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.

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William Chris Vineyards Winemakers Dream Big

Winemakers Chris and Bill behind William Chris Current rose

When William “Bill” Blackmon and Chris Brundrett first looked across the fields and at the 100 year old dilapidated house on a plot of land on Highway 290 in Hye, Texas, they didn’t see fallow farmland, they saw the perfect spot for William Chris Vineyards. They converted that old house to a rustic tasting room, built production and storage facilities and planted their main vineyard is Granite Hill near Fredericksburg. William Chris Vineyards has come a long way since its opening in 2009, but their dreams are still bigger.

Bill and Chris intend the winery to be a destination for wine tourism, events and food and wine education. Their regular “Hye Society Wine Club” events are just one way to expose guests to these elements, and they do it up with style. I attended one of events Hye Society this month — The Watermelon Thump and Chef Throw Down — which did a great job of showing off the winery, food and wine pairings and gave us a glimpse into the winery’s future.

The winery has enjoyed steady growth in production of its 13 varieties of wine. In the first year William Chris produced 800 cases using 100 percent Texas-grown grapes, doubled that production in the second year doubled and are now making about 6,500 cases.  That’s just the start. The two winemakers led Hye Society guests on a tour of the property to show us its growth.

William Chris Current rose and Texas watermelon

The event featured a vineyard tour that was influenced by similar tours in California wineries, helping guests to connect with the land where the wine is born. We started in the gorgeous Oak Grove, a focal point of the estate vineyards and a future home to weddings and other celebrations. We were treated to a taste of the 2010 William Chris Current rosé with fresh watermelon under the broad oak canopy. With that fresh summer pairing in hand, we toured the newly planted vineyards. William Chris has more than 40 acres of vineyards under management in the Hill Country and High Plains of Texas. The new Malbec, Tannat, and Petite Verdot vines will produce fruit ready for wine in about three years to keep the pace of growth going.

On to the food and wine pairings. William Chris Vineyards regularly features the artisanal cheeses from Brazos Valley Cheese, a Waco-based family venture. A representative of the company brought a selection of cheese made from raw cow’s milk sourced in a 25 mile radius. Each of the cheeses paired well with the 2010 William Chris, Blanc du Bois, a refreshing tart and citrusy white wine. The award winning cheeses are available in Austin at Whole Foods Market, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop as well as Greenling organic delivery.

On to the highlight of the evening, the Chef Throw Down. Four area chefs were tasked with creating two courses for the competition. The first course had to feature fresh Go Texan watermelon and the second reflected the cuisine of their respective restaurants. Here’s what we had:

  • William Chris Cheff Throw Down Contestants

    Chef Ben Huselton of Paggi House prepared compressed watermelon with mascarpone, black salt, micro-mint, extra virgin olive oil. The dish let the watermelon speak for itself. His second course was Black tea brined duck breast, with quinoa salad, and orange gremolata dressed with natural au jus made with the duck bones. The duck paired well with the 2010 William Chris Enchante Bordeaux blend.

  • Chef Shane Stark of Kenichi prepared a fresh summer salad of sweet and sour watermelon with cucumbers, arugula, and goat feta. His second course was a delightfully light watermelon carpaccio with tuna crudo, wasabi granita garnished with water cress. He compressed the watermelon with plum wine and yuzu juice. This dish paired well with slightly sweet William Chris Current rosé.
  •  Chef Rich Taylor of Quality Seafood created a watermelon ceviche lettuce wrap, lobster, shrimp, scallop, orange, mint ginger and hint of lime. Man that was good. His second course was an amazing Texas Bouillabaisse made with Texas Gulf shrimp, Gulf oysters, mussels and clams cooked with William Chris wine in the clam juice and fish stock. The fruity 2010 William Chris Emotion red blend went well with this fish stew.
  •  Chef Joseph Bannister of Rose Hill Manor, whipped up a light appetizer of seared scallop and watermelon kohlrabi salad with watermelon ketchup served with an icy watermelon mint sorbet. His second course was smoked duck ham with fresh black eyed pea salad, goat cheese aioli with crunchy house-made puff rice. The 2010 William Chris Hunter Merlot and Cabernet blend made a good bedfellow with the salty, bold duck.

The voting was tight as each contestant had fantastic food that went well with the wines. Chef Stark took the prize for his watermelon summer salad. Chef Taylor wowed the crowd with his Texas Bouillabaisse winning the fan favorite for the second course.

The evening was capped off by Chris blending wine from barrels of the 2011 vintage. It was a great way to get everyone excited for the upcoming bottling. Events like the The Watermelon Thump and Chef Throw Down are a great way for the winery to achieve their dream of becoming a destination for all things Texas food and wine. It’s a far cry from the desolate farmland they found just three years ago.

Disclosure: William Chris Vineyards hosted the event at no charge to area journalists and bloggers. Free transportation from Austin to Hye was provided by Heart of Texas Wine Tours.

A version of this story ran previously on CultureMap.

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Sharing the Passion for the Perfect Pairing: Somms Under Fire

She leaned in close with a gleam in her eye and confided her plan in a conspiratorial tone. “But you can’t write that before the event.” Conversation topics bubbled up, over-lapped and blended like a complex cocktail, like a well-orchestrated mix tape. Exquisite wines flowed with the conversation and became integral to the conversation. We shared stories about wines and learned from each other. This is a pretty typical thing among friends. The only thing anomalous about this is that we had just met.

Diane Dixon, founder of Keeper Collection, an online resource for food, wine and travel, and her husband Earl invited Beautiful Wife and me to their home to tell us about their upcoming food and wine event called Somms Under Fire. The Dixons are passionate about sharing tips on enjoying all things culinary and have made it their lives work.

Thank god for people like the Dixons that love to share knowledge about wine. Let’s face it; wine can be a daunting subject to both newcomers and seasoned pros alike. There are thousands of brands, dozens of varietals and blends and the complexity grows exponentially when attempting to pair wine well with food. Sure the old rules of white with chicken and red with meat can be a good starting point, but sheesh things can go nuts from there.

I’m a fairly savvy wine buyer, but I always seek advice from friends that know wine, from trusted wine merchants and definitely from sommeliers. I’m excited to go to the inaugural Somms Under Fire, because it’s all about introducing people to brilliant sommeliers and to show off expert food and wine pairings.

The event takes place on May 1, 2011 at the W Austin with food from its signature restaurant, Trace. The event challenges Scott Barber, Centennial Fine Wine and Spirits in Dallas, Chris McFall, Paggi House, and June Rodil, Congress Austin to make impeccable pairings from food that is not on their own menus and wines that aren’t on their lists. They’ll hear the wine and food choices at the same time the audience does and will have to perform under pressure in front of a panel of international celebrity food and wine judges. The judges, Drew Hendricks, Peter Wasserman and Matt Reiser will score the somms and the audience also gets to pick their favorite. Now that’s under fire.

This is a perfect venue to show off their passion for food and wine and to demystify what sommeliers do for a living. Their entire purpose is to enhance our dining experience. What better way to understand the value of a sommelier than to see them make decisions on the fly in a completely neutral setting?  What could be better than watching three pros compete to match the complex flavors of exquisite cuisine with the perfect wines and then eating and drinking the results?

If you want to see this for yourself, you can get tickets here.

This is the third event from Keep Collection. Diane and team created Chefs Under Fire two years ago pitting Iron Chef contestants against each other. This year they introduced the Wine Ride with five sommeliers competing to match wine and food at various locations around town. And now Somms Under Fire. Each of these events mirror the Dixons’ passion to share epicurean knowledge and experiences in inventive, fun and friendly settings. Keep Collection also hosts Somms Chat each Wednesday on Twitter and Facebook, where sommeliers answer questions about wine. I got my Easter wine selection idea from last week’s chat with Drew Hendricks. Like  food and wine, friendship also goes well with wine. The Dixons have a knack for building relationships as they spread their knowledge.

There are a lots of ways to learn about wine. What influences your decisions for wine and food purchases and pairings? Friends? Blogs? Wine Merchants? Sommeliers? Share with me, because I’m still learning.

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