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?

Celebrating two years of What Are You Drinking?

I love any excuse to throw a party and the second anniversary of this blog was a good enough one to gather a group of friends at the Red Room Lounge. Dear friends, winemakers, distillers, wine shop owners, beverage PR people, sommeliers and wine drinkers shared a few laughs and many bottles of wine to celebrate the friendships fostered over a drink. Many of the people in the room I have met only because of this blog. Its fitting, because that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this blog – making new friends.

In the past two years I have written 153 articles about wine, beer, spirits and cocktails. The blog has changed a bit over time, and I keep trying to improve it based on your suggestions. The blog has led to other writing opportunities as a contributor to CultureMap, The Digital Texan, 12Most and now Austin Man magazine. Each article is another chance to talk to fascinating people in the beverage industry and another opportunity to taste something new. I love that.

Thanks to everyone that shares their time to tell their stories. Thanks to the PR people who help make the connections. And most importantly, thanks to you for staying with me, reading my stories, commenting and making suggestions. Cheers!

What are you drinking?

Shhh, Austin’s newest wine bar, The Red Room Lounge, quietly opens downtown

“No, no, no! Do not write about this place! We don’t want people to know about it. This is the place where you bring a date and really impress her because you are ‘in the know.’ Don’t tell anyone about this f@%&ing place!” Customer, Zack Fuentes emphatically discouraged me from spreading the word about the newly opened The Red Room Lounge. He wants it to stay unknown and exclusive.

He’s right that the wine lounge is so far only frequented by wine aficionados who are in the know. There’s no sign out front, there was no media blitz or even a press release announcing its opening and it isn’t even listed on Citysearch yet.

Here’s your insider tip: the Red Room Lounge is located at 306 E 3rd St. in downtown, Austin, just down the street from the Convention Center and two doors east of the Vince Young Steakhouse.  You don’t have to have a password to get in. Yet.

One reason the wine crowd is drawn to The Red Room Lounge is because its owner, Alex Andrawes, has created a chill, speakeasy-like atmosphere for people to enjoy a few glasses of great wine. The red velvet draped entrance gives it an elegant, hushed feel. There are nicely arranged conversation areas and dark nooks for lovers to steal a kiss or two. Another reason is this is a place where both wine experts and novices can learn something new. Not only is Andrawes  a wine expert, but he hired Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011, Bill Elsey, who brings incredible wine knowledge and a deft touch for sharing that insight without making people feel stupid.

The lounge grew out of Andrawes’ other wine businesses, Personal Wine, started in 2000, and, started in 2008. He explained the origins of the lounge, “I was tasting wine with Bill Elsey and a group of sommeliers and wine drinkers in the lounge. Everyone thought it was a great space and suggested we should open it up to provide by-the-bottle or glass service. It’s cozy, a great place to be private and feel special. It’s almost like your personal cellar away from home… That’s why we call it a lounge rather than a bar. Our focus is wine, great conversation and great company.”

Judging by the feedback from guests, they hit the mark. Amelia Castilla said, “It’s secretive. It’s private. It’s like you have to have a secret handshake to get in.” Baubak Askari likes the individual attention saying, “The service is very personal. It’s so cozy it feels like I’m drinking wine at home, but I’m out.”

The Red Room Lounge stocks a wide selection of wines by the bottle including some private label and boutique wines that Andrawes sourced on trips to the wine country. Guests can choose to buy a bottle with a selection of more than 500 labels and more than 3,000 bottles, and take home anything they don’t drink in the lounge. They also offer eight to 10 wines by the glass with a menu that changes regularly. Currently they have interesting pours like Spätburgunder, Oxidized Rioja Blanc, and 1989 Chateau Lynch-Bages.

There are a bucket of wine bars downtown to choose from, so it’s damn important to have an interesting selection of wines that appeal to a broad audience.Andrawes said, “That’s the greatest thing about getting Texas’ Best Sommelier Bill Elsey in as the leader of the pack. I let Bill manage the wine selection in the front room. I’m responsible for maintaining the vintage cellar so I select rarities with wines we believe in. Wines must deliver quality first, price second.”

Elsey described his approach to wine buying, “I taste often and make it a priority to build relationships with the wine rep’s who work with me. I take tasting with my distributors very seriously. Those whom I buy the most wine from understand my palate and what I am looking for, which are wines that over-deliver for their price point and taste of the place they are from. In the Lounge, if you are spending $90 on a Châteauneuf-du-Pape you know it is an awesome bottle for what you paid. The same can be said for the $29 bottle of dry Riesling. I also like to have a diverse selection of wines from traditional, as well as esoteric grapes and regions.”

They have some pretty amazing wine in the cellar. Andrawes gave me a tour and pulled out bottle after bottle of rare and collectable wine like Screaming Eagle, 1982 Chateau Haut Brion, 1955 Taylor’s Vintage Port and the mack-daddy 1989 magnum of Petrus. He grabbed a bottle of 2005 Gargiulo Vineyards Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon for me to try. I needed a moment.

While the wine selection is large, that’s all you can expect. They do not serve beer, cocktails or anything else. They don’t prepare food on premise, but have service agreements with restaurants within a two block radius that will bring you cheese plates, hors d’oeuvres and light eats. The Red Room will host private parties and arrange for catering.

The lounge was starting to fill up with guests by the time we came out of the cellar. Elsey poured a selection of wines by the glass at the bar unobtrusively tucked in a back corner, while Andrawes circulated around the lounge tempting guests with prime selections from the cellar. Edward Morgan liked that touch saying, “They have a great portfolio of wine. Things you won’t get anywhere else.”

Nash Garrison was visiting for the first time and was happy to discover a new place near his home. “I love it. Being in the neighborhood, I want to go somewhere to chill out and have a drink. Going to a lounge underground is cool.” It is literally cool in there — around 65 degrees — which will be especially nice when its 100 degrees outside.

Return visitor Adi Pavlovic likes the unhurried pace. “The last time we were here we bought two bottles, sat on the couch and didn’t get up for hours. You can’t do that any other place in town.”

I got caught up in the easy pace too. It was one of those nights where I knew I was tempting a hangover to carve a jagged gash in my morning skull, but I didn’t care and ordered one more glass of Champagne. The crowd was relaxed, conversations were flowing as easily as the wine and the couch sucked me in.

Nagging thoughts about an early morning at work eventually pulled me off the couch. As I was finally leaving Elsey got a call from a group planning to drop in and kick off their late night revelry at the Red Room.  He had a gleam in his eye anticipating a flock of wine aficionados encamping in his den until the wee hours. There is nothing better than long conversations with friends over wine. What a dream job.

Visiting The Red Room Lounge

  • Website
  • Hours: Tuesday-Friday 2PM to 12AM and Saturday 3PM to 1AM
  • Prices: Wines by the glass range from $6 to $25
  • Payment options: Cash, American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa

A version of this story first ran on The Digital Texan.

What are you drinking?