consumer of how much fun, fascinating and door opening being wine curious can be.

Dan Pilkey Master of Ceremonies Setting the Stage for Day 1

SCS members are also leaders within Chicago’s wine industry and together seek to improve their knowledge and professionalism. Along those lines, the idea of SommBootCamp was born. In the pursuit of professional development, knowledge and education, SCS created the SommBootCamp for industry professionals to hone their sommelier skills in the midst of peers, Master Sommeliers and industry leaders. There are trade conferences held but nothing locally where first time and experienced students can interact with industry veterans and get direct feedback about their skills so they can improve without having to travel far and make new friends and colleagues for wine tasting groups and the spirit of community. First held last year over 2 days with about 50 participants, this year the group doubled to over 100. The format incorporates service demonstrations and practicals, blind tasting exercises, lectures and seminars, as well as comparative tastings of wines, spirits, and other beverages.

Side activites included a full array of spirits to blind sniff
I will say the group as a whole was highly spirited!

Most of the participants were at different points down the Court of Master Sommeliers path. The Court was established to encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants. Education was then, and remains today, the Court’s charter. The first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in the United Kingdom in 1969. By April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as the premier international examining body. There are 236 professionals worldwide who have received the Master Sommelier diploma. 149 are in the United States and one of the new Master Sommeliers of 2017 is a member of the SCS, James Bube.

James Bube to the far left of Dan Pilkey

The exams by the Court encompass Theory (knowledge of all aspects of wine: history, geography, geology, winemaking, viticulture, grapes, wine styles, appellations, regions, producers across the globe), Service and Blind Tasting. The difficulty and scope of the exams increase at each level, starting with Intro, Certified, Advanced and then Master. I equate the test to the equivalent of a wine triathlon. You must have the equanimity, presence and motor skills for service, the intellectual pursuit and studying dedication for theory and then the practiced analytical skills, honed palate and aroma recall for the blind tasting and prepare for this while having a job where you finish after midnight for most people many days of the week.

This year the WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) students were more fully incorporated into the camp.  WSET has a series of exams much like the Court ultimately leading to the title of Master of Wine. The difference is that there is more focus on theory and the how’s, whys and processes behind wine and there is no Service component but there is a lot more writing. No matter the level or course of study, Court or WSET or CWE (Certified Wine Educator), to prepare for these exams can be overwhelming and seemingly impossible to do on your own and very few make it to the level of MS or MW. It truly takes a community to support one another in the process, hence the group Second City Sommeliers and the creation of the SommBootcamps.

The main focus of the Bootcamp was group blind tasting which was highlighted in the movie, SOMM.  We went through 18 wines each day. Contrary to popular opinion blind tasting is not something only “super tasters” can do. The skills and it is a skill to blind taste,  the verbal delivery of the analysis, perhaps is an art but getting comfortable with the analysis is more like golf, the more you practice the better you get. Like golf, if you go out and just practice driving you can still have double digit golf scores because of the different clubs and skills needed to complete a hole. So in wine you have to taste a variety of wines in an analytical setting on a regular basis to improve. Like golf in order to deal with the stress of competition, the more you practice, the more at ease you are in executing. In blind tasting, there are many components of the wine to analyze, the grape, old world, new world, lees no lees, MLF, no MLF, oak or no oak, as Dustin Chabert who lead our table at one of the tasting rounds said,” think “FEW” fruit, earth, wood” for the first part (maybe phew, its almost over).

Peter Plaehn lead our group for the first round of tasting

To get the most out of practice requires a thoughtful group of wines to taste. Being able to execute the tasting, buying the wines, pouring the wines into clear bottles or bags over the bottles, space, glasses, this is all not so easy when you are talking about the hours most of these people work, families, travel schedules, At this camp, multiply this by the group of 10 tables, 10 people per table in the room and executed with military like precision without the “military” attitude, all done on these folks “free time”.  We were a very lucky group to be at City Winery, a facility dedicated to good wine, music, food and to have the Wine Directors, Rachel Spekan National, Rebekah Mahru City Winery Chicago (both SCS board members) so dedicated to education and able to have the group use their space.

The well thought out wine groupings (they didn’t tell us, it became evident by the flights) aromatic whites, gauging lees in white wines, tannins in reds, acids in reds, old world versus new world were something that the SCS do every week but for new tasting groups it is hard to execute. Whether you were a Court student or a WSET student, even though we were following the Court protocol, the tasting concepts and ability to detect aromas and flavors are relevant to both groups.  At first sitting at these tables, describing what you are smelling or not smelling can be very intimidating and nerves can get the better of you but that is what the practice was for. I found it invaluable for my WSET studies and as the day wore on, my courage increased and not from sipping wine (you have to spit to survive) but from the support, camaraderie and the fact I found I was picking up things and learning.  The rounds of wines were not unicorn wines or a who’s who of wines (at times they were) but they represented some of the typical characteristics students would be tested on at a Court exam.


The intensive 2 days were structured with a round of 6 wines in the morning, lead by a SCS member, 3 whites and 3 reds, then a lecture (theory). The lectures were invaluable as well because not every wine professional and particularly starting out can travel to the regions that they are pouring wines from. So to have pictures and detailed information of wines from specific regions be it the US or abroad is highly valuable information.  On Sunday the first lecture was Tuscany, Italy and a Sangiovese Intensive given by Brian Cronin, MS going through all the different soils in Chianti Classico and their effect on the end product the wine. When Brian started talking about specific soils it was music to my ears because soil is a big emphasis of the Wine Scholar Guild where I have taken courses.  Below is a list of some of the wines poured at his seminar.

Missing #5 Val di Suga “Vigna del Lago” Brunello di Montalcino 2009  #7 Val di Suga “Vigna del Lago” Brunello di Montalcino 2009 #8 Val di Suga “Poggio al Granchio Brunello di Montalcino 2009
Brian Cronin, MS
Wilson Daniels stopped by to pour from these

After a break for lunch we had a session on the Williamette Valley with Mollie Battenhouse, MW. The wines poured represented the different sub AVAs of the Williamette Valley: 1) Zena Crown “Slope” Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills 2013, 2) Angela Estate “Abbott Claim” Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton 2013 3) Willakenzie “Pierre Leon” Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton 2013, 4) Alexana “Revana Vyd” Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills 2015, 5) Willakenzie Pinot Gris, Williamette Valley 2016, 6) Domaine Drouhin “Arthur” Chardonnay, Dundee Hills 2015, 7) Ransom  Cabernet Franc, Rogue Valley 2014.

Mollie Battenhouse, MW

The rest of the afternoon was focused on group blind tastings with a total of 12 wines, 4 flights of 3 wines each. My group was led by Sandeep Ghaey, (MW candidate) for the first half and the second by Nina Markowitz.

Since many people had come from out of town a group BYOB taco dinner at City Winery was scheduled.  The most fun part about wine is sharing bottles and sitting down for a meal with friendly folks. Sadly,  I was not able to attend, but some of my blind tasting tablemates were gathering and figuring out where and what they were going to buy to bring to dinner.

All of the many bottles poured during the 2 days were poured by SCS volunteers.


The next day after a hearty welcome by Dan Pilkey we went right into the morning flight of group blind tasting. My table was lead by Rachel Spekan. The SCS members made a point to rotate around tables and each brought a new point of view to the skill of blind tasting. Rachel was very encouraging but at the same time acknowledged there was only one right answer but that a lot is learned from being wrong. After the morning flights, the first seemed to be new and old world Sauvignon Blancs and the reds, new and old world highly tannic wines, then we went into the morning presentation given by Fernando Beteta MS, a Loire Valley Master Class.


What was really helpful in Fernando’s presentation besides his gorgeous map, look for his maps on Instagram and at his website was outlining the level of memorization and knowledge of the wine appellations required for the different certification levels.

After lunch the presentation was given by Sean Barrett of the iconic Grgich Hills Estate in Napa. He went into the history of the winery and of its founder, Mike Grgich, whose wines won out in the 1976 Paris Tasting and later the story was captured in the book, Judgement of Paris. He emphasized their commitment to sustainability and purposely releasing their chardonnay later than other producers because of the wines ageability.


The afternoon consisted of 4 more rounds of tasting, lead by Dustin Chabert with James Bube MS seated at the table as well. Everyone took turns leading a wine and had 4 minutes to make their points. By this time everyone was into the spirit of the blinds but I equate learning and paying attention during these blind sessions to learning a foreign language among people who are speaking the language you are trying to learn. I found myself concentrating on every word, “did I or didn’t I taste the bitterness at the end of that Pinot Grigio”? But as I watched these advanced somms take notes, their notes were to the point and short.


The day before, Brian Cronin, MS stopped by the different tasting tables to check in on concepts and points like at my table with Sandheep, where the topic of phenolic bitterness came up and Brian rattled off the grapes known for that. Dustin and James got into discussions of descriptors and indicators of the different wines we were tasting and hallmarks of raisinated wines which was really helpful to hear.

As the day ended and Jim and Rachel gave a closing talk, everyone had smiles on their faces and as much as people had children to go home to and trips to take or were working that night, the spirit of camaraderie was shining through.


During Jon Bonne’s talk at Perman Wine about his book, he mentioned how the customer can be intimidated speaking with sommeliers at restaurants. All I can say is, from the diversity of people at this SommBootCamp and the earnestness and friendliness and enthusiasm about learning the different skills and aspects needed for the Court education path, Chicago is full of sommeliers who want to talk to the customer and have a dialogue where there is no right or wrong answer. These people are filled with the joy and fun that learning about wine brings and they are eager to share that joy with their customers. If you are in Chicago at a restaurant find the sommelier and talk to them because they would love to talk to you!

Thank you SCS somms!!!  Thank you my tasting table mates Eddie, Diego, Christina, Rebecca, Nathan, Davor!

Here are some more shots of the wines poured over the 2 days! Sante!



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