The ultimate holiday indulgence: Champagne and caviar

The holidays are ripe for indulgence. It’s a perfect time for pampering family, friends and yourself. The ultimate culinary extravagance is the pairing of champagne and caviar: bliss! Both are tiny festive balloons bursting with joy, just for you.

Champagne and Caviar

What’s so special about the salted eggs of a sturgeon? It’s that almost magical pop of the delicate shell that showers your mouth with insanely delicious buttery, saline and fishy goodness. Nothing else can replicate the tactile experience or flavor.

Who was the first person to eat the gray-black eggs of a scary fish that looks like it just swam out of the brackish waters of Jurassic Park? Some say Greek philosopher Aristotle and his cronies were diggin’ sturgeon roe way back in the fourth century B.C. While the Persians (aka, Iranians) may be the first to salt sturgeon eggs from the Southern Caspian Sea, it’s the Russian czars who gave caviar its fame as an extravagance. Its popularity spread when the Russians started selling it as a luxury item to European royalty in the 16th century.

Caviar caught on big in the United States in the late 1800s, and by 1910, sturgeon were almost extinct in the U.S., resulting in the halting of domestic production. Similarly, the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea was decimated by overfishing, poaching and pollution. In 1988, sturgeon was listed as an endangered species, but poaching for the lucrative black-market trade after the fall of the U.S.S.R. devastated the industry. Wild beluga and osetra sturgeon have been fished to near extinction.

As a result of scarcity and regulations limiting the harvest of wild sturgeon, caviar prices have soared. Fortunately, farming sturgeon provides cost-effective and sustainable access to the good stuff.

Caviar

Order Like a Pro

You don’t have to be an in-the-know aficionado to get good caviar in a restaurant or store. Just follow a few basic tips.

  • Buy enough. You’ll want at least a 30-gram tin (about 1 ounce) for two people, but the ideal serving is 50 grams per person.
  • Know what you are getting. Caviar is the unfertilized salt-cured fish egg that can come from 26 different species of sturgeon. Look for nationality and species of fish on the tin—Russian sevruga, Iranian osetra or California sturgeon—to know what you are getting. While items like salmon caviar are technically roe and not caviar, it is common to find affordable eggs called whitefish caviar or trout caviar. Caviar is graded by the color, size and texture of its beads. The finest caviars are larger eggs that are lighter in color with firmer beads that pop in your mouth. If you are new to caviar, try milder styles like Chinese shassetra or American white sturgeon. Make sure it is fresh. Caviar stays fresh for four weeks unopened when well refrigerated. Once opened, caviar starts to soften and gets fishier. It will only keep for a day or possibly two when stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
  • That beluga isn’t what you think it is. Beluga is widely regarded as the finest caviar, but in 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed beluga sturgeon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It’s currently illegal in the U.S., however, you may see river beluga caviar, or kaluga caviar, on a menu. It’s a scrumptious substitute with large, firm and luscious pearls.  Sustainably raised caviar is a good thing. Because most species of sturgeon are now considered endangered, sustainably raised, farmed caviar and other fish roe are great alternatives to wild caviar. Wild-harvested sturgeon are killed for their eggs, while eggs from farm-raised sturgeon are live harvested. Look for farm-raised varieties like white sturgeon or paddlefish roe.

Beluga Caviar

 

The Proper Way to Eat Caviar

Eat caviar in small bites, served right out of the tin with a nonmetallic spoon made of mother-of-pearl, wood or even plastic. Let the eggs spread on your tongue and pop those lovely pearls on the roof of your mouth to let the rich, nutty, buttery, salty, fishy flavors explode across your palate.

Alternately, caviar is delightful when served with blini, toast points or cold boiled potatoes with a dollop of creme fraiche—all excellent neutral backdrops that won’t compete with the flavor of caviar.

 

How to Select Champagne

Champagne is a must for pairing with caviar. The tart acidity of champagne and silky texture exquisitely enhance the enchanting, salty flavor of the caviar. It’s a match made in heaven. Even when excluding all styles of sparkling wine made outside the champagne region of France, there are still several styles to choose from. Follow these tips to simplify the selection of champagne.

  • Ask for advice. Go to a restaurant with a sommelier who can make suggestions or visit a reputable wine shop and ask for advice from the smart people who work there. Sommeliers and wine-shop owners spend all day, every day recommending wine, and are great resources for finding the best champagne for the money.
  • Know what you like. Do you prefer sweet or dry? Demi-sec, sec and extra dry are sweet, while brut and extra brut are dry.

Do you like your wine to be tarter or richer? Champagne made with all chardonnay grapes, called blanc de blanc, is more elegant, with lemon-juice freshness and high acidity. Champagne made with pinot noir is typically bigger, richer and more structured.

Pick your year. Champagne made with wine from multiple years is called non-vintage and will have “NV” on the label. It is usually less expensive than vintage-dated champagne. If you choose vintage champagne, some good years to consider are 1995, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

Consider being adventurous.  If you want a solid champagne without spending a lot of time scouring the wine list, pick a non-vintage bottle from one of the major houses, like Bollinger, Krug, Moët & Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot. If you feel more adventurous, try a grower champagne, or fizzy wine made by the same house that grows up to 88 percent of their own grapes rather than buying it from other sources. Look for a tiny “RM” on the label, meaning récoltant-manipulant, which signifies it is an independent grower and producer. It’s possible to find high-quality champagne at a great price from houses like Egly-Ouriet, Guy Charlemagne, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils and Serge Mathieu.

Where to Get it in Austin 

There are several stores in Austin that sell quality caviar, but two with high-quality caviar year-round include:

Lone Star Caviar

512.636.8265

As the only caviar-specific retailer in Central Texas, Lone Star Caviar sells a wide array of wild caviar, from domestic sturgeon in a 4-ounce container for $280, to golden osetra imported from Iran in a 3.5-ounce tin for $350. To ensure freshness, the retailer only keeps a small amount in stock. Proprietor Bill Kirchenbauer recommends calling ahead to pre-order. He delivers in the Austin area usually within 24 hours.

Whole Foods Market

Each Whole Foods location carries a limited selection of caviar year-round and increases the selection to six to 10 varieties during the holidays. Ryan Boudreaux, a seafood coordinator, says Whole Foods carries caviar from small, sustainably farmed, artisanal companies like Tsar Nicoulai Select California Estate Osetra. Various quality levels are available, from a farmed white American sturgeon for $40 for an ounce, to a reserve-style white sturgeon caviar for $90 an ounce.

Whole foods follows its seafood-sustainability practices for the purchase of caviar, which precludes it from buying Russian sturgeon. It only carries fresh caviar. Boudreaux recommends customers talk to a fishmonger to check the date of caviar before buying it. It has a finite shelf life of 60 to 90 days. He recommends packing it in ice, even for a short drive home.

Caviar

Clark’s Oyster Bar

1200 W. Sixth St.

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

 

This neighborhood seafood restaurant and raw bar has the casual charm of a beachside bistro. Known for its outstanding oysters and bangin’ cocktails, it also has a respectable selection of champagne and caviar.

The sparkling-wine list offers a diversity of styles and prices, with nine types, ranging from $44 to $240 a bottle.

“Our sparkling-wine selection gets rotated frequently,” says June Rodil, master sommelier and wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality. “I think it’s important to have a mix of non-champagne as well as champagne from the big houses, grower-producers and non-vintage and vintage to fit the menu.”

The Clark’s caviar lineup, chosen by Chef John Beasley, follows the same principle of offering a variety of styles and prices. Beasley selects caviar and seafood only from sustainable sources. He looks for clear consistency of the beads and flavor varieties for five to seven styles. The menu caries inexpensive golden whitefish roe and wild paddlefish caviar starting at $30 an ounce, as well as a selection of white sturgeon and osetra for as much as $240 for 50 grams. Each is served in a traditional setup, with a mother-of-pearl spoon, blini, creme fraiche and a selection of garnishes. The Clark’s servers are trained to provide recommendations on caviar to help guests make a good choice for their taste preferences and budget.

“Less expensive fish roe, like paddlefish, have a more mellow, murky and earthy flavor,” Rodil says, “When you move up to sturgeon, you’re starting to get an unctuous, rich, beautiful, rounded bead with an almost mineral and clean taste.”

The perfect pick: For a flawless pairing, Rodil recommends the royal white sturgeon caviar and Guy Larmandier Grand Cru Champagne, served in half bottles.

“A half bottle is the perfect amount to have by yourself with caviar,” she explains. “It’s made with 100 percent chardonnay and super powerful. The caviar is a little quieter, so it goes well with the chardonnay. The wine is like a laser cutting through the creaminess of the caviar, creme fraiche and egg. [It’s the] perfect texture with the texture of the caviar. It’s a middle-tier splurge, so you can get it again if you fall in love and not feel too guilty.”

 

Congress

200 Congress Ave.

Champagne and Caviar at Congress
Champagne and Caviar at Congress

 

One of Austin’s finest fine-dining restaurants, Congress really knows how to do elegant meals. Caviar feels right at home here. Champagne is a staple.

The Congress wine lists boasts more than 20 types of sparkling wine, the majority of which are Champagne. The list runs the gamut, from the non-vintage André Clouet Grande Reserve Brut at $68, to the prestigious 2000 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill Brut for $436.

Executive Chef David Bull has gathered stacks of prominent national awards for his craftsmanship of cuisine. Among his stellar dishes, he always has a selection that includes caviar.

“We change our caviar selection four to five times a year,” Bull says. “We want the right seasonally available ingredients. In the fall and winter months, the quality of caviar is much better. It’s all about the spawning. We incorporate farm-raised golden osetra from the Caspian Sea in a dedicate dish made with cauliflower mousse with a brown-butter cracker to highlight the flavor of caviar. It’s interactive. Use the crackers to dig in. It’s a fun experience.”

Bull’s driving force when sourcing caviar is to find high-quality eggs with the right color and separation of whole eggs that aren’t broken, as well as a good flavor profile, but caviar that’s still affordable so it’s not intimidating. However, his top priority is to serve sustainable ingredients.

“It’s a chef’s responsibility to make sure he’s not serving an endangered animal,” Bull says. “I make sure we are getting farm-raised caviar.”

It might not always be on the menu, but Congress offers stand-alone caviar service. During the holidays, look for farm-raised golden Caspian osetra served with a boiled egg, red onion, parsley and capers and toasted brioche. It’s served by the ounce for about $70.

“It’s a great bar snack if you can afford it,” says Jason Stevens, ‎director of bars and beverage at La Corsha Hospitality, which owns Congress.

The perfect pick: Stevens gets downright misty eyed when he describes the perfect combination of champagne with that bar snack.

“I like a non-vintage champagne, like Krug Brut Grande Cuvee, that has a little bit of age because it is important to have a nuttiness come out in the champagne to match the nuttiness of the caviar,” he says. “It’s really beautiful. The flavor is one thing but the textural element is another. When eating caviar, it’s so fun for me to crush the caviar on the soft palate of my mouth and let that buttery oiliness come out. The bubbles of the champagne combine with it to create an elegant, creamy mousse. The high acid cuts through the richness and lets the delicate aspects come out to play.”

Alternately, he recommends a very cold shot of vodka.

“I would make a shot with five parts of potato vodka and one part of super chilled akvavit,” he says. “Take a bite of caviar, take a taste of vodka and then more caviar. Rinse and repeat. What a lovely way to spend the evening.”

 

Jeffrey’s

1204 W. Lynn St.

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

 

A couple years ago, Bon Appétit magazine named Jeffrey’s one of its Top 50 New Restaurants when it reopened under new ownership by McGuire Moorman Hospitality, which also owns Clark’s. It’s accurate to say it has only gotten better with age.

With one of only three master sommeliers in Austin responsible for the wine list, it’s no surprise Jeffrey’s stocks an exquisite selection of champagne. Wine and Beverage Director June Rodil organized the list by grower champagnes and négociant-manipulant champagnes in either brut or rosé. It touts superb bottles such as 2004 Bollinger Grande Année Brut, 1988 Le Brun-Servenay Champagne Exception Avize Grand Cru and 1989 Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut.

“We have a lot of guests who are really into wine,” Rodil says. “Our sommelier team can answer their deep questions and get people conscious about what they want to drink. We have a large selection of great champagnes, with about 35 labels. I print our list every week and that changes regularly.”

French-trained Executive Chef Rebecca Meeker, who honed her culinary skills at Chef Joël Robuchon’s restaurants in New York and Taiwan, along with Chef David Whalen, sample caviar weekly to find the very best. Like the champagne list, the caviar selection changes regularly to ensure Jeffrey’s always has the freshest possible high-end caviar. The restaurant typically carries one or two styles, such as Iranian osetra or royal osetra from Israel.

Jeffrey’s serves caviar in a traditional way, accompanied by blini, creme fraiche, chopped onions and chopped boiled eggs. As an alternative to the mother-of-pearl spoon, Rodil recommends “caviar bumps.”

“It is super trendy,” she says. “People eat caviar off the back of their hands. It makes a lot of sense, as long as your hands are clean and free of odor. After all, you know you’re own scent, and because of that, caviar is the only flavor you taste. Caviar is such a delicate thing, you don’t want any other flavors interfering.”

The perfect pick: To go with that royal osetra caviar bump, Rodil recommends a 2006 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut.

“Cristal is a pinot noir-dominant blend,” she says. “It’s delicate, with the big richness to go with the intensity and the richness of the bubble of royal osetra. It is richness of bubbles paired with the richness of the bubbles. The 2006 vintage is big, lush, with great acidity. High-status caviar deserves to be served with high-status champagne. People think about Jeffry’s as a celebratory meal. It’s easy to indulge here.”

 

LaV Restaurant & Wine Bar

1501 E. Seventh St.

Champagne and Caviar at laV
Champagne and Caviar at laV

 

Elegance without pretense is the pervasive vibe at LaV. The atmosphere is imbued with subtle sophistication, from the art on the walls and the light fixtures to the intricate details of the dishes on the French Provençal-inspired menu. In this setting, champagne and caviar almost seem like a must.

With one of the city’s most expansive wine lists, overseen by Sommelier Rania Zayyat, it’s easy to find an exquisite bottle of champagne. LaV has more than 40 Champagnes available, with bottles starting at about $100 and increasing to the $975 1989 Krug Collection. The expansive list can be a bit overwhelming, but Zayyat, an advanced sommelier, helps guests easily navigate the waters.

Caviar at LaV is on the down-low. It isn’t printed on the menu and is only offered by the server.

“It’s for people in the know,” Zayyat says. “It’s contagious. When people hear about it or see people eating it, they want it.”

If you are one of the people in the know (and you are now), you’ll find Black River osetra from Uruguay available in a 1-ounce portion for $200. The organic and sustainably farmed sturgeon from the Rio Negro River is malossol style, meaning it’s cured with a little salt to preserve it and retain its natural flavor. The dark-gray medium-sized pearls are served with a touch of whimsy: LaV rolls out the tin with a mother-of-pearl spoon and the traditional accouterments, including creme fraiche, egg yolk, egg whites, shallots and chives, but instead of blini, it offers house-cut potato chips.

The perfect pick: Zayyat recommends picking champagne that isn’t too old or too rich.

“You’ll want carbonation and freshness,” she says. “Caviar is so delicate of a flavor, you don’t want to overpower it with something too old, oxidized or too rich. Blanc de blanc is a great accompaniment. It is more elegant with more acidity, lighter body and finesse that goes well with the saltiness and brings out the nutty, creamy flavor and sweeter finish of the osetra. Champagne is a perfect palate cleanser and it softens the brininess of caviar. The carbonation goes well with the popping of the beads on your tongue. Champagne goes great with fried food. The potato chips we’re doing are a perfect match. It’s very fun and playful.”

As an alternative, Zayyat says Russian vodka is classic. She recommends slightly chilled Beluga Noble Vodka as an amazing pairing.

Russian House

307 E. Fifth St.

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

 

This is a vodka den. The Russian-themed family restaurant, bedecked with Soviet-era flags and paraphernalia, has 101 flavors of infused vodka in a dizzying array of fruit, herbal, floral and dessert flavors, as well as unexpected flavors like bacon, cigar and a Stubb’s BBQ flavor, in decanters that line the wall behind the bar. Executive Chef Vladimir Gribkov’s signature infused vodka has 35 Russian herbs and spices, and tastes a bit like brandy.

Owned by husband-and-wife team Grivkov and Varda Salkey, Russian House is a celebration of Russian culture beyond just food and drink. Salkey, a member of the Russian Olympic basketball team, and Grivkov, a chef for more than 25 years in Europe and Russia, moved to the U.S. and saw an opportunity to open the first Russian restaurants in Austin. The menu features classics like cold beef tongue, borscht, golubtsy and family recipes that have been passed down through the generations.

The menu also includes a nice assortment of roe and caviar, chosen by Grivkov. It starts with treats like a boiled egg stuffed with red salmon caviar and progresses to Russian Siberian sturgeon baerii and, at the top of the heap, beluga supreme malossol for $220 for a 20-gram portion. This is the river variety and not the illegal wild beluga.

General Manager Roman Butvin escaped the cold winters of Moscow to move to Austin, and joined the team at Russian House shortly after it opened in 2012.

“Both red [salmon] caviar and black [sturgeon] caviar are popular in Russia,” he says. “The salmon caviar is more affordable, easier to find and has very fine roe. Black caviar is a bit more upscale. All of our black caviar is from the Caspian Sea.”

Russian House offers a traditional caviar service, with the caviar in a crystal bowl accompanied by a plate of baguettes, blintzes and blini, as well as Russian-style non-pasteurized butter, creme fraiche, capers and onions.

“In Russia, we eat it either with blini or a baguette with butter on top and caviar,” Butvin says. “We also serve boiled eggs with a mixture of cream cheese topped with red caviar. It’s a festive Russian appetizer.”

The perfect pick: Butvin suggests pairing caviar with vodka or champagne, but notes vodka is really the way to go.

“We have pairings [that] are with plain vodka and not-infused vodka,” he says. “It’s important to keep the flavor of the caviar prominent, and you don’t want to interfere with the flavor of the infused vodkas. We have set vodka-and-caviar pairings on the menu, with all of the bestvodkas included, like Stoli Elit, Double Cross, Russian Standard Platinum, and our most expensive vodka is also called Beluga.”

Russian House also offers a selection of champagne, including André Clouet, Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial and vintage Dom Pérignon.

 

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

What are you drinking? 

Austin’s Best Bartenders:

Three bartenders who are shaking up the Austin scene

Austins best bartender

This story was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Austin Man Magazine

Cocktails have been around since the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until the past handful of years that bars in Austin started making pre-Prohibition-style cocktails in earnest. In the early 2000s, the craft-cocktail movement swept from the barstools of places like Milk & Honey and Employees Only in New York to the West Coast and then to Austin.

Now Austin has dozens of places scattered throughout the city that serve classic and unique drinks immaculately prepared with small-batch spirits and locally sourced ingredients. The rise of craft cocktails in Austin mirrors the impressive ascension of the culinary crusade, with similarly steep expectations for top-notch ingredients and service.

Through participation in organizations like the United States Bartenders’ Guild, as well as competitions and events like the San Antonio Cocktail Conference and Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Austin bartenders have honed their skills and are being recognized nationally. The Austin craft-cocktail world has been shaped by talented people like David Alan of Tipsy Texan, Bill Norris of Alamo Drafthouse and Josh Loving of Small Victory, as well as the next wave of cocktail mavens like Jessica Sanders of drink.well., Chris Bostick of Half Step, Larry Miller of Peché and Cesar Aguilar of Whisler’s.

What makes a great bartender? Mark Shilling, founder of Austin-based Revolution Spirits, has visited his fair share of bars and believes there is more to the job than just making excellent drinks.

“Being a great bartender takes knowledge, creativity and excellent service,” Shilling says. “Bartenders need to know the craft enough to be able to serve a customer what they are looking for. Doing the job well requires that a bartender break rules to come up with new drinks. Above all, bartending is as much about personality and relationship management as anything. At the end of the night, it’s not just about the drink; it’s about the experience.”

Here are three outstanding bartenders from the City’s Hottest Restaurants who are at the forefront of the craft cocktail movement.

Jason Stevens, Bar Congress

Jason Stevens swizzle
Jason Stevens is more than a bartender. As the director of bars and beverage for La Corsha Hospitality Group, he presides over the drinks at Bar Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen and its second location in The Domain, as well as the soon-to-open Boiler Nine Bar + Grill in Seaholm and a new project brewing in Marfa, Texas.

Each bar has a common thread, but each has its own identity hinged on different drinks, styles and an ethos all its own. Each menu has to fit the clientele. At Bar Congress, that means the menu has a variety of drinks, from light and refreshing to really boozy, to satisfy a diverse range of palates.

What Are You Drinking?: What got you into bartending?


Jason Stevens: Bartending was a happy accident for me. I stumbled on cocktails when I attended Tipsy Tech, a course taught by Lara Nixon and David Alan. I learned about this whole world of tastes and flavors I never had before. That really got me going, so I started reading books and devouring the subject. I was enamored when I realized cocktails are a beautiful balance between culinary art, science and hospitality.

WAYD: What is your favorite part of the job?


JS: The people: the team I work with and the customers who come in. We have formed a team that has agreed to a contract to do exactly what we need to do to make sure the guests have incredible experiences. There is a lot of camaraderie in that. And not just with co-workers, but with guests too. They put faith in us to give them an exceptional evening. There is a kinship built by going through a great night together.

WAYD: What does it take to be a standout bartender in Austin?


JS: Some people say it’s winning competitions or getting in magazines. I think it’s about quality and execution. It’s about focusing on getting the drink the guests love and sometimes delivering a few surprises. It takes an understanding of the word “hospitality.” To paraphrase the Esquire Drink Book from 1956, hospitality is 10 percent presence and being nice to people, and 90 percent preparation. That’s what it’s all about.

Drink of the Moment

Queens Park Swizzle

The Bar Congress cocktail menu is a compilation
of classic recipes from famous hotel bars. One of Stevens’ favorites is the Queen’s Park Swizzle, an early Tiki-style rum drink developed at the Queen’s Park Hotel in Trinidad in the mid-1930s.

Queen’s Park Swizzle

  • 1 1/2 ounces aged El Dorado 12 Demerara rum
  • 3/4 ounce Smith & Cross Jamaican rum

  • 1/2 ounce Piloncillo sugar simple syrup
  • 
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice Fresh mint

  • House-made Seven League bitters

Justin Elliot, Qui

Justin Elliott Qui (2)

Presiding over the bar at Qui on East Sixth Street, Justin Elliott creates drinks that reflect the principles of the kitchen rather than those that might compete with the food. Instead of making fussy cocktails, he shoots for craveable flavors and drinks made with local ingredients that are seasonally appropriate and served in an elegant way.

Two drinks on the current menu that sum up Elliott’s guiding principle for cocktails are the Shore Leave pumpkin seed horchata and the Tepache Collins. Both are delicious twists on traditional drinks that don’t challenge the notion of what can be in a cock- tail, but are still unexpected.

What Are You Drinking?: What got you into bartending?


Justin Elliott: I’ve been in the business for 14 years. 
I paid for my final year of college by working nights
at The Tavern. I’ve always gravitated toward neighbor- hood bars, but when I came back to Austin, I started to push deeper into the “fancy-mustache” cocktail world. In part, that stems from hanging out with my friend Tom Chadwick, who owns the Brooklyn cocktail bar Dram, back when he was working happy hours
at a dive bar and he was just getting started doing cocktails. I took to the confluence of culture, commerce and art, and dove in headfirst.

WAYD: What is your favorite part of the job?


JE: I love making drinks on a Friday night. I get to hang out with super cool people who are here to have a great time. We serve them excellent food and drinks, and they leave riding that wave of feeling good. I want our guests to feel like I want to feel when I go out. I constantly challenge myself to develop new and interesting cocktails that make people happy. That’s rewarding.

WAYD: What does it take to be a standout
bartender in Austin?

JE: I follow my instincts and put myself in my guests’ place. I surround myself with the kind of staff I want to visit, make the kind of drinks I want to drink and create the kind of environment I want to be in. I want people to walk into our bar, see a cocktail and say, “Yeah, that speaks to me.” It’s important to spend time trying to grow creatively and learning something new. I work with the Rémy Cointreau bartender outreach program to throw little parties [and make] famous old cocktails. Things have changed a lot in 150 years, but it’s still just as important to learn the classics.

Drink of the Moment

Qui Tepache Collins

Elliott’s Tepache Collins, which was named the Official Drink of Austin in 2014 in a competition hosted by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance and the Tipsy Texan, is an interesting variation of the traditional Mexican street drink made with barely fermented pineapple agua fresca.

Tepache Collins, aka official drink of Austin 2014

  • 2 to 3 large leaves of Thai basil, spanked
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 
1/2 ounce honey syrup
 1 ounce Balcones Rumble
  • 1 1/2 ounces house-made Tepache

  • Combine all above ingredients in a Collins glass, give it a quick tap-tap muddle, then add Tepache. Fill the glass with crushed ice, and garnish with a straw, mint sprig and Thai basil leaf.  

Casey Petty, laV


Casey Petty laV

Casey Petty cut his teeth in the restaurant business at a small restaurant, attended culinary school and worked his way through multiple positions, from dishwasher to manager. He brings that deep well of experience and a competitive intensity that he honed playing football, lacrosse, soccer and basketball to his position of bar supervisor at laV.

The swank setting of the Eastside’s newest darling restaurant may seem like a far cry from the sports battlefield, but it too requires a commitment to digging deep to achieve the best results. Petty brings creative treatment to classic cocktails that play well with the rest of the laV team—the city’s largest wine list.

What Are You Drinking?: What got you into bartending?


Casey Petty: I love to cook and to create things, and serve delicious drinks to people to make them happy.
I like the opportunity to serve something new and have people like it. I’ve learned the basics of making great cocktails from colleagues on the job over the years. Once I knew I enjoyed it, I wanted to get really damn good at it. Now I want people to remember that I’m a part of a restaurant and bar that matters.

WAYD: What is your favorite part of the job?


CP: I love any opportunity I can take to help a guest discover something new, like an exotic liquor, such as Liquore Strega or amaro, the Italian herbal digestif. In fact, laV is striving to have the largest selection of ama- ros in town. We have a huge spectrum to explore, with everything from Amaro Nonino to Amaro dell’Erborista. I love learning and bringing new and exciting drinks
to satisfy diverse tastes at our bar. We get everything from people in the rock ’n’ roll industry coming in as regulars, to people coming in to order a $500 bottle of Burgundy on any given night.

WAYD: What does it take to be a standout bartender in Austin?


CP: To stand out, you have to really understand what people like and know how to work with it. In addition, it’s important to be hospitable and humble. I’m not a vodka drinker, but that has no impact on my passion to make a vodka cocktail for people who like them. Constantly trying new things is essential to the job. I like to make up cocktails like our new Age of EnFranklinment, which is a take off of the Jester King Figlet smoked sour ale. I make ours with aromatic bitters smoked in a pit with fig compote, Rebecca Creek whiskey, Maraschino liqueur, yellow Chartreuse and lemon juice. I also make our own house-made amer picon, a French version of amaro, which hasn’t been available in the U.S. since the 1960s.

Drink of the Moment

laV Cibola

Capturing the spirit of experimenting with classics is Petty’s take on the Cibola. Instead of using the traditional whiskey base, he gives it a contemporary twist, using smoky mezcal.

Cibola

  • 3/4 ounce Vida Mezcal
  • 
3/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse

  • 3/4 ounce Cointreau

  • 3/4 ounce lemon juice

  • Heavy rinse of the glass with absinthe 

What are you drinking? 

Meet the Austin wine pros competing to become Texas’ best sommelier

Sommelier decanting wine

On August 10, eight Austin wine experts will test their mettle against elite wine professionals from around the state in the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition. The competition will be held at the 10th anniversary of TEXSOM, one of the world’s largest gathering of wine professionals taking place in Dallas. The winner of the annual competition presented by Texas Monthly will will take home a scholarship for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ certification program.

The competition will test 25 participants’ knowledge of wine business and is a great way for wine pros prepare for higher level exams like Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced Exam and the Society of Wine Educations CWE exam. According to James Tidwell, co-founder of TEXSOM and Master Sommelier, the competition exam changes a little every year to reflect new information relevant to somm.

“Sommeliers have to adapt on a nightly basis, says Tidwell. It’s hard to mimic that in an exam setting, but we test their broad knowledge to simulate that. We assess sommeliers ability to answer questions about wine, analyze wine in blind tasting and provide cordial service while adapting to the situation. There is a lot expected of them, and somms are ready for it. The level of preparation of Sommeliers competing is a lot higher than in the past. Having good wine information available online along with the explosion of the food and beverage community has made it possible for sommeliers to increase their knowledge.”

That preparation is evident with Austin sommelier competitors. The city has a tight-knit community of sommeliers that study together, which has put Austin on the map as a city with sophisticated tastes in wine.

Edward Morgan, food and beverage manager, sommelier, Travaasa agrees saying, “There was a time when we would go to Houston or Dallas and see wines that we could never buy in Austin. With a strong, family-like community of somms, we have been able to show the industry that we are serious about wine. Now the tables have turned and we have top restaurants that get wines that are not available in other the cities.”

The study groups have paid off for Austin somms in the competition. In the past nine years, five sommeliers from Austin — Devon Broglie, Mark Sayre, June Rodil, Bill Elsey and Scott Ota — have won the coveted prize. The city is fielding a strong group of competitors again this year.

Houston sommeliers think they have a shot at winning the title this year. Texas Wine Lover profiles the seven participants from Houston.

Whether Austin brings home another title or not, local wine lovers win with more knowledgeable sommeliers and better wine.

Meet Austin’s participants in the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition.

Bryn Lewis, sommelier, The Red Room Lounge

Bryn Lewis, Red Room Lounge

Lewis has spent the last 22 years working with wine in various positions in the restaurant industry. His affable personality, British accent and dedication to impeccable service make him a natural for meeting the discerning palates of wine aficionados at the Red Room Lounge. His serious pursuit of the sommelier profession started when he met fellow sommeliers Scott Ota and Nathan Prater while working at the Driskill Grill. Ota led a study group at the Grill every Saturday for the staff to sharpen their knowledge of various wines and growing regions. All of the flash cards and quizzes paid off when Lewis earned the top score of the class in his Level II Certified Sommelier Exam in February 2013. His study regimen has him ready for this competition.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

This is an incredible competition. It is really well done. I want to test my skills against other somms in a competitive environment. I can learn a lot from the other competitors. I’ve learned a lot from past winners like Scott Ota and Bill Elsey and value the relationships built in preparing to compete.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

I am fortunate enough to work at night so I get to study in the day. I’m better prepared to answer questions from customers because of the rigorous study for the exam. Some people want to know the ins and outs of various wine regions, why a wine tastes a particular way and what the best vintages are. Knowledge is key to meeting their needs.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

I think winning the Texas Best Sommelier Competition would show that I have passion and dedication for what I do. I work hard to take it to a higher level. I don’t rest on my laurels and strive to learn about wine every day.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

If I win, I’ll drink champagne of course. I’ll pick a nice grower-producer like Marc Hébrart Champagne or maybe Krug.

Joelle Cousins, general manager and sommelier, The Red Room Lounge
Joelle Cousins

Cousins was exposed to really great wine while working at III Forks as a server during college. She considered wine as a hobby, but that changed when III Forks paid for her to take the Certified Specialist of Wine Exam after she graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in biology. She realized how much science was involved in wine. She fell in love with wine and the opportunity to a life-long student be of wine. In the next year Cousins took her Introductory and Certified Sommelier Exams, receiving the top score in her Certified class. That experience spurred her to continue to pursue a career in wine and keep studying. She was a regional participant in the Guild of Sommeliers Top New Somm completion in Fort Lauderdale this year.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I entered the competition as an opportunity to cultivate my knowledge and refine my sommelier skills under pressure. It will be a great trial run for the Advance Exam that I’m taking in September in Philadelphia. Above all, I am going to learn some things, which is what life is all about. I try to take any opportunity to sharpen my skills and challenge myself.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

It is very well integrated with what we do at the Red Room Lounge. The ability to practice services is invaluable in real world settings. Having Bryn, a fellow competitor, as my colleague and study partner couldn’t be better. Our job is unique because it’s not a restaurant. It’s all wine. The Austin community is smart about wine and our customers ask intricate questions. Having the knowledge to gain their trust is important.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Winning will provide momentum to reach my goals for higher level certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers and to promote the Red Room Lounge. More importantly, it would be a great representation of the Austin sommelier community and the incredible talent we have in this city.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Krug Brut Rosé Champagne. I love rosé and I drink Champagne any chance I get.

Rania Zayyat, sommelier, laV

Rania Zayyat

Zayyat’s passion for the wine industry started four years ago when she began working as a server at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. She took her Intro exam in New York 2012, and that year won a wine contest that sent her to California wine country. She passed the Certified Sommelier Exam six months later. While working in the Pappas wine department, Zayyat became acquainted with the owner of laV Restaurant, who was a repeat guest of hers. She served him a bottle of 1988 La Tâche that cost about $1,600 the first time she waited on him.

“It was the most expensive bottle of wine I’d ever seen,” says Zayyat. “He asked for me to be his server every visit after that. In 2014 he asked if I would be a part of the team at laV Restaurant and Wine Bar and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was a good opportunity, so I went for it. It’s been awesome.”

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I decided to compete at TEXSOM for multiple reasons. I really want to bring attention to laV and our wine program. We have a lot to offer the community with a wide range of wines for every palette and budget.

It also has been a great way for me to meet somms in Austin. A lot of us study together. There is competition, but friendly competition. I’d be happy for someone else to win, as long as they are from Austin.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

I find that a lot of the information that I study is somehow relevant to bottles on our list and if anything, it gives me more confidence on the floor. Preparing for this competition also coincides with studying for the Advanced Exam which I plan on taking later this year.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Winning would be very validating for my career and would lead to more opportunities, not only advancement, but also to help others just getting started. The boost of confidence would allow me to realize how far I have come in this industry.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Maybe 2001 Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru and bubbles of course! Alfred Gratien Brut Millésime Champagne 1996 would do the trick.

Paul Ozbirn, Wine and Beverage Director, Olive & June  

Paul Ozbirn, Olive & June

Ozbirn has had a go as a professional skateboarder and as a rock band roadie, but a trip to Greece and Italy after college sparked a fascination with wine. After that trip he moved to Austin in 2006 and started in the restaurant industry at Vin Bistro. That position and a stint as bartender at Botticelli’s South Congress further ignited his enthusiasm for wine. Ozbirn passed the sommelier’s Introductory Exam which led to opportunity to work at Wink Restaurant, where he immersed himself in wine.

After working as the sommelier at Paggi House, Ozbirn was hired by Chef Shawn Cirkiel as beverage director at Olive & June where he worked to hone the predominately Italian wine list. He was recently promoted to serve as beverage director for all of restaurants owned by Parkside Projects, including Olive & June, Backspace, Chavez and Parkside. Ozbirn is currently a Certified Sommelier and hopes to take the Advanced Exam in the next year.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

Competing is a great thing for so many reasons. It pushes me to find time to study harder. It helps prepare me for taking the Advanced Sommelier exam sometime soon. It also gets me in front of more Master Sommeliers, which helps develop those relationships.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

Our study group meets every Thursday morning so I can always count on that. I was recently promoted from managing Olive & June to managing all of the properties. I was focused on studying Italian wine for work, but my wine responsibilities are now a lot broader. It’s been a joy to go back and revisit other regions that I haven’t worked with lately like France for Parkside Southern Hemisphere wines for Chavez. Studying for the competition completely helps.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

It’d be great to win of course, but giving it my all is just as rewarding. We’re all part of a community and competing shows we’re totally dedicated to that craft. I’m sure Shawn would be stoked if I won. I just want Austin to show well in general, and I think we will!

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Well I’m sure there will be bubbles involved, but a well-made negroni with Sipsmith gin would be nice too. That cocktail just never lets me down!

 

Nathan Fausti, lead server, Arro

Nathan Fausti, Arro

Fausti grew up in Wisconsin (so yes he loves cheese and beer), and has been in the restaurant industry in many roles since he started washing dishes in high school. A mentor at Parkside brought him into the world of wine. “Seeing him talk about wine and making the guest experience great inspired me,” said Fausti. “I wanted to be that guy walking around with a bottle making people happy.”

He recently joined Arro Restaurant to work for and learn from master sommelier Craig Collins, last year’s Texas Best Sommelier, Scott Ota and Chef Andrew Curren. Fausti is passionate about food, beverage and providing guests with a great experience, so naturally he gravitated to the wine certification programs. In the last year he has gained Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine diplomas.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

This competition will be a great way to challenge my skills and prepare me for taking the Advanced Sommelier exam. It is also a valuable resource for networking and expanding the sommelier community. I can’t imagine any other city having a friendlier and more committed class of sommeliers than we have in Austin.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

Work and study complement each other. Studying helps me provide a better guest experience, and being on the floor talking with guests about food and wine helps to solidify my knowledge base. Our main job is to translate what people are saying into finding the wine they want. Having a full understanding of wine, beer and cocktails helps me achieve that quickly. I only have 15 seconds to make them feel comfortable and get them what they want.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Everyone who has won TEXSOM is currently an Advanced or Master Sommelier. Having the win under your belt opens up a lot of opportunities within the sommelier world. It would show what I’m capable of and my level of dedication.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I’d like to take a tour through the great wines of France, Germany and Italy, beginning in Champagne and ending in Mosel. I’d like a Meursault from the Côte de Beaune of Burgundy, or a nice Barolo from Piedmont.

 

Melissa Lamb, wine manager, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar

Melissa Lamb, Fleming's

During college, Lamb fell in love with the romantic side of wine while the Hill Country wineries. She followed her heart to a career in wine industry starting as an auction director for the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. In that role she met several sommeliers including her boyfriend, Bill Elsey. He inspired Lamb’s interested in the profession and studying wine. She passed the Introductory Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers in February 2013 and recently passed Level II Certified Sommelier Exam.

While studying wine at The Red Room Lounge, Lamb met the Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar operating partner, James Cook. “He read the article about the Best Somm Competition in CultureMap last year and realized that I was an up and coming sommelier,” says Lamb. “When the sommelier position at Fleming’s opened up, he offered me the job. I love it here. I’m responsible for building the by the bottle selection and making sure that every guest gets great service.”

The constantly evolving industry with new producers, new wines and changing consumer tastes keeps Lamb excited about wine.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I want to push myself and see how much stronger I can compete. I’m never going to pass up an opportunity to get in front of the Master Somms and get my name out there. It’s a free look at the Advanced Exam, which is my next goal. I competed last year, so I know to expect the unexpected. They throw out crazy questions and scenarios.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

It makes me better in my job. It’s exciting when a guest wants to talk about a wine producer or region after I’ve studied it. It’s a great way to reinforce the quality of my service at work.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

There are awesome sommeliers who have won before and I would be humbled and honored to be among them. The competition is crazy. It’s like the American Ninja Warrior competition. If you can make it through, you are legit.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I would drink a Last Word cocktail.

 

Edward Morgan, food and beverage manager, sommelier, Travaasa

Edward Morgan, Travaasa

Morgan’s path to the sommelier position started with dreams of Hollywood. As a student at Texas State, he wanted to pursue a career as screen play writer along with a close friend who wanted to be a film producer. It became quickly apparent that the duo needed to make money until they got a break in the film industry. Wine distribution seemed like a way to do both.

“When I visited my first wine big retail account, I brought big gun Bordeaux wines to impress him,” says Morgan. “He called me out, saying, ‘you don’t know anything about the wines you have in this bag.’ We spent the next several hours drinking through all of my samples and getting a quick education in fine wine. That was the start of my wine education.”

Fast forward 12 years, Morgan is now a sommelier at a prestigious resort and his friend is a producer in LA. He gladly traded fame for an opportunity to pursue his passion for knowledge. He feeds that passion by blogging about wine on the Travaasa website and testing for sommelier certification. He passed the Intro exam in 2009 and the Certified Sommelier Exam in 2011.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

This is a great opportunity to get a free peak at what I might expect in the Advanced Sommelier Exam next year. It puts urgency into my studies with a more tangible goal to accomplish. Master Sommelier, Craig Collins, is my mentor, and I’ve been studying regularly Paul Ozbirn, Brian Philips, Mandy Nelson and Rania Zayyat since last year’s TEXSOM.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

It definitely makes me feel more confident at work. The trick is to study first thing in the morning so I can take any new fundamentals to the floor that evening to educate staff and the guests. I recently had a guest come in from Italy and I had just got back from a trip to Italy. I was able to speak knowledgeably about the landscape and the producers.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Small victories only solidify your path in life, but larger ones ensure your success. I would consider this a big win.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I’ll drink the wine that most people got wrong in the blind tasting part of the competition. It’s another chance to learn.

 

Mandi Nelson, Fine Wines Specialist, Republic National Distributor

Mandi Nelson, Republic

Food and beverage have been a big part of Nelson’s life since she started in the restaurant business at age 15. She fell in love with wine while working as a bartender and began her wine career in earnest at the Four Seasons where she opened Trio and created its wine list. She passed here Introductory Exam when it was held at the Four Seasons Austin as a part of TEXSOM.

Nelson continued to pursue her passion for wine by joining the team at Republic. As a key account manager with Republic, Nelson call on the top accounts in Austin, most of which have sommeliers selecting the wine. Her job entails bringing winery owners, winemakers and master sommeliers to town to host tastings at top restaurants and shops. I’d like to trade jobs with her for a day.

She is a Certified Sommelier and has continued her education and certification march by completing the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Advanced Exam, CSW and Wine Location Specialist Program for Champagne and Port.  She has applied to take the Advanced Exam and hopes to take it next year.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

This is another opportunity to study and prepare. Hope to sit for the advanced exam. This is my third time competing. I’m hitting the books more this time around. I’m also studying with a group that started last year at TEXSOM. It’s a great study group and it has been is extremely helpful in my preparation.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

The more knowledge I have, the better I am at my job. I’m better prepared to find great wines for my clients. For example, if a winemaker from the Priorat region of Spain is visiting town, I can take them to the right accounts who appreciate it.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

I love my job and I wouldn’t want to change anything. I’m just doing it for the education. My employers are extremely supportive of what I do. I appreciate it.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Champagne, of course. Whatever the closest bottle would be. Bollinger RD.

 

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

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