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:
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.