The ultimate holiday indulgence: Champagne and caviar

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.

Champagne and Caviar

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.

Caviar

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.

Beluga Caviar

 

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

512.636.8265

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.

Caviar

Clark’s Oyster Bar

1200 W. Sixth St.

Champagne and Caviar at Clark's
Champagne and Caviar at Clark’s

 

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.”

 

Congress

200 Congress Ave.

Champagne and Caviar at Congress
Champagne and Caviar at Congress

 

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.”

 

Jeffrey’s

1204 W. Lynn St.

Champagne and Caviar at Jeffery's
Champagne and Caviar at Jeffery’s

 

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.”

 

LaV Restaurant & Wine Bar

1501 E. Seventh St.

Champagne and Caviar at laV
Champagne and Caviar at laV

 

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.

Russian House

307 E. Fifth St.

Champagne and Caviar at Russian House
Champagne and Caviar at Russian House

 

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.

 

This story was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Austin Woman Magazine

What are you drinking? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paula Rester, CongressPaula Rester, Wine Director, Congress

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

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

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

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

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

June Rodil, Qui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits:

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

What are you drinking? 

 

Lucky Boozer, or Brilliant Wine Expert on the Rise? June Rodil, Congress Austin

I think being a sommelier would be a fascinating job. The job requires a bit of a scientific approach with the deft touch of an aesthete. I asked June Rodil, beverage director at Congress Austin, if she would describe a sommelier as a chemist, an artist or magician? She good naturedly set me straight, “Haha. Wow. None of the above. Lucky Boozer?”

Lucky Boozer. Now that’s a damn fine title.

June is amazingly humble. It’s actually a little more involved than that. It’s serious business. To become a Master Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers (one of three major affiliations) a person has to train for years and pass a series of exams. There are four levels of qualification:

  • Introductory
  • Certified
  • Advanced
  • Master

The most amazing fast-track-go-getters might be able to blaze through the levels in about five years, but it typically takes longer than that. Heck, you have to actually be invited to take the test to become a Master. The selection criteria evaluates the amount of time available to train since passing the Advanced level and where one is in their wine-related career to determine whether a candidate is worthy.  

Not only is it time consuming and rigorous, but it’s also expensive. Not only do candidates have to pay for the registration, the exams and the books, but they also have to buy gallons of high-end wine. It’s very much like paying tuition for a university and master’s degree.

June has started to amass a pile of awards and honors. She took top honors “Texas Best Sommelier,” awarded by the Texas Sommelier Association in 2009, won the Wine Ride in 2010 and is competing against two other noted sommeliers in Somms Under Fire at the W Hotel Austin.

She began her quest to become a Master Sommelier in 2007 after working in prominent roles at acclaimed restaurants at the Driskill Hotel where she eventually became a floor sommelier, Uchi and Uchiko, the last which she helped to open. She has continued to work on the sommelier program and just passed the Advanced Sommelier exam this month in her first attempt, a relatively rare occurrence.  

Not only does she get a lot of practice on the job, but she also participates in a tasting group every Monday night with three other people in the industry. Each person brings six bottles of wine – three whites and three reds – to taste. They taste 2 oz pours blindly and spend about 25 minutes examining each wine, writing notes about the qualities and flaws of the sight, nose and palette. Somehow I think I’d get more gratification out of paying for those school supplies and doing that kind of studying than prepping for a statistics exam.

Her skill and hard work helped her land the job as beverage director for the three new restaurants and bars that are part of Congress Austin when it opened in November 2010. In this role, she built and oversees a 500 label wine list for the swish Congress, a 80 label wine list for the casual Second Bar + Kitchen and provides oversight to the incredible cocktails mixed in both of those and in the swanky Bar Congress. The day I visited they were mixing Japanese themed drinks in Bar Congress, including the Short Round Sunrise with Suntory Yamazaki, grapefruit, grenadine and lemon. Short Round, June’s affectionate nickname at the bar, is the Japanese orphan in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 

She gave me a tour of the 2,500 bottle wine cellar and described how she built the list with a focus on Old World Wines and also plenty of California wines to pair with the American cuisine. There is a balance of renowned labels and adventurous selections to titillate any taste. The Second Bar wine list has wines by the glass and nothing over $100 a bottle. I think I drooled a little on the wood floor while surveying the Bordeauxs, Burgundies and Champagnes (don’t tell June).    

Having that many wines gives her a wide selection to pair with lots of foods. I asked her what the toughest wine and food pairings have been.  “Soup. Artichokes. Asparagus. The usual trifecta of sommelier kryptonite. Oh god. Can you imagine having to pair artichoke-asparagus soup… chilled?

I have a couple rules: a) When in doubt–Champagne. b) match the weight of the food to the weight of the wine and vice versa and c) if you like it, then it’s a good pairing. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.”

All work and no play makes June a dull girl. She let me in on her off-duty favorites.  “I will always be a Champagne hussy. I love it so much. Any flavor or color. I lean towards grower producer champagnes, but, honestly…at the end of the day, I’m not that picky. After a long tasting day of wine, I want beer: lagers, something refreshing and crisp. I also love cocktails: manhattans are my go-to but also love Negronis and absinthe based drinks.”

Some of her favorites include:

  • Henri Goutorbe Special Club Champagne
  • Pierre Peters Rose for Albane Champagne
  • Ciacci Piccolomini Brunello
  • Lucien Crochet Croix du Roy Sancerre
  • Maximin Gruenhauser Abtsberg Riesling
  • Sylvain Cathiard Vosne Romanee
  • Albert Grivault Clos les Perriere Meursault

I’m looking forward to seeing June compete in Somms Under Fire to see her brilliance on the fly. If you don’t make it to the event check her out in one of her three restaurants.

What are you drinking?

Sharing the Passion for the Perfect Pairing: Somms Under Fire

She leaned in close with a gleam in her eye and confided her plan in a conspiratorial tone. “But you can’t write that before the event.” Conversation topics bubbled up, over-lapped and blended like a complex cocktail, like a well-orchestrated mix tape. Exquisite wines flowed with the conversation and became integral to the conversation. We shared stories about wines and learned from each other. This is a pretty typical thing among friends. The only thing anomalous about this is that we had just met.

Diane Dixon, founder of Keeper Collection, an online resource for food, wine and travel, and her husband Earl invited Beautiful Wife and me to their home to tell us about their upcoming food and wine event called Somms Under Fire. The Dixons are passionate about sharing tips on enjoying all things culinary and have made it their lives work.

Thank god for people like the Dixons that love to share knowledge about wine. Let’s face it; wine can be a daunting subject to both newcomers and seasoned pros alike. There are thousands of brands, dozens of varietals and blends and the complexity grows exponentially when attempting to pair wine well with food. Sure the old rules of white with chicken and red with meat can be a good starting point, but sheesh things can go nuts from there.

I’m a fairly savvy wine buyer, but I always seek advice from friends that know wine, from trusted wine merchants and definitely from sommeliers. I’m excited to go to the inaugural Somms Under Fire, because it’s all about introducing people to brilliant sommeliers and to show off expert food and wine pairings.

The event takes place on May 1, 2011 at the W Austin with food from its signature restaurant, Trace. The event challenges Scott Barber, Centennial Fine Wine and Spirits in Dallas, Chris McFall, Paggi House, and June Rodil, Congress Austin to make impeccable pairings from food that is not on their own menus and wines that aren’t on their lists. They’ll hear the wine and food choices at the same time the audience does and will have to perform under pressure in front of a panel of international celebrity food and wine judges. The judges, Drew Hendricks, Peter Wasserman and Matt Reiser will score the somms and the audience also gets to pick their favorite. Now that’s under fire.

This is a perfect venue to show off their passion for food and wine and to demystify what sommeliers do for a living. Their entire purpose is to enhance our dining experience. What better way to understand the value of a sommelier than to see them make decisions on the fly in a completely neutral setting?  What could be better than watching three pros compete to match the complex flavors of exquisite cuisine with the perfect wines and then eating and drinking the results?

If you want to see this for yourself, you can get tickets here.

This is the third event from Keep Collection. Diane and team created Chefs Under Fire two years ago pitting Iron Chef contestants against each other. This year they introduced the Wine Ride with five sommeliers competing to match wine and food at various locations around town. And now Somms Under Fire. Each of these events mirror the Dixons’ passion to share epicurean knowledge and experiences in inventive, fun and friendly settings. Keep Collection also hosts Somms Chat each Wednesday on Twitter and Facebook, where sommeliers answer questions about wine. I got my Easter wine selection idea from last week’s chat with Drew Hendricks. Like  food and wine, friendship also goes well with wine. The Dixons have a knack for building relationships as they spread their knowledge.

There are a lots of ways to learn about wine. What influences your decisions for wine and food purchases and pairings? Friends? Blogs? Wine Merchants? Sommeliers? Share with me, because I’m still learning.

What are you drinking?