Austin’s 8 best sommeliers keep the wine scene flowing

This story was originally written for and published by CultureMap

It’s a pretty fine time to be a sommelier, and Austin’s wine pros are ready for the spotlight. Ahead of the annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, we introduce you to the nominees for Sommelier of the Year.

These eight professionals have what it takes to satisfy Austin’s thirst for fine wine and food pairings.

Devon Broglie, global beverage buyer, Whole Foods Market
Devon Broglie became one of Austin’s first master sommeliers in 2011 when he earned the title alongside wine study partner Craig Collins. Broglie has been recognized as an outstanding wine professional, winning the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition in 2006. He worked harvest for the Costers del Siurana winery in Priorat, Spain before beginning his career in the wine shop of Whole Foods Market in Austin and working his way up.

As a global beverage buyer, Broglie coordinates the wine, beer, and spirits programming in 300 stores — no small task. Broglie says it’s easy to find a great bottle of wine at Whole Foods. “People can trust that if it’s on the shelf on the store, it’s great value for the money.”

Devon Broglie
Devon Broglie

 

Craig Collins, beverage director, Elm Restaurant Group
An active member of the local sommelier community, Master Sommelier Craig Collins has been immersed in the wine industry since working at a winery while attending Texas A&M University. He worked at Glazer’s D&E Fine Wine Group, Prestige Wine Cellars, and Dalla Terra Winery Direct before assuming the role of beverage director for Elm, where he oversees the programs at 24 Diner, Easy Tiger, Italic, and soon-to-open Irene’s.

He develops each concept’s wine list, focusing on the guests and, of course, wines that will pair best with the menu. When dining out, Collins recommends asking a sommelier for assistance when selecting a bottle of wine. “They are there to make you happy. Let them take you on an adventure.”

Craig and April Collins
Craig and April Collins

 

Nathan Fausti, sales representative, Dionysus Imports and Rosenthal Wine Merchant
Certified Sommelier Nathan Fausti is a rising star in the Austin wine community. He won the title of 2015 Texas’ Best Sommelier, tested his skills in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Young Sommelier Competition, and is preparing to take the Advanced Sommelier exam. Fausti has dazzled guests with food and wine pairings at some of the best restaurants in Austin, including Perla’s, Arro, Olive & June, and Bullfight, and now he uses his skills as a sales representative with Dionysus Imports and Rosenthal Wine Merchant.

Nathan Fausti
Nathan Fausti

 

Paul Ozbirn, beverage director, Parkside Projects
Advanced Sommelier Paul Ozbirn has had a mark on Austin’s wine scene since 2006 when he began waiting tables at Vin Bistro, sparking his passion for wine. He held various positions at Vin, Botticelli’s, Wink, and Paggi House before joining Parkside Projects as beverage director. Here, he guides the selection of all drinks served, from a Spanish wine list at Bullfight to predominately Italian wine lists at Olive & June and The Backspace.

In developing wine menus, Ozbirn strikes a balance by complementing wines guests will recognize with more adventurous selections from places like Greece, Austria, and Portugal. His advice for selecting a great bottle of wine is simply to inquire. “You can’t get what you want if you don’t ask.”

Paul Ozbirn
Paul Ozbirn

 

Nathan Prater, director of outlets, AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center
Advanced Sommelier Nathan Prater is a serious student of wine and an integral part of the strong, professional sommelier community that trains together in Austin. Currently, Prater oversees the beverage program at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, including the hotel, The Carillon, and Gabriel’s Cafe. His goal is to maintain a list featuring the best value wines available, noting that the entire room service wine list is $30 or less per bottle.

His advice for selecting a great bottle of wine? “Shed your diffidence and try the never tried. Forget the scores, and do not be afraid to ask questions.”

Nathan Prater Tastemaker Nominee
Nathan Prater, Photo by Jessica Pages

Paula Rester, wine director, La Corsha Hospitality Group
Certified Sommelier Paula Rester has honed her wine skills at prestigious Austin restaurants like Uchi, Vino Vino, and Restaurant Congress. She recently returned to Austin to assume the wine director role at La Corsha Hospitality Group after working as a sommelier at Danny Meyer’s Maialino in New York. At La Corsha, she is responsible for staff education and maintaining wine programs at Second Bar + Kitchen, long-awaited Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, and the soon-to-be renovated Green Pastures. She relishes the opportunity to create wine lists that represent a broad range of classics mixed with emerging regions and producers.

To find a great bottle of wine, just do what Rester does. “I always think about what I want to spend and then take into consideration the dishes being served. From there it becomes the fun journey of what elements of the wine might enhance or detract from the evening’s menu. I’m never afraid to ask for help from the somm or server, who might be willing to introduce me to something entirely new.”

Paula Rester
Paula Rester

 

June Rodil, wine and beverage director, McGuire Moorman Hospitality
One of only three master sommeliers in Austin — and seven in Texas — Rodil has a long list of honors, including being named one of Food & Wine’s Sommeliers of the Year in 2014. She wields significant influence in the Austin wine community as the wine and beverage director at McGuire Moorman Hospitality. You won’t find a boring corporate list on Rodil’s watch, but fun lists loaded with South American and Italian wines at Lambert’s, affordable French selections at Elizabeth Street Cafe, and rare allocations at Jeffrey’s.

To find the best bottle of wine, Rodil recommends you let a sommelier help you discover “the lexicon to figure out how to describe what you like accurately enough to get the bottle of wine that’s best for your palate. Ninety percent of my job with guests is translating what they are asking for into a bottle of wine.”

June Rodil
June Rodil

 

Mark Devin Sayre, service director, Elm Restaurant Group
Advanced Sommelier Mark Sayre won the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Best Sommelier while leading the wine program at Trio at the Four Seasons. Now as the service director for Elm, Sayre’s wine philosophy puts a twist on the city’s motto: “Keep Austin Fresh.” His approach to developing wine lists for each of the restaurant’s is focus. Whether it’s 24 Diner, Italic, or Easy Tiger, Sayre builds the wine list to match the theme of the restaurant.

When selecting a bottle of wine at an Elm restaurant, Sayre says guests can trust that each selection is great. “Close your eyes and point. We have well-trained beverage professionals who can find something you will love.”

Mark Sayre
Mark Sayre

Buy tickets now to the Tastemaker Awards on May 17 at Bullock Texas State History Museum. Learn more about the event here.

Austin’s premier wine challenge Somms Under Fire attracts national competition

June Rodil, Diane Dixon, Devon BroglieAustin’s Diane Dixon of Keeper Collection — the wine impresario who dreamt up the concept of Somms Under Fire, a national wine and food pairing competition held in our city — gathered a few members from her event team to tell CultureMap about this year’s festivities. Really damn good wines and even better conversations were flowing between serious wine collectors, the Dixons, and two master sommeliers from Austin, June Rodil and Devon Broglie. As we sampled a California cab, food pairings began flying around:

“This thing needs raw elk.”

“This is a cab for a slab: A big salty, peppery slab of meat.”

Calling out the best possible wine pairings with excellent cuisine is the name of the game at the Somms Under Fire competition, held at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on Sunday, January 24. The general public is invited for a night where expert judges test the mettle of three wine professionals in both a cocktail competition and an in-the-moment food and wine pairing challenge before naming one person the 2016 Somms Under Fire champion.

The event rundown

VIP Wine Tasting, 4:30 pm
It starts with a VIP wine tasting and education session presented by Napa Valley Vintners with renowned winemakers Rosemary Cakebread of Gallica, Michael Eddy of Louis Martini Winery, Sara Fowler of Peju, and Chris Hall of Long Meadow Ranch Winery. The winemakers will present eight wines, offering VIP guests an opportunity to taste similarities and differences of the regions.

Chopin Vodka Cocktail Challenge, 6 pm
Judged by Jason Stephens, director of bars and beverage for La Corsha Hospitality Group, and Master Sommelier Craig Collins, beverage director of ELM Restaurant Group, the three competing sommeliers are given one week to create a cocktail recipe made with Chopin Vodka that is inspired by a song from their favorite band. The winner will get a competitive advantage in the food and wine pairing competition.

Food and Wine Pairing Competition, 7 pm
Sommeliers are challenged to match wine from all over the world with dishes prepared by Chef Drew Curren of ELM Restaurant Group. Curren will take inspiration from his restaurants Arro, Italic, and Easy Tiger to create cuisine for the competitors, and the sommeliers will then select an appropriate wine to pair with the dishes live in front of a panel of expert judges and audience.

“Somms Under Fire is a great way for people to explore wines and better understand their palate,” says Dixon. “It is a fun way to learn new wine and food pairings and to try them at home. It’s also a way for people to understand the role of a sommelier so they are comfortable working with one at a restaurant.”

Rodil, the event’s first winner in 2011, will serve as emcee. As a master somm and the wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality, she sees Somms Under fire as a fun and delicious way to learn about wine. “People get to taste a huge range of wines paired with excellent food that you wouldn’t get to taste in a normal night.”

Serious national competition

This year marks the first time in five years that there will not be a sommelier from Texas participating for the Somms Under Fire crown. Rania Zayyat, previously the sommelier at laV, is the only Texan in contention as an alternate. Sommeliers from Texas have won each of the last four competitions, despite having contestants from other states the past two years. That says a lot about the draw of this competition, because Texas has plenty of talented sommeliers.

There was roughly a 25-percent increase in sommeliers taking the exam to earn a coveted spot in the Somms Under Fire competition with a great turnout from Houston somms. Even so, this was the first year there were more out-of-state people applying to participate, with only 40 percent of applicants hailing from Texas.

Dixon, a huge supporter of the Texas sommelier community, is excited by this development. “It has always been our goal to attract national competition. We set out to create a competition that sommeliers aspire to have on their resume as they pursue the title of master sommelier.”

Who made the cut?

The three finalists competing for the title of Somms Under Fire 2016 champion are:

Advanced Sommelier, Luke Boland
Recently appointed wine director at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s first new restaurant in New York in the last decade, La Sirena, Boland got his start three years ago while working at Del Posto. He will also be sitting for his Master Sommelier Diploma Examination-Theory in March.

Luke Boland Somms Under Fire

 

Advanced Sommelier, Blake Leja
Leja is a district manager at Southern Wine & Spirits in Chicago, and currently studying for his masters diploma with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Blake Leja Somms Under Fire (2)

Certified Sommelier, Ryan Robinson
Robinson is the manager and sommelier at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Boise, Idaho, and is determined to give Idaho some street cred with a solid showing in this competition.

Ryan Robinson Somms Under Fire

 Sitting in judgment

The judging panel includes wine industry luminaries from the U.S. and France. Making the competitors sweat with their critical eye will be Master Sommelier Collins of ELM, Peju winemaker Fowler, Burgundy winemaker Nicolas Rossignol of Domaine Nicolas Rossignol, and Peter Wasserman of Becky Wasserman & Co.

A founding volunteer of the competition and emcee for the first four years, Broglie has seen what it takes to win. He offers this advice: “The winner will be able to recreate the customer hospitality experience on stage, without getting too geeky about the wine. The folks who have won in the past were able to quickly come up with their pairings, were confident in their choices, and excited by them.”

As a previous winner, Rodil also offers insight on how to score the prize. “First, know how to make a cocktail. Really understand creation rather than assessment of a cocktail. Second, be able to concisely talk about wine. Having excitement and speaking with fluidity about the wine gets you everywhere.”

What’s at stake?

Guests will vote for a “fan favorite,” sponsored by Napa Valley Vintners. That prize is a four-day educational trip to Napa Valley, including airfare, accommodations, and meals. One of the volunteer sommeliers working the event will also randomly be selected to win the same trip.

The grand prize is a one-week internship in Burgundy, France sponsored by Becky Wasserman & Co that includes airfare, accommodations, all meals, and the opportunity to hear from winemakers in the cellars and vineyards of this storied region. In addition, the winner will receive a $2,000 travel grant provided by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

“You can’t pay for an experience like this [prize package],” explains Rodil. “You just can’t go and do it on your own. There is no way to see that level of wine producer in what is heralded in the best wine region in the world is undoable. It’s an amazing prize.”

Previous winners are:

  • 2012: June Rodil, Advanced Sommelier (now a Master Sommelier)
  • 2013: Scott Ota, Certified Sommelier (now Advanced Sommelier) at Arro Restaurant, Austin
  • 2014: Nathan Prater, Advanced Sommelier at the AT&T Education and Conference Center and the Carillon Restaurant, Austin
  • 2015: James Watkins, Advanced Sommelier with Pappas Brothers, Houston

Tickets are still available to the public: VIP tickets are $130 and general admission is $65.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

Paula Rester returns to Austin as wine director for La Corsha Hospitality Group

Paula Rester, sommelier at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group’s Italian concept Maialino and former Congress Austin sommelier, is moving back to Austin and will rejoin the La Corsha Hospitality Group team in a new position to begin on December 1, 2015.

Paula Rester, Wine Director position with La Corsha Hospitality Group
Paula Rester, Wine Director position with La Corsha Hospitality Group

 

“I’m thrilled to be home in Austin and to be moving into this expanded role with my La Corsha family,” says Rester. “This last year in New York has been a whirl-wind of a ride, a crash course in all things food and wine with one of the best groups of people in the business today. As sommeliers, we always can’t wait to share what we’ve learned with our guests, and I’m no exception! It’s an honor to be trusted with the responsibility of curating the wine lists for some of the best restaurants in the city.”

Before decamping for the big city where she served as Maialino’s sommelier since September 2014, Rester did a couple stints at Congress, the jewel in the La Corsha crown. She helped open Congress in 2010 and held court as the captain and commis sommelier at Congress until January 2012 when she left to become the general manager at Vino Vino in Hyde Park. While ruling the wine roost, Vino Vino was named one of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Incidentally, Congress and the Lake Austin Spa Resort were the only other two places in Austin to also score that award. In October 2012 Rester returned to Congress and has put her stamp on the wine program as the wine director.

“It’s wonderful to have Paula back and I know she’ll be fantastic in her new role,” says Scott Walker, vice president of operations at La Corsha Hospitality Group. “We are growing very quickly as a company and to have Paula return to create, educate and maintain the various wine programs is a great benefit to the company, our employees and our guests.”

Rester has plenty of excellent fine dining experience and book learning to give her loads of somm street cred. She is a Level II Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Rester knows that every visit a guest makes to Congress Austin is potentially for a very important meal and one worthy of her full attention. She brings her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to work with her every evening. That combination makes for an incredibly interesting dining experience.

Photo taken of Rester in 1994 by Kevin Vobrik Adams for the Austin American Statesman
Photo taken of Rester in 1994 by Kevin Vobrik Adams for the Austin American Statesman

 

In her new role, Rester will oversee wine programs at Restaurant Congress, Bar Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen Downtown, Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, the new Second Bar + Kitchen Domain, and the soon-to-be renovated Green Pastures.

What are you drinking? 

The Intoxicating Experiences of the 2015 TexSom  

Drinking it in at TexSom
Drinking it in at TexSom

The Texas Sommelier Conference, aka TexSom, just wrapped its 11th annual session at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas. It truly is one of the biggest and best wine education conferences in the world. It’s geared for wine professions and serious aficionados who get deliriously blissful to talk about the most intricate and geeky aspects of wine production, geography, wine sales and the minutiae of the sight, smell and taste of hundreds of wines from iconic producers.

TexSom founders James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks
TexSom founders James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks

The education at TexSom is top notch, but there is so much more. TexSom is saturated with intoxicating experiences. Even the sounds get me. You know how that ding-ding-ding sound of the electronic slot machine gets ingrained in your subconscious after a few days in Vegas. It gets played back into your dreams even after leaving that hell hole. The same thing is true at TexSom. The lilting ding-ding-ding of wine glasses kissing each other’s rounded hips time-after-time though-out each session, all day long, become a xylophone soundscape scoring the important moments of the conference. That sound is my nightly lullaby easing me into wine-soaked dreams.

The melodic chime of glasses
The melodic chime of glasses

What makes it truly intoxicating is the alchemy of so many important elements. Beyond the learning, the wine is insane, the events are a blast, the staff and volunteers are incredible and the camaraderie among attendees is sheer magic.

Education is what TexSom is all about. The presenters are a who’s-who list of the biggest names in the industry with Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine and all sorts of other fancy wine titles. They drop knowledge. It’s impossible for even the best educated wine pro to come away without learning something.

A few highlights for me:

  • Josh Raynolds taught us the lineage of the Pinot Noir direct line progenies spreading from Austria, Hungary and Switzerland including reds like Gamay and Pinot Meunier and also whites like Gouais, Alligote, Pinot Gris, Melon de Bourgone and even Chardonnay. Many of these grapes are dying at the cruel hands of commerce. To underscore the point, Raynolds broke out bottles of 2008 Chambers Rosewood Vineyards Gouais from Rutherglen, Australia. It was absolutely the rarest wine imported into TexSom this year.
  • Cocktail phenom, Bobby Heugel, explored the buzz for obscure liqueurs by juxtaposing pairs of cocktail darlings like Greeen Chartreuse vs. Dolin Genepy and Grand Marnier vs. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. One of the more interesting comparisons was between a bottle of Campari made in 2015 vs. Campari made in 2006. The difference is that in 2006 Campari stopped coloring its liqueur with beetles using carmine as a dye sourced from the cochineal beetle because it is a lethal allergen. That’s right, Campari used to be Beetlejuice.
  • Laura de Pasquala and Charles Butler described how some of the world’s most treasured wines are made with the most human intervention. Wines like Champagne, Sherry, Port, Tokiaj and Madiera all require heavy winemaker manipulation to create their wonderfully unique styles. No natural wine bullshit here. Even biodynamics is a highly interventionist method. One of my favorites of the session was the Nino Negri Chiavennasca “Sfursat 5 Stelle” Sforzato di Valtellina, from Lombardy, Italy. It’s made with 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes that are dried on the vine for 100 days in cool alpine air before they are pressed. The result is a complex Barolo like wine with high tannin, dried fruit flavors and elevated alcohol that will age forever.

Yes we get to taste some of the most amazing wines on the planet; wines that I wouldn’t normally be able to afford; wines I wouldn’t normally be able to find; wines which until now I had only dreamt of. The standout retrospective of a dozen Grand Cru Trimbach Alsatian Rieslings going back to 1975 had the crowd cooing in rapturous enchantment. Oh the Burgundy. Oh the Bordeaux, Oh the Champagne. Oh the Sauternes. Oh old vintage and rare bottles. There are too many to mention.

Jean Trimbach with retrospective
Jean Trimbach with retrospective

 

My absolute favorite part of TexSom is connecting with so many incredible people. There is a Jungian river of shared wine-geek energy flowing at flood-stage levels at every moment. Chatting it up with the people who write wine curriculums, hanging with people are on every Top Somm list, and hearing what’s going on straight from winemakers from around the world is a rush.

How can you beat learning about the vintage variance of Pontotoc Vineyards wines with winemaker, Don Pullam? Or sharing a lively discourse on the state of the Texas wine industry from legendary winemaker Kim McPherson? What could be better than having late night laughs with some of the hottest young winemakers in Texas like Ron Yates of Spicewood Vineyards, Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines and Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards? Or having an impromptu tasting of the Fall Creek Vineyards new releases with the matriarch of Texas wines, Susan Auler, and a fun group of wine writers and sommeliers?

If you haven’t been to TexSom, put it on your list for next year. Check out the sessions, the tasting breaks, the wine lunches, the endless flow of swoon-worthy wines in the Hospitality suites, the crowing of the TexSom Best Sommelier and the Grand Tasting sponsored by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. The event is run like clockwork by diligent staff and volunteers who put in countless hours. You will not be disappointed.

Disclosure: I was provided a complimentary media pass to attend 2015 TexSom.

What are you drinking? 

Austin wine pro Nathan Fausti named the 2015 TexSom best sommelier

TexSom Best Sommelier Nathan Fausti
TexSom Best Sommelier Nathan Fausti

 

Austin has a reputation for its excellent food and wine scene. That status is continually bolstered with prestigious awards. To add to the growing list of accolades, Nathan Fausti, sommelier at Olive & June, was crowned the 2015 TexSom Best Sommelier at the 11th annual Texas Sommeliers Conference (TexSom) held at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas.

Fausti is the seventh sommelier from Austin to win the coveted award in the past 11 years. He placed third in last year’s competition. Fausti excelled among 23 other competitors (including two others from Austin) in a demanding three-part wine test involving proper fine dining service, a written exam and a blind tasting. In his acceptance speech, he credited his study group with Scott Ota and Nathan Prater for his successful preparation.

This was the first year that competition included candidates from outside Texas with entrants from Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico  who have not yet attained the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Advanced Sommelier certification.

Fausti will soon take the helm as sommelier at Bullfight, a new Parkside Projects restaurant slated to open later this month. He received a scholarship of $2,500 from the Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation to be used for a Court of Master Sommeliers certification program.

Fausti with Trophy
Fausti with Trophy

“This year, we opened the competition to sommeliers from adjoining states. Increasingly, the influence of TEXSOM reaches well beyond the borders of Texas, so we felt it was time to include a potentially larger group to participate,” said TEXSOM Co-founder James Tidwell. “We offer hearty congratulations to Nathan for winning the competition this year, and look forward to next year’s competition.”

David Donalson of Goody Goody Liquor in Dallas, Texas was the runner up and will receive a $1,500 scholarship. The third place winner was Luis La Torre of Spec’s Fine Wines in Dallas.

Fausti joins six Austin sommeliers — Joelle Cousins, Devon Broglie, Mark Sayre, June Rodil, Bill Elsey and Scott Ota — who have previously won the coveted prize.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: I was provided a complimentary media pass to attend 2015 TexSom.

What are you drinking? 

Behind the scenes look at June Rodil’s Master Sommelier quest

June Rodil TastemakerEarning the Master Sommelier Diploma in the Court of Master Sommeliers is an unbelievably difficult task. The exam has three sections: a verbal wine knowledge test, a blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes, and test of the candidate’s ability to provide and beverage service in a fine setting. Since its inception in 1977 in England, only 227 people have reached the rarified air of the Master Somm. Only 147 people in the U.S. have passed the test since 1987.

Until the summer of 2011 there were zero Master Somms in Austin, but then Devon Broglie and Craig Collins became the first two in town. Now, June Rodil, beverage director for Maguire Moorman Hospitality Group, becomes the third in Austin, the seventh in Texas and one of 23 women in the world to hold the distinction. She has completed the four stages of testing that include Introductory Sommelier Course; Certified Sommelier Exam; Advanced Sommelier Course; and Master Sommelier Diploma (read about the process in So You Want to be a Sommelier).

I first met June four years ago right after she passed the Advanced exam. It was clear that her bubbly personality, keen intelligence and unrestrained drive to succeed would propel her to the Master level. Armed with her signature sharp wit and that mischievous gleam in her eye, June shared a behind the scenes look at her quest to become a Master Sommelier.

What Are You Drinking?: How long did you study for the exam?

June Rodil: I got my Intro pin in 2007 when I started with Uchi Restaurant Group.

 

WAYD?: How certain were you that you had passed?

JR: HA! That’s a good one.

 

WAYD?: Who was the first person you called after you earned the Master Sommelier title?

JR: I handed my phone to Aaron (my boyfriend/S.O.) to pick up and respond when necessary. I was in a room full of my peers and some of my best friends. My mentors were present as well. It was very special to have so many people there in person. Then, I called my parents and my grandparents (cause, duh). And then work.

 

WAYD?: Who was the most helpful in you preparation for the exam?

JR: You have to find a good study partner. I skyped endless hours with David Keck and Jill Zimorski. The day before the exam, I locked myself in a hotel room with Josh Orr and Jordan Salcito to review “the world of beverages” for about 12 hours. All these people are rad so it’s not so bad to spend so much time with them. It’s also beneficial to have a super supportive S.O. who doesn’t mind it if you’re studying every moment away from your normal 12 hour work day. Find your people. They will help you get there. Don’t spend your time being in too many study groups or having a very large one. Things get complicado.

 

WAYD?: What did you drink after the ceremony?

JR: Oh, but the question is what did we drink BEFORE we went to get our results….

 

WAYD?: Who was the first person who made a masturbator joke?

JR: You know there’s a Master Bates, right? Christopher Bates, MS. No joke. Just real life.

 

WAYD?: If you were single/unattached, would you use your new title to get laid?

JR: Nope.

 

WAYD?: What is the one thing you would never drink? (wine, spirit, cocktail, beer)

JR: Pickle Juice.

 

WAYD?: Would you refuse service to anyone who ordered it? (yes or no)

JR: Yes. Because if it accidentally touched my skin, I would start dry-heaving.

 

What are you drinking?

National wine pros will compete in 2015 Somms Under Fire food and wine event

Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie
Event organizer, Diane Dixon, and emcee, Devon Broglie

 

Figuring out the right wine to go with your dinner can be daunting for just about anyone. Just try doing it in front of a live audience and a panel of wine experts judging you. That is exactly what three wine professionals will do when they compete in the 2015 Somms Under Fire, a wine and food pairing event being held on Sunday, January 18, at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center.

In its fourth year, the sommelier competition organized by Keeper Collection, LLC has drawn national talent for competitors and judges. The wine and food pairing event will challenge participating sommeliers to match wine from all over the world with dishes prepared by Chef David Bull of Congress Restaurant and Chef Jason Stude of the soon to open restaurant, Boiler 9 + Bar. In an “Iron Chef”- like battle, the sommeliers will discover which wines they have available to pair with the food live in front of the audience and a panel of expert judges. The best news is that the audience gets to taste the pairings.

The talented chefs are keeping ingredients under wraps until the reveal at the event to keep the contestants on their toes. They let us in a little secret; they won’t make it easy.

Chef Bull, a James Beard award nominee, said, “We will create an original dish exclusively for Somms Under Fire that represents the style and inspiration of the daily menu at Congress. Wine is the clear focus of Somms Under Fire, so Congress will showcase a dish that is challenging to pair, but also has a broad enough base that there is room to beautifully interpret and pair a few different wines.”

Chef Stude will test the sommeliers’ skills with dishes inspired by the new restaurant. He said, “Boiler Nine Bar + Grill’s menu will be influenced by a massive fire deck grill. Meats and fish will be staples, but there will be a heavy focus on grilled or smoked vegetables, grains and greens. For Somms Under Fire, the dish will highlight local product, classic technique and elements that will be present in the menu at Boiler Nine Bar + Grill.”

The event starts off with the Tio Pepe Sherry Cocktail Challenge Competition, where the competitors are challenged to create a cocktail recipe based on sherry and no other high-alcohol spirit. Sherry’s distinct history and its resurgence as an apéritif, digestif and cocktail ingredient makes for an intriguing opportunity for the sommeliers to blend the past and present in a craft cocktail. Renowned bartender, Jason Stevens, returns to judge the cocktail competition for the third year and created the rules for the competitors.

This is the improv comedy of the wine world. These guys have to make split second decisions to wow the crowd and the judges.

Event organizer and president and co-founder of Keeper Collection, Diane Dixon said, “It is a fun live drama of how the competitors react under pressure in front of an audience of 250 people and stellar judges while pairing lovely wines with food prepared by chefs that we admire. It’s really exciting to put sommeliers in the hot seat in a playful way. We will have wines that are classically representative of different region to not only test the broad knowledge of the competitors but also so the audience can learn about wines from different areas.”

It would make most people pee their pants just thinking of competing, but more than 100 people from across the country applied for the opportunity to do this. Freaks. Each took a timed, 30 minute online exam testing their wine knowledge with fill in the blank questions and an essay at the end. For the first time in four years, none of the top three scores were from Austin sommeliers. What?

Who made the cut?

All three of the contestants are Advanced Sommeliers with the Court of Master Sommeliers. That means they have passed the third level exam out of three exams. The next step is Master Sommelier. It’s hard as hell to become an Advanced Somm, and next to impossible to become a Master Somm. Seriously. The contestants are:

Advanced Somm Luke Boland

  • Luke Boland is a sommelier at Del Posto Restaurant in New York City and a graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2010.

Advance Somm Eric Crane

Advance Somm James Watkins

  • James Watkins is the beverage director at Cordúa Restaurants in Houston and was a Somms Under Fire competitor in 2014.

If for any reason one of these competitors can’t make it, there are three alternates waiting in the wings. The alternates are Jill Zimorski, the wine director at Casa Tua in Aspen, Colorado, Blake Leja, a district manager at Southern Wine & Spirits in Chicago and Brian Phillips, the assistant operating partner and wine director of Eddie V’s Prime Seafood in Austin.
Who sits in Judgment?

Just as the field of competitors has moved to a national stage, so has the judging panel. The panel is made up of a Master Sommelier and two James Beard Award Winners.

  • Rajat Parr brings extensive credentials to the judging panel. He is a partner in Sandhi WinesDomaine de la Cote WinesMaison L’Oree Wines, as well as Internationally Regarded Sommelier and Wine Director of Michael Mina Group. He was recently named one of “The 9 People You Need To Know In American Wine Right Now” by Food Republic.
  • Jordan Mackay, is serving in his second year as a judge. This San Francisco based award winning author and wine writer’s work appears in numerous prestigious publications.  He originally hails from Austin his hometown connections tight as he is currently writing a book about Texas BBQ.
  •  Jay James, Master Sommelier and director of sales and marketing at Chappellet Wines in Napa Valley brings extensive restaurant experience to the judging panel in addition, he Jay has been a featured speaker on multiple televised features, at numerous wine and food events. He currently serves as Vice President of The Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation.

What do they win?

The grand prize for the wine and food pairing competition is a wine Internship in Burgundy, France with a renowned Burgundy expert, provided by Becky Wasserman Selections and a Travel Grant, provided by event partner, the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

There is also a Fan Favorite award sponsored by Chapter 24 Vineyards, which sends the winner and a randomly selected Somms Under Fire volunteer on a four day trip to the Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Event emcee, Master Sommelier Devon Broglie, associate global beverage buyer, Whole Foods Market, who returns for his fourth year, commented on the changing dynamics of Somms Under Fire.

“Somms Under Fire has certainly captured a broader spectrum of audience, participants and judges,” Broglie said. “The event’s evolution has mirrored the advances in food and wine in town. There is no question that the quality of wine industry in Austin has increased exponentially in the last 10 years. There has been incredible growth in the professionalism in wine service and the peoples’ expectations of wine lists in finer dining restaurants.”

In addition to the competition, VIP ticketholders will enjoy a wine tasting and education, presented by judge Rajat Parr.  He’ll break out some bad ass Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and drop knowledge about these delicious wines.

VIP Tickets are $125 and general admission are $60 through Keeper Collection

Sommelier’s Top Wine Recommendations from TEXSOM

A breakdown of sparkling, white and red wine from the 10th annual Texas Sommelier Conference.

TEXSOM wine tastingIt’s easy to feel overwhelmed when walking through the vast canyons of wines at the store. Faced with that immense selection, it’s tempting just to pick the same wine we know. On the flip side, the thousands of different wines present a fantastic opportunity to continually explore new things.

ATX Man made its annual pilgrimage to the world’s premier wine-education conference to get some fresh ideas about what to drink right now. The 10th anniversary of the Texas Sommelier Conference, aka TEXSOM, held in Dallas, drew 900 wine enthusiasts to participate in educational seminars and wine tastings conducted by 39 master sommeliers, 10 certified wine educators and six masters of wine. It was a perfect place to discover wine.

Here are outstanding wine recommendations from some of the top wine professionals in Austin.

DAZZLING SPARKLING WINE

Two renowned areas for producing the world’s finest sparkling wine are, of course Champagne, France, and Lombardy, Italy, which is 30 miles east of Milan. The sparkling wine from this part of Northern Italy is called Franciacorta and it’s made in the same way as Champagne. Here are two fine choices of Franciacorta.

Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 2004: This Franciacorta from Northern Italy is gorgeous, bright and focused, with incredible precision, a pervasive minerality and acidity for days. The weight and breadth of the wine sits just perfectly on the palate, balanced by the right amount of toast and a clean, fine perlage. It is Franciacorta at its best, simply and utterly perfect. It is splurge-worthy at $85.

– Lexey Davis Johnson, certified sommelier, Vino Vino

Ca’ del Bosco Vintage Collection Dosage Zero 2009: Powerful, rich and dry as a bone, this gorgeous bubbly is made with 65 percent chardonnay, 13 percent pinot bianco and 22 percent pinot nero grown on old vine. Italy had a slightly warmer growing season in 2009, resulting in lush, softer wines. This wine is fermented in small, new oak and aged for 40 months on the lees, giving it great concentration, with lemon meringue and hazelnut flavors with a crisp finish. It’s great before dinner or paired with just about any food. It runs about $70.

Matt McGinnis, certified sommelier and food and beverage columnist for ATX Man

Ca' del Bosco Vintage Collection Dosage Zero at TEXSOM

ELEGANT WHITE WINE

There were so many amazing white wines from throughout the world poured at TEXSOM. It’s hard to pick favorites, but here are a few standouts.

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese, Mosel 2012: Though there’s a major shift in German riesling toward a drier style, sometimes you just can’t mess with a classic, like this Mosel Spätlese, which sings with bright honeysuckle, ripe pear, lychee and jasmine on the nose. Its delicate sweetness is balanced with racy acidity that puts this relatively young wine at the pinnacle sweet spot for a benchmark riesling. As we have moved into hatch-chili season, drink this wine with grilled shrimp and roasted hatch peppers. The Austin Wine Merchant has this for less than $30.

Jessica Dupuy, certified sommelier, certified specialist of wine and wine columnist for Texas Monthly

Jessica Dupuy tasting at TEXSOM

Marcel Deiss Burg Premier Cru 2010, Alsace: I love this wine for its ability to showcase the terroir of this premier cru vineyard site. Its composition as a true field blend of the several varieties in the vineyard including riesling and gewurztraminer provides the wine with incredible complexity of rich tropical and stone-fruit elements and fragrant florals. Its distinctly Alsatian mineral backbone carries through the wine from start to finish. It sells for about $50 a bottle.

– Joelle Cousins, certified sommelier, 2014 Texas’ Best Sommelier and general manager and sommelier for the Red Room Lounge

Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne 2010: Yes, grand cru! I know, I know, going big. Louis Latour is an iconic producer making a classic example of Corton Charlemagne. This 2010 is singing wonderfully with high-toned citrusy fruit and mouthwatering acidity. Yummy! It will set you back about $100 at Spec’s, but it’s worth it.

– June Rodil, advanced sommelier and beverage director for Jeffrey’s, Josephine House, Clark’s, Lamberts, Perla’s and Elizabeth Street Café

SEDUCTIVE RED WINE

Gallons upon gallons of amazing red wine were poured at TEXSOM. It was difficult to pass up the hard-to-find Portuguese reds, the graceful Burgundy grand cru, or the quintessentially bold cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley, but here are some must-try wines featured at the conference.

2011 Arpepe Rosso di Valtellina: I love almost anything Italian, and Nebbiolo is a standout for me. This wine is from the Valtellina region of Lombardy, where the Nebbiolo goes by its synonym, Chiavennasca. Nebbiolo can be hard as nails at times but this is a soft, approachable wine with dried strawberry, rose petals and a defined organic minerality, making this a great way to dip your toes in the sea of Northern Italian reds! It is available at East End Wines for about $34.

– Craig Collins, master sommelier and beverage director at ELM Restaurant Group

Fredrick Österberg Pedernales Cellars at TEXSOMPedernales Cellars Texas Tempranillo 2012: Texas wines have come a long way in the past decade, and the award-winning wines from Pedernales Cellars show what the state is capable of producing. Made with grapes grown in the Reddy and Bingham vineyards of the High Plains region, this bold tempranillo has racy cherry and raspberry flavors with soft vanilla and oak on the finish. It’s great served with grilled lamb or Texas barbecue. Pick it up for $22 at Whole Foods Market.

– Matt McGinnis, certified sommelier and food and beverage columnist for ATX Man

Viña Falernia Syrah Reserva DO Elqui Valley Chile 2010: The vineyard was founded in the arid far north of Chile in 1951 by an Italian family. The cool Pacific breezes, high altitude and intense sun make ideal growing conditions for syrah. The Viña Falernia Reserva has the complexity and finesse of a much more expensive wine from the Northern Rhone Valley of France, with delicate plum, raspberry, bacon, smoke and olive flavors and a peppery finish. Grill a thick steak and enjoy. It is a beautiful wine and an absolute bargain for $14 at Whole Foods Market.

– Matt McGinnis, certified sommelier and food and beverage columnist for ATX Man.

This story was originally published by Austin Man Magazine

What are you drinking? 

Meet the Austin wine pros competing to become Texas’ best sommelier

Sommelier decanting wine

On August 10, eight Austin wine experts will test their mettle against elite wine professionals from around the state in the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition. The competition will be held at the 10th anniversary of TEXSOM, one of the world’s largest gathering of wine professionals taking place in Dallas. The winner of the annual competition presented by Texas Monthly will will take home a scholarship for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ certification program.

The competition will test 25 participants’ knowledge of wine business and is a great way for wine pros prepare for higher level exams like Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced Exam and the Society of Wine Educations CWE exam. According to James Tidwell, co-founder of TEXSOM and Master Sommelier, the competition exam changes a little every year to reflect new information relevant to somm.

“Sommeliers have to adapt on a nightly basis, says Tidwell. It’s hard to mimic that in an exam setting, but we test their broad knowledge to simulate that. We assess sommeliers ability to answer questions about wine, analyze wine in blind tasting and provide cordial service while adapting to the situation. There is a lot expected of them, and somms are ready for it. The level of preparation of Sommeliers competing is a lot higher than in the past. Having good wine information available online along with the explosion of the food and beverage community has made it possible for sommeliers to increase their knowledge.”

That preparation is evident with Austin sommelier competitors. The city has a tight-knit community of sommeliers that study together, which has put Austin on the map as a city with sophisticated tastes in wine.

Edward Morgan, food and beverage manager, sommelier, Travaasa agrees saying, “There was a time when we would go to Houston or Dallas and see wines that we could never buy in Austin. With a strong, family-like community of somms, we have been able to show the industry that we are serious about wine. Now the tables have turned and we have top restaurants that get wines that are not available in other the cities.”

The study groups have paid off for Austin somms in the competition. In the past nine years, five sommeliers from Austin — Devon Broglie, Mark Sayre, June Rodil, Bill Elsey and Scott Ota — have won the coveted prize. The city is fielding a strong group of competitors again this year.

Houston sommeliers think they have a shot at winning the title this year. Texas Wine Lover profiles the seven participants from Houston.

Whether Austin brings home another title or not, local wine lovers win with more knowledgeable sommeliers and better wine.

Meet Austin’s participants in the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition.

Bryn Lewis, sommelier, The Red Room Lounge

Bryn Lewis, Red Room Lounge

Lewis has spent the last 22 years working with wine in various positions in the restaurant industry. His affable personality, British accent and dedication to impeccable service make him a natural for meeting the discerning palates of wine aficionados at the Red Room Lounge. His serious pursuit of the sommelier profession started when he met fellow sommeliers Scott Ota and Nathan Prater while working at the Driskill Grill. Ota led a study group at the Grill every Saturday for the staff to sharpen their knowledge of various wines and growing regions. All of the flash cards and quizzes paid off when Lewis earned the top score of the class in his Level II Certified Sommelier Exam in February 2013. His study regimen has him ready for this competition.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

This is an incredible competition. It is really well done. I want to test my skills against other somms in a competitive environment. I can learn a lot from the other competitors. I’ve learned a lot from past winners like Scott Ota and Bill Elsey and value the relationships built in preparing to compete.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

I am fortunate enough to work at night so I get to study in the day. I’m better prepared to answer questions from customers because of the rigorous study for the exam. Some people want to know the ins and outs of various wine regions, why a wine tastes a particular way and what the best vintages are. Knowledge is key to meeting their needs.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

I think winning the Texas Best Sommelier Competition would show that I have passion and dedication for what I do. I work hard to take it to a higher level. I don’t rest on my laurels and strive to learn about wine every day.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

If I win, I’ll drink champagne of course. I’ll pick a nice grower-producer like Marc Hébrart Champagne or maybe Krug.

Joelle Cousins, general manager and sommelier, The Red Room Lounge
Joelle Cousins

Cousins was exposed to really great wine while working at III Forks as a server during college. She considered wine as a hobby, but that changed when III Forks paid for her to take the Certified Specialist of Wine Exam after she graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in biology. She realized how much science was involved in wine. She fell in love with wine and the opportunity to a life-long student be of wine. In the next year Cousins took her Introductory and Certified Sommelier Exams, receiving the top score in her Certified class. That experience spurred her to continue to pursue a career in wine and keep studying. She was a regional participant in the Guild of Sommeliers Top New Somm completion in Fort Lauderdale this year.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I entered the competition as an opportunity to cultivate my knowledge and refine my sommelier skills under pressure. It will be a great trial run for the Advance Exam that I’m taking in September in Philadelphia. Above all, I am going to learn some things, which is what life is all about. I try to take any opportunity to sharpen my skills and challenge myself.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

It is very well integrated with what we do at the Red Room Lounge. The ability to practice services is invaluable in real world settings. Having Bryn, a fellow competitor, as my colleague and study partner couldn’t be better. Our job is unique because it’s not a restaurant. It’s all wine. The Austin community is smart about wine and our customers ask intricate questions. Having the knowledge to gain their trust is important.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Winning will provide momentum to reach my goals for higher level certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers and to promote the Red Room Lounge. More importantly, it would be a great representation of the Austin sommelier community and the incredible talent we have in this city.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Krug Brut Rosé Champagne. I love rosé and I drink Champagne any chance I get.

Rania Zayyat, sommelier, laV

Rania Zayyat

Zayyat’s passion for the wine industry started four years ago when she began working as a server at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. She took her Intro exam in New York 2012, and that year won a wine contest that sent her to California wine country. She passed the Certified Sommelier Exam six months later. While working in the Pappas wine department, Zayyat became acquainted with the owner of laV Restaurant, who was a repeat guest of hers. She served him a bottle of 1988 La Tâche that cost about $1,600 the first time she waited on him.

“It was the most expensive bottle of wine I’d ever seen,” says Zayyat. “He asked for me to be his server every visit after that. In 2014 he asked if I would be a part of the team at laV Restaurant and Wine Bar and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was a good opportunity, so I went for it. It’s been awesome.”

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I decided to compete at TEXSOM for multiple reasons. I really want to bring attention to laV and our wine program. We have a lot to offer the community with a wide range of wines for every palette and budget.

It also has been a great way for me to meet somms in Austin. A lot of us study together. There is competition, but friendly competition. I’d be happy for someone else to win, as long as they are from Austin.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

I find that a lot of the information that I study is somehow relevant to bottles on our list and if anything, it gives me more confidence on the floor. Preparing for this competition also coincides with studying for the Advanced Exam which I plan on taking later this year.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Winning would be very validating for my career and would lead to more opportunities, not only advancement, but also to help others just getting started. The boost of confidence would allow me to realize how far I have come in this industry.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Maybe 2001 Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru and bubbles of course! Alfred Gratien Brut Millésime Champagne 1996 would do the trick.

Paul Ozbirn, Wine and Beverage Director, Olive & June  

Paul Ozbirn, Olive & June

Ozbirn has had a go as a professional skateboarder and as a rock band roadie, but a trip to Greece and Italy after college sparked a fascination with wine. After that trip he moved to Austin in 2006 and started in the restaurant industry at Vin Bistro. That position and a stint as bartender at Botticelli’s South Congress further ignited his enthusiasm for wine. Ozbirn passed the sommelier’s Introductory Exam which led to opportunity to work at Wink Restaurant, where he immersed himself in wine.

After working as the sommelier at Paggi House, Ozbirn was hired by Chef Shawn Cirkiel as beverage director at Olive & June where he worked to hone the predominately Italian wine list. He was recently promoted to serve as beverage director for all of restaurants owned by Parkside Projects, including Olive & June, Backspace, Chavez and Parkside. Ozbirn is currently a Certified Sommelier and hopes to take the Advanced Exam in the next year.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

Competing is a great thing for so many reasons. It pushes me to find time to study harder. It helps prepare me for taking the Advanced Sommelier exam sometime soon. It also gets me in front of more Master Sommeliers, which helps develop those relationships.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

Our study group meets every Thursday morning so I can always count on that. I was recently promoted from managing Olive & June to managing all of the properties. I was focused on studying Italian wine for work, but my wine responsibilities are now a lot broader. It’s been a joy to go back and revisit other regions that I haven’t worked with lately like France for Parkside Southern Hemisphere wines for Chavez. Studying for the competition completely helps.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

It’d be great to win of course, but giving it my all is just as rewarding. We’re all part of a community and competing shows we’re totally dedicated to that craft. I’m sure Shawn would be stoked if I won. I just want Austin to show well in general, and I think we will!

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Well I’m sure there will be bubbles involved, but a well-made negroni with Sipsmith gin would be nice too. That cocktail just never lets me down!

 

Nathan Fausti, lead server, Arro

Nathan Fausti, Arro

Fausti grew up in Wisconsin (so yes he loves cheese and beer), and has been in the restaurant industry in many roles since he started washing dishes in high school. A mentor at Parkside brought him into the world of wine. “Seeing him talk about wine and making the guest experience great inspired me,” said Fausti. “I wanted to be that guy walking around with a bottle making people happy.”

He recently joined Arro Restaurant to work for and learn from master sommelier Craig Collins, last year’s Texas Best Sommelier, Scott Ota and Chef Andrew Curren. Fausti is passionate about food, beverage and providing guests with a great experience, so naturally he gravitated to the wine certification programs. In the last year he has gained Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine diplomas.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

This competition will be a great way to challenge my skills and prepare me for taking the Advanced Sommelier exam. It is also a valuable resource for networking and expanding the sommelier community. I can’t imagine any other city having a friendlier and more committed class of sommeliers than we have in Austin.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

Work and study complement each other. Studying helps me provide a better guest experience, and being on the floor talking with guests about food and wine helps to solidify my knowledge base. Our main job is to translate what people are saying into finding the wine they want. Having a full understanding of wine, beer and cocktails helps me achieve that quickly. I only have 15 seconds to make them feel comfortable and get them what they want.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Everyone who has won TEXSOM is currently an Advanced or Master Sommelier. Having the win under your belt opens up a lot of opportunities within the sommelier world. It would show what I’m capable of and my level of dedication.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I’d like to take a tour through the great wines of France, Germany and Italy, beginning in Champagne and ending in Mosel. I’d like a Meursault from the Côte de Beaune of Burgundy, or a nice Barolo from Piedmont.

 

Melissa Lamb, wine manager, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar

Melissa Lamb, Fleming's

During college, Lamb fell in love with the romantic side of wine while the Hill Country wineries. She followed her heart to a career in wine industry starting as an auction director for the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. In that role she met several sommeliers including her boyfriend, Bill Elsey. He inspired Lamb’s interested in the profession and studying wine. She passed the Introductory Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers in February 2013 and recently passed Level II Certified Sommelier Exam.

While studying wine at The Red Room Lounge, Lamb met the Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar operating partner, James Cook. “He read the article about the Best Somm Competition in CultureMap last year and realized that I was an up and coming sommelier,” says Lamb. “When the sommelier position at Fleming’s opened up, he offered me the job. I love it here. I’m responsible for building the by the bottle selection and making sure that every guest gets great service.”

The constantly evolving industry with new producers, new wines and changing consumer tastes keeps Lamb excited about wine.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I want to push myself and see how much stronger I can compete. I’m never going to pass up an opportunity to get in front of the Master Somms and get my name out there. It’s a free look at the Advanced Exam, which is my next goal. I competed last year, so I know to expect the unexpected. They throw out crazy questions and scenarios.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

It makes me better in my job. It’s exciting when a guest wants to talk about a wine producer or region after I’ve studied it. It’s a great way to reinforce the quality of my service at work.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

There are awesome sommeliers who have won before and I would be humbled and honored to be among them. The competition is crazy. It’s like the American Ninja Warrior competition. If you can make it through, you are legit.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I would drink a Last Word cocktail.

 

Edward Morgan, food and beverage manager, sommelier, Travaasa

Edward Morgan, Travaasa

Morgan’s path to the sommelier position started with dreams of Hollywood. As a student at Texas State, he wanted to pursue a career as screen play writer along with a close friend who wanted to be a film producer. It became quickly apparent that the duo needed to make money until they got a break in the film industry. Wine distribution seemed like a way to do both.

“When I visited my first wine big retail account, I brought big gun Bordeaux wines to impress him,” says Morgan. “He called me out, saying, ‘you don’t know anything about the wines you have in this bag.’ We spent the next several hours drinking through all of my samples and getting a quick education in fine wine. That was the start of my wine education.”

Fast forward 12 years, Morgan is now a sommelier at a prestigious resort and his friend is a producer in LA. He gladly traded fame for an opportunity to pursue his passion for knowledge. He feeds that passion by blogging about wine on the Travaasa website and testing for sommelier certification. He passed the Intro exam in 2009 and the Certified Sommelier Exam in 2011.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

This is a great opportunity to get a free peak at what I might expect in the Advanced Sommelier Exam next year. It puts urgency into my studies with a more tangible goal to accomplish. Master Sommelier, Craig Collins, is my mentor, and I’ve been studying regularly Paul Ozbirn, Brian Philips, Mandy Nelson and Rania Zayyat since last year’s TEXSOM.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

It definitely makes me feel more confident at work. The trick is to study first thing in the morning so I can take any new fundamentals to the floor that evening to educate staff and the guests. I recently had a guest come in from Italy and I had just got back from a trip to Italy. I was able to speak knowledgeably about the landscape and the producers.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Small victories only solidify your path in life, but larger ones ensure your success. I would consider this a big win.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I’ll drink the wine that most people got wrong in the blind tasting part of the competition. It’s another chance to learn.

 

Mandi Nelson, Fine Wines Specialist, Republic National Distributor

Mandi Nelson, Republic

Food and beverage have been a big part of Nelson’s life since she started in the restaurant business at age 15. She fell in love with wine while working as a bartender and began her wine career in earnest at the Four Seasons where she opened Trio and created its wine list. She passed here Introductory Exam when it was held at the Four Seasons Austin as a part of TEXSOM.

Nelson continued to pursue her passion for wine by joining the team at Republic. As a key account manager with Republic, Nelson call on the top accounts in Austin, most of which have sommeliers selecting the wine. Her job entails bringing winery owners, winemakers and master sommeliers to town to host tastings at top restaurants and shops. I’d like to trade jobs with her for a day.

She is a Certified Sommelier and has continued her education and certification march by completing the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Advanced Exam, CSW and Wine Location Specialist Program for Champagne and Port.  She has applied to take the Advanced Exam and hopes to take it next year.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

This is another opportunity to study and prepare. Hope to sit for the advanced exam. This is my third time competing. I’m hitting the books more this time around. I’m also studying with a group that started last year at TEXSOM. It’s a great study group and it has been is extremely helpful in my preparation.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

The more knowledge I have, the better I am at my job. I’m better prepared to find great wines for my clients. For example, if a winemaker from the Priorat region of Spain is visiting town, I can take them to the right accounts who appreciate it.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

I love my job and I wouldn’t want to change anything. I’m just doing it for the education. My employers are extremely supportive of what I do. I appreciate it.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Champagne, of course. Whatever the closest bottle would be. Bollinger RD.

 

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

Austin’s 10 Best Drink Slingers: Meet the CultureMap Tastemaker Award Nominees for Best Beverage Director

What is the right cocktail to drink while listening to Gary Clark Jr.? What wine will bring out the best in braised rabbit? The 10 nominees for the CultureMap 2014 Tastemaker Awards in the Best Beverage/Wine Program category keep Austin at the forefront of trends in craft cocktails and fine wine.

Whether working at a cozy wine lounge or a fine dining restaurant, this year’s nominees share a passion for constantly studying beverages to ensure they buy and serve the very best drinks available. (They’re also sharing with us the best beverage options for spring.)

CollinsbyNilsJuul-Hansen (1)Craig Collins, Beverage Director, ELM Restaurant Group
Craig Collins became enamored with wine while working at a Texas winery during college. He is currently the beverage director for ELM Restaurant Group where he oversees the programs at 24 DinerEasy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden and Arro. In 2011, he passed the esteemed Master Sommelier Exam, joining an elite club of less than 200 people worldwide at the time. He is an active member in the Court of Master Sommeliers and frequently serves as a featured speaker at wine and food festivals across the country.

What was your first memorable wine? I experienced my “aha” wine while living in Italy with Chef Andrew Curren. It was a bottle of 1998 Brancaia Il Blu, a super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Merlot that opened my eyes to the rest of my life.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? My guilty pleasure is an ice cold can of beer when I get home at the end of the night. Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap always does the trick.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc. The acid of the goat cheese balances out the saltiness of the cheese and cuts through the fat. It is one of the classic pairings that works every time.

What should Austinites drink right now? It sounds a bit cliché at this point, but rosé. We are moving into the hot time of the year and there is nothing better than an ice cold glass of pink wine.

Sam Hovland, Wine Consultant, Swift’s Attic
Sam Hovland has worked at The Austin Wine Merchant, Headliners Club, Sardine Rouge, Demi-Epicurious, Mars Restaurant and Bar and Twin Liquors. Hovland became the wine buyer for East End Wines in 2010 and continues in that role today. He worked with Mat Clouser, the chef at Swift’s Attic, to develop and maintain the Swift’s Attic wine list. As an extension of that partnership, he is looking forward to buying wines for Clouser’s new restaurant, Wu Chow.

What was your first memorable wine? My first experience was with wines pilfered from my father when he was hosting art openings at the Austin Conceptual Visual Artists Association. I then made wine in the early 1980s, and distilled it (thanks, Science Academy). I was really blown away by a 1967 Richebourg, older vintage Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese, Henri Jayer Pinot Noirs and Domaine Huet Vouvray sweet Chenin Blanc early on in my sommelier career.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? I like very cold tallboys of cider after a day of drinking wines for work, vermouth and Cava and 10,000 beers. I once ran out of wine, and had Sauternes poached foie gras on Ritz crackers with ice cold Budweiser standing in a friend’s kitchen in the middle of the night.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? My four favorites are Sonoma Coast or Oregon Pinot Noir with duck (Doritos crusted for extra naughtiness); Alsatian Riesling with escargot soup; Muscadet and oysters; and the classic vintage Port and Stilton.

What should Austinites drink right now? Bubbles, Mondeuse, Sherry, pink wine, orange wine, natural wines and food-friendly wines that are funky with higher acid, lower tannin and lower alcohol.

josh_lovingJosh Loving
Josh Loving has worked in both the front of the house and back of the house at such notable Austin restaurants as Fino, which he helped open in 2005, Vino Vino, Asti and East Side Show Room. Most recently, Loving was part of the opening team at Josephine House & Jeffrey’s, where he served as beverage director. He left Jeffrey’s this year to focus on his own project, and is currently tending bar at Half Step.

What was your first memorable wine? I think it was 2003, I was working a private party for wine collectors and they gave us the rest of their wines including a vertical from the 1970s of Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy from Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret. I didn’t know what they were, but I remember telling myself to remember the labels so someday I could recall what they were.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Cheap beer: Coors, Miller High Life, Tecate, etc. I try to stay away from cheap wine, but I crush cheap beer.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? It’s a tie between Champagne and raw oysters, and fried chicken and Riesling.

What should Austinites drink right now? Sherry. I feel like I say this every year, and every year it gets a bit more traction. But yeah, Sherry.

Bill Norris, Alamo DrafthouseBill Norris, Beverage Director, Alamo Drafthouse
For 20 years, Norris has poured drinks in venues across the country, winning numerous awards and cocktail competitions along the way. He was on the opening staff at Fino, where, according to the Austin American-Statesman, he “planted the sacred seeds” of the modern cocktail in Austin, before creating the nationally recognized bar program at Haddingtons. Norris is currently the beverage director for Alamo Drafthouse, overseeing the cocktail and beverage programs at Midnight Cowboy400 Rabbits and other Alamo properties.

What was your first memorable wine? It was probably a Chablis Grand Cru. One of my early jobs was at a restaurant in New York City where all the wines were from Skurnik’s book, and he led a tasting. I just remember thinking, “So, this is why people like white wine!”

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Vinho Verde from the lobster bottle (Santola). There is nothing better for an Austin summer Sunday afternoon.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Vintage Champagne and potato chips. And I’m not joking.

What should Austinites drink right now? It’s springtime in Austin, so I recommend rosé, preferably Provençal or Spanish. Or Champagne. Champagne is always good.

Paul Ozbirn, Olilve & JunePaul Ozbirn, Wine and Beverage Director, Parkside Projects  
Ozbirn got his start in Austin’s restaurant industry in 2006 as a server at Vin Bistro, which sparked his passion for wine. He held various positions at Botticelli’s, Wink Restaurant and Paggi House while studying to attain Certified Sommelier status through The Court of Master Sommeliers. Ozbirn became the Beverage Director for Parkside Projects to hone the predominately Italian wine list at Olive & June. He is expanding his role to manage the beverage and wine programs at The BackspaceParkside and Chavez.

What was your first memorable wine? My first memorable wine was Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2002. My dad couldn’t find it in Birmingham and asked me to buy it at my local wine shop in Huntsville. It was the start of a long relationship with said wine shop and my love for the balanced, lush and fruit-forward wine. I still love the wines today despite the fact that I’ve really moved away from buying and drinking that style.   

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? After a long day of tasting and discussing nothing but wine, the last thing I crave is wine. If I’m at a bar, I’ll drink Hops & Grain ALTeration, but I’m always up for a Lone Star with a lime. Another guilty pleasure is chilled Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka!

Your favorite food and wine pairing? A big glass of Lambrusco with the new late-night burger at Vino Vino is a pretty stellar meal. I’m always up for Riesling with just about anything.

What should Austinites drink right now? We’re really diving into the orange wine thing at Olive & June. We serve an abundance of small bites like quail, pork and meatballs that pair really well with either full-bodied whites or lighter style reds. Orange wine is perfect for those plates and introduces tannin to white wine drinkers in a much more approachable way. My favorite at the moment is Ezio Trinchero Bianco 2007.   

Brian Phillips, Eddie VsBrian Phillips, Manager and Sommelier, Eddie V’s Restaurants Inc.
Over the past 14 years, Phillips has worked in venerable Austin establishments such as The Driskill Hotel and Haddingtons and currently manages the beverage program at Eddie V’s Prime Seafood. He not only serves wine, he also makes wine called “Ground Up” from Texas Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional grapes tended and harvested by the team at Pedernales Cellars.

What was your first memorable wine? My first memorable wine was a sip of my mom’s Beringer White Zinfandel when I was around 10 years old. It was memorable because it was so bad. I can’t quite recall one wine that sent me down the rabbit hole. It was a natural progression with an endless quest to find wines that make me stop and look both inward and outward at the same time.   

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Like all somms, at the end of a long day serving our guests we want something clean and simple like beer, or a cold, classic martini. My guilty pleasure is a shot of really cold silver tequila (no salt, no lime, no mixology). 

Your favorite food and wine pairing? My go-to wine and food combo is spicy and sweet Asian with the classic off-dry wines of the world. I am super happy with Thai food and an assortment of Loire Chenin Blanc, German Riesling and fungus infected Alsatian beauties. 

What should Austinites drink right now? Everyone should be drinking wine, period. There has never been a better time in the history of wine to drink it in terms of quality and world representation. When treated right, wine is restorative, contemplative and, in turn, good for society. Every region and corner of the globe produces something special and we owe it to those producers to try it and give it its moment of silence.    

Nathan Prater, The Red Room LoungeNathan Prater, Sommelier and General Manager, Red Room Lounge
A native Austinite, Prater is currently the general manager of the Red Room Lounge, a hidden gem of vinous solitude. He began his education with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2007, and after six years of dedicated study and practice, he sat for the Masters Exam in 2013, passing the service portion. He plans to take the other sections of the Masters Exam in Aspen, Colorado in mid-May. Part of his study is the pursuit of the perfect gin martini, which he calls the “elixir of quietude.”

What was your first memorable wine? A bottle of 1983 Château Lynch-Bages sparked my interest for wine, while a 1978 Bodegas Muga Prado Enea inspired the drive to become a sommelier. 

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? A third gin martini.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? French rosé and escargot.

What should Austinites drink right now? Sidecars, Aviations, Micèl Prosecco, Domaine Houchart rosé or a Gibson with three onions.


Paula Rester, CongressPaula Rester, Wine Director, Congress

Paula Rester worked at Congress from its opening in December 2010 until January 2012 when she left to become the general manager of Vino Vino. In October 2012 Paula rejoined the Congress team as the Sommelier. Rester draws on her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to bring a spirit of performance and presentation to wine and food. She is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators.

What was your first memorable wine? Travaglini Gattinara, for the shape of the bottle and the aromatic nature of the Nebbiolo.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Rye whiskey manhattans.

Your favorite food and wine pairing? Champagne and French fries.

What should Austinites drink right now? Rosè! Because (in my best Game of Thrones voice…) summer is coming. My favorites include Inman Family Endless Crush Olivet Grange Pinot Noir Rosè 2013 and Clos Cibonne Cotes du Provence Tibouren Rosè 2012.

June Rodil, Qui

June Rodil, Director of Operations, Qui
Rodil leads operations of Paul Qui’s flagship restaurant, Qui, and the multi-location casual concept, East Side King. She has an extensive wine background and has served as the beverage director for the Uchi Restaurant Group and Congress Austin. Rodil relishes the perfect pairing and believes that this can be accomplished when a chef and sommelier have mutual respect for each other and have the same goal: happy guests.

What was your first memorable wine? I first started really getting into wine and food when I was a server at the Driskill. I went in to dine there for a birthday celebration to see what the tasting menu was all about. I scoffed at the buttery Chardonnay that was on the tasting menu, but the simple butter poached halibut with tomatoes was transformed into something else altogether by the wine … It always reminds me not to turn my nose at a wine. There are definitely moments for each wine, and if not moments, then at least dishes that go well with it.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? A Lone Star tallboy and a shot of bourbon after a long shift. It gets me every time.

Describe your favorite food and wine pairing? Champagne, Champagne, Champagne, and anything! Champagne and French fries are a must. For complete dishes and something that I like to do at Qui, I suggest a red Burgundy with saba. It’s really a stunning pairing and one that I love introducing to people.  

What should Austinites drink right now? This is the season for rosé! Rosé in any style to satiate any palate. The range of grape flavors, texture and fruit concentration is huge. It’s available in everything from bubbles, to a salty, barely pink Côtes de Provence.

Dhal Smith, UchiDhal Smith, Beverage Director, Uchi/Uchiko
Smith joined Uchi in 2009, where his extensive travels in Asia fueled a fascination with the history and culture of the wine and sake on the menu. Rodil, who was beverage director at the time, encouraged Smith to become a certified sake professional. That education was the beginning of his passion for food and beverage pairings and how the right match can elevate the experience.

What was your first memorable wine? It was a Châteauneuf-du-Pape about six years ago with a former roommate who was a wine rep. I was struck by all that it had going on. There was great depth of fruit, leather, tar, savory, and it had this really meaty texture. They are still some of my favorite wines.

What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” beverage? Jameson. 

Your favorite food and wine pairing? I really love pairing sweeter wines with meat. Instead of red wine, choose Riesling Spätlese or Chenin Blanc that has some richness that goes great with beef, lamb and pork. The acid cuts right through the fat and the ripe fruit balances the savoriness. A pairing that I love to do at Uchi is a Norwegian mackerel with truffle oil and yellow tomato on top with Royal Tokaji dessert wine. The mackerel is quite gamey and savory along with the truffle and the fruit and acidity of the wine is a perfect match.   

What should Austinites drink right now? Craft beer is blowing up right now and I think that brewers are really pushing the boundaries seeking out new and different nuances. Whether it’s barrel-aging or the use of some indigenous yeast, beer is becoming so varied — and almost wine-like in some instances. For wine, I choose Riesling because it is so versatile and it’s possible to find one that will pair with almost anything. They will age for decades and continue to gain complexity.

Tickets for the third annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, which take place May 7 at Brazos Hall, are available here.

This story was originally published on CultureMap. Disclosure: I am a CultureMap Tastemaker Award Judge.

Photo Credits:

  • Craig Collins – photo courtesy of Nils Juul-Hansen
  • Josh Loving – photo courtesy of Bill Sallans
  • Bill Norris – photo courtesy of Bill Sallans
  • June Rodil – photo courtesy of Qui
  • Dhal Smith – photo courtesy of Uchi/Uchiko
  • All other photos by me.

What are you drinking?