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?

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