Meet the Tastemakers: Austin’s top sommeliers share inspiration and favorite wines for celebrations

Just as a winemaker has to combine an artful flair with precise chemistry to make fine wine, a sommelier needs to combine a skillful touch with customer service and deep wine knowledge to master their craft. In the wine world, success is a case of “Right brain, meet left brain. You two play nicely.”

The dazzling emergence of a serious culinary scene in Austin in recent years has been accompanied by an equally stunning development of a fine wine culture fostered by a community of highly trained wine experts. Austin has a growing number of sommeliers who have dedicated long hours to studying all aspects of wine and proper service techniques to be able to provide a memorable experience at area restaurants and wine bars.

Nominees for the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards share their inspirations and their favorite wines for celebrations.

Bill Elsey, The Red Room Lounge

Advanced Sommelier Bill Elsey started in the wine industry at Duchman Family Winery right out of college. He rose through the ranks from part-time tasting room to bar manager at Trattoria Lisina, the Italian restaurant on the Duchman property. That is where he first discovered his passion for wine by tasting high-end Italian Barolo, Barbaresco as a wine buyer.

“I also fell in love with Champagne. I was introduced to Guy Larmandier Champagne Blanc de Blancs, and it was the first time I tasted small production, grower-producer champagne. My reaction was, ‘Wow! I love this stuff.’ It was a catalyst for getting into Champagne, and it’s still my favorite beverage.”

That passion turned into a focused pursuit of the coveted Master Sommelier certification, the fourth level in the Court of Master Sommeliers. He studies for hours each week on his own and in study groups with other dedicated sommeliers — including fellow Tastemaker nominees. The studying paid off and he won the Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011 title at TexSomm five years to the day after starting in the wine industry. Elsey recently added winner of the 2013 Cocktail Quick Mix Challenge at Somms Under Fire to his resume.

In October 2011, he joined Personal Wine as sommelier and later expanded his role to run the wine program at The Red Room Lounge. Elsey’s “awe, shucks” small town background (he grew up in Wimberley) and easy-going demeanor allow him to easily talk with a wide range of customers. He is adept at finding the right wine for the casual customer with little wine knowledge and able to impress the best informed wine aficionados who are eager to explore the depths of the Red Room’s deep cellar, no matter the cost.

“I love the interaction with the customer. Our place is small enough that I can talk to every customer that comes in. I like to find out what style of wine they are into, find how much they want to spend and present them a wine that over delivers for the price. The ultimate is to see their reaction to the wine. It’s instant gratification,” says Elsey.

While wine started Elsey on the sommelier journey, he has a deep interest in other drinks as well. “The job takes a lot of studying beyond wine. It is a pursuit of learning about all things you can drink. We put a lot of effort into things like spirits and beer. It’s not all just wine,” he says.

The job may not be all about wine, but when Elsey is ready for a big celebration, he reaches for Champagne. “My favorites are vintage-dated, small production, grower producers in the Special Club category from houses like Pierre Gimonnet or Marc Hébrart. I like to saber bottles of it and let it flow,” says Elsey.

Chris McFall, Paggi House

Certified Sommelier Chris McFall stumbled upon his love of wine while serving as an organizer for the International Student Foundation at Southwestern University. A friend in the club, who happened to be from the famed Bertani Italian wine family, introduced him to the world of fine wine by uncorking a well-aged Amarone.

“The bottle of 1968 Bertani Amarone swept me off my feet. My palate was youthful and inexperienced in the world of fine wine at the time, but it blew my mind and I could not stop smelling it and all of its nuance. It changed the way I lived my life from that moment on,” McFall says.

From frat to front of the house, after college McFall entered the wine industry and worked at restaurants like Monica’s in Georgetown, Lamberts and Sullivan’s before joining Paggi House as a wine buyer. He has recently chosen to pursue another project, which has yet to be disclosed. He honed his skills with experience and study, and is currently preparing for the Advanced Sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers.

“I love the discovery. I love being wowed by wine, people, food and travel. I think when you realize how vast a subject wine, spirits and cuisine is, you realize no matter how much you know, you will always be a student. That’s the true joy for me,” he says.

That hunger for continued improvement and his skill in the dining room earned an impressive national accolade as a nominee for the Best New Sommeliers of 2012 by Wine & Spirits.

While the life of the sommelier may sound glamorous, McFall confides there is actual work to be done.

“The most misunderstood part of what we do is perception of the job. People assume we sit around and drink wine all day. Although we get to do that sometimes, it’s not the focal point of the gig. There are spreadsheets, pricing, training and research just as in any other field. Ours just happens to pair nicely with cuisine and taste delightful.”

McFall would gladly give up the spreadsheets for a day of merriment. “If I was to drink a wine for a celebration, it would have to be Champagne, of course. But, if I had to pick the desert island wine for that celebration, 2002 Etienne Sauzet Montrachet. All day long!”

Scott Ota, the Driskill Hotel and the Driskill Grill

Certified Sommelier Scott Ota was recently chosen by a panel of expert judges as the champion of 2013 Somms Under Fire for his outstanding performance in food and wine pairing, service and knowledge. At the fresh-faced age of 30, this service-driven wine professional has quickly risen in prominence in the community. He also credits his growth to a deep-seated interest in the culinary experience and the help of friends.

“I love to eat, drink and travel. I owe much of my success to my study group, family and lovely girlfriend,” says Ota.

He got his start in the wine industry as a server at Restaurant Jezebel, where he had an opportunity to taste 2004 Bodegas El Nido, Monastrell from Jumilla, Spain. That introduction to fine wine set Ota on a course of exploration and study. He is now the wine captain and sommelier at the Driskill Grill, where Ota prides himself on providing top-notch wine service to enhance the dining experience.

“I strive to deliver the most complete service experience in a fun and personal way. There is no need to show off how much I know about wine. It’s about presenting all the information in a sincere and succinct manner that makes it unforgettable to each guest. What counts is delivering a unique experience that is memorable and enjoyable,” he says.

Improving the wine knowledge in the community seems to be a common trait among sommeliers, and it’s an important part of Ota’s approach. “I love being able to share my passion for beverages and service with others. It is my favorite part of the job. However, teaching our staff about wine and service — and watching them blossom on the floor — is the most rewarding.”

Ota’s go-to wine for celebrating is Special Club Champagne. “Pierre Gimonnet is a favorite of mine, but I could drink it just to celebrate a Tuesday. There is no need to wait for a special occasion to enjoy a great bottle. You can’t have a bad day when you’re drinking Champagne!”

Nathan Prater, the Driskill Hotel and the Driskill Grill

Advanced Sommelier Nathan Prater is a native Austinite. He began his career in wine in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2005 as a wine manager for a retail wine outlet before stepping into the role of wine director and sommelier at Bistro Sofia, an intimate, independently owned neighborhood restaurant. Prater quickly gained a reputation at both locations for providing a phenomenal wine selection, excellent customer service and consumer wine education.

Fortunately for Austin, he returned home in 2010, and worked for Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods and Good2Go at the Grove Wine Bar. He is currently the grill manager and sommelier at the Driskill Grill and the wine director for the Driskill Hotel.

Like with many sommeliers, it was a bottle of exquisite juice that lured Prater to the profession.

“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. I began my journey with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2007. After five years of dedicated study and practice, I hope to sit for the Masters Exam in 2013,” Prater says.

Prater is known among the Austin sommelier community for his keen understanding and appreciation of classic cocktails, his dedication to top-notch service and his hard-nose study habits. He writes wickedly difficult practice quizzes for his sommelier study group. He sums up his role nicely: “I am first a service professional, second an educator and mentor, and lastly, a sommelier.”

When he isn’t working, he likes to spend time with his wife Kathryn and their dog Picasso, or teaching and mentoring other wine professionals. Prater has a passion for “dry rosé, and perfecting the craft of the Gin Martini.”

Mark Sayre, Trio Restaurant Austin

Houston native and Master Sommelier Candidate Mark Sayre presides over an impressive list of 260 wines and 35 wines by the glass at Trio in the Four Seasons Hotel. The barrel-chested Sayre may look like a bouncer for a bar on Dirty Sixth, but he has the demeanor of a priest taking confession as he holds court from table to table.

His exquisite palate, attention to detail in customer service and deep knowledge of the industry have put him on course to become the the third Master Sommelier in Austin. Sayre’s remarkable wine acumen has won him praise in Wine & Spirits‘ “7 Best New Sommeliers in 2010” and the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier 2007.

Sayre caught the wine bug while working his first restaurant job. “The first wine I fell in love with was a 1995 Traviglini Gattinara. It’s the first wine I had a personal connection with, and the first wine I realized I could hand sell.”

Sayre sees his role as integral to restaurant operations. “Sommeliers should be vital to the flow of the restaurant. That means bussing tables, serving, clearing, etc. when not providing wine service and sales,” he says.

As a winemaker who introduced his own private-label Syrah in 2009, he also feels a deep connection with wine and the people in the industry. “I love the soul that goes into the job. I love the people that make and sell wine, their stories, their passions and their experience. I love the wines themselves and their stories. Stories about where they come from, the weather and what they experienced that year,” he says.

“I love the communal enjoyment of wine, whether studied upon or enjoyed with friends and family. I love giving my heartfelt advice and experience to guests wanting something special. All of these things have that soul which developed into a life-long relationship with me.”

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 Winners of the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards will be announced live at the Driskill Hotel on April 11, 2013.  

This story was originally published on CultureMap. Photos by Jessica Pages, Bill Sallans and Hayden Spears.

Disclosure: I am a CultureMap Tastemaker Award Judge.

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?