Forget Sochi: Elite sommeliers compete in ‘wine Olympics’ during Somms Under Fire

Diane Dixon and Devon Broglie

In just over two weeks, some of the world’s best athletes will compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Whether it’s speed skating or snowboarding, the one thing that is certain is that the athletes have trained like mad to make it to the big stage. Here in Austin, we’re hosting a mini Olympics of our own. But this is for wine. Three sommeliers will battle in a test of wine and food pairings in Somms Under Fire on January 26, at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center on the University of Texas campus.

To earn a spot in the competition, more than two dozen applicants from nine states took an insanely difficult — and timed — written exam testing their wine knowledge. The three people who scored highest and will now go head-to-head are advanced sommelier, Paula de Pano, of Fearrington House in Pittsboro, North Carolina,  advanced sommelier Nathan Prater, of in Austin, Texas, and certified sommelier James Watkins of Cordua Restaurants in Houston, Texas.

“Becoming a sommelier and competing in this contest takes an incredible amount of training,” said Devon Broglie, the Somms Under Fire emcee. “Any sommelier that wants to compete in this event has to make sacrifices while accepting an overhanging cloud that they might not be successfully achieve it. Just like with the Olympics, there is no guarantee that the hard work will pay off. These three have the pressure of not only knowing their wine, but also performing in front of an audience and a panel of judges including two master sommeliers.”

Somms Under Fire Burgundy WinesThe judging panel will be more intimidating than a Russian figure skating judge. Global wine consultant, Peter Wasserman, returns from Burgundy to serve as judge. He will be joined by James Beard Award winning wine writer, Jordan McKay, from San Francisco, Copain winemaker, Wells Guthery, from Sonoma County and the winemaker from Castiglione Falletto Winery, Elisa Scavino, from Piedmont, Italy.

Now in its third year, Somms Under Fire is no longer drawing only local contestants. As the event grows in notoriety, it is attracting a national audience. In fact the three stand-by contestants are from Atlanta, Chicago and Washington D.C. It doesn’t hurt that the Grand Prize is a one-week internship in Burgundy, France led by Master of Wine and Burgundy expert, Jasper Morris.

There will be local flavor as contestants to pair three courses created by Chef Shawn Cirkiel of Parkside Projects  (ParksideOlive & JuneBackspace and the forthcoming Chavez) paired by the contestants with wines from around the world. Guests will get to sample each wine and food combination.

Diane Dixon, founder of Keeper Collection, LLC, the event organizer, said, “Shawn is a huge proponent of treating food and wine professionally. He wanted to participate in this event to have his food associated with wine professionals who know how to match wine with great food. The fun will be that the sommeliers will be surprised by the food he prepares and the types of wine available to pair with it.”

In addition to being judged on wine and food pairings, the sommeliers will also have a second challenge in their beverage biathlon. The QuickMix Cocktail Challenge will test the sommeliers’ ability to make a delicious drink using saké instead of spirits. Bartender Jason Stevens of Congress Austin, returns to judge the “saketail” competition. The contestants will create their own recipe using no more than two ounces of sake to make a three ounce cocktail using no other spirits. Ingredients can cost no more than $1.00 per drink. Stevens will award points not only for the flavor, but also for the sommeliers’ story about how the ingredients selected reflect their personality. Audience members get to drink the results.

The whole event starts with a one hour VIP session hosted by noted Burgundy expert, Peter Wasserman, who will pour five classic vintages of Burgundy wines. He will describe how weather affects each vintage, how sub-regions vary in style and give guests tips on learning to love this coveted French wine region.

The VIP session for 2014 Somms Under Fire Competition begins at 5 pm and the general admission for the wine and food pairing event starts at 6 pm on Sunday. VIP tickets are $125 and General Admission are $60.   The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas is a presenting partner.

This story was originally posted on CultureMap.

What are you drinking? 

So You Want to be a Sommelier?

This story appears in the Fall issue of Austin Man Magazine and looks far better in print than it does here. Pick up a copy. Photo’s of DustinWilson courtesy of Forgotten Man Fimls/Samuel Goldwyn Films 

Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what a sommelier was, let alone pronounce the silly word. That has changed. Now it seems like I encounter sommeliers everywhere I go: in restaurants, wine bars, wine shops and even grocery stores. Hell, even I am now a sommelier. The growth in the profession is mirrored by demand for educational opportunities.

Programs such as the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., are seeing increasing enrollment. The number of people studying for professional sommelier certifications and pursuing becoming a sommelier as a career is growing, with more than 4,300 taking CMS exams in 2012 alone. Conferences are on the rise as well. James Tidwell, Master Sommelier and cofounder of the world’s largest sommelier education conference, TEXSOM, says that forum has grown substantially in its nine-year existence.

“In 2005, when we started TEXSOM, we had four Master Sommeliers and one Master of Wine conducting educational seminars for about 100 attendees,” Tidwell says. “This year, we have 33 Master Somms, four Masters of Wine and six Certified Wine Educators, and many other luminaries teaching sessions for more than 500 attendees. Nine years ago, there was only one Master Somm in Texas: Guy Stout. Now we have seven Master Somms in the state. While the conference has grown, it has kept a sense of great camaraderie and a sense of purpose.”

Sommeliers have been around for a long time, but the allure of the career is on the rise. It has evolved from a job for frumpy footmen to a career for sophisticated bon vivants. June Rodil, Advanced Sommelier and general manager of Qui restaurant in Austin, believes it’s a natural extension of the foodie culture and the culinary world.

“The starlight shining on celebrity chefs has never been brighter,” Rodil says. (Her boss and Top Chef winner Paul Qui is an excellent example.) “TV cooking shows have gained incredible prominence and are reaching an entirely new demographic beyond the people who traditionally go to fine-dining restaurants. People now understand the care a chef gives to the ingredients and the preparation that goes into making elegant meals. That awareness spills over into paying more attention to which wine pairs best with food. People expect to find high quality in both food and wine.”

While celebrity chefs may still soak up most of the spotlight, sommeliers have a documentary of their own, cleverly named SOMM. The film, which ran at the Violet Crown Cinema in Austin this summer, chronicles the obsessive study habits of four candidates pursuing the coveted Master Sommelier diploma. It’s a window into how challenging it is to master the beverage world. One of the documentary’s stars, Dustin Wilson, now a Master Sommelier and wine director at Eleven Madison Park in New York, feels there was a need to tell this story in film because most people are unaware of the role of the sommelier and the work that goes into the profession.

“Sommeliers are certainly becoming more popular and carving out a stage presence in the burgeoning food and wine world, which makes the SOMM documentary appealing,” Wilson says. “The film gives the public a better idea as to what we do. Even non-wine geeks like the film because it’s not just about wine; it’s about wanting to achieve something very difficult. There is a humanizing element in the film that can touch anyone who has ever pushed themselves to attain something challenging, be it a test, a sporting event, a career change, etc. It tells the story of struggle, success and failure.”

Being a sommelier requires more than tasting wine all day and gliding about the dining room recommending wines to pair with a meal. The business of wine takes up a good part of the day too. Buying wine, schlepping boxes to cold cellars, cellar management and pouring over spread sheets to figure out the complex challenges of finding the right wine at the right price are all critical parts of the job. It might not always be glamorous, but Paula Rester, wine director at Congress Austin, finds it rewarding.

“I get the most satisfaction when people don’t know the role of a sommelier, but they have a great experience with my food-and-wine pairing recommendation,” she says. “When I can turn someone on to new wines, it makes me excited. Other times, I just make sure guests get exactly what they want. My mom likes pinot grigio with ice cubes in it. It’s my job to get that for her. The key to success in the service industry is you actually have to give a s**t. You can’t fake that.”

Follow My Path to Become a Sommelier

You don’t have to be born and raised in the restaurant or wine industry to become a sommelier. I’m living proof that anyone can become a sommelier. It just takes desire and a lot of studying. If you want to spend countless hours studying the soil types, the geography and the climate of wine regions throughout the world; if you want to learn how to recognize the smells, flavors, tastes of wine that let you identify the grape, the country, the region and the year the wine was produced; if you want to learn how to pair the right wine with an elegant meal to best bring out its flavors; if you want to learn how to open a bottle of Champagne using a saber, then you want to become a sommelier. Here is how to get started.

  1. Decide which certification program you want to pursue. Consider studying for exams with either the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) or Society of Wine Educators (SWE). Both organizations have websites where you can find course and exam schedules to plan your education process. I went with the CMS.
  2. Gather your study materials. Join the Guild of Sommeliers to gain access to its amazing study guides and sample quizzes online ( Buy a few books like the Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson and The World Atlas of Wine by Mitchell Beazley.
  3. Join or create a sommelier study group that meets at least weekly. Make sure you select serious study partners and try to include at least one member who is already certified (level II), or better yet, reach an advanced level III in the CMS or the equivalent in another organization. You will benefit immensely from studying with others.
  4. Set aside two to three hours a week to study. That’s a good amount of time for the beginning of the process, but be ready to ramp up your hours as you progress in the certification process.
  5. Take the introductory course and exam, and pass it with flying colors.
  6. Get your study group back together and add blind tasting and service to your curriculum. Learning how to do blind tastings correctly can be daunting without a little guidance at first.
  7. Set a budget for wine. It’s more important after the first level, but you will need to practice blind tasting a few different wines at least once a week (learn to spit and be OK with wasting wine). It’s preferable to drink “testable” wines multiple times a week, and stop drinking wines that won’t be on the exam (obscure wines).
  8. Practice proper wine service in a fine-dining setting to pass that section of the level II exam in CMS. If you don’t work at a restaurant, find someone who can help you practice proper wine service.
  9. Study all coffee, cigars, sake, beer, spirits and cocktails because they can all be on the test too.
  10. Pass your Certified Exam and wear your lapel pin. The path is not quick or easy, but if wine is your passion, you too can earn the right to call yourself a sommelier.
Disclosure: The Court of Master Sommeliers provided me with complimentary enrollment in both my Certified Exam and TEXSOM 2013 with journalist credentials. 

What are you drinking? 

Drinkin in the fun at TEXSOM

Jason Huerta TEXSOMThe 9th annual Texas Sommelier Conference, or TEXSOM, has come and gone marked by excellent education sessions, gallons of premium wines tasted and summarily spit into buckets and countless hangovers suffered through. It was a rich experience for more than 500 people thirsty for knowledge about the beverage industry.

The backbone of the conference is made up of enlightening seminars on topics like Traditional Method Sparkling Wines from Around the World, Bordeaux, Sake, Bourbon,  Iconic White Wines of the Loire Valley and several regional focuses. I can’t tell you what my favorite session was, but a joke that Kim McPherson, winemaker at McPherson Cellars told me puts one session into stark relief.

The joke: What is the difference between Australian Shiraz and gonorrhea? 

You can get rid of gonorrhea. 

Australian wine is crap. That’s common knowledge. But its totally inaccurate. Master Sommeliers, Matt Stamp and Eric Entrikin, led a session on modern Australian wines in which they completely debunked that notion by describing new wine making techniques and pouring eight unbelievably elegant wines. I just might be a convert.

The sessions are fantastic, but the real highlight is the camaraderie with an amazing community of wine professionals. The shared experience, the passion and the drive for continual improvement is exhilarating.

I’ll let the pictures tell the story of what happened at TEXSOM 2013 (OK, not the after hours part of the story).




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?

7 Austin wine experts compete for Best Sommelier in Texas

On August 8- 13, the world’s largest gathering of wine professionals, TEXSOM, will kick off at the Four Seasons at Las Colinas in Dallas. Now in its ninth year, this educational wine conference is expected to draw more than 500 people ready to participate in seminars and to sip some of the world’s best wines.

The highlight of TEXSOM will be the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition, an annual event that puts 25 of the region’s most talented sommeliers head-to-head to determine who is the reigning wine guru. The competition presented by Texas Monthly will test competitors’ blind tasting skills, wine service talents, knowledge of wine business, and understanding of sake, beer, coffee, tea and cigars. Texans who have not already passed the Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced Exam (Level III) are eligible to participate. The winner receives scholarship money to then use for their Court of Master Sommeliers’ certification program.

TEXSOM co-founder, James Tidwell, explained how the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition began. “We started the competition with TEXSOM in 2005 as a way to bring people together to prepare for higher level exams like Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced test and the Society of Wine Educations CWE exam. We wanted to bring Master Sommeliers to Texas to help Texans understand what is going on in the wider wine world and we wanted people outside of the state to see the high quality of wine education going on in Texas.”

In the past eight years, four sommeliers from Austin — Devon Broglie, Mark Sayre, June Rodil and Bill Elsey — have brought home the coveted prize. This year the city has a chance to win the crown once again with seven of the 24 competitors hailing from Austin.

Competitor Brian Phillips is confident that one of the hometown sommeliers will win. “I think that the chances of bringing back to Austin are very high,” says Phillips. “People here are very highly driven and focused. Our sommelier community has excellent support. There is no reason we couldn’t take it.”

Here are Austin’s participants in the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition.


Marie-Louise Friedland, Sommelier, Congress Austin

Marie-Louise FriedlandYou won’t meet many people who have held the title, “cheesemonger,” but Marie-Louise Friedland has. After growing up in the restaurant business, she delved into the world of cheese while working at Henri’s Cheese Shop. “Working in cheese, (wine) pairing became a huge thing,” said Friedland. “I got obsessed and couldn’t stop.”

Friedland’s wine journey was also shaped by her experience as a cocktail server at Uchi. While at Uchi, she joined a Court of Master Sommeliers study group with other staff members. In 2011, Friedland passed her Level I Introductory Exam.  Less than two years later, she passed the Level II Certified Sommelier Exam in March 2013, earning the top score.  Friedland will bring her expertise and fine dining skills to the competition.

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

I’ve heard a lot of good things about the competition. On top of that, I’m extremely hard on myself. I like pushing myself to uncomfortable boundaries. I like to force myself to keep studying. Being stagnant is the worst thing. I wanted to participate in a competition that is affiliated with the Court of Master Somms to keep studying in a regimented progression.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I’m studying for the competition the same way I do for exams. I do blind tastings weekly and have ramped up to doing it twice a week as the competition is getting closer. I practice service every night. Luckily I work in an excellent fine dining environment at Congress. I treat every table as if they are my competition judge. I do the wine service by the Court standards for every table. For studying the theory (wine knowledge) I use the Guild of Sommeliers website, and create note cards from the content. Then I memorize, memorize, memorize. I study for three to five hours a day. I grill myself even when I’m at the grocery store. I am on my own trajectory to study theory and don’t do it with a study group.

Why will you win? 

I got game day skills. I’m calm, cool and collected when it counts. I don’t get nervous in service portion of the exam because I do this every night and I’ve been around it all my life. I grew up in my grandparents’ restaurant. It’s in my blood. I remind myself, “Don’t freak out.”

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

Dom Pérignon champagne. Duh! A bottle of 1996 would be preferable.


Melissa Lamb, Auction Director, Wine and Food Foundation of Texas

Melissa Lamb, Wine & Food FoundationDuring college, Mellissa Lamb toured the Hill Country wineries and fell in love with the romantic side of wine. The more she learned, the deeper she wanted to go.

Lamb turned that passion into a career. “I knew I wanted to be a part of the wine industry so I started working for the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. I never knew about the world of the sommelier until I met Bill Elsey. He got me interested in the profession and studying wine. I love working for the Foundation and knowing about wine is a big part of it.”

As the Auction Director at the Foundation, Lamb runs the Annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction. After work hours, she can often be found serving wine at the Red Room Lounge.

It’s Lamb’s passion and dedication that will make her a viable competitor in this year’s fight.

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

I’m a highly competitive person. I participated in speech and debate competitions at UT for four years. I like to work on getting better at anything I do and that’s what TEXSOM is all about. I know by preparing for and participating in this competition I’m going to get better. And it’s fun. Nothing bad is going to happen if I don’t win. It’s only growth. It’s only positive.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I set my own syllabus and study for two hours a day Monday through Friday and five hours on the weekends. I read the Guild Somm lessons and Bill Elsey quizzes me. To practice blind tasting and wine service I participate in a study group with Bill, Nathan Prater and Scott Ota (also competing). Nothing compares that. You can grill yourself at home, but having people rake you over during service is really helpful.

Why will you win? 

I will win because I don’t have the pressure to win. I’m so new to this and it’s bold enough to just to enter the competition. It’s about the learning and development process.

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

Champagne! Ruinart! Let’s drink some Ruinart.


Mandi Nelson, Fine Wines Specialist, Republic National Distributor

Mandi Nelson, RepublicFood and beverage have been a big part of Mandi Nelson’s life for as long as she can remember. Her great grandfather ran a food supply company and her father designs restaurants and bars. She started in the restaurant business at age 15 and fell in love with wine while working as a bartender. She helped Four Seasons with the introduction of Trio and created its wine list before handing over the sommelier reins to Mark Sayre.

“After turning over the wine program to Mark, I realized that was the best part of her job,” said Nelson. “I loved it. I loved working with the guests and the food, but wine was my passion.”

Nelson has passed her Introductory and Certified Exam 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.  Nelson hopes to take the Advanced Exam in April 2014.

Nelson brings her rigorous training and past experience in the Texas’ Best to this year’s competition.

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

I see the competition as a free glimpse at the Advanced Exam and a great way to learn by going through a scary experience.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I do blind tasting twice a week; once in a completely blind format and the second in comparative sets with similar wines like Shiraz, Syrah and Merlot. I do my blind tastings with Vilma Mazaite (Owner of LaV Restaurant and Wine Bar), Paula Rester (also competing) and Paul Ozbirn (also competing). The Guild Somm site is amazing for study guides. I live by that. I break down each region and study it in detail. I trace outlines of maps and then write out the specifics for each region. The physical drawing and color coding of wine region helps me remember it. I study by myself and exchange tests with others. I haven’t done any service yet, so I’m trying to get a group together to do that.

Why will you win? 

I am not going with the intention of winning. I’m going with the intention of learning. The world of wine is so massive. The more I study, the more I realize there is so much more to study. I’ve been studying for years and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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

Champagne of course. I’ll drink the first bottle I see, but will go for Bollinger La Grande Annee 1985.


Scott Ota, Sommelier & Wine Captain, The Driskill Grill, The Driskill Hotel

Scott Ota, SommelierScott Ota used to thrash on a skateboard until he tore his ACL jumping a flight of stairs. Now he tears it up as a Court of Master Sommeliers Level II Certified Sommelier at The Driskill Grill where he has been since March 2011.

“It is my goal to continue the Driskill’s historical reputation,” said Ota. “Many of Austin’s top talent, from the front-of-house staff to the kitchen, have a history with the property and I am privileged (to have) the responsibility of maintaining excellence.”

Earlier this year Ota was a Nominee for the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, and he won the challenging Somms Under Fire competition by wowing judges with his food and wine pairing talent. He will draw on that win and his previous experiences in the Texas’ Best when he competes next weekend.

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

I entered the competition to challenge myself. TEXSOM is an incredible opportunity to be criticized and graded by Master Sommeliers. For anyone who is looking to move through the Court of Masters, I would urge them to compete. It helps to show the level of knowledge required for the level III exam, and it offers an incredible opportunity to network with the best.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

Review theory, review theory, blind taste, and review theory.

Why will you win? 

Preparation. I am putting in the time with the books. That and I’ve got the best tasting group in the state. I’ll brag on their behalf. Advanced Sommeliers Nathan Prater and Bill Elsey, and Certified Sommelier Chris McFall are an incredible study group.

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

Grower-producer Champagne, forever and always. Pierre Gimonnet Et Fils is my jam.


Paul Ozbirn, Sommelier, Olive and June

Paul Ozbirn, SommelierPaul Ozbirn has tried his hand as a professional skateboarder in California and as a roadie for a rock band, but a trip to Greece and Italy after college sparked a love of wine. This Alabama boy with a bit of a gypsy spirit moved to Austin after that trip in order to being his pursuit.

“I started working at Vin Bistro in 2006 and that’s where I really started learning about wine and took my Intro exam a few years later,” said Ozbirn. “That got me in the door at Wink where I had the opportunity to nerd out on wine and introduce guests to wines they’ve never heard of. It was a great environment for learning and it inspired me to take the Certified Exam in April 2011.”

Ozbirn will bring his gypsy spirit and passion as a formidable opponent in the Best Sommelier competition.

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

I set out for 2013 to be a power year for wine education. I love TEXSOM and what it’s all about. It’s going to push me to do better whether I do well in the competition or do horribly. I’m going to learn something. It’s going to be fun competing with a bunch of my friends. Wine is supposed to be fun. It’s a way for me to exercise creative juices. Blind tasting is like a puzzle. Service is like a dance. You are on stage working to provide something guests love.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I use the Guild Somm study guides a lot, supplemented by the Wine Atlas. I listed to a lot of Master Sommelier podcasts and review detailed maps. I do blind tasting with friends like Mandi Nelson (also competing), Paula Rester (also competing) and Vilma Mazaite. I also go to the Red Room Lounge to see what they can throw at me. I don’t do study groups because it’s so hard to coordinating schedules. Just managing a personal life is challenging. Skate boarding, music, and tattoos are still a part of my life. I don’t feel like those things need to be mutually exclusive from my professional life in wine.

Why will you win? 

I don’t think I will win. I think Scott Ota will win and I think he deserves it. I’m going in with an open mind and a lot of curiosity. I think we will have a strong Austin showing in the competition.

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

I’ll probably drink a Negroni or any rosé Champagne. Andre Clouet Rosé NV is my desert island wine. I’m a sucker for a Campari and soda or a Negroni after tasting wine all day. Or maybe I’ll have an ice-cold Lone Star with a lime.


Brian Phillips, Manager and Sommelier, Eddie V’s Restaurants Inc.

Brian Phillips, SommelierWhile studying abroad at a culinary school in Holland, Brian Phillips worked as an intern in a vineyard in Germany. That experience working in a winery in a bombed out castle in the middle Rhine set his course.

Fourteen years ago, Philips made his way to Austin where he has worked at the Driskill Hotel, Haddington’s and Mulberry.

“In 2008, I started taking wine study seriously,” said Phillips. “I worked with an Advanced Somm, Anthony Garcia, who took an interest in me. I became a Certified Sommelier in a year’s time. I have also achieved Level II Certification with the International Sommelier Guild and have passed all but blind tasting for the Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. I’m now pursuing the Advanced Sommelier exam.”

Philips not only studies wine, but he also makes it with a boutique private label, Ground Up Wines. Phillips likes to get his hands dirty both in making wine and in his role managing the beverage program at Eddie V’s. He hopes those facets help him to be successful in the competition.

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

I learn the most by getting my butt kicked. Sometimes you have to know what you need to know by failing. I see this competition as a free run at the Advanced Somm. It’s a good opportunity to surround myself with a lot of sharp people in the business. My studying is going pretty well and I’m feeling confident in my blind tastings. I’m going to go for it and see what happens.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I study solo with a lot of maps and using the compendium on the Guild Somm site. Study solo. I blind taste with other people. I did a blind with Bill Elsey last night. My wife pours wines for me the first thing in the morning before she goes to work. When I wake up, the wine flight is waiting for me.

Why will you win? 

I have maturity of experience working in different environments that brings me composure at the table. I can handle tough situations with grace. Maybe that will give me a few bonus points where I may miss points in another area.

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

Champagne of course. Pierre Péters Champagne Blanc de Blancs is my first choice. I like something clean, bright and refreshing with as much mineral as possible. Shortly after that, I’ll have a beer so I don’t have to think about it.


Paula Rester, Wine Director, Congress Austin

Paula Rester, SommelierFine dining service is more than just pairing the right wine with an elegant dish and proper presentation of wine. Paula 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.

“I like to create a fun environment, put on a bit of a show and bring my sense of humor into a conversation about wine,” said Rester. “People come into my restaurant to have a good time. I am here to make sure that happens.”

Rester helped open Congress in 2010 and served as its commis sommelier for more than a year before departing for a stint as General Manager of Vino Vino. She returned to Congress last fall and has put her stamp on the wine program. Rester is Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators, a Level II Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for the Advanced Exam, which she hopes to take in April 2014.

Rester is banking on her showmanship and poise to bring her the win.

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

I entered the competition to get an introduction to the kinds of questions and situations I will find in the Advanced Sommelier exam. I also want to gain some notoriety among the Master Sommelier testers in hopes of being invited to take the Advanced Exam.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I do blind tasting once or twice a week with several people in the sommelier community, including people who are competing. There is strength in number in blind tastings and I learn a lot from how others tastes. I study wine theory for two hours a day on my own and Vilma Mazaite (Owner of LaV Restaurant and Wine Bar) and I create quizzes for each other. I also like to study with flash cards. Oh, and I have maps of wine regions up around my house.

Why will you win? 

I have no illusions about winning at TEXSOM. If I have a shot at winning, it’s because I intend to enjoy the hell out of myself. I want to have fun and get put through the paces by Master Somms. I might have my ass handed to me, but I’m entering into the competition in the right frame of mind. I keep teasing Scott Ota by telling him I’ve got good money riding on him.

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

I’m going to double fist with a glass of vintage Blanc de Blancs Champagne in one hand and a Negroni in the other hand to calm the nerves and settle the stomach. Actually I’ll drink whatever Master Somm, Fred Dame, is pouring. I’ve had Fred Dame nightmares by the way.

This story originally ran in a cool slideshow format on CultureMap.

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.”


 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.

Entering the world of the sommelier

I thought I knew a lot about wine. I mean I’ve worked at a winery, I’ve visited tons of them over the years and I even got married at one. I’ve been writing about the subject for a couple of years and have interviewed dozens of winemakers and industry professionals. I thought I knew a lot about wine, until I joined a sommelier study group last January.

That first meeting I was given a quiz with questions like: “Briefly describe the difference in detection threshold and recognition threshold in regards to wine,” and, “What is the name for the airborne molecules in wine that allow us to smell its aromas.” What?

The next day I ran out and bought a bunch of text books and study guides to prep for the next week’s quiz.

The study group was made up of eight people who were preparing for various exams held by two leading sommelier organizations, the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Society of Wine Educators. It was led by Bill Elsey, Texas’s Best Sommelier in 2011, who was studying for his Advanced Sommelier exam, the third of four levels in the Court of Master Sommeliers education process.

The interesting thing about the group is that half of the members were not employed in the beverage industry. Two of us were food and drink writers, one a wine PR professional and one just a really interested wine drinker. That’s not your typical make-up for a group studying for this kind of specialized education.

Why would I — or anyone not in the wine business for that matter, go to the trouble — time and expense of studying for and taking a sommelier exam? It came down to curiosity, passion for the topic and an intense interest in learning more about the subject about which I so frequently write. The reality is that I had no idea what I was getting into. It was far more than just learning a little about wine.

Over the six months of weekly study groups, blind tastings, quizzes and lots of independent study, I learned all about viticulture, wine production and the geography and grape varieties in major wine producing regions. I also learned the art of discerning where a wine is from, what grape it’s made of and when it was produce with descent accuracy just by looking at it, smelling it, tasting it and deductive reasoning.

I even learned that a puttonyos is the measurement of the sweetness level of Hungarian Tokaji Aszú, which is made from botrytised grapes.

What I also learned is that there is a close fraternity among sommeliers. It turns out that beverage professionals are a tightly knit, highly dedicated and incredibly supportive group of people. Many of them are motivated by the same things that motivated me to join that study group: passion for the topic and an intense interest in learning more about it. In fact, they approach continuing education like a shark constantly on the move.

This was on grand display at TEXSOM, an industry conference dedicated to the education of top beverage professionals in Texas and around the world. The three day conference presented by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and the Texas Sommelier Association featured more than a dozen educational sessions, the annual Texas’ Best Sommelier competition and the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Course and Exam.

TEXSOM was founded in 2005 by James Tidwell MS, CWE, beverage manager at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Las Colinas; Drew Hendricks MS, CWE, director of beverage education for Pappas Restaurants in Houston and Guy Stout MS, CWE, with Glazer’s Distributors. In its first year, TEXSOM had around 110 attendees; This year there were almost 700.

“James [Tidwell] and I noticed that a lot of people were studying wine, but not taking exams,” Hendricks said. “We decided to start TEXSOM with an education focus. The star of the conference was and the Texas’ Best Sommelier competition, which gives people a free look at what it is like to take sommelier exams. In the second year we started offering the Court’s Intro Exam and since then around 2,700 people have taken it at TEXSOM.”

I was one of those 2,700 people. Aspiring sommeliers, retailers and wholesalers and even members of the general public take the Court’s Intro Exam to get a solid foundation of wine knowledge. The course covered a mind-numbing amount of material in two days.

Master Sommeliers from around the country, including Austin’s own  Devin Broglie and Craig Collins, lectured on wine regions, proper wine service, beer, spirits and sake. The fun part was the blind tastings and determining what wines we were drinking. It was a little intimidating to stand in front of 80 people and say what country and region the wine was produced in, the grape it was made from and the year it was made, but it was also thrilling to get it right.

Tim Gaiser, MS, the lead instructor for the course, has been teaching wine education since 1993. According to Gaiser, TEXSOM is a perfect place to teach the Court’s Intro Exam, “It’s easy for us to teach at TEXSOM because we have 25 Master Sommeliers here. We usually have three Master Sommeliers teach the class, but at TEXSOM we have nine. That’s a one of a kind deal.”

At the end of the second day of lectures and tasting, we took the exam: 70 questions to complete in 45 minutes. While I knew I was well prepared for the test, my hands started to sweat and I had to pee. Test anxiety hit! Never fear, I’m thrilled to be one of the few non-beverage industry people in the room to pass the test. All of the hours spent studying were worth it in many ways. In a small way, I just joined the fraternity of professionals that care deeply about sharing information about wine with anyone who is interested.

Would I do it again? Yes, in a heart-beat. Will I go on to take the Court’s Level II Certified Exam? I haven’t decided yet. Maybe if the study group gets back together. You should do it. It was a ton of fun.

What about you? Have you taken a sommelier course? What did you think? If not, are you thinking about taking one?

This story was previously published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: While I paid the $525 to participate in the Intro course, I received a complimentary press pass for TEXSOM. 

What are you drinking?


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, | 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,, where he does video and text reviews of wine; and for, 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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