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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Buy tickets now to the Tastemaker Awards on May 17 at Bullock Texas State History Museum. Learn more about the event here.
The 2013 wine grape harvest in the Texas High Plains was so abysmal, it was enough to make a grown man cry. Even a tough Texan.
“2013 was a complete crop failure,” says High Plains grape grower, Neal Newsom. “We had a good winter and into spring. But then, five weeks after bud break we had a terrible hard freeze in May. That has never happened before. The vines were almost through bloom, and most were in full bloom. They were as tender as they could be at that time of year. It was so cold for most of the night, that we had a lot of permanent wood damage. We lost almost everything. Eighty percent of our Cabernet froze to the ground.”
Newsom, and his wife, Janice, have been growing grapes in the West Texas community of Plains on the New Mexico state line since 1986. Newsom Family Vineyards are situated on a high desert plateau at 3,700 feet in elevation and gets plenty of high-quality sunlight. The area has long, hot days and it cools down quickly at night during the growing season. The Newsom vineyards have seen its share of trying weather, but nothing like this.
The entire harvest from his 125 acre vineyards amounted to just a little over 800 pounds of grapes. That’s not even enough to fill a grape bin. In a normal year they average 2.5 to 3 tons of grapes per acre. That’s about 750,000 pounds of grapes annually. In other words, 800 pounds is pretty close to 0.
“It was a hopeless situation,” said Newsom. “We put it all in one bin to get an official weight for insurance purposes. We took it to Llano and thought they would make rosé or dump it into a blend.”
Perhaps out of sheer sympathy, Llano Estacado assistant winemakers, Jason Centanni, and Chris Hull, decided to make wine with that paltry parcel of grapes.
“I’ve never had these things until I moved to Texas,” says Greg Bruni, Llano Estacado’s VP of Winemaking. “In California, we’d have a frost event, but it just reduces the tonnage. When it happens here, it can wipe you out. The production of the vineyard was almost non-existent. It’s really emotional.”
Bruni discussed the possibility of making wine from the Newsom’s grapes with Llano Estacado president and C.E.O., Mark Hyman, who agreed it was a good idea to make the wine. While the 2013 vintage certainly wouldn’t make any money, the Llano execs realized that the Newsom family were eager to start their own wine label. This was a great way to put a toe in the water and get ready for a bigger vintage in 2014.
Newsom recounted, “A couple months after I dropped off the grapes, Greg called me and told me, ‘You’ve got to come taste this. You’re not going to believe this.’ He’s right. It has great tannin and bright acid. We didn’t pick the grapes until almost November, so they had lots of hang-time, which is what winemakers like.”
“It came out tasting great,” says Bruni.
In late January, Llano Estacado and Newsom Family Vineyards introduced their joint collaboration, Inception. In its first release, there was only 25 cases, or 300 bottles, of Inception made. This unique Texas blend, will only be available to select restaurants in Lubbock and to wine club members.
“This is the rise of the phoenix from the ashes,” says Newsom. “That really can happen. This is the inception of our family label, and how we’re getting started. Here we go.”
2013 Inception, Newsom Vineyards
The wine is made from a field blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Sangiovese and 9% Tempranillo and the balance is Malbec. Brambly blackberry pie, ripe plum, black cherry, dust, and aged leather greet the nose. It smells like hard-fought victory. Sun-kissed black currant, baked blackberries, tobacco leaf, coffee and dark chocolate coat the palate in pleasingly medium bodied wine. It tastes like the comfort of a friend who has your back. It’s well-structured with just enough acidity to keep the fruit bright, just enough tannin to remind you it’s no push-over, and enough alcohol (12.2%) to give it a satisfying mouthfeel.
This wine is good enough to make even a tough Texan smile.
It’s priced around $28 to $34 and for sale only in restaurants in Lubbock, and maybe a few others around the state. The distinctive hand applied labels, and accompanying hand-tied leather strap holding a metal Newsom Vineyards brand is a nice touch.
If you are not fortunate enough to find one of the 300 bottles made, don’t fret. Newsom reports that the 2014 vintage Inception is looking really good. The blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah will be, “Friggin nice,” according to Newsom. The 2015 Inception red blend will be predominantly Tempranillo and Syrah with other red grape varieties. Ratios will change each year.
Both Newsom and Llano Estacado report that this is likely going to be a long term engagement with Llano making private label Inception for Newsom. That’s great news for Texas wine drinkers.
Sure, the month of January is filled with onerous New Year’s resolutions full of strict diets and exercise. The good news is that those resolutions probably have you on the path to participate in American Heart Month this February. The even better news is that, according to many studies, drinking red wine—as long as you don’t overdo it—may actually be good for your heart.
So follow your heart with these recommendations for pairing a rustic or robust red wine with a few of Austin’s best heart-healthy dishes.
Advanced Sommelier Mark Sayre has gathered prestigious honors, such as Texas’ Best Sommelier in 2007, Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Seven Best New Sommeliers in 2010 and a 2012 CultureMap Tastemaker Award during his career managing the restaurant at Westwood Country Club and running the wine program at Trio Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin. Now serving as service director of the wine-focused Arro, he is in his element.
Executive chef, Andrew Curren of the ELM Restaurant Group, opened the French bistro, Arro, in autumn 2013 and it quickly grew a devoted following with its unpretentious farm-to-table French fare. Arro got a facelift in the summer of 2015, expanding its outdoor seating and adding vibrant design touches to the interior. The menu was also updated with some playful touches.
Sayre has a deft touch at pairing wines from the extensive list with the everchanging menu.
“I take a broad approach to food-and-wine pairings,” he says. “I pair the structure and weight of a wine to match the food. This gives you more options. Now you can talk about red wines and seafood. Now you don’t have to talk about pairing cherry flavors in wine with cherry flavors in a dish. It’s about how the weight of the wine and the weight of the dish work together. If the texture of this dish is really elegant, let’s find an elegant wine with a little more body.”
The Meal: Niçoise Salad
This classic salad from the South of France is as satisfying as it is healthy, with grilled tuna atop leafy greens, herbs, green beans, potatoes, eggs and olives. Sayre says pinot noir is a perfect mate for niçoise salad. “The elegance and complexity in salad match elegance and complexity in the wine,” Sayre says. “The meaty flavor from tuna, savory earthiness from the olives and potatoes, and myriad herbal qualities go really well with fruity and floral tones and the core of savory and spicy flavors.”
The Wine:2009 Domaine Michel Lafarge Premier Cru Les Aigrots from Beaune, France
This Southern Burgundy beauty is as rustic as it is elegant, with bright cherry flavors and enough oomph to muscle up to the meaty aspect of the tuna. It runs about $178. For a less expensive option, try the 2013 Soter North Valley Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Ore. This is a gorgeous wine, with juicy fruit intensity balanced with herbal scents and earthiness, and is often found in Burgundy, France. It is $48 for a bottle or $12 by the glass.
Certified Sommelier Nathan Fausti is a rising star in the Austin wine community. Having won the title of 2015 Texas’ Best Sommelier, he is now preparing to take the Advanced Sommelier Exam and test his skills in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Young Sommelier Competition as one of three people selected to compete in the 10-state region.
Though he’ll soon take the helm as sommelier at Due Forni, in his current position as the sommelier at Bullfight, Fausti pairs Spanish wines with Southern Spanish tapas. Finding the right wine to go with a diverse selection of flavors in multiple dishes is a fun challenge for Fausti.
Bullfight, the newest restaurant from chef Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside Projects, reflects his take on traditional Spanish dishes. Made with local ingredients, sustainably raised meats and fish, the tantalizing selection of tapas is mostly heart-healthy with plenty of gluten-free, dairy free, vegetarian, and vegan options. Executive chef, Ryan Shields, philosophy is if it doesn’t need salt, butter, cream, or flower, it’s not in the dish.
“I look for structure and match the body of the wine with the body of the food,” he says. “Wine with a lot of tannin matches fattiness. Higher alcohol goes with a heavier-bodied dish. I match for the most part and then look for some contrast. It is like adding a seasoning to the dish.”
The Meal:A Trio of Vegetable-driven Tapas
Escalivada with peppers, eggplant and boquerones is an absolutely gorgeous dish served with the fish artistically arranged on a ring of roasted and chilled vegetables. Cauliflower gazpacho, made with cauliflower stock, has crunchy, grilled cauliflower florets, paprika-spiced walnuts, pickled grapes and shaved fennel. It is a party of textures and smoky, sweet flavors. And grilled branzino, a traditional Mediterranean sea bass, is served in tomato broth with herbs, garlic and braised cannellini beans.
The Wine: Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserva 2003, Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain
This aged red wine has savory flavors almost like sweet and sour, with mellow red fruit, cherry, soy sauce, baking spice, vanilla and a lot of earthiness that pairs well with escalivada. It’s priced at $98. For a less expensive alternative, try the Palacio de Canedo Maceración 2013 from Bierzo in Northwest Spain. This is a medium-bodied wine made with the mencia grape. It is reminiscent of Cru Beaujolais, with great aromatics, fresh cherry flavors, black pepper and a savory herb spiciness that goes well with vegetables and fish. It is $56 for the bottle or $12 by the glass.
Certified Sommelier Chris Dufau has extensive experience in wine service from stints at the famed French Laundry and the Martini House in Napa Valley, Calif., as well as Jeffrey’s in Austin. He joined the team at the newly opened Emmer & Rye, drawn by the opportunity to work at a chef-owned restaurant in a vibrant part of town.
Named for ancient grains, Emmer & Rye uses local ingredients in its American cuisine, including herbs and vegetables grown in raised beds outside the restaurant and foraged locally. Executive chef and owner, Kevin Fink, prepares seasonally-appropriate small plates like pork trotter pressé and octopus confit. A fun way to enjoy several complex dishes, like cauliflower custard with mustard and wheat berries, is to order from the dim sum style cart service.
Pairing wines with an eclectic mix of small plates and ever-changing dim sum dishes keeps Dufau on his toes.
“I designed a list of mostly European wines that fit a broad spectrum of flavors and that work with multiple courses and multiple dishes,” Dufau says. “We have 45 wines by the bottle and six whites and eight reds by the glass that are great for everyday drinking.”
The Dish: Rye Pappardelle Pasta With a Mangalitsa Pork Ragout
The big, broad noodles are made in-house using grain that is milled in the kitchen. Served lazily folded over each other with lean cuts of pork braised in Roma tomato sauce, the firm pasta and tangy ragout are meltin- your-mouth delicious.
The Wine: Ar.Pe.Pe. Rosso di Valtellina, Nebbiolo from Lombardy, Italy
This light-style wine made near the Swiss Alps has floral, cherry and cranberry flavors that go well with the pork and many other dishes on the menu. It’s priced at $70. For a less expensive alternative, try the Claus Preisinger, Blaufrankisch from Austria. This is a solid wine, with wild, brambly fruit flavors that bring out the spiciness of the rye in the pasta. It is $45 for the bottle.
This story was originally published in the February issue of Austin Woman Magazine. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand.
Austin’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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been writing about beer, wine, spirits cocktails, and sometimes food on What Are You Drinking for more than five years now. The intent is to share information about great drinks, the stories of the people who make the drinks that we love, and fantastic places to enjoy drinks. In 2015 I wrote 57 new stories for the blog.
I’m always interested to see what people are most interested in reading. This year, among my top 20 most read stories, 11 were about wine or the wine industry, 8 were about cocktails and spirits and 1 was about beer. A little less than half of the stories published on the blog were originally written for another outlet and then reposted here.
It turns out that my two most read stories this year were written in 2013. A comprehensive story about whiskey has lasting interest. The second most read is about Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka, which is a crazy popular brand.
Here are the top 20 most read stories on What Are You Drinking in 2015 that were written this year:
Wine bloggers are not journalists. They don’t abide by the same journalistic rigor or integrity as diploma carrying J-school grads. Tons of wine bloggers are mouth-breathers who can barely string together a coherent sentence. It’s surprising how little some bloggers actually know about wine. Wine bloggers just write to feed their egos or to get free wine or both.
At least that’s what I’ve been told by journalist friends, some winery owners and some PR people.
That is exactly the sentiment that UK based wine journalist and blogger, Jamie Goode expressed in his article, Wine media and the internet: are we drowning in a sea of mediocrity?. He said, “While there’s a lot of free, self-published content on the internet, much of it is of poor quality. The twin gate-keeping jobs of editors – hiring people who can actually write and then editing their work to improve it – was an important quality filter, and without it, there’s a lot of unreliable, mediocre material being published.”
I bet some of you think things like that about wine bloggers too.
Wine summer camp for a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks
I’ll admit that that negative perception was lurking in the back of my mind when I set out to attend the 8th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) in the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York in August. The Wine Bloggers Conference drew about 270 wine writers in search of tips to make them better at their craft. Was I heading to wine summer camp for a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks?
It was evident right from the opening reception put on by the Finger Lakes Wine Country, the group that hosted the conference, takes wine bloggers very seriously. The time, effort and expense it put in to receptions, winery tours and parties was astounding. The organization bet a lot that wine bloggers have the reach and influence to help showcase the fantastic wine and food scene in the Finger Lakes wine region of Upstate NY.
Endlessly curious about wine
Conference organizers clearly take wine bloggers seriously too. They booked one of the most renowned wine writers in the world to give the opening keynote. Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, had a packed house of bloggers hanging on her every word during her talk, “Breaking In, Breaking out.” in the world of wine writing.
Here is a writer, who broke into the business in 1976 when the only prominent wine writers were five stuffy old men. No women. She succeeded in landing prominent positions at the New York Times, Town & Country, and as the first Food and Wine editor of USA Today through perseverance and determination.
MacNeil called on her rich experience to dole out valuable advice to the hungry audience. She takes bloggers seriously and had a serious message for us.
“The speed of blogging can influence more than a magazine because of its currency and energy.”
While blogging is about speed and currency, MacNeil says that is no excuse for not being a great writer.
She encouraged us to agonize over our writing saying, “Don’t be a serviceable writer, be a great writer.”
To be a great writer, it is essential that bloggers know wine deeply. MacNeil says, “The unspoken contract is that you’ll be a learner, endlessly curious. Don’t play fast and loose with the facts. Aim really big and master the subject. Wine is worth knowing.”
Was she reading my mind? This is exactly the advice that I wanted to hear. It was exactly the advice that I thought all of these other creeten wine bloggers really needed to take to heart. I immediately had a total crush on Ms. MacNeil. Swoon.
A wonderful thing happened at the conference. I met a lot of incredibly passionate, seriously talented, creative, smart and knowledgeable wine bloggers. The majority of the people I met ardently strive to live up to MacKeil’s recommendations; be a great writer and know wine deeply.
Knowing wine, beyond just how to drink it, is a priority for many wine bloggers. Several people in attendance have studied wine intently including several Certified Sommeliers, a handful of people pursuing the WSET Diploma and even several aspiring Masters of Wine.
Quality writing is of paramount importance to a large swath of the bloggers who attended. Several bloggers also write for mainstream publications and some are book authors, like Madeline Puckette, who just published Wine Folly; The Essential Guide to Wine.
When the 2015 Wine Blog Award Winners were introduced, any hint of trepidation I may have had about the quality of some fellow bloggers’ writing vanished. I suddenly was feeling down-right intimidated by how good these bloggers are. The eloquence of Chris Kassel’s Intoxicology Report dazzles me. The levity of Stub’s videos on Cork Envy amuses me. The insight of Becca Yeamans, The Academic Wino, intrigues me.
A couple more Wine Blog Award winners packed a big hotel ballroom with their talk on how to improve wine writing. It was SOR for W Blake Gray (2012 winner), The Gray Report, and Meg Houston Maker, Maker’s Table (2015 winner). The audience’s enthusiastic response and active participation in the session was another clear sign that this was a large group of wine bloggers who take their writing very seriously. Maker published her talk in its entirety in the blog post, “The Story Only You Can Tell: Advice to Wine Bloggers.”
After only a few sessions at the WBC, it was clear: these are not a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks at wine summer camp.
Taking wine bloggers seriously
Not surprisingly several wineries and PR people recognize the importance of wine bloggers and make the trek to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference each year. (Yes, I am a PR and marketing guy who works with wineries, but I went as a blogger.)
Rodney Strong Vineyards has been involved as a sponsor of a WBC scholarship since the first conference in 2008, and funded the top scholarship this year. The winery sees this as an opportunity to support the writing community and increase its brand recognition. (Disclosure, I was the Rodney Strong scholarship recipient this year.)
Robert Larsen, the former head of communications at Rodney Strong and now at The Larsen Projekt, is pragmatic about the importance of bloggers.
“We started sponsoring the conference back then it was about supporting emerging wine writers. So many newspapers had cut wine writers, and there were fewer people to expose consumers to wine in a unique and interesting way. It’s a bummer that a big city like Chicago didn’t have its own wine writer at the Chicago Tribune. Who else locally can tell me about great wine and where to get it.”
Larsen explained that Rodney Strong’s involvement in the conference is a means to expand the winery’s relationship with writers who provide good content to consumers. The winery recognizes the reach of bloggers is expanding.
“Since the first WBC, so many bloggers have grown into national figures and have gotten great national writing gigs. It has given bloggers a voice to have fantastic experiences, learn about wine and share it. It’s also allowed people to develop into experts with speaking engagements and earn money from that or from big publications. The conference and blogging will continue to evolve. That’s why we stay involved.”
Other noteworthy wineries like Cornerstone Cellars and Jordan Vineyard & Winery recognize the value of supporting wine writers by sponsoring the WBC. Jordan been involved with the WBC since 2010, when it donated video services and created a blogger confessional area.
Lisa Mattson, director of marketing & communications at Jordan created a winery blog in 2009 that shares life in wine country and the stories behind its wine and culinary hospitality with videos and photos. It is a “takes one to know one” approach to wine blogger relations. “Being a part of the wine blogger community helps us learn how to be better bloggers, but also gives us an opportunity to build relationships with influential wine lovers like bloggers. Wine bloggers come from very diverse backgrounds across different age groups, and for an established brand like Jordan, staying connected with wine, food and travel bloggers gives us an opportunity to share the Jordan Winery of today–who we are, the seriousness of our wines and the fun we have doing what we love.”
One of the wine industry’s leading PR agencies, Balzac Communications and Marketing, has been involved in the WBC since the beginning. It sees the conference as a vital opportunity to make connections with wine writers that are an invaluable resource to the agency and its clients.
Michael Wangbickler, CEO and partner of Balzac, says, “We realized early on that blogging and social media would be important. Over the past decade, the wine blogging community has grown immensely… both in size and influence. Individually, most wine blogs don’t have huge audiences, but taken in aggregate they can move mountains. With the decreased quantity and influence of print outlets, online wine writing has become more and more important for wine consumers to find information about the subject they love. Wine bloggers have led that charge and continue to do so.”
Who gives a crap about wine bloggers?
Sure PR people and other bloggers thing wine bloggers are important, but do these bloggers actually reach wine drinkers? Probably. Increasingly people are get information about wine from the internet.
A recent study by Wine Opinions says that only 17 percent of millennials read traditional wine columnist and only 22 percent subscribe to a print wine magazine or newsletter. However, more than half of adults turn to the internet for the scoop on wine with 61 percent of boomers, 65 percent of Gen Xers and 50 percent of millennials.
That proclivity to turn to the web for info is leading lots of people to wine blogs. The UK-based online wine retailer, Exel Wines, recently published a list of the “Top 100 Most Influential Wine blogs of 2015” with a ranking based on empirical measures of online influence. Skimming the data of some of the top blogs shows that a lot of people are reading them and interacting with them on social media.
What is the verdict?
Blogs are relevant, but are they all worth the read? While there are many knowledgeable wine bloggers and dozens of well written sites, and hundreds of blogs that are very well read, not all wine blogs are created equal. Jamie Goode’s assertion that there is a lot of “unreliable, mediocre material being published” is still true.
Karen MacNeil has hope for wine blogging. She attended the WBC for the chance to interact with others who care as deeply about wine and wine culture as she does. In a post conference email exchange, she told me, “There’s a broad group of wine experts, wine writers and wine teachers coming up. I wanted to meet the ‘next set’ of exciting, knowledgeable wine people, and the Blogger’s Conference was one great way to do that.”
However, she sees wine blogging as a mixed bag, saying, “I met many people who I felt would go on to be great wine professionals; I also met some people who I thought weren’t very seriously committed to wine or writing…”
Yes, not all wine blogs are worth reading, but many are outstanding. The Wine Bloggers Conference is an excellent way to gather some of the best bloggers, encourage aspiring writers and provide the tools to help writers get better at their craft. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to attend the WBC to meet excellent bloggers and to be inspired to improve this blog.
What are your favorite wine blogs?
Related stories from the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference:
I love the traditions of the holidays. The Trail of Lights, the decadent treats, spending time with family around the Christmas tree, sitting on Santa’s lap, and sometimes even Christmas carols.
But not all Christmas carols. The indomitable repetition of that seemingly endless cumulative carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” is as maddening as it is catchy. It may draw on your nostalgic heartstrings, convincing you to sing along the first time you hear it each season, but after that …
Back in 1982, the Canadian comedy couple Bob and Doug McKenzie created a fantastic parody of the “12 Days of Christmas” that gleefully declares, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, beer.” To honor that sentiment, here are 12 festive drinks to have at home or a party to help you start new holiday traditions.
1. Beer is the right thing to have on the first day of Christmas in a nod to Bob and Doug. A good choice is Rahr & Sons Winter Warmer, a dark English-style ale with dried fruit and chocolate flavors. These guys in Fort Worth know how to make a solid brew. It’s great on its own and pairs incredibly well with gingerbread.
2. The second day calls for a delicious holiday twist on a classic cocktail, a perfect way to prep your appetite for a big holiday meal. The boozy Cynar Manhattan made with double-proof Cynar 70 is one of the best tasting versions of a Manhattan you’ll ever have. The newly introduced big brother of Cynar has the same balance of bitter and sweet flavors with festive hints of spice and herbs.
Stir the ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with maraschino cherries.
3. The third day deserves a classic wine to celebrate the holidays: a stout cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet is a bear skin rug in front of the fire. To really wow your holiday guests, grab the 2012 Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown cabernet sauvignon single vineyard, a Sonoma County beauty bursting with the lovely smell of plum and chocolate and powerful blackberry, black cherry, licorice, and dark chocolate flavors with a bit of cedar lingering on the finish. Whether you serve this with a sumptuous beef Wellington or on its own, it’s sure to dazzle for $75.
Another choice is the 2012 Experience Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with viscous flavors of spiced black currant, jammy plum, and dried strawberry. It’s great with rib roast for $25.
The third day calls for a third bottle of wine. An easygoing and unpretentious choice for the neighborhood party is 2013 Sterling Vintner’s Collection cabernet sauvignon. This Central Coast cab packs in a load of blackberry, ripe blueberry, dark chocolate, and vanilla flavors with a sprinkle of baking spice. Pick it up for $27.
4. The fourth day warrants a lush wine. Merlot is the Snuggie of the wine world: soft, cuddly, and oh so comforting. An incredibly elegant merlot for the holidays is the 2012 Matanzas Creek Winery Jackson Park Vineyard merlot. This Sonoma County vineyard is planted with the same grapes as one of the most famous Bordeaux wineries, Petrus. It’s velvety smooth with plum, blueberry, and boysenberry jam flavors and a bitter-sweet chocolate finish. The Matanzas Creek merlot goes incredibly well with roasted duck and sells for $60.
5. The fifth day asks for a slightly more rustic wine. Syrah is a walk through the woods to find just the right Christmas tree. The 2012 Qupé Santa Barbara County syrah ($30), made with biodynamic or organically grown grapes from the cool climates of the Santa Maria Valley and the Edna Valley in California, is as wild, funky, and brambly as any French Rhone wine. This little number is bounding with blackberry, cranberry tarts, and spiced with herbs and pepper. Serve it with a festive grilled lamb for the holidays.
6. The sixth day requires a playful wine. Petite sirah is a kiss under the mistletoe. For one big, bold kiss go with the 2013 Parducci True Grit Reserve petite sirah from Mendocino County, California. It has dusty raspberry scents, tart raspberry, Luden’s cherry cough drops, and blueberry pie with a healthy dollop of tannin. Yum! It is a great wine with steak and sells for $30.
7. The seventh day is a good time for portable wine. Grab a can of Underwoodrosé from the Union Wine Company of Oregon to sip while you look at holiday light displays. The half-bottle size can be enjoyed in a crowd, and the fresh watermelon, strawberry, and tart lemon flavors pair resplendently with funnel cake. Pick up a four-pack for $24.
8. The eighth day is all about cuddly comfort. Pinot noir is the purr of a snuggly kitten, velvet furred and wispy tongued. A classic from the Eola-Amity Hills in Oregon, the 2013 Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate pinot noir gleams like Dorothy’s ruby slippers with aromas of wet leaves, Bing cherries, and mocha. It has bright black cherry, raspberry, and chocolate flavors that give way to an earthiness characteristic of Oregon pinot noir. It is great with salmon and sells for $30.
9. The ninth day is a little naughty. Cinsaut is a tryst at the office Christmas party. Emblematic of a night of debauchery is the 2014 Bonny Doon cinsaut counoise from vineyards in California’s Paso Robles, Mendocino, and Lodi. Its looks are deceiving. The light ruby color of this wine is as delicate as the newest Beaujolais Nouveau, but its taste is anything but subtle. Wild strawberry, raspberry, and cranberry scents endorse the red berry, satiny chocolate, and herbal flavors. It pairs exceedingly well with quail and sells for $35.
10. The 10th day is sophisticated. There is nothing as erudite as a snifter of brandy. A Spanish delight, Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva is made from Palomino grapes and aged for 15 years in the same intricate fashion that sherry is made. The century-old oak casks used in the aging give it vanilla and honey flavors that envelop a bourbon-esque core like a velvet smoking jacket. Serve it at room temperature to savor the unmistakable imprint of sherry with its telltale oxidized sea-breeze taste. I could sip this all night after opening gifts. Deelish. It goes for $46.
11. The 11th day wakes up early for a cup of coffee. Coffee with a dose of cheer, of course. Coffee with liquor is the next best thing to snuggling with a ski bunny. Pour a couple ounces of Frangelico into your cup. The sweet hazelnut and vanilla flavors will perk up any morning. Pouring from the distinct bottle with the rope belt is a lot of fun too. Be careful not to overdo it because even in coffee it can get you drunk as a monk. Grab a bottle for $25.
12. By the 12th day you are bound to be in need of a tummy soothing digestif. Amaro Averna soothes the flames of holiday indulgence with a luxurious blend of honey and bitter-sweet chocolate flavors. Sip a small glass neat or with an ice cube and let the sweet, thick herbs and citrus do their trick. It’s a lovely way to wind down the holidays for $30/bottle.
If you must sing a Christmas carol while enjoying any of these drinks, please make it “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Cheers to a happy holiday!
This story was originally published on CultureMap.
Disclosure: I received samples to review of most of the products included in this post.
There are dozens of wineries in the Texas Hill country, with many of them congregated along the 30 mile stretch between Johnson City and Fredericksburg on or near Highway 290. In a sign that the booming growth of the Texas wine industry isn’t slowing down, the folks behind Pedernales Cellars are opening a new tasting room for its second label, Armadillo’s Leap wines on Tuesday, December 8.
The Kuhlken-Osterberg family, who opened the Pedernales Cellars tasting room in Stonewall on December 8, 2008, are celebrating the winery’s seventh anniversary with the opening of Armadillo’s leap. The new tasting room is just a leap west from the current winery, located at 6258 Highway 290 in Fredericksburg. The quaint stone and log building used to be home to the Pink Pig restaurant and is well-situated in the high-traffic winery crawl.
The wines, made by Pedernales winemaker, David Kuhlken, are more value oriented than the Pedernales line-up with price from $14.99 to $29.99 per bottle. The accessible, playful wines include a Sparkling Moscato, a Viognier-Roussanne blend, a red blend, a Viognier, and a Muscat. They are offered as part of a six-wine tasting menu for $10 a person.
“We’re delighted to be opening this new tasting room directly on the 290 Wine Trail,” said Julie Kuhlken, co-owner of Armadillo’s Leap. “We’ve enjoyed launching Armadillo’s Leap and creating this brand of wines, and we felt the time was right to give them a higher profile with their own tasting room. We look forward to more people discovering how fun they are, starting with a label that pays homage, albeit tongue-in-cheek, to a truly Texas animal.”
The tasting room will be open 11-6 every day, except for major holidays.
The holidays are ripe for indulgence. It’s a perfect time for pampering family, friends and yourself. The ultimate culinary extravagance is the pairing of champagne and caviar: bliss! Both are tiny festive balloons bursting with joy, just for you.
What’s so special about the salted eggs of a sturgeon? It’s that almost magical pop of the delicate shell that showers your mouth with insanely delicious buttery, saline and fishy goodness. Nothing else can replicate the tactile experience or flavor.
Who was the first person to eat the gray-black eggs of a scary fish that looks like it just swam out of the brackish waters of Jurassic Park? Some say Greek philosopher Aristotle and his cronies were diggin’ sturgeon roe way back in the fourth century B.C. While the Persians (aka, Iranians) may be the first to salt sturgeon eggs from the Southern Caspian Sea, it’s the Russian czars who gave caviar its fame as an extravagance. Its popularity spread when the Russians started selling it as a luxury item to European royalty in the 16th century.
Caviar caught on big in the United States in the late 1800s, and by 1910, sturgeon were almost extinct in the U.S., resulting in the halting of domestic production. Similarly, the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea was decimated by overfishing, poaching and pollution. In 1988, sturgeon was listed as an endangered species, but poaching for the lucrative black-market trade after the fall of the U.S.S.R. devastated the industry. Wild beluga and osetra sturgeon have been fished to near extinction.
As a result of scarcity and regulations limiting the harvest of wild sturgeon, caviar prices have soared. Fortunately, farming sturgeon provides cost-effective and sustainable access to the good stuff.
Order Like a Pro
You don’t have to be an in-the-know aficionado to get good caviar in a restaurant or store. Just follow a few basic tips.
Buy enough. You’ll want at least a 30-gram tin (about 1 ounce) for two people, but the ideal serving is 50 grams per person.
Know what you are getting. Caviar is the unfertilized salt-cured fish egg that can come from 26 different species of sturgeon. Look for nationality and species of fish on the tin—Russian sevruga, Iranian osetra or California sturgeon—to know what you are getting. While items like salmon caviar are technically roe and not caviar, it is common to find affordable eggs called whitefish caviar or trout caviar. Caviar is graded by the color, size and texture of its beads. The finest caviars are larger eggs that are lighter in color with firmer beads that pop in your mouth. If you are new to caviar, try milder styles like Chinese shassetra or American white sturgeon. Make sure it is fresh. Caviar stays fresh for four weeks unopened when well refrigerated. Once opened, caviar starts to soften and gets fishier. It will only keep for a day or possibly two when stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
That beluga isn’t what you think it is. Beluga is widely regarded as the finest caviar, but in 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed beluga sturgeon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It’s currently illegal in the U.S., however, you may see river beluga caviar, or kaluga caviar, on a menu. It’s a scrumptious substitute with large, firm and luscious pearls. Sustainably raised caviar is a good thing. Because most species of sturgeon are now considered endangered, sustainably raised, farmed caviar and other fish roe are great alternatives to wild caviar. Wild-harvested sturgeon are killed for their eggs, while eggs from farm-raised sturgeon are live harvested. Look for farm-raised varieties like white sturgeon or paddlefish roe.
The Proper Way to Eat Caviar
Eat caviar in small bites, served right out of the tin with a nonmetallic spoon made of mother-of-pearl, wood or even plastic. Let the eggs spread on your tongue and pop those lovely pearls on the roof of your mouth to let the rich, nutty, buttery, salty, fishy flavors explode across your palate.
Alternately, caviar is delightful when served with blini, toast points or cold boiled potatoes with a dollop of creme fraiche—all excellent neutral backdrops that won’t compete with the flavor of caviar.
How to Select Champagne
Champagne is a must for pairing with caviar. The tart acidity of champagne and silky texture exquisitely enhance the enchanting, salty flavor of the caviar. It’s a match made in heaven. Even when excluding all styles of sparkling wine made outside the champagne region of France, there are still several styles to choose from. Follow these tips to simplify the selection of champagne.
Ask for advice. Go to a restaurant with a sommelier who can make suggestions or visit a reputable wine shop and ask for advice from the smart people who work there. Sommeliers and wine-shop owners spend all day, every day recommending wine, and are great resources for finding the best champagne for the money.
Know what you like. Do you prefer sweet or dry? Demi-sec, sec and extra dry are sweet, while brut and extra brut are dry.
Do you like your wine to be tarter or richer? Champagne made with all chardonnay grapes, called blanc de blanc, is more elegant, with lemon-juice freshness and high acidity. Champagne made with pinot noir is typically bigger, richer and more structured.
Pick your year. Champagne made with wine from multiple years is called non-vintage and will have “NV” on the label. It is usually less expensive than vintage-dated champagne. If you choose vintage champagne, some good years to consider are 1995, 2002, 2004 and 2008.
Consider being adventurous. If you want a solid champagne without spending a lot of time scouring the wine list, pick a non-vintage bottle from one of the major houses, like Bollinger, Krug, Moët & Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot. If you feel more adventurous, try a grower champagne, or fizzy wine made by the same house that grows up to 88 percent of their own grapes rather than buying it from other sources. Look for a tiny “RM” on the label, meaning récoltant-manipulant, which signifies it is an independent grower and producer. It’s possible to find high-quality champagne at a great price from houses like Egly-Ouriet, Guy Charlemagne, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils and Serge Mathieu.
Where to Get it in Austin
There are several stores in Austin that sell quality caviar, but two with high-quality caviar year-round include:
Lone Star Caviar
As the only caviar-specific retailer in Central Texas, Lone Star Caviar sells a wide array of wild caviar, from domestic sturgeon in a 4-ounce container for $280, to golden osetra imported from Iran in a 3.5-ounce tin for $350. To ensure freshness, the retailer only keeps a small amount in stock. Proprietor Bill Kirchenbauer recommends calling ahead to pre-order. He delivers in the Austin area usually within 24 hours.
Whole Foods Market
Each Whole Foods location carries a limited selection of caviar year-round and increases the selection to six to 10 varieties during the holidays. Ryan Boudreaux, a seafood coordinator, says Whole Foods carries caviar from small, sustainably farmed, artisanal companies like Tsar Nicoulai Select California Estate Osetra. Various quality levels are available, from a farmed white American sturgeon for $40 for an ounce, to a reserve-style white sturgeon caviar for $90 an ounce.
Whole foods follows its seafood-sustainability practices for the purchase of caviar, which precludes it from buying Russian sturgeon. It only carries fresh caviar. Boudreaux recommends customers talk to a fishmonger to check the date of caviar before buying it. It has a finite shelf life of 60 to 90 days. He recommends packing it in ice, even for a short drive home.
This neighborhood seafood restaurant and raw bar has the casual charm of a beachside bistro. Known for its outstanding oysters and bangin’ cocktails, it also has a respectable selection of champagne and caviar.
The sparkling-wine list offers a diversity of styles and prices, with nine types, ranging from $44 to $240 a bottle.
“Our sparkling-wine selection gets rotated frequently,” says June Rodil, master sommelier and wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality. “I think it’s important to have a mix of non-champagne as well as champagne from the big houses, grower-producers and non-vintage and vintage to fit the menu.”
The Clark’s caviar lineup, chosen by Chef John Beasley, follows the same principle of offering a variety of styles and prices. Beasley selects caviar and seafood only from sustainable sources. He looks for clear consistency of the beads and flavor varieties for five to seven styles. The menu caries inexpensive golden whitefish roe and wild paddlefish caviar starting at $30 an ounce, as well as a selection of white sturgeon and osetra for as much as $240 for 50 grams. Each is served in a traditional setup, with a mother-of-pearl spoon, blini, creme fraiche and a selection of garnishes. The Clark’s servers are trained to provide recommendations on caviar to help guests make a good choice for their taste preferences and budget.
“Less expensive fish roe, like paddlefish, have a more mellow, murky and earthy flavor,” Rodil says, “When you move up to sturgeon, you’re starting to get an unctuous, rich, beautiful, rounded bead with an almost mineral and clean taste.”
The perfect pick: For a flawless pairing, Rodil recommends the royal white sturgeon caviar and Guy Larmandier Grand Cru Champagne, served in half bottles.
“A half bottle is the perfect amount to have by yourself with caviar,” she explains. “It’s made with 100 percent chardonnay and super powerful. The caviar is a little quieter, so it goes well with the chardonnay. The wine is like a laser cutting through the creaminess of the caviar, creme fraiche and egg. [It’s the] perfect texture with the texture of the caviar. It’s a middle-tier splurge, so you can get it again if you fall in love and not feel too guilty.”
One of Austin’s finest fine-dining restaurants, Congress really knows how to do elegant meals. Caviar feels right at home here. Champagne is a staple.
The Congress wine lists boasts more than 20 types of sparkling wine, the majority of which are Champagne. The list runs the gamut, from the non-vintage André Clouet Grande Reserve Brut at $68, to the prestigious 2000 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill Brut for $436.
Executive Chef David Bull has gathered stacks of prominent national awards for his craftsmanship of cuisine. Among his stellar dishes, he always has a selection that includes caviar.
“We change our caviar selection four to five times a year,” Bull says. “We want the right seasonally available ingredients. In the fall and winter months, the quality of caviar is much better. It’s all about the spawning. We incorporate farm-raised golden osetra from the Caspian Sea in a dedicate dish made with cauliflower mousse with a brown-butter cracker to highlight the flavor of caviar. It’s interactive. Use the crackers to dig in. It’s a fun experience.”
Bull’s driving force when sourcing caviar is to find high-quality eggs with the right color and separation of whole eggs that aren’t broken, as well as a good flavor profile, but caviar that’s still affordable so it’s not intimidating. However, his top priority is to serve sustainable ingredients.
“It’s a chef’s responsibility to make sure he’s not serving an endangered animal,” Bull says. “I make sure we are getting farm-raised caviar.”
It might not always be on the menu, but Congress offers stand-alone caviar service. During the holidays, look for farm-raised golden Caspian osetra served with a boiled egg, red onion, parsley and capers and toasted brioche. It’s served by the ounce for about $70.
“It’s a great bar snack if you can afford it,” says Jason Stevens, director of bars and beverage at La Corsha Hospitality, which owns Congress.
The perfect pick: Stevens gets downright misty eyed when he describes the perfect combination of champagne with that bar snack.
“I like a non-vintage champagne, like Krug Brut Grande Cuvee, that has a little bit of age because it is important to have a nuttiness come out in the champagne to match the nuttiness of the caviar,” he says. “It’s really beautiful. The flavor is one thing but the textural element is another. When eating caviar, it’s so fun for me to crush the caviar on the soft palate of my mouth and let that buttery oiliness come out. The bubbles of the champagne combine with it to create an elegant, creamy mousse. The high acid cuts through the richness and lets the delicate aspects come out to play.”
Alternately, he recommends a very cold shot of vodka.
“I would make a shot with five parts of potato vodka and one part of super chilled akvavit,” he says. “Take a bite of caviar, take a taste of vodka and then more caviar. Rinse and repeat. What a lovely way to spend the evening.”
A couple years ago, Bon Appétit magazine named Jeffrey’s one of its Top 50 New Restaurants when it reopened under new ownership by McGuire Moorman Hospitality, which also owns Clark’s. It’s accurate to say it has only gotten better with age.
With one of only three master sommeliers in Austin responsible for the wine list, it’s no surprise Jeffrey’s stocks an exquisite selection of champagne. Wine and Beverage Director June Rodil organized the list by grower champagnes and négociant-manipulant champagnes in either brut or rosé. It touts superb bottles such as 2004 Bollinger Grande Année Brut, 1988 Le Brun-Servenay Champagne Exception Avize Grand Cru and 1989 Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut.
“We have a lot of guests who are really into wine,” Rodil says. “Our sommelier team can answer their deep questions and get people conscious about what they want to drink. We have a large selection of great champagnes, with about 35 labels. I print our list every week and that changes regularly.”
French-trained Executive Chef Rebecca Meeker, who honed her culinary skills at Chef Joël Robuchon’s restaurants in New York and Taiwan, along with Chef David Whalen, sample caviar weekly to find the very best. Like the champagne list, the caviar selection changes regularly to ensure Jeffrey’s always has the freshest possible high-end caviar. The restaurant typically carries one or two styles, such as Iranian osetra or royal osetra from Israel.
Jeffrey’s serves caviar in a traditional way, accompanied by blini, creme fraiche, chopped onions and chopped boiled eggs. As an alternative to the mother-of-pearl spoon, Rodil recommends “caviar bumps.”
“It is super trendy,” she says. “People eat caviar off the back of their hands. It makes a lot of sense, as long as your hands are clean and free of odor. After all, you know you’re own scent, and because of that, caviar is the only flavor you taste. Caviar is such a delicate thing, you don’t want any other flavors interfering.”
The perfect pick: To go with that royal osetra caviar bump, Rodil recommends a 2006 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut.
“Cristal is a pinot noir-dominant blend,” she says. “It’s delicate, with the big richness to go with the intensity and the richness of the bubble of royal osetra. It is richness of bubbles paired with the richness of the bubbles. The 2006 vintage is big, lush, with great acidity. High-status caviar deserves to be served with high-status champagne. People think about Jeffry’s as a celebratory meal. It’s easy to indulge here.”
Elegance without pretense is the pervasive vibe at LaV. The atmosphere is imbued with subtle sophistication, from the art on the walls and the light fixtures to the intricate details of the dishes on the French Provençal-inspired menu. In this setting, champagne and caviar almost seem like a must.
With one of the city’s most expansive wine lists, overseen by Sommelier Rania Zayyat, it’s easy to find an exquisite bottle of champagne. LaV has more than 40 Champagnes available, with bottles starting at about $100 and increasing to the $975 1989 Krug Collection. The expansive list can be a bit overwhelming, but Zayyat, an advanced sommelier, helps guests easily navigate the waters.
Caviar at LaV is on the down-low. It isn’t printed on the menu and is only offered by the server.
“It’s for people in the know,” Zayyat says. “It’s contagious. When people hear about it or see people eating it, they want it.”
If you are one of the people in the know (and you are now), you’ll find Black River osetra from Uruguay available in a 1-ounce portion for $200. The organic and sustainably farmed sturgeon from the Rio Negro River is malossol style, meaning it’s cured with a little salt to preserve it and retain its natural flavor. The dark-gray medium-sized pearls are served with a touch of whimsy: LaV rolls out the tin with a mother-of-pearl spoon and the traditional accouterments, including creme fraiche, egg yolk, egg whites, shallots and chives, but instead of blini, it offers house-cut potato chips.
The perfect pick: Zayyat recommends picking champagne that isn’t too old or too rich.
“You’ll want carbonation and freshness,” she says. “Caviar is so delicate of a flavor, you don’t want to overpower it with something too old, oxidized or too rich. Blanc de blanc is a great accompaniment. It is more elegant with more acidity, lighter body and finesse that goes well with the saltiness and brings out the nutty, creamy flavor and sweeter finish of the osetra. Champagne is a perfect palate cleanser and it softens the brininess of caviar. The carbonation goes well with the popping of the beads on your tongue. Champagne goes great with fried food. The potato chips we’re doing are a perfect match. It’s very fun and playful.”
As an alternative, Zayyat says Russian vodka is classic. She recommends slightly chilled Beluga Noble Vodka as an amazing pairing.
This is a vodka den. The Russian-themed family restaurant, bedecked with Soviet-era flags and paraphernalia, has 101 flavors of infused vodka in a dizzying array of fruit, herbal, floral and dessert flavors, as well as unexpected flavors like bacon, cigar and a Stubb’s BBQ flavor, in decanters that line the wall behind the bar. Executive Chef Vladimir Gribkov’s signature infused vodka has 35 Russian herbs and spices, and tastes a bit like brandy.
Owned by husband-and-wife team Grivkov and Varda Salkey, Russian House is a celebration of Russian culture beyond just food and drink. Salkey, a member of the Russian Olympic basketball team, and Grivkov, a chef for more than 25 years in Europe and Russia, moved to the U.S. and saw an opportunity to open the first Russian restaurants in Austin. The menu features classics like cold beef tongue, borscht, golubtsy and family recipes that have been passed down through the generations.
The menu also includes a nice assortment of roe and caviar, chosen by Grivkov. It starts with treats like a boiled egg stuffed with red salmon caviar and progresses to Russian Siberian sturgeon baerii and, at the top of the heap, beluga supreme malossol for $220 for a 20-gram portion. This is the river variety and not the illegal wild beluga.
General Manager Roman Butvin escaped the cold winters of Moscow to move to Austin, and joined the team at Russian House shortly after it opened in 2012.
“Both red [salmon] caviar and black [sturgeon] caviar are popular in Russia,” he says. “The salmon caviar is more affordable, easier to find and has very fine roe. Black caviar is a bit more upscale. All of our black caviar is from the Caspian Sea.”
Russian House offers a traditional caviar service, with the caviar in a crystal bowl accompanied by a plate of baguettes, blintzes and blini, as well as Russian-style non-pasteurized butter, creme fraiche, capers and onions.
“In Russia, we eat it either with blini or a baguette with butter on top and caviar,” Butvin says. “We also serve boiled eggs with a mixture of cream cheese topped with red caviar. It’s a festive Russian appetizer.”
The perfect pick: Butvin suggests pairing caviar with vodka or champagne, but notes vodka is really the way to go.
“We have pairings [that] are with plain vodka and not-infused vodka,” he says. “It’s important to keep the flavor of the caviar prominent, and you don’t want to interfere with the flavor of the infused vodkas. We have set vodka-and-caviar pairings on the menu, with all of the bestvodkas included, like Stoli Elit, Double Cross, Russian Standard Platinum, and our most expensive vodka is also called Beluga.”
Russian House also offers a selection of champagne, including André Clouet, Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial and vintage Dom Pérignon.
Here is a shot in the arm that is sorely needed for the Texas wine industry. The organizers of the 2016 Wine Tourism Conference selected Fredericksburg and the Texas Hill Country as the hosts for next year’s shindig. This is just the second time that the conference will be held outside the West Coast and the first time it will be held in the southern U.S.
I recently wrote about the need for a more concerted effort in Texas wine tourism in my article, “I’m Embarrassed to be Texan,” and this is a great step in the right direction.
The 2016 Wine Tourism Conference will take place November 8-10, 2016 in Fredericksburg, TX, with seminars, discussions, and business information about growing and improving wine tourism.
Wine Tourism Conference Director, Allan Wright, said, “The Wine Tourism Conference will bring wine tourism industry leaders from throughout the country and world to Texas. This is not only a great opportunity for Texans to meet and learn from top wine tourism experts but also a showcase for the booming wine tourism industry in the state.”
The Texas Hill Country Wineries‘ successful bid to land the conference was in no-doubt aided by the regions recent national recognition and its growing reputation for both quality wine and as an excellent tourism destination. The Texas Hill Country wine industry was named one of the “ten best wine travel destinations in the world for 2014” by Wine Enthusiast and one of the “10 Best Wine Destinations” by USA Today.
Fredericksburg is home to more than 30 wineries and tasting rooms, making it a major concentration of the more than 350 wineries in Texas. Its located smack in the Texas Hill Country American Viticultural Area (AVA), which is the third largest AVA in the nation.
“Texas Hill Country Wineries is thrilled to host the 2016 Wine Tourism Conference in the heart of Texas Wine Country,” says January Wiese, executive director of the Texas Hill Country Wineries. “We are ready to welcome our colleagues from all over the world and have planned a number of excellent events to really share what the thriving Texas wine industry has to offer.”
The conference will be organized by Zephyr Adventures, with sponsorship coming from the Texas Hill Country Wineries Association, the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau, and the GOTEXAN program of the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Time to get organized to show the world just how great Texas wine really is. To really make hay with this, the Texas wine industry would be well served to seek broader public and private funding for longer-term wine tourism and marketing programs. It would be a shame for this event to come and go with out long-lasting plans to make the most of the effort.