My father once threatened to disown me. Not because I was gay, or left-handed, or any of the many things that can get someone ostracized. No, my father who was a wine enthusiast wanted to deny paternity because of my notoriously uncultured palate when it came to fine wine. It was a running joke between us, and I think it was my declaration that the most expensive dry wine was much better with Sprite added that had him insisting that I must have been a product of the mailman.
Fortunately, there are people out there who are willing to educate those of us who need a little help. Susie Lynham is the owner of Sumptuous Tastings and one of the area’s foremost experts on all things grape related. But it’s her passion for wine and wine culture that takes her knowledge and elevates her events and trainings to another level. There’s something so engaging about someone with such enthusiasm for what they do that it can turn a beverage barbarian like me into a sophisticated sipper.
We have New Year’s Eve coming up this weekend, and most of us will be hoisting a glass of bubbly at midnight. Can you tell me something about our favorite celebratory drink?
Yes, well the first thing is you can’t call a sparkling wine champagne unless it’s actually from the Champagne Region of France. A lot of people think it was Dom Perigon who discovered the sparkling wines of Champagne, but in fact it was discovered by accident. It was not the champagne wine we know of today. Back then it was a still wine, light red or pinkish wine made predominantly from Pinot Noir and other white and red grapes. It was created by the changes in temperature and the effect on the fermentation process causing carbon dioxide gas to build up inside the bottle which created tiny bubbles. The French saw this as a fault, but the English liked the fizzy wine. As you can imagine, the pressure build-up inside the glass bottles was quite significant, and many would burst and create a chain reaction inside the cellars. It was the bottle technology of the English in the 17th century that really influenced Champagne. As the popularity of sparkling wine grew in London’s elite circles, other European royal courts, including France, began to enjoy drinking Champagne. And now as you said, it has become synonymous with celebrations.
[Suzi’s note: I condensed that from a lot of information given so if any of it is off, blame me]
That’s so cool. Okay, let’s talk about you. Tell me a little about your formative years.
I was born in upstate New York, but I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. I had two older brothers and one younger. I was the only girl. As you can imagine, they were all into sports, so I naturally gravitated to following in their footsteps. I played softball and basketball; I was on the swim team and a lot of team sports throughout my school years.
Yikes, I had one older brother and we didn’t get along as kids. He wasn’t happy getting a baby sister.
I can relate, it sometimes felt like the 3 brothers had a bond and I was on the outside looking in but I was able to find my place and crack into that little circle, if you will, through sports.
Best and worst sports moments?
The best was when my high school basketball team got into the championships. It was an exhilarating experience. The worst was probably when I was 10 or 11, I was on the swim team and slated to swim in a big regional competition. About 10 minutes before I was supposed to get on the blocks, the coach came over and told me that he was putting in someone else to swim in my slot. I was so disappointed, I’d really looked forward to it and then the rug got pulled out from underneath me.
Yeah, but it had a happy ending. At the end of the season, they were giving out awards and I received the “Sportsmanship” award. It was disappointing when it happened, but it was nice to be recognized for being a good sport about it. It was character building.
Tell me something about your parents.
My dad was in the automobile business, he sold cars for a living and my mom was a stay at home wife. She was also very creative, to help support my father’s business she created the logo and did the advertisement copy for his dealerships which ran in the Washington Post. I thought that was really cool. She also used to make up these children’s stories that she would tell us before we went to bed. My brother took the stories and started telling them to his kids, and he’s now in the process of writing a children’s book based on her stories.
What a great legacy.
Yeah, I was lucky. They were good parents and made sure we had life skills and whatever else we needed to take care of ourselves when it was time to leave the nest.
What traits do you think you got from them?
A strong work ethic from both my father and my mother, determination and dedication, and the will to not give up no matter what. Traits that carried me through as I found my place in the business world. I never got to finish college because my mother got sick, but I was able to create a successful career because of the skills and characteristics that I got from them.
What field did you land in?
I got into the telecommunications industry. I was in sales and sold high tech equipment to large carriers like Verizon. I was with the company for over 20 years, as I learned to capitalize on my skills using that stick-to-it ethic that I was taught. It’s important for you to realize what you bring to the table and to feel good about it. I figured out what I did best and then excelled at that and was rewarded with a very successful career.
And now you’ve changed gears and started a whole new career which I understand started with an ancestry search.
Yes. After I retired from corporate life, I was doing some research on the family, just for fun. As I got into it I realized that my paternal grandmother was French. She grew up in Paris and was very interesting. I wanted to know more about French culture and of course it quickly turned into lessons on French wine and its influence on culture and history there. I became so fascinated by it, I decided to take a course on French wine 101 and immediately got hooked. I got the bug to not only educate myself about it, but I wanted to share that knowledge with other people. I’ve always been a good communicator, doing presentations, etc, and I wanted to transfer those skills to this new passion. I realized that if I wanted to become a teacher, that I needed to continue to learn more and needed to get the proper credentials.
You mean you didn’t plan to just say, “Taste this!”
No, no! I got work at Chaddsford Winery and someone there suggested that if I was serious, I should go overseas. That started me down the path of pursuing a formal education through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) based out of London, where I achieved the highest level of certification, Diploma Level 4. What’s cool is that their qualifications are globally recognized, and there are only about 11,500 of us in the world that have that certification. I also became a certified Wine Educator through the Society of Wine Educators, and became a certified French Wine Scholar, through the Wine Scholar Guild. I also became an educator for the American Wine Society and I recently became certified to teach WSET anywhere in the world, which is kind of a big deal.
Altogether I received a really well-rounded education in viticulture, viniculture, and knowledge of wines from around the world. I now have the skills not only to teach, but I am qualified to put together my own programs. So I’ve started my own training curriculum specific to the hospitality industry. I’ve started to work with restaurants like Amada from the Garces group, the Union League, and Steak 48. It’s my passion to offer resources to people, especially for the younger generation coming up in the hospitality industry, about this field of study, and to offer a way for them to learn that’s affordable. There’s such a dearth of people with the expertise needed, it’s an excellent opportunity, especially for women to gain an education and advance their careers.
Speaking of affordable, I was on the website for your company, www.sumptuoustastings.com and was surprised at how affordable some of your services are for the more casual wine and cheese tastings that you do.
Yes, I wanted to establish a social media presence and find a way to share the knowledge I have to offer, so I put together a website and focused on wine and food pairings for private events, corporations, fundraisers, things like that. It helped get my name out and let people know what I was doing. As I’ve received my various certifications for teaching, I’m moving more in that direction, developing custom training programs geared towards the hospitality industry. I’m now affiliated with Philly Wine, and we’ve put together a program to help restaurants get their WSET certification. Hopefully, we can help train some of the future wine and beverage managers in the city.
Nice. What’s the most expensive wine you’ve ever opened or tasted?
It was a bottle of Bordeaux, a Château Lafite Rothschild, 1976. I opened it up with a couple of friends. The bad news was that it hadn’t been stored properly, so it wasn’t drinkable! I was really excited too because it was highly rated. It was a real let down.
So when you do your wine tastings does everyone have to spit in a bucket like in the movies?
[Laughing] No, I encourage everyone to taste and enjoy!
When did you come out? Were you an early flower or a late bloomer?
A little late; I was in my mid 20’s. I grew up in a kind of conservative family. I knew I was different but never put it together. Then one day I was at work and there was a copy of the Washingtonian magazine and inside was an article inside about coming out. I read the entire article and it felt like the author was talking directly to me. It had a significant impact on me. It mentioned that there were places in DC for lesbians to get together, and so I decided to go and explore. That’s when I began to get to know the gay community and meet other lesbians. I’d go to Kramer Books, which was one of the places where you could go and feel safe and be yourself. I think it’s still there. And I met my first girlfriend at The Other Side, a lesbian bar that is no longer there. It’s hard to imagine that an article that was in a magazine just sitting on a table changed my life.
And with the family?
I didn’t come out for a little bit. It wasn’t until I brought my girlfriend over for dinner with my parents and brothers all there. I introduced her as my “friend.” Everyone was welcoming and no one said anything, but a few days later my mother stopped me and basically said, “You know we love you and don’t care if you’re gay. You can talk to us about it if you want.” I was surprised because I was always concerned that they would have a negative reaction so there was such a sense of relief and joy to hear her say that.
And now I understand you’re a married woman!
Yes, my partner Meg and I got married in 2013, just after it became legal. We’ve been together for close to 25 years.
What does Meg do?
She’s been in health care all of her life. She started as a nurse and went back to get her business degree and now is the Senior Vice President for a company called AMSURG.
Did you have a big or small wedding?
We had a small wedding, very intimate and very quaint with just a few friends. We had dinner in a private room at Smith & Wollensky’s which we decorated and it was really lovely. We had music, everyone loved the food and it was a really memorable experience.
Three public figures/celebs you’d love to invite to a tasting?
I love the actress Amy Adams, perhaps Barbara Walters, I love her and either Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey. Or both…
Last thing I lost…
We lost our sweet little Shitsu in 2019, she was a great dog. She was with us for 17 or 18 years, a good old gal.
Okay, I have to clarify something that made me laugh. On your website it says in part, “Sumptuous Tastings will take you on a virtual journey around the world. You’ll learn about the small artisan cheese makers, and the wines that express a sense of terrior and history. I first thought it said, “terror” or was a typo until I looked it up, can you explain ‘terrior’?
Yes, it’s a French word and it means a sense of place. It’s used to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environmental contexts, farming practices, and a crop’s specific growth habitat. The French are very proud about where their wines come from and the vineyards that the grapes grow in. Terrior invokes that sense of place.
I get it, I once had the sommelier at XIX describe a wine to me and he was very effusive about the land and the farm where it came from. [In a French accent] “It came from a farm where zee soil is covered in chalk so it glows when the moon is full and zey only ‘arvest thee grapes at night!” Do you have a favorite wine story?
Yes! For my 60th birthday, I picked out the exact wine that I wanted for the occasion; it was a Chambertin-Clos de Bèze. There’s a great vineyard in the village of Gevrey-Chambertin which is special because it has this beautiful clay and limestone soil which creates an elegant wine. The vineyard was established back in the 1600’s by the monks that lived there. They felt that the vineyard was so special that they built a wall around it to distinguish it from other vineyards in the area. The wine was a red burgundy, a Pinot Noir, and I wanted to share it with my close group of friends and my wife because to me the wine represents something unique and special. It represented the experience that we shared, me and my friends, all sipping wine from a vineyard that’s been around since the 7th century. I cherish my friends like the French cherished the vineyard when they realized that there was something special about it, and it was great to share it with them on my special day.