In February, my partner and I went on the trip of a lifetime to Chile for food, hiking and — of course — wine. While trips to vineyards and many bottles of vino stood out, no wine experience was more profound than our guided tasting lead by a definitively modern sommelier, Kathryn (Kat) Woods, house somm of the Winebox in Valparaiso.
This hotel-cum-wine haven is perched colourfully on the already colourful hills of Valparaiso, a sea-side town an hour and a half away from Santiago, the capital of Chile. It has a relaxed, bohemian vibe and the surrounding area has a rich history of viticulture, making it an ideal stop for us on our trip.
The rooms were great, the views better, but it was truly the wine tasting lead by Kat we enjoyed the most. Hailing from Canada (Calgary to be specific), she was a far cry from home — and a farther cry from most people’s perception of the stuffy sommelier. With a hoody and backwards cap, Kat had a vocabulary as deep in wine vernacular as she had in creative profanity. It was an entirely refreshing experience to taste wines with her.
But how does a Calgarian become a sommelier at Chile’s hippest wine hotel?
“I don’t know if it was something that particularly got me into wine per say but I started in the food and beverage industry at 18 years old. I was immediately enamored with food, cocktails, and wine,” Kat writes to me in an email. “I was infatuated with service and the inner workings of bars and restaurants that seemed to run flawlessly and seamlessly like a machine (its actually more like a duck gliding across the water and paddling furiously underneath).”
After her intro into the service industry, Kat went to school for Hospitality Management, and started work at an old-school French restaurant where she got her first real glimpse of European-style service and fine wines. For a young woman, this was a new frontier.
“[It was a] world that seemed to not have a place for me as a woman, as a youth entering the industry and as a young Canadian redneck (to be honest)”, Kat explains. “But I was able to win hearts with my dedication to learning and beaming smile I had with customers and coworkers.”
I can personally attest to the beaming smile. Far too many wine tastings involve a glowering somm that you’re terrified to hazard a tasting note to. But with Kat, our whole table of novice wine tasters were eagerly contributing and excited to learn more. And with the beautiful Chilean sunset augmenting the whole experience, it would be difficult to improve upon.
“I came down to Chile to discover a world of wine that was more of a ‘real’ wine region. Because Chile has four distinct points that protect it from Phyloxerra, you’re looking at a region that is closer to a more natural region than anywhere else in the world,” Kat says. “I’m not saying winemakers aren’t using pesticides, herbicides, adding sulphurs into their wines etc, I just mean we are looking at regions with incredibly old vines, deep roots and even deeper history.”
“Chile is also plagued with the condition that people think they only produce the cheap, cheerful bulk shit that is exported. While this is definitely a fact, Chile has this new wave of winemakers who are scribbling outside the lines, combining old techniques with new ideas and while the product doesn’t always work, it’s a super interesting place to be as a young Somm.”
However, it’s not merely Chile and its wine that keeps Kat content. Rather, her place of employment (Winebox Valparaiso) and its owners Grant and Camilla has offered a place to plant some of her own roots and share her passion with travelers. Kat describes how Winebox appeals to her not just because of its fabulous architecture, but because of the authenticity of the project, its sustainable nature, and the people behind it.
The Winebox (which you can read about in any number of excellent articles) is an ambitious project that seeks to broaden the wine horizons of not only tourists, but of Chile itself by creating their own wine right on site. You’d be hard pressed to find a better Mecca for a modern somm. But what defines the new school from the old?
“There are so many different types of Somm’s out there in the world and I have total respect for all of them. The classic Somm that makes their way through fine dining establishments selling the greats of the world, representing the old school style of service and upholding the traditions that we have all been taught,” Kat says. “The new wave Somm that is obsessed with natural, biodynamic, organic small producer wine, brews their own potions in the morning and picks mushrooms in the afternoon (I used to be one). The Somm that will drink anything that is not considered mainstream, whatever screams weird, off, improper, wants to pair the weirdest food with the weirdest fucking wine in the world whether it works or not. And everyone else in between.”
“What I think makes a good Sommelier is someone who is dedicated to service and the people. They understand they have a palate but it doesn’t suit everyone else’s, they understand what they like and that even themselves (like the industry) goes through phases. Understanding that some people have less knowledge and are just looking for something that they will enjoy and not something that is going to change their entire damn universe.”
There are many types of sommeliers, and they all serve a purpose. But for the new era of wine drinkers looking to learn under the relatable tutelage of an approachable wine expert, you’d be hard pressed to do better than Kat Woods and her modern-leaning ilk.
“Wine, much like a carefully prepared meal, a well thought out proposal or a special anniversary is a moment to be shared. Its laughter waiting to happen, its tears waiting to be dried,” Kat explains. “I think a Sommelier that understands that everyone is different and that [the somm] at that moment is there to provide them with the experience THEY want, is the best kind of Somm.”
If you’re in Chile, make sure to stop in the beautiful town of Valparaiso. And when you’re there, don’t miss the chance to swing by Winebox and share a glass with Kat. It’s an experience you’ll definitely want to sip slow.