National wine pros will compete in 2015 Somms Under Fire food and wine event

Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie
Event organizer, Diane Dixon, and emcee, Devon Broglie

 

Figuring out the right wine to go with your dinner can be daunting for just about anyone. Just try doing it in front of a live audience and a panel of wine experts judging you. That is exactly what three wine professionals will do when they compete in the 2015 Somms Under Fire, a wine and food pairing event being held on Sunday, January 18, at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center.

In its fourth year, the sommelier competition organized by Keeper Collection, LLC has drawn national talent for competitors and judges. The wine and food pairing event will challenge participating sommeliers to match wine from all over the world with dishes prepared by Chef David Bull of Congress Restaurant and Chef Jason Stude of the soon to open restaurant, Boiler 9 + Bar. In an “Iron Chef”- like battle, the sommeliers will discover which wines they have available to pair with the food live in front of the audience and a panel of expert judges. The best news is that the audience gets to taste the pairings.

The talented chefs are keeping ingredients under wraps until the reveal at the event to keep the contestants on their toes. They let us in a little secret; they won’t make it easy.

Chef Bull, a James Beard award nominee, said, “We will create an original dish exclusively for Somms Under Fire that represents the style and inspiration of the daily menu at Congress. Wine is the clear focus of Somms Under Fire, so Congress will showcase a dish that is challenging to pair, but also has a broad enough base that there is room to beautifully interpret and pair a few different wines.”

Chef Stude will test the sommeliers’ skills with dishes inspired by the new restaurant. He said, “Boiler Nine Bar + Grill’s menu will be influenced by a massive fire deck grill. Meats and fish will be staples, but there will be a heavy focus on grilled or smoked vegetables, grains and greens. For Somms Under Fire, the dish will highlight local product, classic technique and elements that will be present in the menu at Boiler Nine Bar + Grill.”

The event starts off with the Tio Pepe Sherry Cocktail Challenge Competition, where the competitors are challenged to create a cocktail recipe based on sherry and no other high-alcohol spirit. Sherry’s distinct history and its resurgence as an apéritif, digestif and cocktail ingredient makes for an intriguing opportunity for the sommeliers to blend the past and present in a craft cocktail. Renowned bartender, Jason Stevens, returns to judge the cocktail competition for the third year and created the rules for the competitors.

This is the improv comedy of the wine world. These guys have to make split second decisions to wow the crowd and the judges.

Event organizer and president and co-founder of Keeper Collection, Diane Dixon said, “It is a fun live drama of how the competitors react under pressure in front of an audience of 250 people and stellar judges while pairing lovely wines with food prepared by chefs that we admire. It’s really exciting to put sommeliers in the hot seat in a playful way. We will have wines that are classically representative of different region to not only test the broad knowledge of the competitors but also so the audience can learn about wines from different areas.”

It would make most people pee their pants just thinking of competing, but more than 100 people from across the country applied for the opportunity to do this. Freaks. Each took a timed, 30 minute online exam testing their wine knowledge with fill in the blank questions and an essay at the end. For the first time in four years, none of the top three scores were from Austin sommeliers. What?

Who made the cut?

All three of the contestants are Advanced Sommeliers with the Court of Master Sommeliers. That means they have passed the third level exam out of three exams. The next step is Master Sommelier. It’s hard as hell to become an Advanced Somm, and next to impossible to become a Master Somm. Seriously. The contestants are:

Advanced Somm Luke Boland

  • Luke Boland is a sommelier at Del Posto Restaurant in New York City and a graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2010.

Advance Somm Eric Crane

Advance Somm James Watkins

  • James Watkins is the beverage director at Cordúa Restaurants in Houston and was a Somms Under Fire competitor in 2014.

If for any reason one of these competitors can’t make it, there are three alternates waiting in the wings. The alternates are Jill Zimorski, the wine director at Casa Tua in Aspen, Colorado, Blake Leja, a district manager at Southern Wine & Spirits in Chicago and Brian Phillips, the assistant operating partner and wine director of Eddie V’s Prime Seafood in Austin.
Who sits in Judgment?

Just as the field of competitors has moved to a national stage, so has the judging panel. The panel is made up of a Master Sommelier and two James Beard Award Winners.

  • Rajat Parr brings extensive credentials to the judging panel. He is a partner in Sandhi WinesDomaine de la Cote WinesMaison L’Oree Wines, as well as Internationally Regarded Sommelier and Wine Director of Michael Mina Group. He was recently named one of “The 9 People You Need To Know In American Wine Right Now” by Food Republic.
  • Jordan Mackay, is serving in his second year as a judge. This San Francisco based award winning author and wine writer’s work appears in numerous prestigious publications.  He originally hails from Austin his hometown connections tight as he is currently writing a book about Texas BBQ.
  •  Jay James, Master Sommelier and director of sales and marketing at Chappellet Wines in Napa Valley brings extensive restaurant experience to the judging panel in addition, he Jay has been a featured speaker on multiple televised features, at numerous wine and food events. He currently serves as Vice President of The Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation.

What do they win?

The grand prize for the wine and food pairing competition is a wine Internship in Burgundy, France with a renowned Burgundy expert, provided by Becky Wasserman Selections and a Travel Grant, provided by event partner, the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

There is also a Fan Favorite award sponsored by Chapter 24 Vineyards, which sends the winner and a randomly selected Somms Under Fire volunteer on a four day trip to the Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Event emcee, Master Sommelier Devon Broglie, associate global beverage buyer, Whole Foods Market, who returns for his fourth year, commented on the changing dynamics of Somms Under Fire.

“Somms Under Fire has certainly captured a broader spectrum of audience, participants and judges,” Broglie said. “The event’s evolution has mirrored the advances in food and wine in town. There is no question that the quality of wine industry in Austin has increased exponentially in the last 10 years. There has been incredible growth in the professionalism in wine service and the peoples’ expectations of wine lists in finer dining restaurants.”

In addition to the competition, VIP ticketholders will enjoy a wine tasting and education, presented by judge Rajat Parr.  He’ll break out some bad ass Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and drop knowledge about these delicious wines.

VIP Tickets are $125 and general admission are $60 through Keeper Collection

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

Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story was originally posted on CultureMap.

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.