Set an international standard for sommeliers. There’s a lot more to him.
By Mary Schley | Photos by Manny Espinoza
If his grandfather hadn’t been farming raisins, Fred Dame might have never found his way into the wide and wonderful world of food and wine.
Then again, with a palate, nose and mind like his — and the enthusiasm conveyed by his rapid manner of speaking and encyclopedic knowledge — he might have.
By now Dame’s credentials and accomplishments are stunning. He was the first to pass all three sections (theory, service and blind tasting) of the prestigious Master Sommelier examination — widely considered one of the most difficult tests in the world — in a single year, earning the coveted Krug Cup of the British Guild of Sommeliers in 1984. He was the first American to become president of the Court of Master Sommeliers Worldwide and founded the American Branch of The Court of Master Sommeliers in 1986. Over the years, he has developed an intense program that has produced 7,000 Level 1 sommeliers, has been a key figure in a multitude of culinary and wine organizations, has developed resources for people wanting to learn the trade, and has sold a lot of wine — first as a waiter, and now as vice president of prestige accounts for American Wines, a division of Southern Wine & Spirits.
But it all began with the summer trip to Europe with his cousin following the inheritance and subsequent sale of his grandfather’s raisin business.
“We discovered food and wine — that was not part of American culture at the time, and it fascinated me,” he said. The year was 1971, and Dame experienced many aha moments during that journey, from the revelation of how good a bottle of cheap Moselblumchen — which he described as “one step below Blue Nun” — could taste alongside cheese and sausage on the riverbank in Mosel, Germany, to the transcendent characteristics of a good red Burgundy.
“You think, ‘Let’s go get something else and give that a try,’ and then you start moving up and start trying things that are really great,” he said.
Back home for summers while attending Washington and Lee University in Virginia — from which he graduated with a degree in journalism and communications — Dame was introduced to restaurant work by way of his mother, who introduced him to a couple of businessmen she knew: Bert Cutino and Ted Balestreri, the powerful duo who transformed Cannery Row from a rundown industrial area to a thriving tourist zone and culinary destination that includes their famous Sardine Factory restaurant.
“I had hair down to my shoulders and the whole deal, and they said, ‘The way you look, we won’t hire you, anyway,’” he said. But they did, “and after my first week, it was so fascinating, I went down and had my hair cut.”
Dame worked in various roles at the landmark restaurant, and after he gave law school a go and found he hated it, he returned to the Monterey Peninsula, where they put him to work.
“They’re like my dads — I don’t make a career decisions unless I speak with both of them,” he said. Cutino and Balestreri are godfathers to his son, because, “If you’re going to have godfathers, you might as well have real ones.”
After working as assistant manager for one of their restaurants — and learning more about the business than he ever could have in school — Dame departed for Simpson’s, the restaurant in the Carmel Sands Lodge. “I wanted to work on the wine program,” he explained. “So I left, and that didn’t go over well.”
But he returned to his “dads” after they built an extensive wine cellar at The Sardine Factory and asked him to run it.
“It was an amazing experience. We did some of the most amazing dinners for some of the most amazing people,” he said, among them the deposed Shah of Iran and Mr. Toyota. “You name it, we did it.” A full Russian Imperial Dinner sticks out in his memory over the dozen years he was there, as does an extensive vertical tasting of Haut-Brion.
“The great thing about Ted and Bert is they like talent — that’s what they want around them — so, if you can do the job, you got it,” Dame said. The men needed staff with enough knowledge to sell the high-end wines in their extensive cellar, and Dame learned about the Master Sommelier examination in Britain, as there was no such program in the United States at the time.
“They weren’t keen on Americans at that time, but I passed all three phases in the first year,” he said. Cutino and Balestreri had undoubtedly motivated him, too. “It came with the best going away speech: ‘If you don’t pass, don’t come home.’ And if The Boys tell you to do something, you do it.”
Dame might not have known it at the time, but his talent is rare. While many wine experts rely on a lot of practice, he has an intuitive way of taking in the complex aromas of wine, and what those scents mean embed themselves in his memory. His skills and knowledge not only set him apart in the wine world, especially when he obtained the Krug award, but they changed wine education in the United States, too.
“The restaurant really benefited,” he said, and Balestreri asked why a Master Sommelier program couldn’t exist in this country. “I don’t see why not,” Dame had said, and, through a lot of hard work and help from the businessmen and the National Restaurant Association, the American Branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers was born.
“After three years, we were self-sufficient, and just grew and grew and grew,” he said. “Last year, we put 7,000 people through Level 1,” the first level of a sommelier’s education and certification. The Master Sommelier level is the fourth, and since the American chapter’s founding, just 147 people have achieved that highest level — 124 men and 23 women. Worldwide, there are 230 Master Sommeliers.
In addition to the American Court, Dame and his colleagues launched an online training program of which he’s chairman (guildsomm.com). It’s become the leading site for wine education, boasting 14,000 members in 90 countries.
“When an opportunity comes, you can sit around and think about it, or you can jump in and see if it’s viable,” he said. “It continues to grow because people are engaged.”
He also has eight tasting groups in California that have a waitlist of people who want to train for their MS with him. The most recent member to pass is Manresa’s Jim Rollston.
When Dame left The Sardine Factory after a dozen years, he went to work on the distribution side of the business, learning more about liquor and spirits than he might have wanted while employed by Seagrams, and then moved on to a series of other companies that changed hands until he ended up at Southern Wine & Spirits.
“Southern is a family-held company, very stable, a very good company with very good people,” he said. “In the world of wine, we’re not making widgets. The world of wine is constantly changing.”
While his palate and knowledge are highly sought after, Dame no longer judges many competitions and doesn’t do paid speaking gigs, either, but he does train sommeliers for the World Championships and flew to Sidney and Shanghai for competitions this year. The latter was particularly interesting, he said, because the tasting included 26 wines from China.
With all his accolades, and having reached the highest echelons in the wine world, Dame is well-positioned to espouse advice and wisdom on any related topic. Above all, he said, “The enjoyment of the great wine is the conversation.”
“I wouldn’t open a great bottle of wine with fewer than four people — it just wouldn’t be any fun,” he said.
Oh, he added, “The only great truth in wine is that free wine tastes better than wine you paid for.”
With all that in mind, the Shakers sat down to a unique Q&A with a master who enjoys a unique perspective on the ever-evolving world of wine.
Shakers: What’s the key to your success in teaching sommeliers?
Dame: I think it’s sensory memory. It’s one of those things I have, but the hard thing has been teaching it to other people, and we’ve been successful. It’s an individual pursuit, it’s not a team sport, and you can’t give people a list of words and ask them to describe wine using that list. If you find your key to identifying something, then that’s what it is for you.
What are your thoughts on buying wine?
I could go to Costco and watch the wine section all day — it just fascinates me. You see someone go over to white zinfandel, and then they go buy two bottles of Bordeaux. The prices are good, but I love going to independent retailers, because it’s not like that — they’re really into it. My wife doesn’t allow me to go to the Cheese Shop in Carmel by myself anymore, because [owner-operator] Kent Torrey and I get going, and pretty soon, she has to come pick me up.
What is the most annoying wine-related question you get?
“What do you drink?” “What should I drink?” It’s not a Bible, it’s not a religion; these aren’t the gospels. Don’t read just one thing. Your life changes, your mood changes, and wine changes.
Anyone you like to read?
I’m a voracious reader, so I just kind of jump around…There is so much information out there. You read things that you like. Jancis Robinson is one of the best wine writers there is today, as is Tom Stevenson, because they’ve done the homework. You’re always learning.
What do you do when you’re not engaged in wine-related things?
I’m a big hunter — birds are my particular passion. Most of my family are hunters, but we aren’t trophy hunters. If you kill it, you eat it. So I take one deer a year, and one pig a year. And you’re out with the guys, it’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s peaceful. You watch the sun come up. And I always take really nice wines to share with the guys, and they don’t know squat. But wine tastes better out there.
I’m also a horseman. I won the Pebble Beach steeplechase in 1983, and I belong to Rancheros Visitadores and do the Charlie Russell ride in Montana. We ride the backside of Yellowstone for a week. That’s one of those real peaceful things. Anytime you’re communing with nature, you always come back refreshed.
What do you look for in wine service?
We always look for the flaws first — that’s the wild card in all of it. For example, most red wine is served warmer than it should be served. There are all sorts of things like that that make me crazy. But it’s getting better than it ever has been, in terms of restaurant service, knowledge and storage. The consumer has a better opportunity to have a better experience.
What advice would you give a server?
One simple thing: You buy wine from people you like. So even if the server is not the most knowledgeable, if they’re nice about it, it makes it a nice experience. People who are nice about sharing their knowledge in a passionate way rather than trying to give you an education. You have a minute, tops, right? Millennials are really changing the game — they’re really adventurous, and they want a bedtime story with every bottle of wine. I enjoy that, and the servers really have to up their game.
Where do you like to eat and drink on the Monterey Peninsula?
The Sardine Factory — where else am I going to say? And I’m a huge fan of Fandango. When I was first learning, Mark Dirickson was one of my friends, and Pierre [Bain, owner of Fandango] was at Club XIX in Pebble Beach. We’d order wine, and he’d look at us. And we’d order something else, and he’d say, “That’s an excellent choice, young men.”
Any hidden gems?
The kids are all trying to find things to stump me with. You never stop learning, and there is so much coming on the market today… South Africa had apartheid, and you couldn’t get anything, and now look what they’re doing today. (He recommended Fleur du Cap, which has Sauvignon Blanc for $7 or $8 per bottle, and Chardonnay for $9.)
How much does glassware matter?
I sat through the first seminar with Georg Riedel 15 or 20 years ago, and it’s amazing what has happened over the years. Fine glassware makes wine taste better, there’s no doubt about it. And one of the great killers of wine is dirty glassware. There’s nothing worse than getting a glass of wine that smells like chlorine.
What do you drink when you’re not drinking wine?
I love calvados. After-dinner things, like cognac and armagnac, and maybe a little port. (Due to acid reflux developed from a career in analyzing wine, Dame no longer drinks carbonated drinks and has given up beer, “which I miss terribly.”)
What do you bring to a dinner party?
I have a really great collection, and I’ll bring some interesting things to drink. And when my students do well, they get to go pick a bottle from my cellar. I actually have no idea what I have in there. But winemakers don’t make wine for you to look at it; they want you to drink it.
Do you ever get hangovers?
I don’t drink like I used to. You get older, you slow down, you start appreciating things more. I’m 63 and a little smarter than I used to be. Plus, with social media today, God only knows what photo they’re going to take of you. You don’t want people seeing it — you definitely don’t want your kids seeing it.
What do you look for in a wine list?
I like balance, so there are lots of things to pick from; whether big or small doesn’t really matter to me. The server and the chef are hugely important.
Things that used to really bother me don’t bother me much anymore — you just go with the flow. But I would have to say, people talking about things they really don’t know anything about. We call them, “M&Ms” — hard candy shell and very soft chocolate underneath. If you don’t know, ask. Trust me, in the world of wine, there is no stupid question. The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.