Austin’s 8 best sommeliers keep the wine scene flowing

This story was originally written for and published by CultureMap

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

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

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

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

Devon Broglie
Devon Broglie

 

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

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

Craig and April Collins
Craig and April Collins

 

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

Nathan Fausti
Nathan Fausti

 

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

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

Paul Ozbirn
Paul Ozbirn

 

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

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

Nathan Prater Tastemaker Nominee
Nathan Prater, Photo by Jessica Pages

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

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

Paula Rester
Paula Rester

 

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

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

June Rodil
June Rodil

 

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

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

Mark Sayre
Mark Sayre

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

3 Austin sommeliers pair their favorite wines with heart-healthy meals

Sure, the month of January is filled with onerous New Year’s resolutions full of strict diets and exercise. The good news is that those resolutions probably have you on the path to participate in American Heart Month this February. The even better news is that, according to many studies, drinking red wine—as long as you don’t overdo it—may actually be good for your heart.

So follow your heart with these recommendations for pairing a rustic or robust red wine with a few of Austin’s best heart-healthy dishes.

The Sommelier: Mark Sayre  

Arro
601 W. Sixth St.

Niçoise salad and Burgundy at Arro
Niçoise salad and Burgundy at Arro

 

Advanced Sommelier Mark Sayre has gathered prestigious honors, such as Texas’ Best Sommelier in 2007, Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Seven Best New Sommeliers in 2010 and a 2012 CultureMap Tastemaker Award during his career managing the restaurant at Westwood Country Club and running the wine program at Trio Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin. Now serving as service director of the wine-focused Arro, he is in his element.

Executive chef, Andrew Curren of the ELM Restaurant Group, opened the French bistro, Arro, in autumn 2013 and it quickly grew a devoted following with its unpretentious farm-to-table French fare. Arro got a facelift in the summer of 2015, expanding its outdoor seating and adding vibrant design touches to the interior. The menu was also updated with some playful touches.

Sayre has a deft touch at pairing wines from the extensive list with the everchanging menu.

“I take a broad approach to food-and-wine pairings,” he says. “I pair the structure and weight of a wine to match the food. This gives you more options. Now you can talk about red wines and seafood. Now you don’t have to talk about pairing cherry flavors in wine with cherry flavors in a dish. It’s about how the weight of the wine and the weight of the dish work together. If the texture of this dish is really elegant, let’s find an elegant wine with a little more body.”

The Meal: Niçoise Salad
This classic salad from the South of France is as satisfying as it is healthy, with grilled tuna atop leafy greens, herbs, green beans, potatoes, eggs and olives. Sayre says pinot noir is a perfect mate for niçoise salad. “The elegance and complexity in salad match elegance and complexity in the wine,” Sayre says. “The meaty flavor from tuna, savory earthiness from the olives and potatoes, and myriad herbal qualities go really well with fruity and floral tones and the core of savory and spicy flavors.”

The Wine: 2009 Domaine Michel Lafarge Premier Cru Les Aigrots from Beaune, France
This Southern Burgundy beauty is as rustic as it is elegant, with bright cherry flavors and enough oomph to muscle up to the meaty aspect of the tuna. It runs about $178. For a less expensive option, try the 2013 Soter North Valley Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Ore. This is a gorgeous wine, with juicy fruit intensity balanced with herbal scents and earthiness, and is often found in Burgundy, France. It is $48 for a bottle or $12 by the glass.

 

THE Sommelier: Nathan Fausti

Bullfight
4807 Airport Blvd.  

Cauliflower gazpacho at Bullfight
Cauliflower gazpacho at Bullfight

 

Certified Sommelier Nathan Fausti is a rising star in the Austin wine community. Having won the title of 2015 Texas’ Best Sommelier, he is now preparing to take the Advanced Sommelier Exam and test his skills in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Young Sommelier Competition as one of three people selected to compete in the 10-state region.

Though he’ll soon take the helm as sommelier at Due Forni, in his current position as the sommelier at Bullfight, Fausti pairs Spanish wines with Southern Spanish tapas. Finding the right wine to go with a diverse selection of flavors in multiple dishes is a fun challenge for Fausti.

Bullfight, the newest restaurant from chef Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside Projects, reflects his take on traditional Spanish dishes. Made with local ingredients, sustainably raised meats and fish, the tantalizing selection of tapas is mostly heart-healthy with plenty of gluten-free, dairy free, vegetarian, and vegan options. Executive chef, Ryan Shields, philosophy is if it doesn’t need salt, butter, cream, or flower, it’s not in the dish.

“I look for structure and match the body of the wine with the body of the food,” he says. “Wine with a lot of tannin matches fattiness. Higher alcohol goes with a heavier-bodied dish. I match for the most part and then look for some contrast. It is like adding a seasoning to the dish.”

The Meal: A Trio of Vegetable-driven Tapas
Escalivada with peppers, eggplant and boquerones is an absolutely gorgeous dish served with the fish artistically arranged on a ring of roasted and chilled vegetables. Cauliflower gazpacho, made with cauliflower stock, has crunchy, grilled cauliflower florets, paprika-spiced walnuts, pickled grapes and shaved fennel. It is a party of textures and smoky, sweet flavors. And grilled branzino, a traditional Mediterranean sea bass, is served in tomato broth with herbs, garlic and braised cannellini beans.

The Wine: Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserva 2003, Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain
This aged red wine has savory flavors almost like sweet and sour, with mellow red fruit, cherry, soy sauce, baking spice, vanilla and a lot of earthiness that pairs well with escalivada. It’s priced at $98. For a less expensive alternative, try the Palacio de Canedo Maceración 2013 from Bierzo in Northwest Spain. This is a medium-bodied wine made with the mencia grape. It is reminiscent of Cru Beaujolais, with great aromatics, fresh cherry flavors, black pepper and a savory herb spiciness that goes well with vegetables and fish. It is $56 for the bottle or $12 by the glass.

Sommeliers Paul Ozbirn and Nathan Fausti at Bullfight
Sommeliers Paul Ozbirn and Nathan Fausti at Bullfight

The Sommelier: Chris Dufau

Emmer & Rye
51 Rainey St.

Mangalitsa pork ragout at Emmer & Rye
Mangalitsa pork ragout at Emmer & Rye

 

Certified Sommelier Chris Dufau has extensive experience in wine service from stints at the famed French Laundry and the Martini House in Napa Valley, Calif., as well as Jeffrey’s in Austin. He joined the team at the newly opened Emmer & Rye, drawn by the opportunity to work at a chef-owned restaurant in a vibrant part of town.

Named for ancient grains, Emmer & Rye uses local ingredients in its American cuisine, including herbs and vegetables grown in raised beds outside the restaurant and foraged locally. Executive chef and owner, Kevin Fink, prepares seasonally-appropriate small plates like pork trotter pressé and octopus confit. A fun way to enjoy several complex dishes, like cauliflower custard with mustard and wheat berries, is to order from the dim sum style cart service.

Pairing wines with an eclectic mix of small plates and ever-changing dim sum dishes keeps Dufau on his toes.

“I designed a list of mostly European wines that fit a broad spectrum of flavors and that work with multiple courses and multiple dishes,” Dufau says. “We have 45 wines by the bottle and six whites and eight reds by the glass that are great for everyday drinking.”

The Dish: Rye Pappardelle Pasta With a Mangalitsa Pork Ragout
The big, broad noodles are made in-house using grain that is milled in the kitchen. Served lazily folded over each other with lean cuts of pork braised in Roma tomato sauce, the firm pasta and tangy ragout are meltin- your-mouth delicious.

The Wine: Ar.Pe.Pe. Rosso di Valtellina, Nebbiolo from Lombardy, Italy
This light-style wine made near the Swiss Alps has floral, cherry and cranberry flavors that go well with the pork and many other dishes on the menu. It’s priced at $70. For a less expensive alternative, try the Claus Preisinger, Blaufrankisch from Austria. This is a solid wine, with wild, brambly fruit flavors that bring out the spiciness of the rye in the pasta. It is $45 for the bottle.

This story was originally published in the February issue of Austin Woman Magazine. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand. 

What are you drinking?

Austin’s premier wine challenge Somms Under Fire attracts national competition

June Rodil, Diane Dixon, Devon BroglieAustin’s Diane Dixon of Keeper Collection — the wine impresario who dreamt up the concept of Somms Under Fire, a national wine and food pairing competition held in our city — gathered a few members from her event team to tell CultureMap about this year’s festivities. Really damn good wines and even better conversations were flowing between serious wine collectors, the Dixons, and two master sommeliers from Austin, June Rodil and Devon Broglie. As we sampled a California cab, food pairings began flying around:

“This thing needs raw elk.”

“This is a cab for a slab: A big salty, peppery slab of meat.”

Calling out the best possible wine pairings with excellent cuisine is the name of the game at the Somms Under Fire competition, held at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on Sunday, January 24. The general public is invited for a night where expert judges test the mettle of three wine professionals in both a cocktail competition and an in-the-moment food and wine pairing challenge before naming one person the 2016 Somms Under Fire champion.

The event rundown

VIP Wine Tasting, 4:30 pm
It starts with a VIP wine tasting and education session presented by Napa Valley Vintners with renowned winemakers Rosemary Cakebread of Gallica, Michael Eddy of Louis Martini Winery, Sara Fowler of Peju, and Chris Hall of Long Meadow Ranch Winery. The winemakers will present eight wines, offering VIP guests an opportunity to taste similarities and differences of the regions.

Chopin Vodka Cocktail Challenge, 6 pm
Judged by Jason Stephens, director of bars and beverage for La Corsha Hospitality Group, and Master Sommelier Craig Collins, beverage director of ELM Restaurant Group, the three competing sommeliers are given one week to create a cocktail recipe made with Chopin Vodka that is inspired by a song from their favorite band. The winner will get a competitive advantage in the food and wine pairing competition.

Food and Wine Pairing Competition, 7 pm
Sommeliers are challenged to match wine from all over the world with dishes prepared by Chef Drew Curren of ELM Restaurant Group. Curren will take inspiration from his restaurants Arro, Italic, and Easy Tiger to create cuisine for the competitors, and the sommeliers will then select an appropriate wine to pair with the dishes live in front of a panel of expert judges and audience.

“Somms Under Fire is a great way for people to explore wines and better understand their palate,” says Dixon. “It is a fun way to learn new wine and food pairings and to try them at home. It’s also a way for people to understand the role of a sommelier so they are comfortable working with one at a restaurant.”

Rodil, the event’s first winner in 2011, will serve as emcee. As a master somm and the wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality, she sees Somms Under fire as a fun and delicious way to learn about wine. “People get to taste a huge range of wines paired with excellent food that you wouldn’t get to taste in a normal night.”

Serious national competition

This year marks the first time in five years that there will not be a sommelier from Texas participating for the Somms Under Fire crown. Rania Zayyat, previously the sommelier at laV, is the only Texan in contention as an alternate. Sommeliers from Texas have won each of the last four competitions, despite having contestants from other states the past two years. That says a lot about the draw of this competition, because Texas has plenty of talented sommeliers.

There was roughly a 25-percent increase in sommeliers taking the exam to earn a coveted spot in the Somms Under Fire competition with a great turnout from Houston somms. Even so, this was the first year there were more out-of-state people applying to participate, with only 40 percent of applicants hailing from Texas.

Dixon, a huge supporter of the Texas sommelier community, is excited by this development. “It has always been our goal to attract national competition. We set out to create a competition that sommeliers aspire to have on their resume as they pursue the title of master sommelier.”

Who made the cut?

The three finalists competing for the title of Somms Under Fire 2016 champion are:

Advanced Sommelier, Luke Boland
Recently appointed wine director at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s first new restaurant in New York in the last decade, La Sirena, Boland got his start three years ago while working at Del Posto. He will also be sitting for his Master Sommelier Diploma Examination-Theory in March.

Luke Boland Somms Under Fire

 

Advanced Sommelier, Blake Leja
Leja is a district manager at Southern Wine & Spirits in Chicago, and currently studying for his masters diploma with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Blake Leja Somms Under Fire (2)

Certified Sommelier, Ryan Robinson
Robinson is the manager and sommelier at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Boise, Idaho, and is determined to give Idaho some street cred with a solid showing in this competition.

Ryan Robinson Somms Under Fire

 Sitting in judgment

The judging panel includes wine industry luminaries from the U.S. and France. Making the competitors sweat with their critical eye will be Master Sommelier Collins of ELM, Peju winemaker Fowler, Burgundy winemaker Nicolas Rossignol of Domaine Nicolas Rossignol, and Peter Wasserman of Becky Wasserman & Co.

A founding volunteer of the competition and emcee for the first four years, Broglie has seen what it takes to win. He offers this advice: “The winner will be able to recreate the customer hospitality experience on stage, without getting too geeky about the wine. The folks who have won in the past were able to quickly come up with their pairings, were confident in their choices, and excited by them.”

As a previous winner, Rodil also offers insight on how to score the prize. “First, know how to make a cocktail. Really understand creation rather than assessment of a cocktail. Second, be able to concisely talk about wine. Having excitement and speaking with fluidity about the wine gets you everywhere.”

What’s at stake?

Guests will vote for a “fan favorite,” sponsored by Napa Valley Vintners. That prize is a four-day educational trip to Napa Valley, including airfare, accommodations, and meals. One of the volunteer sommeliers working the event will also randomly be selected to win the same trip.

The grand prize is a one-week internship in Burgundy, France sponsored by Becky Wasserman & Co that includes airfare, accommodations, all meals, and the opportunity to hear from winemakers in the cellars and vineyards of this storied region. In addition, the winner will receive a $2,000 travel grant provided by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

“You can’t pay for an experience like this [prize package],” explains Rodil. “You just can’t go and do it on your own. There is no way to see that level of wine producer in what is heralded in the best wine region in the world is undoable. It’s an amazing prize.”

Previous winners are:

  • 2012: June Rodil, Advanced Sommelier (now a Master Sommelier)
  • 2013: Scott Ota, Certified Sommelier (now Advanced Sommelier) at Arro Restaurant, Austin
  • 2014: Nathan Prater, Advanced Sommelier at the AT&T Education and Conference Center and the Carillon Restaurant, Austin
  • 2015: James Watkins, Advanced Sommelier with Pappas Brothers, Houston

Tickets are still available to the public: VIP tickets are $130 and general admission is $65.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

Paula Rester returns to Austin as wine director for La Corsha Hospitality Group

Paula Rester, sommelier at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group’s Italian concept Maialino and former Congress Austin sommelier, is moving back to Austin and will rejoin the La Corsha Hospitality Group team in a new position to begin on December 1, 2015.

Paula Rester, Wine Director position with La Corsha Hospitality Group
Paula Rester, Wine Director position with La Corsha Hospitality Group

 

“I’m thrilled to be home in Austin and to be moving into this expanded role with my La Corsha family,” says Rester. “This last year in New York has been a whirl-wind of a ride, a crash course in all things food and wine with one of the best groups of people in the business today. As sommeliers, we always can’t wait to share what we’ve learned with our guests, and I’m no exception! It’s an honor to be trusted with the responsibility of curating the wine lists for some of the best restaurants in the city.”

Before decamping for the big city where she served as Maialino’s sommelier since September 2014, Rester did a couple stints at Congress, the jewel in the La Corsha crown. She helped open Congress in 2010 and held court as the captain and commis sommelier at Congress until January 2012 when she left to become the general manager at Vino Vino in Hyde Park. While ruling the wine roost, Vino Vino was named one of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Incidentally, Congress and the Lake Austin Spa Resort were the only other two places in Austin to also score that award. In October 2012 Rester returned to Congress and has put her stamp on the wine program as the wine director.

“It’s wonderful to have Paula back and I know she’ll be fantastic in her new role,” says Scott Walker, vice president of operations at La Corsha Hospitality Group. “We are growing very quickly as a company and to have Paula return to create, educate and maintain the various wine programs is a great benefit to the company, our employees and our guests.”

Rester has plenty of excellent fine dining experience and book learning to give her loads of somm street cred. She is a Level II Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Rester knows that every visit a guest makes to Congress Austin is potentially for a very important meal and one worthy of her full attention. She brings her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to work with her every evening. That combination makes for an incredibly interesting dining experience.

Photo taken of Rester in 1994 by Kevin Vobrik Adams for the Austin American Statesman
Photo taken of Rester in 1994 by Kevin Vobrik Adams for the Austin American Statesman

 

In her new role, Rester will oversee wine programs at Restaurant Congress, Bar Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen Downtown, Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, the new Second Bar + Kitchen Domain, and the soon-to-be renovated Green Pastures.

What are you drinking? 

laV and Vilma Mazaite to launch “Celebrate Burgundy” festival in Austin

Vilma Mazaite
Vilma Mazaite to launch new wine festival in Austin

Celebrated sommelier and director of wine at laV Restaurant and Wine Bar, Vilma Mazaite, is launching a new wine and food festival in Austin called “Celebrate Burgundy” in early 2017. A press release issued by laV’s PR agency, says, “The festival, designed to be a leading wine and food event focused on Burgundy wines and regional French food will be led by Vilma Mazaite.”

Mazaite has tons of wine cred having been named a “Best Sommelier of 2015” by Food and Wine Magazine earlier this year. Her expertise in French wine is well recognized and is on display in the massive wine list at the restaurant. She traveled to Burgundy in September to plan the festival with some of the region’s most notable wine producers.

To allow her time to plan and host the festival, Mazaite, will leave her role as director of wine and will serve laV as Executive Consultant.

In the press release laV’s General Manager, Jamie Wagner says, “We believe Austin is ready for a world class wine and food event and there is no one better to lead it than Vilma. We’re excited to start Celebrate Burgundy and look forward to working with others in the Austin food and wine community to make it a reality.”

The release added a comment from Mazaite saying, “I am very proud of what we’ve done at laV and am excited to be starting our next venture. I believe we can create a unique wine and food experience in Austin. We’ve  already begun securing participants from Burgundy and have been met with great enthusiasm from several producers.”

What are you drinking?

The Intoxicating Experiences of the 2015 TexSom  

Drinking it in at TexSom
Drinking it in at TexSom

The Texas Sommelier Conference, aka TexSom, just wrapped its 11th annual session at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas. It truly is one of the biggest and best wine education conferences in the world. It’s geared for wine professions and serious aficionados who get deliriously blissful to talk about the most intricate and geeky aspects of wine production, geography, wine sales and the minutiae of the sight, smell and taste of hundreds of wines from iconic producers.

TexSom founders James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks
TexSom founders James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks

The education at TexSom is top notch, but there is so much more. TexSom is saturated with intoxicating experiences. Even the sounds get me. You know how that ding-ding-ding sound of the electronic slot machine gets ingrained in your subconscious after a few days in Vegas. It gets played back into your dreams even after leaving that hell hole. The same thing is true at TexSom. The lilting ding-ding-ding of wine glasses kissing each other’s rounded hips time-after-time though-out each session, all day long, become a xylophone soundscape scoring the important moments of the conference. That sound is my nightly lullaby easing me into wine-soaked dreams.

The melodic chime of glasses
The melodic chime of glasses

What makes it truly intoxicating is the alchemy of so many important elements. Beyond the learning, the wine is insane, the events are a blast, the staff and volunteers are incredible and the camaraderie among attendees is sheer magic.

Education is what TexSom is all about. The presenters are a who’s-who list of the biggest names in the industry with Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine and all sorts of other fancy wine titles. They drop knowledge. It’s impossible for even the best educated wine pro to come away without learning something.

A few highlights for me:

  • Josh Raynolds taught us the lineage of the Pinot Noir direct line progenies spreading from Austria, Hungary and Switzerland including reds like Gamay and Pinot Meunier and also whites like Gouais, Alligote, Pinot Gris, Melon de Bourgone and even Chardonnay. Many of these grapes are dying at the cruel hands of commerce. To underscore the point, Raynolds broke out bottles of 2008 Chambers Rosewood Vineyards Gouais from Rutherglen, Australia. It was absolutely the rarest wine imported into TexSom this year.
  • Cocktail phenom, Bobby Heugel, explored the buzz for obscure liqueurs by juxtaposing pairs of cocktail darlings like Greeen Chartreuse vs. Dolin Genepy and Grand Marnier vs. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. One of the more interesting comparisons was between a bottle of Campari made in 2015 vs. Campari made in 2006. The difference is that in 2006 Campari stopped coloring its liqueur with beetles using carmine as a dye sourced from the cochineal beetle because it is a lethal allergen. That’s right, Campari used to be Beetlejuice.
  • Laura de Pasquala and Charles Butler described how some of the world’s most treasured wines are made with the most human intervention. Wines like Champagne, Sherry, Port, Tokiaj and Madiera all require heavy winemaker manipulation to create their wonderfully unique styles. No natural wine bullshit here. Even biodynamics is a highly interventionist method. One of my favorites of the session was the Nino Negri Chiavennasca “Sfursat 5 Stelle” Sforzato di Valtellina, from Lombardy, Italy. It’s made with 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes that are dried on the vine for 100 days in cool alpine air before they are pressed. The result is a complex Barolo like wine with high tannin, dried fruit flavors and elevated alcohol that will age forever.

Yes we get to taste some of the most amazing wines on the planet; wines that I wouldn’t normally be able to afford; wines I wouldn’t normally be able to find; wines which until now I had only dreamt of. The standout retrospective of a dozen Grand Cru Trimbach Alsatian Rieslings going back to 1975 had the crowd cooing in rapturous enchantment. Oh the Burgundy. Oh the Bordeaux, Oh the Champagne. Oh the Sauternes. Oh old vintage and rare bottles. There are too many to mention.

Jean Trimbach with retrospective
Jean Trimbach with retrospective

 

My absolute favorite part of TexSom is connecting with so many incredible people. There is a Jungian river of shared wine-geek energy flowing at flood-stage levels at every moment. Chatting it up with the people who write wine curriculums, hanging with people are on every Top Somm list, and hearing what’s going on straight from winemakers from around the world is a rush.

How can you beat learning about the vintage variance of Pontotoc Vineyards wines with winemaker, Don Pullam? Or sharing a lively discourse on the state of the Texas wine industry from legendary winemaker Kim McPherson? What could be better than having late night laughs with some of the hottest young winemakers in Texas like Ron Yates of Spicewood Vineyards, Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines and Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards? Or having an impromptu tasting of the Fall Creek Vineyards new releases with the matriarch of Texas wines, Susan Auler, and a fun group of wine writers and sommeliers?

If you haven’t been to TexSom, put it on your list for next year. Check out the sessions, the tasting breaks, the wine lunches, the endless flow of swoon-worthy wines in the Hospitality suites, the crowing of the TexSom Best Sommelier and the Grand Tasting sponsored by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. The event is run like clockwork by diligent staff and volunteers who put in countless hours. You will not be disappointed.

Disclosure: I was provided a complimentary media pass to attend 2015 TexSom.

What are you drinking? 

National wine pros will compete in 2015 Somms Under Fire food and wine event

Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie
Event organizer, Diane Dixon, and emcee, Devon Broglie

 

Figuring out the right wine to go with your dinner can be daunting for just about anyone. Just try doing it in front of a live audience and a panel of wine experts judging you. That is exactly what three wine professionals will do when they compete in the 2015 Somms Under Fire, a wine and food pairing event being held on Sunday, January 18, at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center.

In its fourth year, the sommelier competition organized by Keeper Collection, LLC has drawn national talent for competitors and judges. The wine and food pairing event will challenge participating sommeliers to match wine from all over the world with dishes prepared by Chef David Bull of Congress Restaurant and Chef Jason Stude of the soon to open restaurant, Boiler 9 + Bar. In an “Iron Chef”- like battle, the sommeliers will discover which wines they have available to pair with the food live in front of the audience and a panel of expert judges. The best news is that the audience gets to taste the pairings.

The talented chefs are keeping ingredients under wraps until the reveal at the event to keep the contestants on their toes. They let us in a little secret; they won’t make it easy.

Chef Bull, a James Beard award nominee, said, “We will create an original dish exclusively for Somms Under Fire that represents the style and inspiration of the daily menu at Congress. Wine is the clear focus of Somms Under Fire, so Congress will showcase a dish that is challenging to pair, but also has a broad enough base that there is room to beautifully interpret and pair a few different wines.”

Chef Stude will test the sommeliers’ skills with dishes inspired by the new restaurant. He said, “Boiler Nine Bar + Grill’s menu will be influenced by a massive fire deck grill. Meats and fish will be staples, but there will be a heavy focus on grilled or smoked vegetables, grains and greens. For Somms Under Fire, the dish will highlight local product, classic technique and elements that will be present in the menu at Boiler Nine Bar + Grill.”

The event starts off with the Tio Pepe Sherry Cocktail Challenge Competition, where the competitors are challenged to create a cocktail recipe based on sherry and no other high-alcohol spirit. Sherry’s distinct history and its resurgence as an apéritif, digestif and cocktail ingredient makes for an intriguing opportunity for the sommeliers to blend the past and present in a craft cocktail. Renowned bartender, Jason Stevens, returns to judge the cocktail competition for the third year and created the rules for the competitors.

This is the improv comedy of the wine world. These guys have to make split second decisions to wow the crowd and the judges.

Event organizer and president and co-founder of Keeper Collection, Diane Dixon said, “It is a fun live drama of how the competitors react under pressure in front of an audience of 250 people and stellar judges while pairing lovely wines with food prepared by chefs that we admire. It’s really exciting to put sommeliers in the hot seat in a playful way. We will have wines that are classically representative of different region to not only test the broad knowledge of the competitors but also so the audience can learn about wines from different areas.”

It would make most people pee their pants just thinking of competing, but more than 100 people from across the country applied for the opportunity to do this. Freaks. Each took a timed, 30 minute online exam testing their wine knowledge with fill in the blank questions and an essay at the end. For the first time in four years, none of the top three scores were from Austin sommeliers. What?

Who made the cut?

All three of the contestants are Advanced Sommeliers with the Court of Master Sommeliers. That means they have passed the third level exam out of three exams. The next step is Master Sommelier. It’s hard as hell to become an Advanced Somm, and next to impossible to become a Master Somm. Seriously. The contestants are:

Advanced Somm Luke Boland

  • Luke Boland is a sommelier at Del Posto Restaurant in New York City and a graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2010.

Advance Somm Eric Crane

Advance Somm James Watkins

  • James Watkins is the beverage director at Cordúa Restaurants in Houston and was a Somms Under Fire competitor in 2014.

If for any reason one of these competitors can’t make it, there are three alternates waiting in the wings. The alternates are Jill Zimorski, the wine director at Casa Tua in Aspen, Colorado, Blake Leja, a district manager at Southern Wine & Spirits in Chicago and Brian Phillips, the assistant operating partner and wine director of Eddie V’s Prime Seafood in Austin.
Who sits in Judgment?

Just as the field of competitors has moved to a national stage, so has the judging panel. The panel is made up of a Master Sommelier and two James Beard Award Winners.

  • Rajat Parr brings extensive credentials to the judging panel. He is a partner in Sandhi WinesDomaine de la Cote WinesMaison L’Oree Wines, as well as Internationally Regarded Sommelier and Wine Director of Michael Mina Group. He was recently named one of “The 9 People You Need To Know In American Wine Right Now” by Food Republic.
  • Jordan Mackay, is serving in his second year as a judge. This San Francisco based award winning author and wine writer’s work appears in numerous prestigious publications.  He originally hails from Austin his hometown connections tight as he is currently writing a book about Texas BBQ.
  •  Jay James, Master Sommelier and director of sales and marketing at Chappellet Wines in Napa Valley brings extensive restaurant experience to the judging panel in addition, he Jay has been a featured speaker on multiple televised features, at numerous wine and food events. He currently serves as Vice President of The Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation.

What do they win?

The grand prize for the wine and food pairing competition is a wine Internship in Burgundy, France with a renowned Burgundy expert, provided by Becky Wasserman Selections and a Travel Grant, provided by event partner, the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

There is also a Fan Favorite award sponsored by Chapter 24 Vineyards, which sends the winner and a randomly selected Somms Under Fire volunteer on a four day trip to the Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Event emcee, Master Sommelier Devon Broglie, associate global beverage buyer, Whole Foods Market, who returns for his fourth year, commented on the changing dynamics of Somms Under Fire.

“Somms Under Fire has certainly captured a broader spectrum of audience, participants and judges,” Broglie said. “The event’s evolution has mirrored the advances in food and wine in town. There is no question that the quality of wine industry in Austin has increased exponentially in the last 10 years. There has been incredible growth in the professionalism in wine service and the peoples’ expectations of wine lists in finer dining restaurants.”

In addition to the competition, VIP ticketholders will enjoy a wine tasting and education, presented by judge Rajat Parr.  He’ll break out some bad ass Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and drop knowledge about these delicious wines.

VIP Tickets are $125 and general admission are $60 through Keeper Collection

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

Wine Ride

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

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

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

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

Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie
Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie

What are you drinking? 

10th Annual TEXSOM Highlights

TEXSOM

Its like Christmas in August, or, summer camp for wine pros. The tenth anniversary of the Texas Sommelier Conference, AKA TEXSOM, held at the Four Seasons Hotel Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas drew 900 sommeliers and wine enthusiasts to participate in educational seminars, wine tastings and tons of fun networking.

This year  39 Master Sommeliers, 10 Certified Wine Educators and six Masters of Wine presented 23 seminars on beverage topics. Highlights for me included:

  • A panel exploring lesser-known regions of the United States that are making bad-ass wines presented by Sally Mohr MS, Guy Stout MS, Paul Lukacs, Wayne Belding MS, Marguerite Thomas, Kathy Morgan MS, moderated by Alfonso Cevola CSW. The Colorado Syrah and Texas wines stood out for me.
  • A fun session tasting of Napa Valley wines led by Master of Wine Peter Marks who did it Jeopardy style.
  • A tasting of the ridiculously delicious, but impossible to get wines of Portugal led by Master Sommeliers Devon Broglie and Keith Goldston.
  • An incredibly enlightening session on the most dynamic producers in Chile and Argentina presented by Craig Collins MS and Peter Neptune MS, AIWS, CWE.
  • A seminar and tasting on the Italian sparkling wine region Franciacorta led by Charles Curtis MW and Michael Franz, editor of Wine Review Online.
  • And the pièce de résistance, a retrospective tasting of ’75, ’77, ”80, ’87, ’91, ’97, ’05 and 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chappellet Winery with Frederick L. Dame MS, Jay James MS, and Cyril Chappellet. Crazy good wines.

The whole thing is capped off with a Grand Tasting sponsored by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas where the winner of the Texas’s Best Sommelier Competition is announced. Here are a few images from the Grand Tasting.

My favorite part of the event is talking with Texas winemakers and wine pros from around the world before and after the sessions. Enjoy the images of this spectacular conference.

Disclosure: I was provided a media pass to attend this conference at no charge.

What are you drinking? 

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

Sommelier decanting wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryn Lewis, sommelier, The Red Room Lounge

Bryn Lewis, Red Room Lounge

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

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

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

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

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

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

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

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

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

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

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

Rania Zayyat, sommelier, laV

Rania Zayyat

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

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

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

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

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

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

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

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

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

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

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

Paul Ozbirn, Wine and Beverage Director, Olive & June  

Paul Ozbirn, Olive & June

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

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

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

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

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

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

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

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

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

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

 

Nathan Fausti, lead server, Arro

Nathan Fausti, Arro

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

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

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

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

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

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

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

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

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

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

 

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

Melissa Lamb, Fleming's

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

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

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

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

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

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

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

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

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

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

I would drink a Last Word cocktail.

 

Edward Morgan, food and beverage manager, sommelier, Travaasa

Edward Morgan, Travaasa

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

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

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

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

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

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

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

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

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

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

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

 

Mandi Nelson, Fine Wines Specialist, Republic National Distributor

Mandi Nelson, Republic

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

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

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

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

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

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

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

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

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

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

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

 

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?