Suman Kumar is the first Female Indian-American winemaker in Washington State. She is also a new mother, an ever-evolving human, a constant student, and Pu-erh tea enthusiast. Read this interview with Tanya Morning Star Darling below, which was originally published on the Alliance of Women in Washington Wine’s blog, about how Suman’s childhood, education, hobbies, passion, and ever-growing experience has guided and evolved her wine journey.
Tanya Morning Star Darling: Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up, and was wine part of your family culture?
Suman Kumar: I grew up in farming communities of California’s Central Valley to immigrant parents from the Fiji Islands. My parents and grandparents were sugar cane farmers in the Fiji Islands and once settled in California, they got right back into what they knew from back home. I was raised in a single household by my mother and took care of my two younger siblings from an early age while my mom worked and attended school. Growing up, wine was most definitely not a part of my family’s culture, as consuming alcohol itself was frowned upon. What I did grow up with was being exposed to complex aromas, tastes, and textures of Indian cuisine which have guided me to a deep understanding of wine sensory analysis.
TM: What brought you to wine, and is there a particular experience or event which got you really hooked in your heart?
SK: I was a student at U.C Davis studying Neurobiology when I randomly decided to take an Enology 101 course. Until that point, I never knew of such a course of education, let alone a possible career in the field. The quarter ended and I moved on, but it definitely left an imprint on me. Fast forward some years later, I was working in healthcare and still independently learning about wine. I read every wine book I could get my hands on, studied maps, soils, climates, terroir, wine making practices from wine regions all around the world, and forming a pretty serious tasting group.
As my knowledge and passion grew, I considered making a career shift. It was when a long-time patient and I began talking of hobbies one day at his appointment that I learned about the Northwest Wine Academy, specifically the program director, Reggie Daigneault, and how I should check it out. I took my first class “Wines of the World” in the evenings after work – I was hooked.
TM: Tell me about your influential educational experiences, both in the classroom and in the field.
SK: I had several instructors at the Northwest Wine Academy that left a lasting impression, whose teachings and philosophies echo still in my professional life. Reggie Daigneault who instilled the importance of wine sensory analysis, the importance of creating lasting relationships with those within the industry, staying curious, and always to keep learning. Linn Scott laid the foundations for fermentation biology and viticultural practices.
TM: You have interned abroad and worked as the first Female Indian American winemaker in Washington State. Tell us about your career experiences, and any key figures who have influenced you most, or given you a leg up.
SK: It’s a great feeling to be the first at something, but equally important to not be the last. My career path, like many in this industry has been a winding road. I worked my first harvest at Robert Ramsey, under Casey Cobble, and later as Assistant Winemaker at Damsel Cellars with Mari Womack. What changed my life and career trajectory was an internship that I secured after a chance meeting while in Saumur, France. I got the opportunity to work under a fifth- generation winemaker, Julien Denis at Domaine du Petit Clocher in the Loire valley in western France. I was the only intern – an Indian-American intern, a woman – in the history of the winery. In a town of about 400 people, many of the residents there had never even met an Indian person. But there I was, an Indian girl in the middle of what seemed like nowhere and who did not speak any French at the time, fueled only by my passion for winemaking and learning everything I could about winemaking from a region that I loved.
Under the direction of Julien, I gained expert knowledge about fermentation management, cellar management, managing and directing crew on a crush pad, sales, vineyard management, discussing and tasting wines with enologists and consultants in cold cellars for hours. Julien was gracious enough to teach me methods not otherwise practiced in Washington state, such as thermovinification.
While I was incredibly home-sick those several months, the experience was immensely rewarding, and the people and wines of the Loire changed me and allowed me to focus on how I wanted to expand myself upon returning home.
TD: You are a new mom, and are currently staying home with your baby for a bit, tell us about the role wine plays in your home life when you are not working (my study and tasting experiences while I was home with my first son where actually very impactful, since there was not pressure to produce or prove myself actually, I am curious what your experience is.
SK: While becoming a winemaker was the goal after my career shift from healthcare, it was always the ultimate life goal to become a mom. The path to becoming a mother was not an easy one for me either, so when I found out I was pregnant during my first harvest as an assistant winemaker, I happily put aside one dream for another.
The early days of being a mama are tough. I’d only sleep for thirty minutes increments during the night and spend the remaining time wondering if I was doing everything I needed to make sure my son was thriving. Occasionally I’d wonder if I would ever get back to my life as it were before, my own Instagram account looked like a dream to me and I barely recognized myself in all of those photographs. I had to remind myself that even though my current life could not be any further apart from my previous role, there is a new me emerging and I’ll find my way again. My every waking moment is dedicated to my son and the work of wine has been replaced with the work of being a mom. What ended up emerging was my new found hobby of sensory analysis of tea and tea tasting, and most currently Pu-erh tea – there are so many parallels to wine making.
TD: Being at home with your child changes you. Becoming a mother changes how you see the world, so I understand that this may change, but when you do get back to work, what do you dream to do?
SK: Thank you for this question. My son was born coincidentally on Mother’s Day 2020. Becoming a mother not only changes the way you see the world but how you see yourself and how you are seen by your child. I am his universe. Nothing feels harder than being a mother but nothing is easier than loving my son. When I do return to the other work, I dream of being in a position that is challenging, dynamic, and where I can build upon my skillset. I would like to use my breadth of knowledge from my previous experiences to work with importers, sourcing wines from around the world that would otherwise not be accessible to the average consumer
TD: I think you have been brave in pursuing your passion for wine, and it has led you to many intimate experiences with the wines, and people from the regions you love the most. Any words of advice for young women, with a dream to pursue their passion for wine?
SK: I took a trip to a winery in Paso Robles, CA. in early fall of 2019 to discuss their white wine program. I met an Indian girl who worked within guest services and she told me that she had never seen an Indian woman winemaker come to meet with their own winemakers. As I talked with her, she said she hoped to continue building on her own career in wine and that seeing me made her feel like it was possible. It is important to note that who we see thriving in our worlds, teaches us how to see ourselves, how to dream about our own futures. When there is inclusion, there is possibility.
Early in my wine journey, I realized that I needed to become well rounded in all aspects to know the intricacies of our local wine industry. I would advise young women who dream to pursue their own career in wine to learn about all aspects of the business. Although wine is a passion, understand that it is also a business and to learn this language. Also, know when to say no. This industry relies heavily on volunteer work. While working a harvest or two will give you invaluable experience, know your worth and be paid for it.