Sommelier Tommy Thompson’s Wine pairing 101

Henry Yuen (Vancouver Sun Chinese blog posting:                     )


A chat with Tommy Thompson, the Sommelier at Tulalip Resort Casino’s Sommelier was both an educational encounter and an absolute enjoyment. A 3-time winner of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence (2007 to 2009), Tommy oversees all the wine programs for the Resort where he constantly displays his expertise in wine, driven by passion and love; and the respect to the folks behind each bottle.

Known for its 3 great restaurants and the well-presented Eagles Buffet, Tulalip Resort Casino has been drawing British Columbians, many of whom stay simply for a relaxing weekend while enjoying high calibre dishes and top-notched services.  I had the fortunate opportunity to enjoy a Pacific coast dinner at Tulalip Bay Restaurant’s beautiful dining room, an evening indulgence of fine wine and award-winning dishes created by Executive chef, Dean Shinagawa, another veteran Chef known for his innovative ability to blend Asian flavours with Western cuisine.

Grasping the opportunity to learn from the highly acclaimed wine expert Tommy, I cornered him to sit down at my table where he graciously shared his knowledge and experience. “Malbec is in, that’s the current wine trend which will stay for a while yet. More and more vineyards in Washington are planting Riesling, indicating the upward popularity of the palate towards more fruity wines with good acidity and sweetness.“ And that was only the beginning of our conversation.  Not only did he give me the geographic wine map of the WashingtonState, he also stressed how good the selections were from Washington and Oregon. “Local wines are popular.  They are essential big draws!” He also intrigued me with his formula for success and his philosophy on being a top notch Sommelier. The Dunham Cellars 2009 Late Harvest Riesling from Walla Walla, ColumbiaValley he served us as a dessert wine was exquisite.  The lingering tropical fruit aroma and honey flavour paired perfectly with the apricot tart. No wonder it was awarded a high 96 points from Wine Spectators.


On tips to matching a flight of wine to go with food, or simply to enlighten the evening, Thompson’s first step is to find out which. “Their expectations will be different if they want me to pair each course with a wine, or to open a bottle or two wines just to enhance the mood, the rhythm and romance of the evening! And I don’t assume, I ask.” For those who are serious about wine pairing, “Find out the style of wine the customer prefers. What dishes are ordered and what budget the customer has in mind. It’s my job to lead the customer’s palate to a delightful food and wine journey!” He walks through the region, the character and flavour of each and every glass of wine with the customers whom at the end of the night, often shake his hand with a satisfied grin.

“Winemaker’s dinner is a showcase of wines from a certain winery, the key to a perfectly paired dinner starts with working closely with the chef.”  Tommy welcomes these challenges. “Since wines cannot be changed, the dinner menu will have to be manipulated to bring out the best characteristics of the featured wines.”  An honest discussion with the chef is a must in order for the chef to collaborate the application of seasonings and ingredients deemed most appropriate.  Another aspect of wine pairing   he finds important is the one-to-one approach. “It is hard to keep the focus when pairing more than one wine with each course.” He explains, “Both your palate and your mindset would be overwhelmed!  Remember there’ll be more than one course to deal with over the evening!”  

As to what he looks for in a wine list, he thinks a good wine list should adequately represent local products regardless of the cuisine. “The wine list should be well balanced to provide the depth and allows decent choices of selection. Of course, a few trophy wines would never hurt to ensure the wine offering is profound and impressive. “That’s what many diners look for, especially for special occasions!”

With respect to diners, more and more prefers the concept of letting the restaurant pair their dinner instead of ordering from the menu or the wine list. They like the surprise and the WOW effect. To that end, it is a welcoming trend for Tommy since he would like to make it fun the customers. He likes to mess with their minds so to speak to create the mystery of what the customer is drinking. In the end, it is the experience the customer is looking for and is fun and exciting for him to deliver.