Forget Sochi: Elite sommeliers compete in ‘wine Olympics’ during Somms Under Fire

Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie

In just over two weeks, some of the world’s best athletes will compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Whether it’s speed skating or snowboarding, the one thing that is certain is that the athletes have trained like mad to make it to the big stage. Here in Austin, we’re hosting a mini Olympics of our own. But this is for wine. Three sommeliers will battle in a test of wine and food pairings in Somms Under Fire on January 26, at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center on the University of Texas campus.

To earn a spot in the competition, more than two dozen applicants from nine states took an insanely difficult — and timed — written exam testing their wine knowledge. The three people who scored highest and will now go head-to-head are advanced sommelier, Paula de Pano, of Fearrington House in Pittsboro, North Carolina,  advanced sommelier Nathan Prater, of Wines.com in Austin, Texas, and certified sommelier James Watkins of Cordua Restaurants in Houston, Texas.

“Becoming a sommelier and competing in this contest takes an incredible amount of training,” said Devon Broglie, the Somms Under Fire emcee. “Any sommelier that wants to compete in this event has to make sacrifices while accepting an overhanging cloud that they might not be successfully achieve it. Just like with the Olympics, there is no guarantee that the hard work will pay off. These three have the pressure of not only knowing their wine, but also performing in front of an audience and a panel of judges including two master sommeliers.”

Somms Under Fire Burgundy WinesThe judging panel will be more intimidating than a Russian figure skating judge. Global wine consultant, Peter Wasserman, returns from Burgundy to serve as judge. He will be joined by James Beard Award winning wine writer, Jordan McKay, from San Francisco, Copain winemaker, Wells Guthery, from Sonoma County and the winemaker from Castiglione Falletto Winery, Elisa Scavino, from Piedmont, Italy.

Now in its third year, Somms Under Fire is no longer drawing only local contestants. As the event grows in notoriety, it is attracting a national audience. In fact the three stand-by contestants are from Atlanta, Chicago and Washington D.C. It doesn’t hurt that the Grand Prize is a one-week internship in Burgundy, France led by Master of Wine and Burgundy expert, Jasper Morris.

There will be local flavor as contestants to pair three courses created by Chef Shawn Cirkiel of Parkside Projects  (ParksideOlive & JuneBackspace and the forthcoming Chavez) paired by the contestants with wines from around the world. Guests will get to sample each wine and food combination.

Diane Dixon, founder of Keeper Collection, LLC, the event organizer, said, “Shawn is a huge proponent of treating food and wine professionally. He wanted to participate in this event to have his food associated with wine professionals who know how to match wine with great food. The fun will be that the sommeliers will be surprised by the food he prepares and the types of wine available to pair with it.”

In addition to being judged on wine and food pairings, the sommeliers will also have a second challenge in their beverage biathlon. The QuickMix Cocktail Challenge will test the sommeliers’ ability to make a delicious drink using saké instead of spirits. Bartender Jason Stevens of Congress Austin, returns to judge the “saketail” competition. The contestants will create their own recipe using no more than two ounces of sake to make a three ounce cocktail using no other spirits. Ingredients can cost no more than $1.00 per drink. Stevens will award points not only for the flavor, but also for the sommeliers’ story about how the ingredients selected reflect their personality. Audience members get to drink the results.

The whole event starts with a one hour VIP session hosted by noted Burgundy expert, Peter Wasserman, who will pour five classic vintages of Burgundy wines. He will describe how weather affects each vintage, how sub-regions vary in style and give guests tips on learning to love this coveted French wine region.

The VIP session for 2014 Somms Under Fire Competition begins at 5 pm and the general admission for the wine and food pairing event starts at 6 pm on Sunday. VIP tickets are $125 and General Admission are $60.   The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas is a presenting partner.

This story was originally posted on CultureMap.

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Bringing Out the Best in Wine Professionals at Somms Under Fire

Scott Ota, sommelierI blame Julia Child. Everywhere you turn, you can find people obsessed with finding the ultimate culinary experience. We see it on TV with a flood of cooking shows, we see it in print with dozens of magazines dedicated to food and wine and we see it when we walk down the street with excellent restaurants helmed by creative chefs and wine professionals dedicated to providing the best dining experience possible.

This frenzy for the best food and wine is matched by the increasing professional quality of wine stewards and sommeliers. In Austin we have a community of sommeliers that is growing and motivated to continually get better. That drive for improvement is evident in the strong participation in education sessions like TEXSOM and competitions like Somms Under Fire, a food and wine pairing competition.

Event organizers, Diane Dixon, founder of Keeper Collection, and Marshall Jones, executive director of The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, hosted an invitation-only Burgundy Tasting at the Red Room Lounge to fan the flames for the next Somms Under Fire. Dixon described the gathering as an inviting way for people to connect with wine professionals to learn more about the wines of Burgundy in a fun setting in the industry.

Past winners of Somms Under Fire Scott Ota, wine captain and sommelier of The Driskill Grill, and June Rodil, sommelier and general manager of the über hot Qui Restaurant, were on hand to share their experiences from their Grand Prize, a one-week internship in Burgundy, France under the tutelage of author, Master of Wine and Burgundy expert, Jasper Morris.

Ota and Rodil both participated in Morris’ Burgundy Symposium, which is part of Burgundy Bootcamp Collection, as guests of Becky Wasserman Selections. Through the internship they had an immersive learning experience in vineyards and wineries and the opportunity to taste and serve the wines during the program’s tastings and dinners.

“There is only one sommelier in the country invited to do this internship,” said Rodil. “It has been one of the most sought out opportunities for sommeliers around the country. Now it’s specified that the one somm who gets to go to the internship is winner of the Somms Under Fire competition. This is an amazing prize. It’s crazy.”

“Somms Under Fire brings a lot of attention to the quality of sommeliers working in our market,” said Ota. “It’s an excellent competition to show the skills of sommeliers in cocktails and food and wine pairings. The grand prize of the internship is fantastic. The opportunity to cook with the Wassermans at their house drinking old German wine was spectacular. The seminars the vintage symposium, the visits to infamous vineyards and the opportunity to talk to different producers was a chance of a lifetime. The best wine experience I’ve ever had.”

The experience in Burgundy has influenced how both Rodil and Ota prepare the wine lists for their respective restaurants. Rodil commented, “I’ve always enjoyed Burgundy, but it the internship broadened my horizon about producers by exposing me to a wide range of wines from the entire region. We tasted up and coming producers and older established winemakers alike. I started seeking them out after being over there, and I carry six Burgundies on the wine list at Qui.”

Ota added, “I can’t put it into words how valuable this experience has been. It has made me a better wine buyer and sommelier. When I select bottles of Burgundy for my wine list (The Driskill carries 20), I can picture different wineries on the road and remember the remarkable vintages.”

 

Calling all Sommeliers

The competition just to get into the competition is fierce, with only three spots open to contestants. Dixon wouldn’t disclose how many people applied compete last year, but said “yes” when I asked if there were 20 or 30 applicants. She is eager to get an equally good crop of candidates for the next competition.

“We want to extend the outreach to contestants from anywhere in the world, not just Texas,” said Dixon. “We will announce the application it at TEXSOM and will work with Master Sommeliers to recommend up and coming sommeliers that they know. The quality of sommeliers competing has been outstanding with two Advanced Somms in the event this year. It shows that there is a real desire among top sommeliers to participate.”

Rodil was emphatic in her encouragement of sommeliers to throw their hat in the ring. “Do it! I don’t know how to explain how special this experience is. It’s not something you can dream up as a wine professional.”

This year’s Somms Under Fire Cocktail Competition winner, Bill Elsey, hopes to compete again in 2014. He also won a beautiful Champagne saber as a prize for being selected the Fan Favorite and demonstrated how to use it at the Burgundy tasting. Unfortunately the bottle had other plans and exploded in his hands (I’ve seen him do it successfully in other situations).

The next Somms Under Fire Competition will be held on January 26, 2014 at The Scottish Rite Theater.  Sommeliers will be selected to participate in the competition based on their knowledge of wine and their outstanding professional experience in the industry. I’m looking forward to eating and drinking my way through their suggested pairings again next year.

This story also appeared on CultureMap.

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