Austin’s 8 best sommeliers keep the wine scene flowing

This story was originally written for and published by CultureMap

It’s a pretty fine time to be a sommelier, and Austin’s wine pros are ready for the spotlight. Ahead of the annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, we introduce you to the nominees for Sommelier of the Year.

These eight professionals have what it takes to satisfy Austin’s thirst for fine wine and food pairings.

Devon Broglie, global beverage buyer, Whole Foods Market
Devon Broglie became one of Austin’s first master sommeliers in 2011 when he earned the title alongside wine study partner Craig Collins. Broglie has been recognized as an outstanding wine professional, winning the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition in 2006. He worked harvest for the Costers del Siurana winery in Priorat, Spain before beginning his career in the wine shop of Whole Foods Market in Austin and working his way up.

As a global beverage buyer, Broglie coordinates the wine, beer, and spirits programming in 300 stores — no small task. Broglie says it’s easy to find a great bottle of wine at Whole Foods. “People can trust that if it’s on the shelf on the store, it’s great value for the money.”

Devon Broglie
Devon Broglie

 

Craig Collins, beverage director, Elm Restaurant Group
An active member of the local sommelier community, Master Sommelier Craig Collins has been immersed in the wine industry since working at a winery while attending Texas A&M University. He worked at Glazer’s D&E Fine Wine Group, Prestige Wine Cellars, and Dalla Terra Winery Direct before assuming the role of beverage director for Elm, where he oversees the programs at 24 Diner, Easy Tiger, Italic, and soon-to-open Irene’s.

He develops each concept’s wine list, focusing on the guests and, of course, wines that will pair best with the menu. When dining out, Collins recommends asking a sommelier for assistance when selecting a bottle of wine. “They are there to make you happy. Let them take you on an adventure.”

Craig and April Collins
Craig and April Collins

 

Nathan Fausti, sales representative, Dionysus Imports and Rosenthal Wine Merchant
Certified Sommelier Nathan Fausti is a rising star in the Austin wine community. He won the title of 2015 Texas’ Best Sommelier, tested his skills in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Young Sommelier Competition, and is preparing to take the Advanced Sommelier exam. Fausti has dazzled guests with food and wine pairings at some of the best restaurants in Austin, including Perla’s, Arro, Olive & June, and Bullfight, and now he uses his skills as a sales representative with Dionysus Imports and Rosenthal Wine Merchant.

Nathan Fausti
Nathan Fausti

 

Paul Ozbirn, beverage director, Parkside Projects
Advanced Sommelier Paul Ozbirn has had a mark on Austin’s wine scene since 2006 when he began waiting tables at Vin Bistro, sparking his passion for wine. He held various positions at Vin, Botticelli’s, Wink, and Paggi House before joining Parkside Projects as beverage director. Here, he guides the selection of all drinks served, from a Spanish wine list at Bullfight to predominately Italian wine lists at Olive & June and The Backspace.

In developing wine menus, Ozbirn strikes a balance by complementing wines guests will recognize with more adventurous selections from places like Greece, Austria, and Portugal. His advice for selecting a great bottle of wine is simply to inquire. “You can’t get what you want if you don’t ask.”

Paul Ozbirn
Paul Ozbirn

 

Nathan Prater, director of outlets, AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center
Advanced Sommelier Nathan Prater is a serious student of wine and an integral part of the strong, professional sommelier community that trains together in Austin. Currently, Prater oversees the beverage program at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, including the hotel, The Carillon, and Gabriel’s Cafe. His goal is to maintain a list featuring the best value wines available, noting that the entire room service wine list is $30 or less per bottle.

His advice for selecting a great bottle of wine? “Shed your diffidence and try the never tried. Forget the scores, and do not be afraid to ask questions.”

Nathan Prater Tastemaker Nominee
Nathan Prater, Photo by Jessica Pages

Paula Rester, wine director, La Corsha Hospitality Group
Certified Sommelier Paula Rester has honed her wine skills at prestigious Austin restaurants like Uchi, Vino Vino, and Restaurant Congress. She recently returned to Austin to assume the wine director role at La Corsha Hospitality Group after working as a sommelier at Danny Meyer’s Maialino in New York. At La Corsha, she is responsible for staff education and maintaining wine programs at Second Bar + Kitchen, long-awaited Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, and the soon-to-be renovated Green Pastures. She relishes the opportunity to create wine lists that represent a broad range of classics mixed with emerging regions and producers.

To find a great bottle of wine, just do what Rester does. “I always think about what I want to spend and then take into consideration the dishes being served. From there it becomes the fun journey of what elements of the wine might enhance or detract from the evening’s menu. I’m never afraid to ask for help from the somm or server, who might be willing to introduce me to something entirely new.”

Paula Rester
Paula Rester

 

June Rodil, wine and beverage director, McGuire Moorman Hospitality
One of only three master sommeliers in Austin — and seven in Texas — Rodil has a long list of honors, including being named one of Food & Wine’s Sommeliers of the Year in 2014. She wields significant influence in the Austin wine community as the wine and beverage director at McGuire Moorman Hospitality. You won’t find a boring corporate list on Rodil’s watch, but fun lists loaded with South American and Italian wines at Lambert’s, affordable French selections at Elizabeth Street Cafe, and rare allocations at Jeffrey’s.

To find the best bottle of wine, Rodil recommends you let a sommelier help you discover “the lexicon to figure out how to describe what you like accurately enough to get the bottle of wine that’s best for your palate. Ninety percent of my job with guests is translating what they are asking for into a bottle of wine.”

June Rodil
June Rodil

 

Mark Devin Sayre, service director, Elm Restaurant Group
Advanced Sommelier Mark Sayre won the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Best Sommelier while leading the wine program at Trio at the Four Seasons. Now as the service director for Elm, Sayre’s wine philosophy puts a twist on the city’s motto: “Keep Austin Fresh.” His approach to developing wine lists for each of the restaurant’s is focus. Whether it’s 24 Diner, Italic, or Easy Tiger, Sayre builds the wine list to match the theme of the restaurant.

When selecting a bottle of wine at an Elm restaurant, Sayre says guests can trust that each selection is great. “Close your eyes and point. We have well-trained beverage professionals who can find something you will love.”

Mark Sayre
Mark Sayre

Buy tickets now to the Tastemaker Awards on May 17 at Bullock Texas State History Museum. Learn more about the event here.

Behind the scenes look at June Rodil’s Master Sommelier quest

June Rodil TastemakerEarning the Master Sommelier Diploma in the Court of Master Sommeliers is an unbelievably difficult task. The exam has three sections: a verbal wine knowledge test, a blind tasting of six wines in 25 minutes, and test of the candidate’s ability to provide and beverage service in a fine setting. Since its inception in 1977 in England, only 227 people have reached the rarified air of the Master Somm. Only 147 people in the U.S. have passed the test since 1987.

Until the summer of 2011 there were zero Master Somms in Austin, but then Devon Broglie and Craig Collins became the first two in town. Now, June Rodil, beverage director for Maguire Moorman Hospitality Group, becomes the third in Austin, the seventh in Texas and one of 23 women in the world to hold the distinction. She has completed the four stages of testing that include Introductory Sommelier Course; Certified Sommelier Exam; Advanced Sommelier Course; and Master Sommelier Diploma (read about the process in So You Want to be a Sommelier).

I first met June four years ago right after she passed the Advanced exam. It was clear that her bubbly personality, keen intelligence and unrestrained drive to succeed would propel her to the Master level. Armed with her signature sharp wit and that mischievous gleam in her eye, June shared a behind the scenes look at her quest to become a Master Sommelier.

What Are You Drinking?: How long did you study for the exam?

June Rodil: I got my Intro pin in 2007 when I started with Uchi Restaurant Group.

 

WAYD?: How certain were you that you had passed?

JR: HA! That’s a good one.

 

WAYD?: Who was the first person you called after you earned the Master Sommelier title?

JR: I handed my phone to Aaron (my boyfriend/S.O.) to pick up and respond when necessary. I was in a room full of my peers and some of my best friends. My mentors were present as well. It was very special to have so many people there in person. Then, I called my parents and my grandparents (cause, duh). And then work.

 

WAYD?: Who was the most helpful in you preparation for the exam?

JR: You have to find a good study partner. I skyped endless hours with David Keck and Jill Zimorski. The day before the exam, I locked myself in a hotel room with Josh Orr and Jordan Salcito to review “the world of beverages” for about 12 hours. All these people are rad so it’s not so bad to spend so much time with them. It’s also beneficial to have a super supportive S.O. who doesn’t mind it if you’re studying every moment away from your normal 12 hour work day. Find your people. They will help you get there. Don’t spend your time being in too many study groups or having a very large one. Things get complicado.

 

WAYD?: What did you drink after the ceremony?

JR: Oh, but the question is what did we drink BEFORE we went to get our results….

 

WAYD?: Who was the first person who made a masturbator joke?

JR: You know there’s a Master Bates, right? Christopher Bates, MS. No joke. Just real life.

 

WAYD?: If you were single/unattached, would you use your new title to get laid?

JR: Nope.

 

WAYD?: What is the one thing you would never drink? (wine, spirit, cocktail, beer)

JR: Pickle Juice.

 

WAYD?: Would you refuse service to anyone who ordered it? (yes or no)

JR: Yes. Because if it accidentally touched my skin, I would start dry-heaving.

 

What are you drinking?

2014 Wine Ride “The Oregon Trail” Visits 3 Texas Cities in October, 2014

Wine Ride

Diane Dixon, the brains behind Keeper Collection, is always scheming fun ways to present amazing food and wine pairings. She has created a portfolio of spectacular annual events including  CITYWIDE 86’D, which recently won a “Best of Austin Award” from the Austin Chronicle,  Chef’s Under Fire, Somms Under Fire and of course The Wine Ride. Each one has a unique way of involving guests in an amazing experience with culinary and beverage talent.

This year, the Wine Ride – The Oregon Trail, wine and food pairing event, will be held in Houston at Kipper Club Test Kitchen with food from Chef Graham LaBorde on Saturday, October 18, 2014, in Dallas/Fort Worth at Clay Pigeon Food and Drink with food by Chef Marcus Paslay on Sunday, October 19, and in Austin at W Austin with food from Chef Thomas Riordan on Monday, October 20, 2014. At each of the three events  guests will learn about the terroir and wines of Chapter 24 Vineyards,  the Oregon wines of Raptor Ridge, which will be paired with a three-course meal.

I’m a sucker for Oregon wine. The only thing better is having Oregon wine expertly paired by extremely knowledgeable sommeliers and chefs. Advanced Sommeliers will present a wine education program before the dinner in each city. In Houston, the brilliant David Keck will show his magic, Dallas guests will be awed by Jason Hisaw, and Austin will be treated to a spectacular session with the brilliant June Rodil.

There are only fifty seats available in each city. It will be an amazing experience to eat and drink with these pros in such an intimate setting. Tickets are a bargain for $95.

Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie
Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie

What are you drinking? 

Sommelier’s Top Wine Recommendations from TEXSOM

A breakdown of sparkling, white and red wine from the 10th annual Texas Sommelier Conference.

TEXSOM wine tastingIt’s easy to feel overwhelmed when walking through the vast canyons of wines at the store. Faced with that immense selection, it’s tempting just to pick the same wine we know. On the flip side, the thousands of different wines present a fantastic opportunity to continually explore new things.

ATX Man made its annual pilgrimage to the world’s premier wine-education conference to get some fresh ideas about what to drink right now. The 10th anniversary of the Texas Sommelier Conference, aka TEXSOM, held in Dallas, drew 900 wine enthusiasts to participate in educational seminars and wine tastings conducted by 39 master sommeliers, 10 certified wine educators and six masters of wine. It was a perfect place to discover wine.

Here are outstanding wine recommendations from some of the top wine professionals in Austin.

DAZZLING SPARKLING WINE

Two renowned areas for producing the world’s finest sparkling wine are, of course Champagne, France, and Lombardy, Italy, which is 30 miles east of Milan. The sparkling wine from this part of Northern Italy is called Franciacorta and it’s made in the same way as Champagne. Here are two fine choices of Franciacorta.

Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 2004: This Franciacorta from Northern Italy is gorgeous, bright and focused, with incredible precision, a pervasive minerality and acidity for days. The weight and breadth of the wine sits just perfectly on the palate, balanced by the right amount of toast and a clean, fine perlage. It is Franciacorta at its best, simply and utterly perfect. It is splurge-worthy at $85.

– Lexey Davis Johnson, certified sommelier, Vino Vino

Ca’ del Bosco Vintage Collection Dosage Zero 2009: Powerful, rich and dry as a bone, this gorgeous bubbly is made with 65 percent chardonnay, 13 percent pinot bianco and 22 percent pinot nero grown on old vine. Italy had a slightly warmer growing season in 2009, resulting in lush, softer wines. This wine is fermented in small, new oak and aged for 40 months on the lees, giving it great concentration, with lemon meringue and hazelnut flavors with a crisp finish. It’s great before dinner or paired with just about any food. It runs about $70.

Matt McGinnis, certified sommelier and food and beverage columnist for ATX Man

Ca' del Bosco Vintage Collection Dosage Zero at TEXSOM

ELEGANT WHITE WINE

There were so many amazing white wines from throughout the world poured at TEXSOM. It’s hard to pick favorites, but here are a few standouts.

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese, Mosel 2012: Though there’s a major shift in German riesling toward a drier style, sometimes you just can’t mess with a classic, like this Mosel Spätlese, which sings with bright honeysuckle, ripe pear, lychee and jasmine on the nose. Its delicate sweetness is balanced with racy acidity that puts this relatively young wine at the pinnacle sweet spot for a benchmark riesling. As we have moved into hatch-chili season, drink this wine with grilled shrimp and roasted hatch peppers. The Austin Wine Merchant has this for less than $30.

Jessica Dupuy, certified sommelier, certified specialist of wine and wine columnist for Texas Monthly

Jessica Dupuy tasting at TEXSOM

Marcel Deiss Burg Premier Cru 2010, Alsace: I love this wine for its ability to showcase the terroir of this premier cru vineyard site. Its composition as a true field blend of the several varieties in the vineyard including riesling and gewurztraminer provides the wine with incredible complexity of rich tropical and stone-fruit elements and fragrant florals. Its distinctly Alsatian mineral backbone carries through the wine from start to finish. It sells for about $50 a bottle.

– Joelle Cousins, certified sommelier, 2014 Texas’ Best Sommelier and general manager and sommelier for the Red Room Lounge

Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne 2010: Yes, grand cru! I know, I know, going big. Louis Latour is an iconic producer making a classic example of Corton Charlemagne. This 2010 is singing wonderfully with high-toned citrusy fruit and mouthwatering acidity. Yummy! It will set you back about $100 at Spec’s, but it’s worth it.

– June Rodil, advanced sommelier and beverage director for Jeffrey’s, Josephine House, Clark’s, Lamberts, Perla’s and Elizabeth Street Café

SEDUCTIVE RED WINE

Gallons upon gallons of amazing red wine were poured at TEXSOM. It was difficult to pass up the hard-to-find Portuguese reds, the graceful Burgundy grand cru, or the quintessentially bold cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley, but here are some must-try wines featured at the conference.

2011 Arpepe Rosso di Valtellina: I love almost anything Italian, and Nebbiolo is a standout for me. This wine is from the Valtellina region of Lombardy, where the Nebbiolo goes by its synonym, Chiavennasca. Nebbiolo can be hard as nails at times but this is a soft, approachable wine with dried strawberry, rose petals and a defined organic minerality, making this a great way to dip your toes in the sea of Northern Italian reds! It is available at East End Wines for about $34.

– Craig Collins, master sommelier and beverage director at ELM Restaurant Group

Fredrick Österberg Pedernales Cellars at TEXSOMPedernales Cellars Texas Tempranillo 2012: Texas wines have come a long way in the past decade, and the award-winning wines from Pedernales Cellars show what the state is capable of producing. Made with grapes grown in the Reddy and Bingham vineyards of the High Plains region, this bold tempranillo has racy cherry and raspberry flavors with soft vanilla and oak on the finish. It’s great served with grilled lamb or Texas barbecue. Pick it up for $22 at Whole Foods Market.

– Matt McGinnis, certified sommelier and food and beverage columnist for ATX Man

Viña Falernia Syrah Reserva DO Elqui Valley Chile 2010: The vineyard was founded in the arid far north of Chile in 1951 by an Italian family. The cool Pacific breezes, high altitude and intense sun make ideal growing conditions for syrah. The Viña Falernia Reserva has the complexity and finesse of a much more expensive wine from the Northern Rhone Valley of France, with delicate plum, raspberry, bacon, smoke and olive flavors and a peppery finish. Grill a thick steak and enjoy. It is a beautiful wine and an absolute bargain for $14 at Whole Foods Market.

– Matt McGinnis, certified sommelier and food and beverage columnist for ATX Man.

This story was originally published by Austin Man 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? 

 

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?

Exclusive reds and fine champagnes: Big Reds and Bubbles returns for tenth annual fete

Lamarca ProseccoAustinites love a good party, and Thursday, for the tenth year, hundreds of people will pack into the Driskill Hotel to sip some of the world’s finest champagne and exclusive red wines at Big Reds & Bubbles hosted by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

At this year’s annual fête, Nov. 8, guests will be greeted with a glass of bubbly served by the bubble girls, wearing little more than strategically placed bubbles. Who could ask for a better way to start a party?

“There is no other wine event like this in town,” says the foundation’s president-elect, Mark Shilling. “Big Reds and Bubbles is elegant and festive, it’s held in a beautiful location, it has high-caliber wines and incredible food that reflects Austin’s foodie movement. Let’s face it — it’s your gateway party to the holiday season. People get dressed to impress for Big Reds and Bubbles and that sets the tone for the cooler weather parties.”

The star of the show is definitely the wine. “Big Reds is a good way to experience several wines in an approachable, non-snooty way,” Shilling says.

Suzanne and Matt McGinnis  Big Reds & Bubbles Well, there is a little touch of snooty wine drinking. The event starts off with a sold-out, private VIP pre-party hosted by June Rodil, Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Best New Sommelier in 2011, featuring 10 big reds and sparkling wines. Rodil will describe the highly sought after wines and then give her recommendations on the must-have wines poured at the rest of the event.

Don’t worry if you didn’t get a VIP ticket, there will be plenty of excellent wine for us. Principle sponsor Glazer’s is arranging for approximately 130 wines from 60 producers to be poured at the party.

“Glazer’s is deeply involved in and committed to the food and wine industry in Texas,” said Stephen Hansen, portfolio marketing manager of Glazer’s Texas Fine Wine Division. “Our commitment aligns well with the Foundation’s mission of improving the wine and food community with education and scholarships. Food and wine are inextricably linked and are absolutely essential to our culture, to who we are. Big Reds and Bubbles is an excellent way to experience the culture of food and wine.”

Bryce Gilmore and Jack Gilmore Big Reds & BubblesThe “big” will shine through in glasses of California Cabernets like Miner Oracle, Chappellet Mountain Cuvee and Sterling Vineyards Platinum. Well known wines like Beaulieu Vineyards will be poured next to wineries that are new to the event, like Donati Family, Lange Winery and Gerard Bertrand.

Bubbly conversations always flow better with a flute of champagne. This year’s bubbles come from stand-out wines from Louis Roederer, Laurent Perrier and Beau Joie as well as a phenomenal selection of Prosecco from producers like Montesel, Nino Franco, La Marca, and Cava from Juve y Camps and Segura Viudas.

20 of Austin’s acclaimed chefs will serve inventive nibbles to pair with all of those fantastic wines. I’m looking forward to trying a preview of Bridget Dunlap’s new place, Mettle. Another new joint serving up the goods is Guests LaV Austin, which will be opened by Chef Allison Jenkins in fall of 2013. There will be plenty of good eats from the likes of The Carillon, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Barley Swine, Max’s Wine Dive, Noble Pig, Wink and Swift’s Attic.

Chef Brad Sorenson

Returning as emcee this year is Chef Brad Sorenson of The Next Food Network Star fame. He’ll give us the inside scope on his soon to open Nova Kitchen & Bar on Rainey Street, while rallying the crowd to spend big on the silent auction. He’ll have plenty to sell with desirable auction items like a three liter bottle of Miner Family Wines The Oracle 2007, three cases of exquisite Spanish wines and a private tasting for 10 at the Red Room Lounge hosted by Advanced Sommelier, Bill Elsey.

Proceeds from the event benefit The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas’s education and scholarships which promote excellence in the culinary and viticulture arts.

Tickets for the event are available online for the price of $85 for foundation members and $100 for the general public. The Foundation reports that ticket sales are ahead of schedule and they expect the event to sell out with 400 people in attendance. 

This article was previously published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking? 

Austin’s top sommeliers say wine is just a condiment

This article was co-authored by Jessica Dupuy and originally appeared on CultureMap Austin as a part of its Tastemaker Award Nominee series.

Very rarely do you get to gather some of the city’s top sommeliers in one room, let them loose with a couple of bottles of wine

The blind tasting challenge. Photo by Jessica Dupuy

in a bag for them to blind taste, and listen to them talk about what feeds their thirst for wine and spirits. But since they’ve all been nominated for a Tastemaker Award, we thought it might be a good excuse to get these experts to dish on something they love most: wine.

We organized a Monday evening blind tasting for this purpose and found that, while these laid back wine and cocktail experts with impeccably discerning palates all have an individual style, their passion for what they do has led them to collaborate and grow their strengths in recent years — the key ingredient in elevating Austin’s wine and cocktail scene across the board.

Meet Tastemaker the nominees

Josh Loving, wine director and Bar Manager at Fino Restaurant Patio & Bar

A native Texan, Loving moved to Austin from Corpus Christi in 1999 to attend the University of Texas. He’s worked in both the front of the house and back of the house at such distinguished Austin locales as Zoot, Vino Vino and Fino. He joined Fino when it opened in 2005 — one of the last original employees on board — and has since earned his Certified Sommelier pin through the Court of Master Sommeliers and took on the bar, Loving has a well-rounded appetite, knocking back neat spirits, craft brew from Jester King and Austin Beer Works, Vermouth and Soda, and German or Austrian wines.

Chris McFall, wine buyer and sommelier at Paggi House

After emigrating from Detroit “Rock City” to Georgetown at an early age, McFall almost qualifies as a native Texan. He attended Southwestern University and was an organizer for the International Student Foundation. After a night of plundering Coors Light and Jägermeister shots, his friend, who just happened to be a member of the famed Bertani Italian wine family, introduced him to the world of fine wine by uncorking a 1968 Bertani Amarone. McFall fell in love — with wine, that is.

McFall worked his way through the restaurant world at the likes of Georgetown’s Monica’s, Lamberts and Sullivan’s before knocking on the Paggi House door for an opportunity as wine buyer four years ago where the Certified Sommelier has since called home. McFall’s drink of choice is Fernet-Branca.  He says, “Fernet is bitter and a little acidic. Just like me, it takes a little getting used to. Once you do, you’ll love it.”

Dirk Miller, bar manager at Wink Restaurant

Hailing from Shreveport, LA, Miller went to college in Nashville for a business degree, and did what lots of people do in Nashville; he played music. To fund his habit he turned to a life of work in fine dining in Nashville in 1998. He eventually made his way to Austin to pursue his passion in music, but continued his pursuit of fine wine and food. He has worked his way up at Wink from wine buyer to bar manager since 2006 and has also earned his pin as a Certified Sommelier.

Miller’s mood steers his personal drink selection. “I can never drink the same thing twice. There are so many good things to drink out there.” He likes the influx of Italian wine happening now, particularly whites like Lambrusco and Friuli.

June Rodil, beverage director at Congress

Born in Philippines, Rodil moved to Dallas at age four and on to Austin to attend the University of Texas in 1998. She made her way through college and the Driskill Hotel, where she worked her way up from cocktail waitress to floor sommelier over the course of seven years. She then moved on as beverage director at Uchi and Uchiko, after which she helped to opened Congress.

Rodil holds an Advanced Sommelier (Level III) certification from the CMS. Her talents are well recognized as the 2009 Texas Best Sommelier at the Texas Sommelier Conference and as the Wine & Spirits Best New Sommeliers of 2011. Her drink of choice? “Bubbly, of course. It’s a panty dropper.”

Mark Sayre, sommelier at TRIO at the Four Seasons Hotel, Austin

Houston native Mark Sayre discovered his zeal for wine while waiting tables. An avid music fan, wine began to hit notes for him in the same way music did. Before long he had jumped into the world of wine with both feet. His passion and drive has earned him an Advanced Sommelier certification from the CMS and he will sit for the coveted Master Sommelier certification this July. (There are only seven Master Sommelier in the entire state of Texas. Sayre hopes to make it an even eight.)

He has been recognized as the 2007 Texas Best Sommelier and the Wine & Spirits Best New Sommeliers of 2010. When Sayre is off the clock, he prefers Champagne. “It is the perfect balance of things. High acid, cold and carbonated. It goes with everything and is the only thing that sounds good to me when I’m hung over. I don’t think I’ve ever said, ‘no I can’t do a glass of sparkling.’”

The Tasting

The room was quiet as the nominees swirled, sniffed and tasted both a white and two red wines, but after a minute or two, deliberate descriptors began to erupt from the group. For a crisp white wine words such as “vibrant,” “white flowers,” “baby powder,” “aggressively green” and “high minerality” circled through the room. Within a few moments, they all narrowed the mystery wine down to a 2010 French Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc).

The reds were just as easy. A California 2008 Pinot Noir from Sonoma prompted descriptions of “cinnamon,” “mint tea,” “orange blossom,” “hot,” “chocolatey” and “strawberries and cream,” while a 2009 Syrah blend from the Southern Rhone invited words like “chewy,” “meaty,” “peppery,” “iron,” “stinky.” (Our personal favorite was June Rodil’s comment on the Rhone wine as having an “animal, butt hair quality” — who says you have to be refined when it comes to wine?)

CultureMap: What makes a good Sommelier/Beverage Director? 

Chris McFall, Paggi House: You really have to trust yourself and keep in mind that you’re not buying for your own particular palate. You have to fill in for what you think other people are going to like.

Josh Loving, Fino: I think you have to believe in what you’re doing, like Chris said. Let that guide your way. We’re all generally philosophically rooted. We might have to serve things that satisfy people but, you’d be amazed at what we’re able to introduce to people. You’d be surprised when you stick to your guns about the wine and cocktails you want to serve. It forces people to try something different.

Mark Sayre, Trio: The most important attribute is a lack of pretense; that unteachable characteristic of being able to serve with passion and help others. It is the antithesis of the caricature of the old stodgy sommelier with a cup around his neck looming around the dining room waiting to scoff at your choice or draw you into a price point that you’re not comfortable with.

CM: So, how does that effect your approach to customer service?

Dirk Miller, Wink: I think you really have to take yourself out of it sometimes. For me, my list is small and we have a lot of things by the glass. We will probably always have to have something that’s oaky and buttery, but it’s my job not to fill that spot with just any old California Chardonnay. It’s about finding something good and balanced that has a good reason to be there. I still want to be proud of that wines I’ve selected at the same time that I’m satisfying what people want.

Josh Loving, Fino: I have a more hardline approach. When you come to a restaurant, you order off the menu. You don’t tell the chef what to cook for you. For the most part, if you’re an intrepid diner, you probably don’t go to places that challenge your food palate. But if you like going to places to expand your horizons with the food, there should be no difference with cocktails or wine. We’re not in this to freak you out. We obviously like these things.

I don’t have an oaky Chardonnay, I have a really big, Viognier with tons of fruit, fresh acidity, higher alcohol, but it’s not juicy or fatty and oily, it lifts your palate. Wine is meant to go with food. Some of the wines that are big and over the top are going to kill your palate and our food doesn’t fit that. On the one night that you dine with us, you can have what we have on our menu. Other nights, drink whatever you want.

Mark Sayre, Trio: It’s important to read a guest to assess the level of assistance to offer and help them find something they want to drink. It’s a mistake to make selfish suggestions. Never make suggestions that ignore a customer’s needs.

Chris McFall, Paggi House: Everyone in this group like wines that taste like somewhere. We are all fortunate to work with fun, creative chefs and you can’t find their food anywhere else and we want our wines and cocktails to be the same. Enjoy it while you’re in this place.

CM: What are your biggest tips to for customers for getting you, the sommelier to help them best? 

June Rodil, Congress: It’s simple, just tell me what you like!

Dirk Miller, Wink: You want people to “use their words” to describe wine. I encourage them to have fun with that, but a lot of times, what they’re saying and what they mean are not the same thing.

They may tell me, “For God sakes, I want a dry wine,” but after talking to them a bit, I find out that what they mean is that they really want a sweet wine. Or they say they like “earthy,” but really they mean “oaky.” That’s a lot to decipher. Sometimes it’s better to say what wines you have had that you like so that I can try to narrow down that category.

Chris McFall, Paggi House: We not only have to do our homework for our own lists, but we have to know what’s on everyone else’s list. If they say they had a certain wine at Congress, I will probably know it and can find something similar.

One of the hardest things for people is to realize that we’re here to help. We’re not snooty and we’re not trying to steal your wallet. The most expensive wine and the best wine may not be hand in hand. If you can give me some parameters, I can probably find you what you like to drink. Some of my best regulars are the ones who are willing to take the “Pepsi Challenge.” The ones that have the best time are the ones that give me a price and ask me to pick a red or white. I usually come in lower and they usually try something they weren’t expecting.

Josh Loving, Fino: I’ve had people come in and say, “I like Malbec… and Zinfandel… and Pinot Noir.” Because I technically tend bar, I can be a little more sarcastic and I’ll say, “Alright honey, you just named three of the most popular red varietals on the planet. So you’re telling me you like red wine.”

It’s like saying, “I like meat.” Well, do you like beef, pork, chicken? You need to help us narrow it down.

June Rodil, Congress: Tell us what you like, and if you can’t say what you like specifically, don’t be afraid to let us do it for you. And don’t think we’re judging you. If you’re having a bad time, then we’re having a bad time. Oh, and don’t be afraid to say price.

Chris McFall, Paggi House: Yeah, definitely tell us a price. I like to work with people on the parameters they’ve set and have a great time doing it. Then they trust you and want to test the boundaries the next time. That’s the joy of going out.

CM: What makes a top notch wine program in Austin? Why is it that you guys were selected for being among the best? 

June Rodil, Congress: I think it’s because we have autonomy. It wasn’t so long ago when there were no beverage directors in town. And now there are lots of them. The fact that there is someone in charge of these things in a restaurant means that it’s more alive

Dirk Miller, Wink: The culinary vibe here is on fire and that extends to wine and cocktails. Plus, we’re all pushing each other to be better. We’re all on the same team and have all studied together or tasted together at some point.

Mark Sayre, Trio: Successful wine programs combine diversity, value and personalized service. In Austin we are able to branch out and include boutique wines on the list and offer great value because we don’t have to stick to corporate mandated margins.

About six years ago, a group of serious wine professionals in town started going through the Master Sommelier program together. We really formed a bond. There is a natural magnetism because we share a common lofty goal to raise the bar to make Austin a serious food and wine town. This distinctive vibe is a culmination of what we started in creating this sommelier community. Because I was part of the initial stages of that happening here, I feel a responsibility to the quality of food and wine in Austin.

Josh Loving, Fino: I think the other cities in Texas are a lot more reserved, they’re a lot more brand driven, the dollars makes all the difference. It’s not like that in Austin. It’s better.

Chris McFall, Paggi House: More and more people are willing to talk with us and try new things. I just served a guy from Houston a bottle of Lebanon wine who would have never tried something like that five years ago.

At the end of the day, I’m glad to be in company with the other beverage directors in town. We’re all really passionate about it, but we’re not the snooty figures that most people think of when they think of sommeliers. Wine should be fun. It’s a beverage. It’s a condiment — well, sometimes it’s a more expensive condiment, but it should be fun.

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?