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Genesis

Vincent Lafortune has been thinking about such an event since 2006. In 2014, he decided to get more involved in the world of continuing education, training and wine competition by first creating a pilot program. After two years of tests and serious reflection, he and his team of experienced professionals, who are also very skilled at organizing major wine events, jumped at the opportunity to create a unique concept for the hospitality business: SOMM360, an international platform for sommeliers seeking perfection through continuing education and competition training. The first edition was held in Montreal from November 25 to 29, 2018.
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Genesis

It took years between the spark of inspiration and the realization of the project down to the smallest details. First, they had to create a schedule that would bring together 300 sommeliers and other experts from more than 20 countries: United States, Australia, Canada, France, Mexico, China, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Ireland, Latvia, Estonia, United Kingdom, Poland, Sweden, Iceland, Germany, Argentina, Norway, Belgium…
Second, they also had to design a program that would meet the needs of sommeliers from major restaurants looking for new ways to improve their knowledge. At the time, the need for training expressed by several sommeliers/athletes was especially important, since the ASI Best Sommelier in the World competition was to take place in Belgium in March 2019, just a few months after SOMM360 would be held. It also included those preparing for the MS, MW or WSET exams because competitions and training to obtain wine degrees are considered a privileged way to perfect one’s knowledge, while keeping up to date with the latest advances in the profession and building an essential support network made up of peers from all over the wine world.

Finally, it also took time to establish an advisory committee of international experts and a group of ambassadors representing various sectors, trends and currents in the hospitality industry. SOMM360’s mission was also to provide all these people gathered in the same place and from different countries with a rare opportunity to meet and discuss the many facets of a profession in constant evolution, whose purpose remains to better serve the public.

As Patrick Schmitt, a MW from London and editor-in-chief of The Drinks Business remembers, “What struck me most about SOMM360 was the quality of the people who attended the conference. I was able to talk to the participants to understand why they were here, what motivated them and what they hoped to get out of the sessions.” Schmitt said the most impressive aspect was to see such a diverse and quality audience in one place. “It shows how serious and dedicated they are, the sacrifices they are willing to make. It is also about realizing that it is not just about getting to know the wine, it is also about the training they receive from the service.”

The clear vision of SOMM360

Nevertheless, from the very first drafts of the project, the president and founder of SOMM360 had a clear vision of the concept of an international conference dedicated to the industry, combined with a training session at a competitive level. “Quality might be the focus, because quality survives everything. Quality content for quality people. I myself studied in restaurant management and in sommellerie. While I was studying, I participated in a competition, and I believe I had the potential to make good progress in that world. But at the time, I did not have enough people to guide me, advise me, provide me with quality training and help me evolve in this difficult environment, so I got discouraged,” explained Vincent Lafortune. However, these trying moments at a young age were decisive, since it was then that Lafortune decided to embark on a form of entrepreneurship that would not only contribute to a better understanding of wine and gastronomy, but also to help the future generation of sommeliers who want to compete to improve themselves. “The power of SOMM360 is to bring everyone together in one place; that’s what it’s all about,” Lafortune told the participants. “SOMM360 is not about me or my team; it’s about you, the participants: you are SOMM360!”

It was also an opportunity to benefit from the diverse testimonials of seasoned professionals with exceptional skills about their experience in the business, their evolution in wine tasting, the specific challenges they faced, the continual apprenticeship, the relationship with customers, their work with chefs and the creation of original wine lists. These industry sessions were structured as exchanges that often led to lively discussions between panelists and the audience. They enjoyed the easy tone of the speakers (Guillermo Cruz, Paul Grieco, Fernando Mora MW, Rajat Parr, Devon Broglie MS, Terry Kandylis, Greg Lambrecht, John Szabo MS, etc.) and their interesting approaches to food and wine, hence the theme of the master classes: A wine list that is only a list of wine sucks!; How to manage a 750 wine by the glass program?; A discussion on the pursuit of the Master Sommelier Diploma; How to master your blind tasting skills; A discovery of the Master of Wine path; New research on wine and food pairing; Beer and prohibited food; A Tribute to Canada and Domaine Queylus; etc.

Participants were also invited to taste, learn and grow at their own rhythm with the Coravin Wine Bar and its portfolio of over 100 wines available for training purposes. They could also do the same with tea, coffee, water or chocolate: with Breville and Café Saint-Henri, Camellia Sinensis, Eska water and Cacao Barry. Most of these activities took place at Le Saint- Sulpice Hotel Montreal, the official hotel of SOMM360, and at Le Grand Quai, in the Old Port of Montreal.

“I love that we explored a lot of different broad subjects,” Pascaline Lepeltier MS remembers. “It is also very interesting to have a coffee with different participants and to learn from each other. Learning from peers is not something sommeliers have a chance to do very often.” Getting together and getting to know each other in a setting that encouraged exchanges and information sharing was, to many participants, a source of great pleasure and satisfaction and, in some cases, the beginning of stimulating new friendships, new projects and partnerships.

It is also important to highlight the sense of inclusion so critical to the founder of SOMM360, who created a final event, The SOMM360 Wine Experience presented by Desjardins, in the form of an animated evening where members of the general public and the trade were invited to meet sommeliers and learn about different aspects of the profession, as well as about tasting the diversity of SOMM360 and food pairing with well-known chef Marc-André Jetté, from Hoogan et Beaufort while having a good time. It was another opportunity for exchanges and discoveries and to give to these wine Olympians the opportunity to train in front of the public.

A special thanks to Véronique Rivest for having worked so hard on this project, to our guest of honor Ferran Centelles, from the elBullifoundation, to our guest mentor Arvid Rosengren, Best Sommelier of the World 2016, and to all our guest speakers.

Thank you so much, Emilie Althot-Robitaille, for your invaluable work as Event Director and for your friendship. Your dedication and your passion have greatly contributed to SOMM360’s success. Without you, none of this would have been possible.

Thank you, Stephanie Artner for joining me and Émilie in building the foundations of SOMM360 and in developing new business relations worldwide. We have a bright future all together as a team.

“The power of SOMM360 is to bring everyone together in one place; that’s what it’s all about,” Lafortune told the participants. “SOMM360 is not about me or my team; it’s about you, the participants: you are SOMM360!”

Inclusive and diverse

SOMM360 was intended to be an inclusive event that would allow wine professionals from all over the world to discover or deepen their knowledge of more unusual or even unknown aspects of their universe. That is why the conference offered about 15 original and distinctive master classes. Specialists shared their expertise, accompanied by informative wine tastings, on a wide range of topics: the rich heritage and diversity of Rhône Valley wines, the talent of Portuguese wine growers and oenologists in creating exceptional blends from ancient native grape varieties for the production of distinctive wines, the emerging grape varieties of Austria, the resurgence of white Bordeaux wines, the cool-climate regions of Australia, entrepreneurship in wine and a food pairing creative session with Les Domaines Paul Mas, the heartland of Garnacha in Spain with Alto Moncayo, the importance of Syrah at Château Beaucastel and François Chartier’s innovative art of creating sake blends.

The Advisory Board

  1. Véronique Rivest, Second Best Sommelier of the World 2013 and owner, Soif bar à vin, Quebec (Canada)—oversaw the overall training program;
  2. Rajat Parr, Three-time James Beard Award-winning author, sommelier and winemaker, Santa Barbara (USA)—oversaw the blind tasting sessions;
  3. Alexandre Bilodeau, Double Olympic Champion in Moguls, now with Walter Capital Partners, Quebec (Canada)—acted as stress management coach during the training sessions;

  1. Jesse Becker MS, Portfolio Manager of Craft & Estates, Chicago (USA)—oversaw the educational components of the congress and acted as moderator;
  2. François Chartier “Créateur d’harmonies”, Author of Taste buds and Molecules, Barcelona (Spain)—was responsible for the food & wine pairing component of the congress.

Community involvement

More than 60 students from sommelier programs at various hospitality schools  in Quebec provided wine service during SOMM360. A golden opportunity for them to meet the best in the profession  and a unique occasion for the organizers to contribute to their training in a highly professional and stimulating context, as well  as a creative way to help stem the  serious problems of workforce renewal facing the restaurant industry. La Tablée des Chefs, an organization that teaches culinary and food autonomy to young people from less-privileged backgrounds, was the official caterer of the SOMM360 congress.

A collective effort

A select group of top industry peers acted as mentors and members of the SOMM360 advisory board and ambassadors’ club; they worked with Vincent Lafortune to guarantee superior quality and exclusive content for the 300 participants of this first edition.

The Ambassadors’ Club

  1. Ferran Centelles, Drinks Director, elBullifoundation, SOMM360 guest of honor, Barcelona (Spain)
  2. Alain Bélanger, Third Best Sommelier of the World 2000, Educator, École Hôtelière de Laval, SOMM360 mentor, Montreal (Canada)
  3. DJ Kearney, Educator of WSET, VP CAPS BC Chapter, SOMM360 mentor, Vancouver (Canada)
  4. Élyse Lambert MS, Fifth Best Sommelier of the World 2016, Consultant Sommelier, Montreal (Canada)
  5. Émily Campeau, Wine Director, Candide, Montreal (Canada)
  6. Evan Saviolidis, CAPS Sommelier Instructor, Quench Magazine, Niagara Falls (Canada)
  7. Jasper Sun, Vice-champion—Best Sommelier of China 2017, Owner and Sommelier, Wine Universe By Little Somms, Shanghai (China)
  8. John Szabo MS, Partner/Principal Critic, WineAlign.com, Toronto (Canada)

  1. Leagh Barkley, Best Sommelier of Bordeaux 2017, Wine Director, Il Caminetto, Whistler (Canada)
  2. Marcos Flores, President of the Mexican Sommelier Association, CEO & Founder, Grupo Gemaric, SOMM360 mentor, Mexico City (Mexico)
  3. Michelle Bouffard, Sommelier, author and educator, Montreal (Canada)
  4. Paul Grieco, Sommelier and restaurateur, Terroir, New York City (United States)
  5. Paz Levinson, Executive Chief Sommelier, Groupe Pic, SOMM360 mentor, Paris (France)
  6. Terry Kandylis, Head Sommelier at 67 Pall Mall, London (United Kindgom)
  7. Véronique Dalle, Co-owner and Wine Director, Moleskine, Montreal (Canada)
  8. Morgan Harris MS, Head Sommelier, Angler, San Francisco (United States)

The 2018 Advisory Board
Absent from the picture: Rajat Parr.

Finally, our partners, who are involved in their communities and eager to help sommeliers improve and develop, believed in the project from the beginning and offered to get involved in the event. In doing so, they greatly contributed to its success. This project took place thanks to the support of leading wine industry organizations and businesses:
Major Partners:
Rhône Valley Vineyards, Wines of Portugal, Air Canada, Desjardins, Cossette;

Master Class Partners:
Austrian Wine, Wine Australia, Bordeaux Wine Council, Château de Beaucastel, Les Domaines Paul Mas, Alto Moncayo;

Collaborating Partners:
Coravin, VDP.Die Prädikatsweingüter, Le Saint-Sulpice Hôtel Montreal, ExpertʼEase, Tessier Services dʼExposition, Premium Estates of Austria, Domaine Queylus, Breville, Eska, Laurier du Vallon, Cacao Barry, Vinum Design, DOCa Rioja.

Photos: Krystel V. Morin

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