Mon Ideal: Arro has composed a classic French soundtrack that leaves you humming ooh la la

This story was originally published in the October issue of Austin Woman Magazine. Pick it up at your local newsstand. 

A good soundtrack can really make a road trip more memorable. There is nothing like drumming on the steering wheel to a string of excellent songs to make the miles tick by that much faster. The same thing can be true a t a restaurant where the service, the atmosphere, the food and the drinks come together in an alchemy that leaves an indelible impression. That’s what the new French restaurant, Arro, is striving for.

“When people come to Arro, we want them to feel like they are at a dinner party in our backyard,” Andrew Curren says. “When people come to our house, they know the food is going to be delicious without being pretentious. The way we do that at Arro is with a great team that pays attention to detail and brings a high level of hospitality.”

The Arro family is made up of handpicked talent. Staff comes not only from the other two ELM restaurants, 24 Diner and Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden, but also from the pool of top food and wine pros in Austin. The general manager and director of operations have been with the Currens since the early days of 24 Diner. The sous chef attended culinary school with the Currens. Acclaimed Cheesemonger John Antonelli of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop runs the cheese program. Master Sommelier Craig Collins oversees the beverage program, and recently crowned Texas’ Best Sommelier, Scott Ota manages the floor. College roommates Curren and Collins have been dreaming about working together since they both fell in love with food and wine while studying in Italy in 2001. The bonds of friendship color the approach to building the staff.

“Our biggest asset is our people,” Curren says. “They pour their hearts in to making the experience at Arro feel like a dinner party. People want to be waited on and that’s what we love to do. Are we a wine restaurant because we have a Master Sommelier? No. Are we a foodie restaurant because we have a pastry chef? No. We are a hospitality restaurant.”

The next song that makes the playlist come together is the smart and thoughtful interior design, which gives Arro a relaxed yet refined atmosphere. Designer Veronica Koltuniak of VeroKoltis, who also designed 24 Diner and Easy Tiger, created a rustic, approachable and highly functional space using reclaimed objects liked cloth mailbags on the ceiling and a woven metallic wall.

CLASSICALLY FRENCH CUISINE

The standout track in the mix is the food. The seed of the idea for Arro was sown 10 years ago when Andrew and Mary Catherine Curren met while studying classical French cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. Since then, the French approach with farm-to- table ingredients has been the basis for how they have created menus. They felt that relaxed, flavorful, approachable, bistro-style food is a natural fit for Austin, where people want good food without much fuss.

“We want to demystify French food as just heavy cream and butter and show that it can be fresh and approachable,” Andrew Curren says. “We use fresh, local ingredients that are delivered four to five times a day because people care about the freshness and where food comes from.”

“We touch every plate and make sure everything is right,” Mary Catherine Curren adds. “I’m proud to put out food that I think is gorgeous and I’m excited for customers to eat it. It’s fun to do this with my husband.”

The French influence is evident in all aspects of the menu, starting with a completely French wine list and through to classic French desserts. There are six cheeses served à la carte, with five one-ounce wedges for $4, and always a cheese on the bottom of the list that is a full six-ounce, cave-aged wheel of cheese served with house-made bread and crackers. Arro is the only restaurant in town that serves a full wheel, and brings in unique and special cheeses from small producers. It’s possible to make a meal of just bread, cheese and wine and feel completely content. If you make it past the cheese course, you may linger for a long time on the starter selections.

From light and healthy morsels like an herb salad and vegetable tart to lobster bisque and frog legs, there are 11 mouth-watering dishes to choose from. Don’t miss the bone marrow. It’s not a gooey, gelatinous ectoplasmic residue in the middle of a donut-shaped dog bone. Nope. Arro serves it in a hollowed-out canoe bone mixed with herbs and roasted to give it a crispy crust. The nutty flavor pairs well with the Guigal Crozes- Hermitage syrah wine.

Grab a plate of grilled baby octopus while it’s still on the menu. The smokiness and brine of the bitty swimmers is balanced with creamy white beans and sweet roasted carrots. Nibble off each leg, one at a time. It’s fantastic with a glass of Cinsault de la Sanglière 2011 Cuvée Spéciale rosé.

On to the main courses. The seafood stew is Arro’s version of bouillabaisse, with hefty hunks of grouper canoodling with clams and mussels in a broth with tomatoes, saffron and cayenne. The stew begs for a slab of fresh bread to sop it up. Its complex flavors love the crisp acidity and tangerine bite of Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray Cuvée de Silex Vouvray by the glass.

What would a French meal be without sweetbreads? Arro serves medallions of these delicious thymus glands and pancreas treats alternating with medallions of lamb cooked medium rare on a bed of lentils. It’s divine. The Deux Montille Bourgogne Rouge pinot noir tickles the right spots to bring out the best in the delicate, rich and fatty sweetbreads coupled with the meaty lamb.

FIFTY PERCENT OF GUESTS ORDER DESSERT

The Currens agree that no matter how good the main dinner items are, the hidden gems ar e the desserts. The cookie plate is easily overlooked, but it can be the best dessert to share. It has a little bit of everything, including fruit, chocolate and buttery goodness that goes perfect with French press coffee or a cordial.

Cordials? That’s right, It’s not just the sweets. Arro has a full cart of insanely tempting cordials—what, a choice of green or yellow Chartreuse?!?!— and a respectable list of dessert wines. There are some matches made in heaven, like the crème fraîche hazelnut panna cotta served with a petite glass of Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls. The port-like wine brings out the coffee notes in the chocolate that might be otherwise overlooked. The Baumard Quarts de Chaume dessert wine is delectable with the lemon goat-cheese tart. It’s so good, it didn’t matter that it wasn’t chocolate.

DRAWING A CROWD

The service, the atmosphere and the delightful food and wine menu are drawing a crowd that is a cross section of Austin, with T-shirt-clad hipsters elbowed up to the bar next to gorgeous socialites decked out for a charity e vent alongside retirees out on a date. Any given night, you’re likely to see a who’s who of local luminaries , like Austin City Limits Producer Terry Lickona, or celebrated chefs like Paul Qui and Shawn Cirkiel. Recently, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, the New Zealand-based comedy duo known as Flight of the Conchords, spent the evening cracking jokes in the kitchen after performing in town with Dave Chappelle.

“We want to create fantastic restaurants that people can come to multiple times a w eek and not fuss about it,” Andrew Curren says. “We love to eat out. It’s by far our favorite thing to do after cooking. And we want to run restaurants that we would want to go to. We think we’ve done that.” The cohesive, family-like staff is orchestrating a fantastic playlist of hospitality, casual atmosphere, excellent food and a masterfully curated wine list to create a memorable dining experience.

Disclosure: Arro covered the cost of the meals for Beautiful Wife and me for this review. There was no expectation of a positive review based on the comp. 

What are you drinking? 

Scott Ota Wins Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition

Scott Ota Texas Best SommelierThe Jereboam trophy comes back to Austin. Scott Ota, sommelier at Arro, is the fifth Austinite to win the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition at the 2013 Texas Sommelier Conference (TEXSOM). Scott was one of seven wine professionals from Austin competing in a field of 24 sommeliers from around the state in a grueling test of beverage knowledge, blind tasting and wine service in a fine dining setting.

Ota collected his trophy amid thunderous applause at the TEXSOM grand tasting. Luis La Torre of Spec’s in Dallas scored second place, and James Watkins of the Cordúa Restaurant Group in Houston won third.

This is Ota’s second big award this year, after winning Somms Under Fire in January 2013. The badass is on a roll as he also just landed a sweet sommelier job at Arro, working alongside Craig Collins, MS.

Congratulations to Scott!

What are you drinking?

Bringing Out the Best in Wine Professionals at Somms Under Fire

Scott Ota, sommelierI blame Julia Child. Everywhere you turn, you can find people obsessed with finding the ultimate culinary experience. We see it on TV with a flood of cooking shows, we see it in print with dozens of magazines dedicated to food and wine and we see it when we walk down the street with excellent restaurants helmed by creative chefs and wine professionals dedicated to providing the best dining experience possible.

This frenzy for the best food and wine is matched by the increasing professional quality of wine stewards and sommeliers. In Austin we have a community of sommeliers that is growing and motivated to continually get better. That drive for improvement is evident in the strong participation in education sessions like TEXSOM and competitions like Somms Under Fire, a food and wine pairing competition.

Event organizers, Diane Dixon, founder of Keeper Collection, and Marshall Jones, executive director of The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, hosted an invitation-only Burgundy Tasting at the Red Room Lounge to fan the flames for the next Somms Under Fire. Dixon described the gathering as an inviting way for people to connect with wine professionals to learn more about the wines of Burgundy in a fun setting in the industry.

Past winners of Somms Under Fire Scott Ota, wine captain and sommelier of The Driskill Grill, and June Rodil, sommelier and general manager of the über hot Qui Restaurant, were on hand to share their experiences from their Grand Prize, a one-week internship in Burgundy, France under the tutelage of author, Master of Wine and Burgundy expert, Jasper Morris.

Ota and Rodil both participated in Morris’ Burgundy Symposium, which is part of Burgundy Bootcamp Collection, as guests of Becky Wasserman Selections. Through the internship they had an immersive learning experience in vineyards and wineries and the opportunity to taste and serve the wines during the program’s tastings and dinners.

“There is only one sommelier in the country invited to do this internship,” said Rodil. “It has been one of the most sought out opportunities for sommeliers around the country. Now it’s specified that the one somm who gets to go to the internship is winner of the Somms Under Fire competition. This is an amazing prize. It’s crazy.”

“Somms Under Fire brings a lot of attention to the quality of sommeliers working in our market,” said Ota. “It’s an excellent competition to show the skills of sommeliers in cocktails and food and wine pairings. The grand prize of the internship is fantastic. The opportunity to cook with the Wassermans at their house drinking old German wine was spectacular. The seminars the vintage symposium, the visits to infamous vineyards and the opportunity to talk to different producers was a chance of a lifetime. The best wine experience I’ve ever had.”

The experience in Burgundy has influenced how both Rodil and Ota prepare the wine lists for their respective restaurants. Rodil commented, “I’ve always enjoyed Burgundy, but it the internship broadened my horizon about producers by exposing me to a wide range of wines from the entire region. We tasted up and coming producers and older established winemakers alike. I started seeking them out after being over there, and I carry six Burgundies on the wine list at Qui.”

Ota added, “I can’t put it into words how valuable this experience has been. It has made me a better wine buyer and sommelier. When I select bottles of Burgundy for my wine list (The Driskill carries 20), I can picture different wineries on the road and remember the remarkable vintages.”

 

Calling all Sommeliers

The competition just to get into the competition is fierce, with only three spots open to contestants. Dixon wouldn’t disclose how many people applied compete last year, but said “yes” when I asked if there were 20 or 30 applicants. She is eager to get an equally good crop of candidates for the next competition.

“We want to extend the outreach to contestants from anywhere in the world, not just Texas,” said Dixon. “We will announce the application it at TEXSOM and will work with Master Sommeliers to recommend up and coming sommeliers that they know. The quality of sommeliers competing has been outstanding with two Advanced Somms in the event this year. It shows that there is a real desire among top sommeliers to participate.”

Rodil was emphatic in her encouragement of sommeliers to throw their hat in the ring. “Do it! I don’t know how to explain how special this experience is. It’s not something you can dream up as a wine professional.”

This year’s Somms Under Fire Cocktail Competition winner, Bill Elsey, hopes to compete again in 2014. He also won a beautiful Champagne saber as a prize for being selected the Fan Favorite and demonstrated how to use it at the Burgundy tasting. Unfortunately the bottle had other plans and exploded in his hands (I’ve seen him do it successfully in other situations).

The next Somms Under Fire Competition will be held on January 26, 2014 at The Scottish Rite Theater.  Sommeliers will be selected to participate in the competition based on their knowledge of wine and their outstanding professional experience in the industry. I’m looking forward to eating and drinking my way through their suggested pairings again next year.

This story also appeared on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

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 test skills in Somms Under Fire food and wine pairing competition

Devon Broglie and Diane Dixon Somms Under FireImagine staring at a menu that lists an entrée of roast lamb served with artichokes, goat cheese and cinnamon spiced spinach. Your job is to match the perfect wine that will accentuate the flavors and textures of the food. But wait, you have to do this under the scrutiny of three judges, led by Jason Stevens of Bar Congress, and a room full of eager spectators. The pressure is on.

That’s exactly what will happen Sunday, January 27 at the Driskill Hotel when three of the top sommeliers in town will test their skills in a live competition called Somms Under Fire. The event is held to show off the deft touch of Austin wine professionals whose education and experience make it second nature to find the right wine to pair with the most nuanced of dishes.

In its second year, Somms Under Fire, produced by Keeper Collectionand The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, audience members get in on the act by sampling each course prepared by Chef Jonathan Gelman, as well as by trying out the different wine pairings. Think of it as a live version of Top Chef, only you get to taste the results.

Event organizer, Diane Dixon of Keeper Collection and event emcee and Master Sommelier Devon Broglie shared the details about Somms Under Fire while we did a comparative tasting of six incredible wines at her home. The setting was exactly as Dixon imagines her event: casual, not fussy, in an easy-going atmosphere that makes it easy to enjoy the intricacies of amazing wines.

“It’s really fun when you know wine a little bit and then have an opportunity to share a deep conversation about the wine with a real expert. How often do you get to hear a Master Sommelier just talk about wine off the cuff? That’s what Somms Under Fire is all about.”

Broglie has been involved with the event from its inception. He sees it as an entertaining way for people to learn more about food and wine. “The competition is about demystifying wine and the role of the sommelier in helping people appreciate and love wine. We want to help people discover wine that enhances their dinner and their overall experience.”

Bill Elsey  Somms Under Fire ContestantTo land a spot in the event, competitors had to meet professional wine industry requirements and pass a timed, multiple choice and essay exam that measured their extensive wine knowledge. While Dixon wouldn’t say how many people applied to compete, she did say, “We had more entrants and more educated entrants than before. Many of the contestants have pursued multiple education paths in the Court of Master Sommeliers, Certified Specialists of Wine and Wine and Spirit Education Trust.”

The competitors who made the grade this year are Advanced Sommelier Nathan Prater and Certified Sommelier Scott Ota, both of The Driskill Hotel and The Driskill Grill in Austin, and Advanced Sommelier Bill Elsey of The Red Room Lounge in Austin. These three guys know the others’ strengths very well — they are good friends and have been studying for various sommelier exams and competitions for two years now.

Each of the three sommeliers competing in Somms Under Fire expressed gratitude to Dixon, who they call the “Fairy Godmother of Austin Sommeliers” for her work to promote excellence among wine professionals.

Nathan Prater Somms Under Fire ContestantThey may be friends, but that doesn’t dampen their competitive spirit. In 2011, Elsey and Prater finished first and second in the Best Sommelier in Texas 2011 competition at the Texas Sommeliers Conference (TEXSOM).

Prater acknowledged that he’s not eager to be a runner up to Elsey again. He confidently asserted, “I’m going to win the Quickfire cocktail competition.” Ota quickly agreed, but added, “I’m going to kill the three course pairing competition.” Not to be bested, Prater counter, “No, I’m going to win that too. Bill will just be awarded for the ‘Best Looking.’”

It turns out that the sommeliers won’t be judged on looks. Dixon explained, “The winner is the one who communicates best with the audience, connects and demonstrates why they chose a particular wine to pair with a dish. The winner will bridge the gap between the technical wine information and what the diner really wants.”

When asked who he wants to beat more, Elsey responded, “I’m super stoked to be competing against Scott and Nathan. I want to beat both of them equally. It’s about bragging rights in our study group.”

There is more to it than bragging rights. The winner will receive a Grand Prize Package of a wine internship in Burgundy under the tutelage of France with author, Master of Wine and Burgundy expert, Jasper Morris.

Scott Ota Somms Under Fire ContestantPerhaps Prater and Ota will have a little bit of home court advantage with the event being held at the Driskill. The venue was chosen before the competitors applied. The Driskill has shown a concerted interested in hosting events that support the food and wine community. Just a week after Somms Under Fire, the Driskill Hotel will host the Court of Master Sommeliers Level I and Level II exams.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the TEXSOM Conference, which fosters education for sommeliers, promotes wine service standards, furthers wine education and raises public awareness of the professional wine industry.

General Admission tickets cost $55 and will get you in to both the Quickfire cocktail competition and main Somms Under Fire competition that includes wines and food from 6 to 8 p.m. VIP tickets run $100 and include access to the Taste Like A Master pre-event tasting hosted by master sommeliers Devon Broglie and the event judges from 5 to 6 p.m. The VIP tasting is limited to 70 people seats, so grab your tickets quickly.

 This story was originally published on CultureMap.

How to romance your date on Valentine’s Day with the right wine

Everybody wants to get laid, and Valentine’s Day is either a blessing or a curse when it comes to the pursuit of nook-nook. It’s potentially an excuse to have hot monkey sex with your partner, to bed the hottie you’ve been lusting after or to go down in flames desperately hungering for the delicious treat that you’re not getting.

The pressure is on. Expectations for action are higher than any other night of the year (except maybe senior prom).

Whether you’re in a relationship or hoping to be, it’s always helpful to pull out all the romantic stops to increase your odds of having a tawdry evening. One tried-and-true and fantastically effective aphrodisiac is to treat your sweetie to an elegant dinner. Wine is an integral part of a romantic feast and a critical element in getting cupid’s arrow to fly straight. Wine also holds the potential to turn you into a hapless mess if you aren’t comfortable ordering it — nothing kills the mood quicker than incompetence.

Fortunately for you, there are people trained to make you look good enough to get in the game. (Well, at least when it comes to ordering wine.) Here are tips from some top sommeliers on how to order wine competently, plus some suggested wines to help you round the bases.

Expert Advice

Christy A. Canterbury, Master of Wine

New York City based Sommelier, Christy Canterbury, recommends doing your homework before heading you the door. “It’s a huge help to check a restaurant’s on-line wine list before you go! Double check that the list is current, either from the date on the

Christy A. Canterbury Photo by Michael Seto

web or by calling the reservationist.”

Canterbury recommends sparkling wine as a great Valentine’s Day wine, and “rosé Champagne in particular works like a charm.” Here are her suggestions for rounding the bases

  • First base: “Frankly, the goal is at least second, and Champagne should get you there! Maybe rosé sparkling wine not from Champagne is the First Base wine? You’ve got to be thinking special occasion wines after all. Bump up the quality to really swoon your date.”
  • Second base: “Rosé Champagne! Or, try an old-school Rioja Reserva from a producer like CVNE Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España or Lopez de Heredia. A cool thing about Rioja is that the wines are released later, so it looks particularly special because they are older than most wines you usually drink…as well as other wines on the wine list.”
  • By-pass third and head for home: “Red Burgundy. Pinot Noir is the ultimate svelte, graceful, sexy wine, and Red Burgundy is the best there is in the category. Splurge for a Premier Cru if you can, but there are lots of good Village-level wines out there. The 2008 and 2009 vintages are on lists now and are spectacular. Only go for the 2007s if you like really racy, lean, mineral styles of wine.”

Canterbury is a consultant to wine competitions, freelance writer and teaches at primo wine schools. She is the former National Wine Director for Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group and Global Corporate Beverage Director for Culinary Concepts by Jean-Georges. She holds a Master of Wine, is a Certified Sommelier via Court of Master Sommeliers and is Winner of the Villa Maria Award for Outstanding Viticulture Examination Paper.

Bill Elsey, Sommelier, Wines.com | Red Room Lounge

Bill Elsey recommends putting Sommeliers to work to use their knowledge to your benefit. Just give them a few parameters to work within to get the best results. Start by knowing what type of wine your date likes to drink. Do they prefer sweet or dry, white or red, light or full bodied, or fruit forward or earth driven?

Bill Elsey

Next, tell the Sommelier how much you are willing to spend on a bottle. Elsey says, “A smooth way of handling this without coming across as cheap or as though you are trying to show off is to point to a certain wine on the list and say to the Sommelier, ‘I’m looking for something in this area,’ to signal the amount that you would like to spend.”

Finally, if you are completely open to suggestions, give the floor to the Sommelier and let them guide you with wine and food pairings with each course. “Food and wine pairings are fun and they take some of the pressure off when choosing one bottle to go with the entire meal that may have several different dishes.”

Elsey suggests dry rosé Champagne for a perfect Valentine’s Day wine. In particular he suggests

Marc Hébrart N.V. Premier Cru Brut Rosé, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ de la Marne NV. The pink color is perfect for Valentine’s Day and the rich and layered flavor with tremendous acidity and minerality make it extremely versatile with food. To bring you home, he advises:

  • First base:  “Dry Riesling. A great way to compromise if there are sweet and dry wine drinkers on a date. All of the lemon, apple and citrus fruit that comes with Riesling without the sweet finish. Look to Australia for Pewsey Vale dry Riesling from the Eden Valley or to Austria for Emmerich Knoll Federspiel dry Riesling.”
  • Second base: “Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is always a safe go-to for both red and white wine drinkers and Oregon is my favorite New World region for Pinot. These wines typically are fruit forward, but not overly extracted with out of balance alcohol. Look for 2008 as a stellar vintage from the Willamette Valley. Retour and Domaine Serene are two of my personal favorite producers.”
  • By-pass third and head for home: “If you want sex potential, order a wine that needs to be decanted. This adds another element to the dining experience and is sure to score you points. Look for wines that benefit from age such as: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux, and wines from the Northern Rhone. Personally, I’d go with Barbaresco. These wines show depth of flavor, are elegant and beautiful on the nose. Like a woman who has it all together – confidence, beauty, finesse, maturity. I love the Nebbiolo grape and it is fairly off the radar for most wine drinkers, so it shows you know a little something about classy wines when you order one. Look for 1996 or 1997 vintages, both great years for Piedmont. One of my all-time favorite producers is Pio Cesare.”

Bill Elsey is a Certified Sommelier via Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist in Spirits and a Champagne and Cork Specialist through the Society of Wine Educators and is winner of Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011 at TexSom.

Scott Ota,  Wine Captain and Sommelier of The Driskill Grill

Scott Ota suggests that you start the conversation by asking your date his or her preferences. The Sommelier should be able to make recommendations based on your date’s answers. Be confident, and ask questions.

Scott Ota

He agrees that you can never go wrong with bubbles Valentine’s Day and recommends an elegant and refined Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Champagne is just downright sexy. Ota’s preference is Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Cuis, N.V. “It’s ridiculously delicious, and you don’t have to break the bank. Its premier cru, and cheaper than Veuve Clicquot! Go with quality, not the big name.” If you are looking for lovin, here are Ota’s propositions:

  • First base:  “Pinot Noir is always a good choice because it is smooth and feminine, often very food-friendly and easy-drinking. For around $50 or under, I love Evening Land Blue Label Pinot Noir from Eola-Amity Hills in Willamette Valley, OR. The wine is gentle, but structured, with plenty of fresh red fruits. If you want to spend a little more, you can’t go wrong with Burgundy. Domaine Leroy Monthelie AOP Rouge 1999is jaw-dropping good. A stunning wine that features farmer’s market fresh fruits and blooming rose petals.”
  • Second base: “Cabernet Sauvignon is a great choice. A well-structured Cabernet is classic, confident, powerful and alluring. For under $50, I’d go with Terra Valentine 2009 Cabernet from the Spring Mountain district of Napa Valley. It has bold, rich black fruits mixed with judicious oak that provides spice and chocolate. If you’re willing to splurge, I recommend the 1989 Château Beychevelle, a fourth growth Bordeaux from the commune of Saint Julien. The ‘89 vintage was stunning, and the wine gives just about everything that you could want in a great bottle of Cabernet.
  • By-pass third and head for home: “A second bottle.”

Ota is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and Wine Captain and Sommelier of The Driskill Grill

Davis Smith wine director at The Black Pearl Seafood and Martini Bar in Ann Arbor, MI

Davis Smith recommends open communication to make sure your special night goes off without a hitch. Sommeliers are required to study the wines of the world for countless hours to find a wine that’s perfect for every customer. Start by describing the kind of wine you like and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Sommeliers love curious customers.Davis Smith

When picking a romantic wine Smith’s mind goes immediately to bubbly. A bottle of bubbly is sure to set the mood on Valentine’s Day and it’s hard to find a bad pairing for sparkling wine, making you look like a pro. Look for Cava, a sparkling wine from Spain that is very high in quality and very low in price. You get great freshness and a wonderful savory character from Cava that is tough to find in other sparkling wines at the same price. His other proposals for wines to get ya knockin’ boots are:

  • First Base: “Moscato d’Asti is a great way to start off the evening. Slightly sparkling and slightly sweet this Italian wine goes great with salads, generally the first thing set on the table, especially if there is a salty component to the salad. This wine has blown up in the marketplace lately and is widely available.”
  • Second Base: “Port is a great wine for after dinner. This fortified dessert wine has a boost in alcohol and is super rich, thick and delicious. A glass of this after dinner makes you feel warm on the inside and the deep dark aromas of berry, cassis and chocolate make for a nice mood setter for after you get home.”
  • By-pass third and head for home: “The wine your date likes. Talk to your date about what they like about a wine and listen very carefully. Take this into account and engage the Sommelier, asking questions that will lead the two of you to a wine that your date will love. Show them that it’s not all about you and that you’re also a good listener. That goes a long way.”

Davis Smith is a studying Sommelier. He also produces content for two blogs: his own personal website, winestateofmind.tumblr.com, where he does video and text reviews of wine; and for FindTheBest.com, a comparison website, where he writes posts in an educational capacity. Davis’ goal is to educate and empower people so that wine is no longer intimidating. His philosophy regarding wine is simple; keep an open mind, be honest, and drink what you enjoy.

Passion Preferences

Whether you choose Champagne, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, wine experts agree that the surest path to passion is to listen to your date and order what they like. Now get out there and make it happen.

This story also appeared on CultureMap.

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Bubble Basics: picking a sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve

Everything about Champagne is sexy; from your initial thoughts about it, to the way the cork pops to announce its ready, to the way it looks in a glass. What could be more seductive than your date’s delicate fingers wrapped around an impossibly thin stem below a sleek curving flute? Her hot breath fogs over the cold glass like the car windows of your youth. Pour a little more in and let the mousse carelessly foam over the rim and cascade down the side.

Sparkling wine is a must for the holiday. Whether you want wine for the ball drop, a balloon drop or just a pants drop, bubbles are the way to go. The only thing not sexy about Champagne is figuring out which bottle to buy. The best approach is to buy sparkling wine in a reputable wine shop or in a restaurant or bar and ask for advice to pick a great bottle.

I sat down with the sommelier from the acclaimed Driskill Grill, Scott Ota, to get a few of his tips. His advice is to be ready to answer a sommelier’s questions. Do you prefer it to be lighter or bigger? Chardonnay dominant wine, or Blanc de Blancs, is more elegant with lemon juice freshness and high acidity. Pinot Noir driven wine is typically bigger, richer and more structured Do you prefer sweet or dry? The code words going from sweet to dry are Demi-sec, Sec, Extra dry, Brut and Extra Brut. Do you want white or rosé?

Do you have to have Champagne, or are you open to any sparkling wine?   

Prosecco: If you like a slightly less fizzy and sweeter wine, try Italian Prosecco. It’s made with the “Metodo Charmat-Martinotti” or Charmat method, where the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks rather than in the bottle.

Cava: Spanish Sparkling wine called Cava typically is made méthode Champenoise. It’s known for its high acidity, fresh-cut fruit flavors and lighter style body. It spends a little less time on the lees than Champagne, letting the acidity shine through.   

U.S. Sparkling Wine: Domestic bubbles typically deliver great value. Like their cousin still wines, American sparkling wines are typically rounder and mouth filling. Quality American bubbles made in the méthode Champenoise are made in California, Oregon, Washington and even lesser known wine producing states like New Mexico and North Carolina.   

Champagne: If you go for Champagne, consider going for Grower Champagne, meaning 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. This is in contrast to négociant, or a house that sources grapes from many growers. Farm to Table is a big movement, so let’s think of this as “Farm to Bubbles.” Small growers are able to control their crops and the quality of the product by bottling their own. The top seven big houses produce about 50 percent of all Champagne made in the world. Big Champagne houses are all about the house style and small growers are all about the taste of the land, making it more terroir driven. The best thing about Farmer Fizz is that you get so much quality for so much less money than from a big house. I’ll drink to that.  

 The last question you’ll need to ask yourself is, “How much are you willing to spend?” Here are Scott’s picks for various price levels.

 Budget minded: “I love Cremant. Its méthode Champenoise and a great value. One I really like is Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé. Its 100 percent Pinot Noir made with the skins left on for a bit to give it the color of a delicate pink rose. It sells for $48 at the Driskill (around $15 retail) and is available by the glass.

Have a little extra to spend: Marc Hébrart N.V. Premier Cru Brut Rosé, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ is a steal at $82 a bottle (around $56 retail). It’s a premier Cru that drinks like a Grand Cru.  This small grower/producer makes only 5,800 cases total for all of its lines. 

Devil-may-care: What is that one special bottle you would get if money were no object? Scott recommends the Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Special Club 2004, which goes for about $95 retail (I got a bottle for that price at Austin Wine Merchant) or for $155 at the Driskill. Pierre Gimonnet et Fils has been rated as “outstanding” by Robert Parker and one of the top 15 producers in Champagne. The Gimonnets are one of the great grower families of the Côtes de Blancs, producing arguably one of the finest Chardonnay Champagnes. This will be my toast on New Year’s Eve because Beautiful Wife is worth it.

The Taste

All of this talking about sparklers made us mightily thirsty, so we popped a few corks to try some out. We chose one of the largest and most famous Champagne houses, a small grower/producer and a non-French to see how they compared.  

Marc Hébrart N.V. Premier Cru Brut Rosé, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ

Marc Hébrart produces its Champagne with Premier Cru Pinot Noir and Grand Cru Chardonnay from Vallee de la Marne. They export only five percent of the 5,800 cases of Champagne made, making this a special find. 

Look Such a seductive look in the glass. An elegant ballerina wearing soft pink crinoline dancing with effortless effervescences, her lithe limbs spinning a silky mousse at the mouth of the flute. She bends toward you begging for a kiss with a rose held between her teeth.  
Smell Pleasant aromas of roast apple, apple pie and rose petals.
Taste A nice balance of fruit and earth with fresh apple, strawberries, and funky goat cheese scent. It finishes with crisp minerality, tart acidity and flowers. The lively bubbles give way to a smooth silky mouthfeel. Drink this with your love at the stroke of midnight. I poured a second taste and considered trying to swipe the rest of the bottle when Scott wasn’t looking.
Price $82 at the Driskill or about $56 retail

Bellavista Franciacorta

For a non-French selection, Scott chose Bellavista NV Cuvee Brut Franciacorta DOCG. It’s made from 90 percent Chardonnay using the méthode Champenoise and spends 18 months on the lees in bottle to round it out.   

Look This Italian sparkler has a lovely straw color and happy fizz jetting to the top forming a fine mousse that dissipates quickly.
Smell It has a bracing nose of mineral limestone and toasty apple.
Taste The Bellavista is elegant with ripe pear and apple flavors dominating the front followed by hay and pie crust lingering in a smooth creamy mouth. It is not highly acidic, and instead is round, full and yeasty. Your New Year’s Eve date will be impressed. This one begs you to drink a second glass.
Price $75 at the Driskill or about $48 retail

 

Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label  

We selected Veuve because it is one of the largest houses and most widely recognized Champagnes in the world. This venerable house, founded in 1772, produces consistently fine Champagne.

Look Tiny bubbles stream eagerly through light gold bliss into a creamy mousse.
Smell The non-vintage Yellow Label Brut has lovely scents of caramel, honey and pear.
Taste A predominance of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier give Veuve rich fruit and roundness. It has exquisite flavors of oxidized apple, yellow apple skin, peach and vanilla. You should definitely order this drink if your date is highly conservative and brand conscious. It will not let you down.
Price $90 at the Driskill or about $45 retail.  

 

If you want to taste your way through excellent bubbles, the Driskill is a fine place to do so. The Driskill is thought of as a special occasion dining location, so they are embracing it with a fantastic wine program. They strive to have the best Champagne list in Austin with 20 champagne labels — including 12 grower producers — and 12 other selections of bubbles. Hey, bubbles are Scott’s drink of choice and an excellent food wine.   

Are you ready to get a bottle or three for the holiday? One glass and you are champagne; floating effortlessly, more buoyant than in salt water, more buoyant than in helium, humors soar. A second glass and you know that giddiness isn’t reserved for school-girls.  Go for it.

Happy New Year!

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The holidays are upon us: A fantastic kickoff with Big Reds & Bubbles

You know what makes a kick-ass party? A soirée where you are greeted by a gorgeous lady dressed in an elaborate champagne-laden dress. A bash attended by lots happy people in festive clothing.  A bacchanalian festival with an absurdly huge selection of prestigious wines and delectable treats from 19 of Austin’s hottest chefs. That’s exactly the kind of party 350 people went to last night at the sold-out Big Reds & Bubbles held at the Driskill.

Big Reds & Bubbles is not only a party; it’s also a fundraiser for the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, with dollars coming from ticket and silent auction. Sound like a perfect way to raise money. Get a bunch of wine aficionados and foodies lubricated with the good stuff and tempt them with the opportunity to “win” really nice wines like 1955 Bordeaux, 2000 vintage Dom Pérignon champagne, 3L and 5L large format bottles and cult wines and let the check books bleed.

Marshall Jones, Executive Director, looking suave as hell in a black velvet jacket, casually tells me the Foundation puts the money to good use. They pay out the fattest culinary scholarship and largest dedicated pastry scholarship in the country. In addition to that, the Foundation is the leading underwriter of the TexSom beverage conference. Spreading the fertilizer to grow the next crop of brilliant chefs and sommeliers is an august cause.

Big Reds is all about connecting people with the chefs and sommeliers that create fine dining experiences. Jones and foundation members know that great wine and food is dependent on a vibrant community. To get the event started on that path, they held a VIP tasting of four rosé champagnes hosted by Master Sommeliers, Craig Collins and Guy Stout. John Antonelli of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop described the cheeses paired with each wine. You can’t ask for a better educational experience.

There were plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with the culinary elite. Celebrity Chef, Brad Sorenson, provided a bit of comic relief as the MC. He comes across as a young and handsome version of Conan O’Brien with his boisterous personality and tall, lanky form. Brad caught the eye of the Wine & Food Foundation when he was a contestant on season 6 of The Next Food Network Star and Chopped! He is getting more involved in the Austin culinary scene and was visibly excited to talk about his plans to open Nova Bar on Rainey street in April 2012. The two-story, 100-seat eatery will present an elevated take on bar food. Everything will be done from scratch, including the inventive cocktails created with loving care by mixologist, JC Rodriguez.  At Big Reds he drew attention to some gems from A-list chefs and stand-out wines like the father and son duo Jack Allen Kitchen Executive Chef, Jack Gilmore, and Barley Swine Chef, Bryce Gilmore.

It turns out the Foundation has been throwing this bash every year for nine years. Big Reds & Bubbles got its start as way to kick off the holidays. Since the start Glazer’s has partnered with the Foundation to introduce its stand-out wines like 2008 Nickel & Nickel Cabernet, 2007 Chateau Montelena and 2008 Dunn Vineyards to average Joes. If you ask this average Joe, it’s a fantastic way to ring in the holiday bender season.

So who was out sipping bubbles and red wine from 85 different wineries? It was a great mix of wine industry types, like Master Sommelier Craig Collins, Pedernales Cellars President, Fredrik Osterberg, Foundation board members and lots of people eager to have a great time. Here is a selection of some of the pretty faces in the crowd.

Me with Marshall Jones, Wine & Food Foundation Executive Director

 

Lamarca Prosecco Lady starts things off

 

Celebrity Chef Brad Sorenson
Barley Swine chef, Bryce Gilmore with his dad Jack Allen Kitchen chef Jack Gilmore

 

 

11. Scott Ota, Advanced Sommelier for the Driskill Grill, Bill Elsey, TexSom Texas Best Sommelier 2011 and Craig Collins, Master Sommelier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paulina Tavera and Mark Bergeron
Dominique and Will Douglas
Steve Tipton, Wine & Food Foundation President and Michael Russel, Foundation Board Member.

 

 

 

 

Me with the gorgeous Jennifer Grathwohl, Foundation Events Director
Jane Rash, Rob Reynolds, Carol Willis and Shae Anami
Lauren Bridges and Wim Rouwet

 

This article also appears on CultureMap Austin, without the funky formatting problems.

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