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?