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.

What are you drinking?

Meet the Tastemakers: Austin’s top sommeliers share inspiration and favorite wines for celebrations

Just as a winemaker has to combine an artful flair with precise chemistry to make fine wine, a sommelier needs to combine a skillful touch with customer service and deep wine knowledge to master their craft. In the wine world, success is a case of “Right brain, meet left brain. You two play nicely.”

The dazzling emergence of a serious culinary scene in Austin in recent years has been accompanied by an equally stunning development of a fine wine culture fostered by a community of highly trained wine experts. Austin has a growing number of sommeliers who have dedicated long hours to studying all aspects of wine and proper service techniques to be able to provide a memorable experience at area restaurants and wine bars.

Nominees for the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards share their inspirations and their favorite wines for celebrations.

Bill Elsey, The Red Room Lounge

Advanced Sommelier Bill Elsey started in the wine industry at Duchman Family Winery right out of college. He rose through the ranks from part-time tasting room to bar manager at Trattoria Lisina, the Italian restaurant on the Duchman property. That is where he first discovered his passion for wine by tasting high-end Italian Barolo, Barbaresco as a wine buyer.

“I also fell in love with Champagne. I was introduced to Guy Larmandier Champagne Blanc de Blancs, and it was the first time I tasted small production, grower-producer champagne. My reaction was, ‘Wow! I love this stuff.’ It was a catalyst for getting into Champagne, and it’s still my favorite beverage.”

That passion turned into a focused pursuit of the coveted Master Sommelier certification, the fourth level in the Court of Master Sommeliers. He studies for hours each week on his own and in study groups with other dedicated sommeliers — including fellow Tastemaker nominees. The studying paid off and he won the Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011 title at TexSomm five years to the day after starting in the wine industry. Elsey recently added winner of the 2013 Cocktail Quick Mix Challenge at Somms Under Fire to his resume.

In October 2011, he joined Personal Wine as sommelier and later expanded his role to run the wine program at The Red Room Lounge. Elsey’s “awe, shucks” small town background (he grew up in Wimberley) and easy-going demeanor allow him to easily talk with a wide range of customers. He is adept at finding the right wine for the casual customer with little wine knowledge and able to impress the best informed wine aficionados who are eager to explore the depths of the Red Room’s deep cellar, no matter the cost.

“I love the interaction with the customer. Our place is small enough that I can talk to every customer that comes in. I like to find out what style of wine they are into, find how much they want to spend and present them a wine that over delivers for the price. The ultimate is to see their reaction to the wine. It’s instant gratification,” says Elsey.

While wine started Elsey on the sommelier journey, he has a deep interest in other drinks as well. “The job takes a lot of studying beyond wine. It is a pursuit of learning about all things you can drink. We put a lot of effort into things like spirits and beer. It’s not all just wine,” he says.

The job may not be all about wine, but when Elsey is ready for a big celebration, he reaches for Champagne. “My favorites are vintage-dated, small production, grower producers in the Special Club category from houses like Pierre Gimonnet or Marc Hébrart. I like to saber bottles of it and let it flow,” says Elsey.

Chris McFall, Paggi House

Certified Sommelier Chris McFall stumbled upon his love of wine while serving as an organizer for the International Student Foundation at Southwestern University. A friend in the club, who happened to be from the famed Bertani Italian wine family, introduced him to the world of fine wine by uncorking a well-aged Amarone.

“The bottle of 1968 Bertani Amarone swept me off my feet. My palate was youthful and inexperienced in the world of fine wine at the time, but it blew my mind and I could not stop smelling it and all of its nuance. It changed the way I lived my life from that moment on,” McFall says.

From frat to front of the house, after college McFall entered the wine industry and worked at restaurants like Monica’s in Georgetown, Lamberts and Sullivan’s before joining Paggi House as a wine buyer. He has recently chosen to pursue another project, which has yet to be disclosed. He honed his skills with experience and study, and is currently preparing for the Advanced Sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers.

“I love the discovery. I love being wowed by wine, people, food and travel. I think when you realize how vast a subject wine, spirits and cuisine is, you realize no matter how much you know, you will always be a student. That’s the true joy for me,” he says.

That hunger for continued improvement and his skill in the dining room earned an impressive national accolade as a nominee for the Best New Sommeliers of 2012 by Wine & Spirits.

While the life of the sommelier may sound glamorous, McFall confides there is actual work to be done.

“The most misunderstood part of what we do is perception of the job. People assume we sit around and drink wine all day. Although we get to do that sometimes, it’s not the focal point of the gig. There are spreadsheets, pricing, training and research just as in any other field. Ours just happens to pair nicely with cuisine and taste delightful.”

McFall would gladly give up the spreadsheets for a day of merriment. “If I was to drink a wine for a celebration, it would have to be Champagne, of course. But, if I had to pick the desert island wine for that celebration, 2002 Etienne Sauzet Montrachet. All day long!”

Scott Ota, the Driskill Hotel and the Driskill Grill

Certified Sommelier Scott Ota was recently chosen by a panel of expert judges as the champion of 2013 Somms Under Fire for his outstanding performance in food and wine pairing, service and knowledge. At the fresh-faced age of 30, this service-driven wine professional has quickly risen in prominence in the community. He also credits his growth to a deep-seated interest in the culinary experience and the help of friends.

“I love to eat, drink and travel. I owe much of my success to my study group, family and lovely girlfriend,” says Ota.

He got his start in the wine industry as a server at Restaurant Jezebel, where he had an opportunity to taste 2004 Bodegas El Nido, Monastrell from Jumilla, Spain. That introduction to fine wine set Ota on a course of exploration and study. He is now the wine captain and sommelier at the Driskill Grill, where Ota prides himself on providing top-notch wine service to enhance the dining experience.

“I strive to deliver the most complete service experience in a fun and personal way. There is no need to show off how much I know about wine. It’s about presenting all the information in a sincere and succinct manner that makes it unforgettable to each guest. What counts is delivering a unique experience that is memorable and enjoyable,” he says.

Improving the wine knowledge in the community seems to be a common trait among sommeliers, and it’s an important part of Ota’s approach. “I love being able to share my passion for beverages and service with others. It is my favorite part of the job. However, teaching our staff about wine and service — and watching them blossom on the floor — is the most rewarding.”

Ota’s go-to wine for celebrating is Special Club Champagne. “Pierre Gimonnet is a favorite of mine, but I could drink it just to celebrate a Tuesday. There is no need to wait for a special occasion to enjoy a great bottle. You can’t have a bad day when you’re drinking Champagne!”

Nathan Prater, the Driskill Hotel and the Driskill Grill

Advanced Sommelier Nathan Prater is a native Austinite. He began his career in wine in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2005 as a wine manager for a retail wine outlet before stepping into the role of wine director and sommelier at Bistro Sofia, an intimate, independently owned neighborhood restaurant. Prater quickly gained a reputation at both locations for providing a phenomenal wine selection, excellent customer service and consumer wine education.

Fortunately for Austin, he returned home in 2010, and worked for Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods and Good2Go at the Grove Wine Bar. He is currently the grill manager and sommelier at the Driskill Grill and the wine director for the Driskill Hotel.

Like with many sommeliers, it was a bottle of exquisite juice that lured Prater to the profession.

“A bottle of 1983 Château Lynch-Bages sparked my interest for wine, while a 1978 Bodegas Muga Prado Enea inspired the drive to become a sommelier. I began my journey with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2007. After five years of dedicated study and practice, I hope to sit for the Masters Exam in 2013,” Prater says.

Prater is known among the Austin sommelier community for his keen understanding and appreciation of classic cocktails, his dedication to top-notch service and his hard-nose study habits. He writes wickedly difficult practice quizzes for his sommelier study group. He sums up his role nicely: “I am first a service professional, second an educator and mentor, and lastly, a sommelier.”

When he isn’t working, he likes to spend time with his wife Kathryn and their dog Picasso, or teaching and mentoring other wine professionals. Prater has a passion for “dry rosé, and perfecting the craft of the Gin Martini.”

Mark Sayre, Trio Restaurant Austin

Houston native and Master Sommelier Candidate Mark Sayre presides over an impressive list of 260 wines and 35 wines by the glass at Trio in the Four Seasons Hotel. The barrel-chested Sayre may look like a bouncer for a bar on Dirty Sixth, but he has the demeanor of a priest taking confession as he holds court from table to table.

His exquisite palate, attention to detail in customer service and deep knowledge of the industry have put him on course to become the the third Master Sommelier in Austin. Sayre’s remarkable wine acumen has won him praise in Wine & Spirits‘ “7 Best New Sommeliers in 2010” and the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier 2007.

Sayre caught the wine bug while working his first restaurant job. “The first wine I fell in love with was a 1995 Traviglini Gattinara. It’s the first wine I had a personal connection with, and the first wine I realized I could hand sell.”

Sayre sees his role as integral to restaurant operations. “Sommeliers should be vital to the flow of the restaurant. That means bussing tables, serving, clearing, etc. when not providing wine service and sales,” he says.

As a winemaker who introduced his own private-label Syrah in 2009, he also feels a deep connection with wine and the people in the industry. “I love the soul that goes into the job. I love the people that make and sell wine, their stories, their passions and their experience. I love the wines themselves and their stories. Stories about where they come from, the weather and what they experienced that year,” he says.

“I love the communal enjoyment of wine, whether studied upon or enjoyed with friends and family. I love giving my heartfelt advice and experience to guests wanting something special. All of these things have that soul which developed into a life-long relationship with me.”

—-

 Winners of the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards will be announced live at the Driskill Hotel on April 11, 2013.  

This story was originally published on CultureMap. Photos by Jessica Pages, Bill Sallans and Hayden Spears.

Disclosure: I am a CultureMap Tastemaker Award Judge.

What are you drinking?

Austin’s top sommeliers test skills in Somms Under Fire food and wine pairing competition

Devon Broglie and Diane Dixon Somms Under FireImagine staring at a menu that lists an entrée of roast lamb served with artichokes, goat cheese and cinnamon spiced spinach. Your job is to match the perfect wine that will accentuate the flavors and textures of the food. But wait, you have to do this under the scrutiny of three judges, led by Jason Stevens of Bar Congress, and a room full of eager spectators. The pressure is on.

That’s exactly what will happen Sunday, January 27 at the Driskill Hotel when three of the top sommeliers in town will test their skills in a live competition called Somms Under Fire. The event is held to show off the deft touch of Austin wine professionals whose education and experience make it second nature to find the right wine to pair with the most nuanced of dishes.

In its second year, Somms Under Fire, produced by Keeper Collectionand The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, audience members get in on the act by sampling each course prepared by Chef Jonathan Gelman, as well as by trying out the different wine pairings. Think of it as a live version of Top Chef, only you get to taste the results.

Event organizer, Diane Dixon of Keeper Collection and event emcee and Master Sommelier Devon Broglie shared the details about Somms Under Fire while we did a comparative tasting of six incredible wines at her home. The setting was exactly as Dixon imagines her event: casual, not fussy, in an easy-going atmosphere that makes it easy to enjoy the intricacies of amazing wines.

“It’s really fun when you know wine a little bit and then have an opportunity to share a deep conversation about the wine with a real expert. How often do you get to hear a Master Sommelier just talk about wine off the cuff? That’s what Somms Under Fire is all about.”

Broglie has been involved with the event from its inception. He sees it as an entertaining way for people to learn more about food and wine. “The competition is about demystifying wine and the role of the sommelier in helping people appreciate and love wine. We want to help people discover wine that enhances their dinner and their overall experience.”

Bill Elsey  Somms Under Fire ContestantTo land a spot in the event, competitors had to meet professional wine industry requirements and pass a timed, multiple choice and essay exam that measured their extensive wine knowledge. While Dixon wouldn’t say how many people applied to compete, she did say, “We had more entrants and more educated entrants than before. Many of the contestants have pursued multiple education paths in the Court of Master Sommeliers, Certified Specialists of Wine and Wine and Spirit Education Trust.”

The competitors who made the grade this year are Advanced Sommelier Nathan Prater and Certified Sommelier Scott Ota, both of The Driskill Hotel and The Driskill Grill in Austin, and Advanced Sommelier Bill Elsey of The Red Room Lounge in Austin. These three guys know the others’ strengths very well — they are good friends and have been studying for various sommelier exams and competitions for two years now.

Each of the three sommeliers competing in Somms Under Fire expressed gratitude to Dixon, who they call the “Fairy Godmother of Austin Sommeliers” for her work to promote excellence among wine professionals.

Nathan Prater Somms Under Fire ContestantThey may be friends, but that doesn’t dampen their competitive spirit. In 2011, Elsey and Prater finished first and second in the Best Sommelier in Texas 2011 competition at the Texas Sommeliers Conference (TEXSOM).

Prater acknowledged that he’s not eager to be a runner up to Elsey again. He confidently asserted, “I’m going to win the Quickfire cocktail competition.” Ota quickly agreed, but added, “I’m going to kill the three course pairing competition.” Not to be bested, Prater counter, “No, I’m going to win that too. Bill will just be awarded for the ‘Best Looking.’”

It turns out that the sommeliers won’t be judged on looks. Dixon explained, “The winner is the one who communicates best with the audience, connects and demonstrates why they chose a particular wine to pair with a dish. The winner will bridge the gap between the technical wine information and what the diner really wants.”

When asked who he wants to beat more, Elsey responded, “I’m super stoked to be competing against Scott and Nathan. I want to beat both of them equally. It’s about bragging rights in our study group.”

There is more to it than bragging rights. The winner will receive a Grand Prize Package of a wine internship in Burgundy under the tutelage of France with author, Master of Wine and Burgundy expert, Jasper Morris.

Scott Ota Somms Under Fire ContestantPerhaps Prater and Ota will have a little bit of home court advantage with the event being held at the Driskill. The venue was chosen before the competitors applied. The Driskill has shown a concerted interested in hosting events that support the food and wine community. Just a week after Somms Under Fire, the Driskill Hotel will host the Court of Master Sommeliers Level I and Level II exams.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the TEXSOM Conference, which fosters education for sommeliers, promotes wine service standards, furthers wine education and raises public awareness of the professional wine industry.

General Admission tickets cost $55 and will get you in to both the Quickfire cocktail competition and main Somms Under Fire competition that includes wines and food from 6 to 8 p.m. VIP tickets run $100 and include access to the Taste Like A Master pre-event tasting hosted by master sommeliers Devon Broglie and the event judges from 5 to 6 p.m. The VIP tasting is limited to 70 people seats, so grab your tickets quickly.

 This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Celebrating two years of What Are You Drinking?

I love any excuse to throw a party and the second anniversary of this blog was a good enough one to gather a group of friends at the Red Room Lounge. Dear friends, winemakers, distillers, wine shop owners, beverage PR people, sommeliers and wine drinkers shared a few laughs and many bottles of wine to celebrate the friendships fostered over a drink. Many of the people in the room I have met only because of this blog. Its fitting, because that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this blog – making new friends.

In the past two years I have written 153 articles about wine, beer, spirits and cocktails. The blog has changed a bit over time, and I keep trying to improve it based on your suggestions. The blog has led to other writing opportunities as a contributor to CultureMap, The Digital Texan, 12Most and now Austin Man magazine. Each article is another chance to talk to fascinating people in the beverage industry and another opportunity to taste something new. I love that.

Thanks to everyone that shares their time to tell their stories. Thanks to the PR people who help make the connections. And most importantly, thanks to you for staying with me, reading my stories, commenting and making suggestions. Cheers!

What are you drinking?

Shhh, Austin’s newest wine bar, The Red Room Lounge, quietly opens downtown

“No, no, no! Do not write about this place! We don’t want people to know about it. This is the place where you bring a date and really impress her because you are ‘in the know.’ Don’t tell anyone about this f@%&ing place!” Customer, Zack Fuentes emphatically discouraged me from spreading the word about the newly opened The Red Room Lounge. He wants it to stay unknown and exclusive.

He’s right that the wine lounge is so far only frequented by wine aficionados who are in the know. There’s no sign out front, there was no media blitz or even a press release announcing its opening and it isn’t even listed on Citysearch yet.

Here’s your insider tip: the Red Room Lounge is located at 306 E 3rd St. in downtown, Austin, just down the street from the Convention Center and two doors east of the Vince Young Steakhouse.  You don’t have to have a password to get in. Yet.

One reason the wine crowd is drawn to The Red Room Lounge is because its owner, Alex Andrawes, has created a chill, speakeasy-like atmosphere for people to enjoy a few glasses of great wine. The red velvet draped entrance gives it an elegant, hushed feel. There are nicely arranged conversation areas and dark nooks for lovers to steal a kiss or two. Another reason is this is a place where both wine experts and novices can learn something new. Not only is Andrawes  a wine expert, but he hired Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011, Bill Elsey, who brings incredible wine knowledge and a deft touch for sharing that insight without making people feel stupid.

The lounge grew out of Andrawes’ other wine businesses, Personal Wine, started in 2000, and Wines.com, started in 2008. He explained the origins of the lounge, “I was tasting wine with Bill Elsey and a group of sommeliers and wine drinkers in the lounge. Everyone thought it was a great space and suggested we should open it up to provide by-the-bottle or glass service. It’s cozy, a great place to be private and feel special. It’s almost like your personal cellar away from home… That’s why we call it a lounge rather than a bar. Our focus is wine, great conversation and great company.”

Judging by the feedback from guests, they hit the mark. Amelia Castilla said, “It’s secretive. It’s private. It’s like you have to have a secret handshake to get in.” Baubak Askari likes the individual attention saying, “The service is very personal. It’s so cozy it feels like I’m drinking wine at home, but I’m out.”

The Red Room Lounge stocks a wide selection of wines by the bottle including some private label and boutique wines that Andrawes sourced on trips to the wine country. Guests can choose to buy a bottle with a selection of more than 500 labels and more than 3,000 bottles, and take home anything they don’t drink in the lounge. They also offer eight to 10 wines by the glass with a menu that changes regularly. Currently they have interesting pours like Spätburgunder, Oxidized Rioja Blanc, and 1989 Chateau Lynch-Bages.

There are a bucket of wine bars downtown to choose from, so it’s damn important to have an interesting selection of wines that appeal to a broad audience.Andrawes said, “That’s the greatest thing about getting Texas’ Best Sommelier Bill Elsey in as the leader of the pack. I let Bill manage the wine selection in the front room. I’m responsible for maintaining the vintage cellar so I select rarities with wines we believe in. Wines must deliver quality first, price second.”

Elsey described his approach to wine buying, “I taste often and make it a priority to build relationships with the wine rep’s who work with me. I take tasting with my distributors very seriously. Those whom I buy the most wine from understand my palate and what I am looking for, which are wines that over-deliver for their price point and taste of the place they are from. In the Lounge, if you are spending $90 on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape you know it is an awesome bottle for what you paid. The same can be said for the $29 bottle of dry Riesling. I also like to have a diverse selection of wines from traditional, as well as esoteric grapes and regions.”

They have some pretty amazing wine in the cellar. Andrawes gave me a tour and pulled out bottle after bottle of rare and collectable wine like Screaming Eagle, 1982 Chateau Haut Brion, 1955 Taylor’s Vintage Port and the mack-daddy 1989 magnum of Petrus. He grabbed a bottle of 2005 Gargiulo Vineyards Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon for me to try. I needed a moment.

While the wine selection is large, that’s all you can expect. They do not serve beer, cocktails or anything else. They don’t prepare food on premise, but have service agreements with restaurants within a two block radius that will bring you cheese plates, hors d’oeuvres and light eats. The Red Room will host private parties and arrange for catering.

The lounge was starting to fill up with guests by the time we came out of the cellar. Elsey poured a selection of wines by the glass at the bar unobtrusively tucked in a back corner, while Andrawes circulated around the lounge tempting guests with prime selections from the cellar. Edward Morgan liked that touch saying, “They have a great portfolio of wine. Things you won’t get anywhere else.”

Nash Garrison was visiting for the first time and was happy to discover a new place near his home. “I love it. Being in the neighborhood, I want to go somewhere to chill out and have a drink. Going to a lounge underground is cool.” It is literally cool in there — around 65 degrees — which will be especially nice when its 100 degrees outside.

Return visitor Adi Pavlovic likes the unhurried pace. “The last time we were here we bought two bottles, sat on the couch and didn’t get up for hours. You can’t do that any other place in town.”

I got caught up in the easy pace too. It was one of those nights where I knew I was tempting a hangover to carve a jagged gash in my morning skull, but I didn’t care and ordered one more glass of Champagne. The crowd was relaxed, conversations were flowing as easily as the wine and the couch sucked me in.

Nagging thoughts about an early morning at work eventually pulled me off the couch. As I was finally leaving Elsey got a call from a group planning to drop in and kick off their late night revelry at the Red Room.  He had a gleam in his eye anticipating a flock of wine aficionados encamping in his den until the wee hours. There is nothing better than long conversations with friends over wine. What a dream job.

Visiting The Red Room Lounge

  • Website
  • Hours: Tuesday-Friday 2PM to 12AM and Saturday 3PM to 1AM
  • Prices: Wines by the glass range from $6 to $25
  • Payment options: Cash, American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa

A version of this story first ran on The Digital Texan.

What are you drinking?

Wine Down at SXSW

Alex Andrawes chats up the crowd at Wines.com Red Room

Alex Andrawes, owner of local wine bar and retail shop Wines.com, hosted a series of “wine downs” in Austin during SXSW to relax between events. The events were co-hosted by wine social media guru, Rick Bakas, who is the founder and principal at Bakas Media. Bakas and Andrawes charmed the crowd of wine aficionados, writers and bloggers, while sommelier extraordinaire, Bill Elsey, poured wine.

Tasting great wine is one thing, but the wine downs also offered a chance at personalized bottles with your own label. You can get your personalized bottle by tweeting a photo with the hash tag #personalwine and have their photo immediately printed on the bottle label. Its a pretty cool way to commemorate SXSW.

What are you drinking?

How to romance your date on Valentine’s Day with the right wine

Everybody wants to get laid, and Valentine’s Day is either a blessing or a curse when it comes to the pursuit of nook-nook. It’s potentially an excuse to have hot monkey sex with your partner, to bed the hottie you’ve been lusting after or to go down in flames desperately hungering for the delicious treat that you’re not getting.

The pressure is on. Expectations for action are higher than any other night of the year (except maybe senior prom).

Whether you’re in a relationship or hoping to be, it’s always helpful to pull out all the romantic stops to increase your odds of having a tawdry evening. One tried-and-true and fantastically effective aphrodisiac is to treat your sweetie to an elegant dinner. Wine is an integral part of a romantic feast and a critical element in getting cupid’s arrow to fly straight. Wine also holds the potential to turn you into a hapless mess if you aren’t comfortable ordering it — nothing kills the mood quicker than incompetence.

Fortunately for you, there are people trained to make you look good enough to get in the game. (Well, at least when it comes to ordering wine.) Here are tips from some top sommeliers on how to order wine competently, plus some suggested wines to help you round the bases.

Expert Advice

Christy A. Canterbury, Master of Wine

New York City based Sommelier, Christy Canterbury, recommends doing your homework before heading you the door. “It’s a huge help to check a restaurant’s on-line wine list before you go! Double check that the list is current, either from the date on the

Christy A. Canterbury Photo by Michael Seto

web or by calling the reservationist.”

Canterbury recommends sparkling wine as a great Valentine’s Day wine, and “rosé Champagne in particular works like a charm.” Here are her suggestions for rounding the bases

  • First base: “Frankly, the goal is at least second, and Champagne should get you there! Maybe rosé sparkling wine not from Champagne is the First Base wine? You’ve got to be thinking special occasion wines after all. Bump up the quality to really swoon your date.”
  • Second base: “Rosé Champagne! Or, try an old-school Rioja Reserva from a producer like CVNE Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España or Lopez de Heredia. A cool thing about Rioja is that the wines are released later, so it looks particularly special because they are older than most wines you usually drink…as well as other wines on the wine list.”
  • By-pass third and head for home: “Red Burgundy. Pinot Noir is the ultimate svelte, graceful, sexy wine, and Red Burgundy is the best there is in the category. Splurge for a Premier Cru if you can, but there are lots of good Village-level wines out there. The 2008 and 2009 vintages are on lists now and are spectacular. Only go for the 2007s if you like really racy, lean, mineral styles of wine.”

Canterbury is a consultant to wine competitions, freelance writer and teaches at primo wine schools. She is the former National Wine Director for Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group and Global Corporate Beverage Director for Culinary Concepts by Jean-Georges. She holds a Master of Wine, is a Certified Sommelier via Court of Master Sommeliers and is Winner of the Villa Maria Award for Outstanding Viticulture Examination Paper.

Bill Elsey, Sommelier, Wines.com | Red Room Lounge

Bill Elsey recommends putting Sommeliers to work to use their knowledge to your benefit. Just give them a few parameters to work within to get the best results. Start by knowing what type of wine your date likes to drink. Do they prefer sweet or dry, white or red, light or full bodied, or fruit forward or earth driven?

Bill Elsey

Next, tell the Sommelier how much you are willing to spend on a bottle. Elsey says, “A smooth way of handling this without coming across as cheap or as though you are trying to show off is to point to a certain wine on the list and say to the Sommelier, ‘I’m looking for something in this area,’ to signal the amount that you would like to spend.”

Finally, if you are completely open to suggestions, give the floor to the Sommelier and let them guide you with wine and food pairings with each course. “Food and wine pairings are fun and they take some of the pressure off when choosing one bottle to go with the entire meal that may have several different dishes.”

Elsey suggests dry rosé Champagne for a perfect Valentine’s Day wine. In particular he suggests

Marc Hébrart N.V. Premier Cru Brut Rosé, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ de la Marne NV. The pink color is perfect for Valentine’s Day and the rich and layered flavor with tremendous acidity and minerality make it extremely versatile with food. To bring you home, he advises:

  • First base:  “Dry Riesling. A great way to compromise if there are sweet and dry wine drinkers on a date. All of the lemon, apple and citrus fruit that comes with Riesling without the sweet finish. Look to Australia for Pewsey Vale dry Riesling from the Eden Valley or to Austria for Emmerich Knoll Federspiel dry Riesling.”
  • Second base: “Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is always a safe go-to for both red and white wine drinkers and Oregon is my favorite New World region for Pinot. These wines typically are fruit forward, but not overly extracted with out of balance alcohol. Look for 2008 as a stellar vintage from the Willamette Valley. Retour and Domaine Serene are two of my personal favorite producers.”
  • By-pass third and head for home: “If you want sex potential, order a wine that needs to be decanted. This adds another element to the dining experience and is sure to score you points. Look for wines that benefit from age such as: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux, and wines from the Northern Rhone. Personally, I’d go with Barbaresco. These wines show depth of flavor, are elegant and beautiful on the nose. Like a woman who has it all together – confidence, beauty, finesse, maturity. I love the Nebbiolo grape and it is fairly off the radar for most wine drinkers, so it shows you know a little something about classy wines when you order one. Look for 1996 or 1997 vintages, both great years for Piedmont. One of my all-time favorite producers is Pio Cesare.”

Bill Elsey is a Certified Sommelier via Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist in Spirits and a Champagne and Cork Specialist through the Society of Wine Educators and is winner of Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011 at TexSom.

Scott Ota,  Wine Captain and Sommelier of The Driskill Grill

Scott Ota suggests that you start the conversation by asking your date his or her preferences. The Sommelier should be able to make recommendations based on your date’s answers. Be confident, and ask questions.

Scott Ota

He agrees that you can never go wrong with bubbles Valentine’s Day and recommends an elegant and refined Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Champagne is just downright sexy. Ota’s preference is Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Cuis, N.V. “It’s ridiculously delicious, and you don’t have to break the bank. Its premier cru, and cheaper than Veuve Clicquot! Go with quality, not the big name.” If you are looking for lovin, here are Ota’s propositions:

  • First base:  “Pinot Noir is always a good choice because it is smooth and feminine, often very food-friendly and easy-drinking. For around $50 or under, I love Evening Land Blue Label Pinot Noir from Eola-Amity Hills in Willamette Valley, OR. The wine is gentle, but structured, with plenty of fresh red fruits. If you want to spend a little more, you can’t go wrong with Burgundy. Domaine Leroy Monthelie AOP Rouge 1999is jaw-dropping good. A stunning wine that features farmer’s market fresh fruits and blooming rose petals.”
  • Second base: “Cabernet Sauvignon is a great choice. A well-structured Cabernet is classic, confident, powerful and alluring. For under $50, I’d go with Terra Valentine 2009 Cabernet from the Spring Mountain district of Napa Valley. It has bold, rich black fruits mixed with judicious oak that provides spice and chocolate. If you’re willing to splurge, I recommend the 1989 Château Beychevelle, a fourth growth Bordeaux from the commune of Saint Julien. The ‘89 vintage was stunning, and the wine gives just about everything that you could want in a great bottle of Cabernet.
  • By-pass third and head for home: “A second bottle.”

Ota is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and Wine Captain and Sommelier of The Driskill Grill

Davis Smith wine director at The Black Pearl Seafood and Martini Bar in Ann Arbor, MI

Davis Smith recommends open communication to make sure your special night goes off without a hitch. Sommeliers are required to study the wines of the world for countless hours to find a wine that’s perfect for every customer. Start by describing the kind of wine you like and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Sommeliers love curious customers.Davis Smith

When picking a romantic wine Smith’s mind goes immediately to bubbly. A bottle of bubbly is sure to set the mood on Valentine’s Day and it’s hard to find a bad pairing for sparkling wine, making you look like a pro. Look for Cava, a sparkling wine from Spain that is very high in quality and very low in price. You get great freshness and a wonderful savory character from Cava that is tough to find in other sparkling wines at the same price. His other proposals for wines to get ya knockin’ boots are:

  • First Base: “Moscato d’Asti is a great way to start off the evening. Slightly sparkling and slightly sweet this Italian wine goes great with salads, generally the first thing set on the table, especially if there is a salty component to the salad. This wine has blown up in the marketplace lately and is widely available.”
  • Second Base: “Port is a great wine for after dinner. This fortified dessert wine has a boost in alcohol and is super rich, thick and delicious. A glass of this after dinner makes you feel warm on the inside and the deep dark aromas of berry, cassis and chocolate make for a nice mood setter for after you get home.”
  • By-pass third and head for home: “The wine your date likes. Talk to your date about what they like about a wine and listen very carefully. Take this into account and engage the Sommelier, asking questions that will lead the two of you to a wine that your date will love. Show them that it’s not all about you and that you’re also a good listener. That goes a long way.”

Davis Smith is a studying Sommelier. He also produces content for two blogs: his own personal website, winestateofmind.tumblr.com, where he does video and text reviews of wine; and for FindTheBest.com, a comparison website, where he writes posts in an educational capacity. Davis’ goal is to educate and empower people so that wine is no longer intimidating. His philosophy regarding wine is simple; keep an open mind, be honest, and drink what you enjoy.

Passion Preferences

Whether you choose Champagne, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, wine experts agree that the surest path to passion is to listen to your date and order what they like. Now get out there and make it happen.

This story also appeared on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

The holidays are upon us: A fantastic kickoff with Big Reds & Bubbles

You know what makes a kick-ass party? A soirée where you are greeted by a gorgeous lady dressed in an elaborate champagne-laden dress. A bash attended by lots happy people in festive clothing.  A bacchanalian festival with an absurdly huge selection of prestigious wines and delectable treats from 19 of Austin’s hottest chefs. That’s exactly the kind of party 350 people went to last night at the sold-out Big Reds & Bubbles held at the Driskill.

Big Reds & Bubbles is not only a party; it’s also a fundraiser for the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, with dollars coming from ticket and silent auction. Sound like a perfect way to raise money. Get a bunch of wine aficionados and foodies lubricated with the good stuff and tempt them with the opportunity to “win” really nice wines like 1955 Bordeaux, 2000 vintage Dom Pérignon champagne, 3L and 5L large format bottles and cult wines and let the check books bleed.

Marshall Jones, Executive Director, looking suave as hell in a black velvet jacket, casually tells me the Foundation puts the money to good use. They pay out the fattest culinary scholarship and largest dedicated pastry scholarship in the country. In addition to that, the Foundation is the leading underwriter of the TexSom beverage conference. Spreading the fertilizer to grow the next crop of brilliant chefs and sommeliers is an august cause.

Big Reds is all about connecting people with the chefs and sommeliers that create fine dining experiences. Jones and foundation members know that great wine and food is dependent on a vibrant community. To get the event started on that path, they held a VIP tasting of four rosé champagnes hosted by Master Sommeliers, Craig Collins and Guy Stout. John Antonelli of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop described the cheeses paired with each wine. You can’t ask for a better educational experience.

There were plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with the culinary elite. Celebrity Chef, Brad Sorenson, provided a bit of comic relief as the MC. He comes across as a young and handsome version of Conan O’Brien with his boisterous personality and tall, lanky form. Brad caught the eye of the Wine & Food Foundation when he was a contestant on season 6 of The Next Food Network Star and Chopped! He is getting more involved in the Austin culinary scene and was visibly excited to talk about his plans to open Nova Bar on Rainey street in April 2012. The two-story, 100-seat eatery will present an elevated take on bar food. Everything will be done from scratch, including the inventive cocktails created with loving care by mixologist, JC Rodriguez.  At Big Reds he drew attention to some gems from A-list chefs and stand-out wines like the father and son duo Jack Allen Kitchen Executive Chef, Jack Gilmore, and Barley Swine Chef, Bryce Gilmore.

It turns out the Foundation has been throwing this bash every year for nine years. Big Reds & Bubbles got its start as way to kick off the holidays. Since the start Glazer’s has partnered with the Foundation to introduce its stand-out wines like 2008 Nickel & Nickel Cabernet, 2007 Chateau Montelena and 2008 Dunn Vineyards to average Joes. If you ask this average Joe, it’s a fantastic way to ring in the holiday bender season.

So who was out sipping bubbles and red wine from 85 different wineries? It was a great mix of wine industry types, like Master Sommelier Craig Collins, Pedernales Cellars President, Fredrik Osterberg, Foundation board members and lots of people eager to have a great time. Here is a selection of some of the pretty faces in the crowd.

Me with Marshall Jones, Wine & Food Foundation Executive Director

 

Lamarca Prosecco Lady starts things off

 

Celebrity Chef Brad Sorenson
Barley Swine chef, Bryce Gilmore with his dad Jack Allen Kitchen chef Jack Gilmore

 

 

11. Scott Ota, Advanced Sommelier for the Driskill Grill, Bill Elsey, TexSom Texas Best Sommelier 2011 and Craig Collins, Master Sommelier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paulina Tavera and Mark Bergeron
Dominique and Will Douglas
Steve Tipton, Wine & Food Foundation President and Michael Russel, Foundation Board Member.

 

 

 

 

Me with the gorgeous Jennifer Grathwohl, Foundation Events Director
Jane Rash, Rob Reynolds, Carol Willis and Shae Anami
Lauren Bridges and Wim Rouwet

 

This article also appears on CultureMap Austin, without the funky formatting problems.

What are you drinking?

Starting with wine at Chefs Under Fire

The Austin/San Antonio regional semi-final of Chefs Under Fire was held tonight in Austin. The final battle of the chefs will be held on October 16 at the AT&T Executive Center. What am I doing blogging about a foodie event? It opened with a VIP reception hosted by Bill Elsey, who was recently crowned Best Sommelier in Texas at TexSom. How could I miss that?

Bill is no stranger to food and wine events. Not only does he host them at work as the director of sales at Duchman Family Winery, but he also attends them as a fan. He and Diane Dixon, co-founder of Keeper Collection, the organizers of Chefs Under Fire and Somms Under Fire, met  through a wine tasting group hosted by the  Wine and Food Foundation of Texas. They hit it off and he was officially invited to host the pre-event VIP tasting after he won Sommelier of the Year at TexSom.

Here is what Bill poured tonight.    

Étoile Brut, Domain Chandon

This easy going sparkler is aged sur lees (on the yeast) for five years giving it a nice mellow, nutty flavor.

Look Slight straw with steady stream of bubbles
Smell It has a delightful scent of French bread and green apples.  
Taste A great way to start an evening with fresh, vibrant flavors of toast, green apple, nutmeg and hint of citrusy, zippy effervescence. Crisp, light and delightfully ready to wakeup taste buds for a night of fine food.

 

2009 Château de Sancerre

Fairies delivered this delightful gem from the Loire Valley with pixie dust and dreams. Have you ever met a fairy? No? That’s because they’re understated, and not all up in yo grill. The same way this Sauvignon Blanc is compared to its New Zealand or California cousins.

Look Late morning sunshine, bight and pale yellow shimmer in the glass.
Smell A nose full of kiwi, lemon, daffodil and limestone greet you and beg you to take a sip.
Taste Vivacious citrus sunshine slides across a slate slab with nice acidity and pep to greet the palate with a sassiness balanced with subtlety. Fruit, balanced with acidity and minerality. Pert, crisp and ready to go.  

 

2009 Dolcetto d’ Alba

(OK, I didn’t get the producer. Shame on me. Sorry, but I got caught up in the festivities)

Look Royal amethyst purple shimmering and inviting.
Smell This puppy has a distinctive nose of cranberry rolled in soy and balsamic vinegar. Fruity and tart.
Taste Light and chipper cherry pit with pecan and vanilla.  

 

No matter whether you are preparing award winning food, or if you are simply preparing a quick dinner, these three food friendly wines will hit the spot.

Chefs Under Fire pitted excellent, up and coming chefs in a competition to see who can make the most excellent dish from a list of ingredients disclosed at the start of the competition. I’m so glad I wasn’t put in that place. I just stop by and enjoyed the wine. Thanks Keeper Collection for another amazing event.

What are you drinking?