Austin’s 8 best sommeliers keep the wine scene flowing

This story was originally written for and published by CultureMap

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

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

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

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

Devon Broglie
Devon Broglie


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

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

Craig and April Collins
Craig and April Collins


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

Nathan Fausti
Nathan Fausti


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

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

Paul Ozbirn
Paul Ozbirn


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

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

Nathan Prater Tastemaker Nominee
Nathan Prater, Photo by Jessica Pages

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

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

Paula Rester
Paula Rester


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

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

June Rodil
June Rodil


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

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

Mark Sayre
Mark Sayre

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

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

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

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

The Sommelier: Mark Sayre  

601 W. Sixth St.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


THE Sommelier: Nathan Fausti

4807 Airport Blvd.  

Cauliflower gazpacho at Bullfight
Cauliflower gazpacho at Bullfight


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sommelier: Chris Dufau

Emmer & Rye
51 Rainey St.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you drinking?

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

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

“This thing needs raw elk.”

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

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

The event rundown

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

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

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

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

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

Serious national competition

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

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

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

Who made the cut?

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

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

Luke Boland Somms Under Fire


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

Blake Leja Somms Under Fire (2)

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

Ryan Robinson Somms Under Fire

 Sitting in judgment

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

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

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

What’s at stake?

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

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

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

Previous winners are:

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

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

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

What are you reading on What Are You Drinking in 2015

TexSom Tasting

I’ve been writing about beer, wine, spirits cocktails, and sometimes food on What Are You Drinking for more than five years now. The intent is to share information about great drinks, the stories of the people who make the drinks that we love, and fantastic places to enjoy drinks. In 2015 I wrote 57 new stories for the blog.

I’m always interested to see what people are most interested in reading. This year, among my top 20 most read stories, 11 were about wine or the wine industry, 8 were about cocktails and spirits and 1 was about beer. A little less than half of the stories published on the blog were originally written for another outlet and then reposted here.

It turns out that my two most read stories this year were written in 2013. A comprehensive story about whiskey has lasting interest. The second most read is about Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka, which is a crazy popular brand.

WAYD Top stories 2015


Here are the top 20 most read stories on What Are You Drinking in 2015 that were written this year:

  1. 8 Texas wineries to explore off the beaten path, JANUARY 22, 2015 (extended version of a CultureMap story)
  2. Cool off with a Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka shandy, MAY 30, 2015
  3. I’m Embarrassed to be Texan, AUGUST 26, 2015
  4. Austin’s Best Bartenders: MARCH 7, 2015 (Austin Man Magazine)
  5. Texas Hill Country lands major event with 2016 Wine Tourism Conference, NOVEMBER 23, 2015
  6. Who gives a crap about wine bloggers?, DECEMBER 21, 2015
  7. Crazy good times at the 2015 Austin Food & Wine Festival, APRIL 29, 2015
  8. Texas wine takes on the world, APRIL 29, 2015
  9. Win tickets to “The Official Drink of Austin” cocktail competition, FEBRUARY 24, 2015
  10. The 12 best places for happy hour in Central Austin, AUGUST 2, 2015 (Austin Woman Magazine)
  11. Infinite Monkey Theorem winery set to open in funky South Austin space, AUGUST 3, 2015 (extended version of a CultureMap story with added videos)
  12. Screw the New Year’s resolution — Let’s drink Franciacorta, JANUARY 10, 2015
  13. National wine pros will compete in 2015 Somms Under Fire food and wine event, JANUARY 14, 2015
  14. The Intoxicating Experiences of the 2015 TexSom, AUGUST 14, 2015
  15. The Right Wines for Summer Grilling, JUNE 3, 2015 (Wine & Food Foundation Newsletter)
  16. Real Ale Brewing has Extreme Makeover, FEBRUARY 17, 2015
  17. 3 whiskey cocktails guaranteed to keep you warm this winter, FEBRUARY 3, 2015 (CultureMap)
  18. Summery Whisky Cocktails for National Scotch Day, JULY 26, 2015
  19. These 9 Austin bartenders are shaking up the cocktail scene, APRIL 16, 2015 (CultureMap)
  20. Garage wins Official Drink of Austin competition, MARCH 11, 2015 (Austin Woman Magazine)

What were your favorite stories in 2015?

It turns out that not everyone just clicks on my site every week to find out what’s new. Here is where people find me.

WAYD Referals 2015

Not everyone who reads this blog is from the U.S.

WAYD Visitors by Country

Thanks for reading the stories on What Are You Drinking. I welcome your feedback.

Cheers to a Happy 2016!

What Are You Drinking?

Who gives a crap about wine bloggers?

Hooray for WBC
Hooray for WBC


Wine bloggers are not journalists. They don’t abide by the same journalistic rigor or integrity as diploma carrying J-school grads. Tons of wine bloggers are mouth-breathers who can barely string together a coherent sentence. It’s surprising how little some bloggers actually know about wine. Wine bloggers just write to feed their egos or to get free wine or both.

At least that’s what I’ve been told by journalist friends, some winery owners and some PR people.

That is exactly the sentiment that UK based wine journalist and blogger, Jamie Goode expressed in his article, Wine media and the internet: are we drowning in a sea of mediocrity?. He said, “While there’s a lot of free, self-published content on the internet, much of it is of poor quality. The twin gate-keeping jobs of editors – hiring people who can actually write and then editing their work to improve it – was an important quality filter, and without it, there’s a lot of unreliable, mediocre material being published.”

I bet some of you think things like that about wine bloggers too.

Wine summer camp for a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks

Wine Bloggers in Action at WBC
Wine Bloggers in Action at WBC


I’ll admit that that negative perception was lurking in the back of my mind when I set out to attend the 8th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) in the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York in August. The Wine Bloggers Conference drew about 270 wine writers in search of tips to make them better at their craft. Was I heading to wine summer camp for a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks?

Apparently not.

It was evident right from the opening reception put on by the Finger Lakes Wine Country, the group that hosted the conference, takes wine bloggers very seriously. The time, effort and expense it put in to receptions, winery tours and parties was astounding. The organization bet a lot that wine bloggers have the reach and influence to help showcase the fantastic wine and food scene in the Finger Lakes wine region of Upstate NY.

Endlessly curious about wine

MacNeil Quote

Conference organizers clearly take wine bloggers seriously too. They booked one of the most renowned wine writers in the world to give the opening keynote. Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, had a packed house of bloggers hanging on her every word during her talk, “Breaking In, Breaking out.” in the world of wine writing.

Here is a writer, who broke into the business in 1976 when the only prominent wine writers were five stuffy old men. No women. She succeeded in landing prominent positions at the New York Times, Town & Country, and as the first Food and Wine editor of USA Today through perseverance and determination.

MacNeil called on her rich experience to dole out valuable advice to the hungry audience. She takes bloggers seriously and had a serious message for us.

“The speed of blogging can influence more than a magazine because of its currency and energy.”

While blogging is about speed and currency, MacNeil says that is no excuse for not being a great writer.

She encouraged us to agonize over our writing saying, “Don’t be a serviceable writer, be a great writer.”

To be a great writer, it is essential that bloggers know wine deeply. MacNeil says, “The unspoken contract is that you’ll be a learner, endlessly curious. Don’t play fast and loose with the facts. Aim really big and master the subject. Wine is worth knowing.”

Was she reading my mind? This is exactly the advice that I wanted to hear. It was exactly the advice that I thought all of these other creeten wine bloggers really needed to take to heart. I immediately had a total crush on Ms. MacNeil. Swoon.

Karen MacNeil keynote speaker at 2015 WBC
Karen MacNeil keynote speaker at 2015 WBC


Bad-ass bloggers

A wonderful thing happened at the conference. I met a lot of incredibly passionate, seriously talented, creative, smart and knowledgeable wine bloggers. The majority of the people I met ardently strive to live up to MacKeil’s recommendations; be a great writer and know wine deeply.

Knowing wine, beyond just how to drink it, is a priority for many wine bloggers. Several people in attendance have studied wine intently including several Certified Sommeliers, a handful of people pursuing the WSET Diploma and even several aspiring Masters of Wine.

Quality writing is of paramount importance to a large swath of the bloggers who attended. Several bloggers also write for mainstream publications and some are book authors, like Madeline Puckette,  who just published Wine Folly; The Essential Guide to Wine.

Wine Folly the Essential Guide to Wine
Wine Folly the Essential Guide to Wine


When the 2015 Wine Blog Award Winners were introduced, any hint of trepidation I may have had about the quality of some fellow bloggers’ writing vanished. I suddenly was feeling down-right intimidated by how good these bloggers are. The eloquence of Chris Kassel’s Intoxicology Report dazzles me. The levity of Stub’s videos on Cork Envy amuses me. The insight of Becca Yeamans, The Academic Wino, intrigues me.

A couple more Wine Blog Award winners packed a big hotel ballroom with their talk on how to improve wine writing. It was SOR for W Blake Gray (2012 winner), The Gray Report, and Meg Houston Maker, Maker’s Table (2015 winner). The audience’s enthusiastic response and active participation in the session was another clear sign that this was a large group of wine bloggers who take their writing very seriously. Maker published her talk in its entirety in the blog post, “The Story Only You Can Tell: Advice to Wine Bloggers.”

After only a few sessions at the WBC, it was clear: these are not a bunch of mediocre wannabe hacks at wine summer camp.

Custom bubbly for WBC
Cheers to wine bloggers

Taking wine bloggers seriously

Not surprisingly several wineries and PR people recognize the importance of wine bloggers and make the trek to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference each year. (Yes, I am a PR and marketing guy who works with wineries, but I went as a blogger.)

Rodney Strong Vineyards has been involved as a sponsor of a WBC  scholarship since the first conference in 2008, and funded the top scholarship this year. The winery sees this as an opportunity to support the writing community and increase its brand recognition. (Disclosure, I was the Rodney Strong scholarship recipient this year.)

Robert Larsen, the former head of communications at Rodney Strong and now at The Larsen Projekt, is pragmatic about the importance of bloggers.

“We started sponsoring the conference back then it was about supporting emerging wine writers. So many newspapers had cut wine writers, and there were fewer people to expose consumers to wine in a unique and interesting way. It’s a bummer that a big city like Chicago didn’t have its own wine writer at the Chicago Tribune. Who else locally can tell me about great wine and where to get it.”

Larsen explained that Rodney Strong’s involvement in the conference is a means to expand the winery’s relationship with writers who provide good content to consumers. The winery recognizes the reach of bloggers is expanding.

“Since the first WBC, so many bloggers have grown into national figures and have gotten great national writing gigs. It has given bloggers a voice to have fantastic experiences, learn about wine and share it. It’s also allowed people to develop into experts with speaking engagements and earn money from that or from big publications. The conference and blogging will continue to evolve. That’s why we stay involved.”

Other noteworthy wineries like Cornerstone Cellars and Jordan Vineyard & Winery recognize the value of supporting wine writers by sponsoring the WBC. Jordan been involved with the WBC since 2010, when it donated video services and created a blogger confessional area.

Lisa Mattson, director of marketing & communications at Jordan created a winery blog in 2009 that shares life in wine country and the stories behind its wine and culinary hospitality with videos and photos. It is a “takes one to know one” approach to wine blogger relations. “Being a part of the wine blogger community helps us learn how to be better bloggers, but also gives us an opportunity to build relationships with influential wine lovers like bloggers.​ Wine bloggers come from very diverse backgrounds across different age groups, and for an established brand like Jordan, staying connected with wine, food and travel bloggers gives us an opportunity to share the Jordan Winery of today–who we are, the seriousness of our wines and the fun we have doing what we love.”

Lisa Mattson and Karen MacNeil
Lisa Mattson and Karen MacNiel


One of the wine industry’s leading PR agencies, Balzac Communications and Marketing, has been involved in the WBC since the beginning. It sees the conference as a vital opportunity to make connections with wine writers that are an invaluable resource to the agency and its clients.

Michael Wangbickler and Christine Havens
Michael Wangbickler and Christine Havens


Michael Wangbickler, CEO and partner of Balzac, says, “We realized early on that blogging and social media would be important. Over the past decade, the wine blogging community has grown immensely… both in size and influence. Individually, most wine blogs don’t have huge audiences, but taken in aggregate they can move mountains. With the decreased quantity and influence of print outlets, online wine writing has become more and more important for wine consumers to find information about the subject they love. Wine bloggers have led that charge and continue to do so.”

Who gives a crap about wine bloggers?

Sure PR people and other bloggers thing wine bloggers are important, but do these bloggers actually reach wine drinkers? Probably. Increasingly people are get information about wine from the internet.

A recent study by Wine Opinions says that only 17 percent of millennials read traditional wine columnist and only 22 percent subscribe to a print wine magazine or newsletter. However, more than half of adults turn to the internet for the scoop on wine with 61 percent of boomers, 65 percent of Gen Xers and 50 percent of millennials.

That proclivity to turn to the web for info is leading lots of people to wine blogs. The UK-based online wine retailer, Exel Wines, recently published a list of the “Top 100 Most Influential Wine blogs of 2015” with a ranking based on empirical measures of online influence. Skimming the data of some of the top blogs shows that a lot of people are reading them and interacting with them on social media.

What is the verdict?

Blogs are relevant, but are they all worth the read? While there are many knowledgeable wine bloggers and dozens of well written sites, and hundreds of blogs that are very well read, not all wine blogs are created equal. Jamie Goode’s assertion that there is a lot of “unreliable, mediocre material being published” is still true.

Karen MacNeil has hope for wine blogging. She attended the WBC for the chance to interact with others who care as deeply about wine and wine culture as she does. In a post conference email exchange, she told me, “There’s a broad group of wine experts, wine writers and wine teachers coming up. I wanted to meet the ‘next set’ of exciting, knowledgeable wine people, and the Blogger’s Conference was one great way to do that.”

However, she sees wine blogging as a mixed bag, saying, “I met many people who I felt would go on to be great wine professionals; I also met some people who I thought weren’t very seriously committed to wine or writing…”

Yes, not all wine blogs are worth reading, but many are outstanding. The Wine Bloggers Conference is an excellent way to gather some of the best bloggers, encourage aspiring writers and provide the tools to help writers get better at their craft. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to attend the WBC to meet excellent bloggers and to be inspired to improve this blog.

What are your favorite wine blogs?

Related stories from the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference:

 Disclosure: I was provided samples and was the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference.

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Cheers to wine bloggers
Cheers to wine bloggers

The 12 drinks of Christmas: Delicious libations for boozy holiday entertaining

I love the traditions of the holidays. The Trail of Lights, the decadent treats, spending time with family around the Christmas tree, sitting on Santa’s lap, and sometimes even Christmas carols.

But not all Christmas carols. The indomitable repetition of that seemingly endless cumulative carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” is as maddening as it is catchy. It may draw on your nostalgic heartstrings, convincing you to sing along the first time you hear it each season, but after that …

Back in 1982, the Canadian comedy couple Bob and Doug McKenzie created a fantastic parody of the “12 Days of Christmas” that gleefully declares, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, beer.” To honor that sentiment, here are 12 festive drinks to have at home or a party to help you start new holiday traditions.

1. Beer is the right thing to have on the first day of Christmas in a nod to Bob and Doug. A good choice is Rahr & Sons Winter Warmer, a dark English-style ale with dried fruit and chocolate flavors. These guys in Fort Worth know how to make a solid brew. It’s great on its own and pairs incredibly well with gingerbread.

Rahr and Sons Winter Warmer
Rahr and Sons Winter Warmer


2. The second day calls for a delicious holiday twist on a classic cocktail, a perfect way to prep your appetite for a big holiday meal. The boozy Cynar Manhattan made with double-proof Cynar 70 is one of the best tasting versions of a Manhattan you’ll ever have. The newly introduced big brother of Cynar has the same balance of bitter and sweet flavors with festive hints of spice and herbs.

Stir the ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with maraschino cherries.

Cynar Manhattan
Cynar Manhattan


3. The third day deserves a classic wine to celebrate the holidays: a stout cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet is a bear skin rug in front of the fire. To really wow your holiday guests, grab the 2012 Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown cabernet sauvignon single vineyard, a Sonoma County beauty bursting with the lovely smell of plum and chocolate and powerful blackberry, black cherry, licorice, and dark chocolate flavors with a bit of cedar lingering on the finish. Whether you serve this with a sumptuous beef Wellington or on its own, it’s sure to dazzle for $75.

Alexanders Crown Cabernet Sauvignon
Alexanders Crown Cabernet Sauvignon


Another choice is the 2012 Experience Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with viscous flavors of spiced black currant, jammy plum, and dried strawberry. It’s great with rib roast for $25.

Experience Napa Valley Cabernet
Experience Napa Valley Cabernet


The third day calls for a third bottle of wine. An easygoing and unpretentious choice for the neighborhood party is 2013 Sterling Vintner’s Collection cabernet sauvignon. This Central Coast cab packs in a load of blackberry, ripe blueberry, dark chocolate, and vanilla flavors with a sprinkle of baking spice. Pick it up for $27.

Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon
Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon


4. The fourth day warrants a lush wine. Merlot is the Snuggie of the wine world: soft, cuddly, and oh so comforting. An incredibly elegant merlot for the holidays is the 2012 Matanzas Creek Winery Jackson Park Vineyard merlot. This Sonoma County vineyard is planted with the same grapes as one of the most famous Bordeaux wineries, Petrus. It’s velvety smooth with plum, blueberry, and boysenberry jam flavors and a bitter-sweet chocolate finish. The Matanzas Creek merlot goes incredibly well with roasted duck and sells for $60.

Matanzas Creek Merlot
Matanzas Creek Merlot


5. The fifth day asks for a slightly more rustic wine. Syrah is a walk through the woods to find just the right Christmas tree. The 2012 Qupé Santa Barbara County syrah ($30), made with biodynamic or organically grown grapes from the cool climates of the Santa Maria Valley and the Edna Valley in California, is as wild, funky, and brambly as any French Rhone wine. This little number is bounding with blackberry, cranberry tarts, and spiced with herbs and pepper. Serve it with a festive grilled lamb for the holidays.

Qupe Syrah
Qupe Syrah


6. The sixth day requires a playful wine. Petite sirah is a kiss under the mistletoe. For one big, bold kiss go with the 2013 Parducci True Grit Reserve petite sirah from Mendocino County, California. It has dusty raspberry scents, tart raspberry, Luden’s cherry cough drops, and blueberry pie with a healthy dollop of tannin. Yum! It is a great wine with steak and sells for $30.

Parducci True Grit
Parducci True Grit


7. The seventh day is a good time for portable wine. Grab a can of Underwood rosé from the Union Wine Company of Oregon to sip while you look at holiday light displays. The half-bottle size can be enjoyed in a crowd, and the fresh watermelon, strawberry, and tart lemon flavors pair resplendently with funnel cake. Pick up a four-pack for $24.

Underwood Rose Wine
Underwood Rose Wine


8. The eighth day is all about cuddly comfort. Pinot noir is the purr of a snuggly kitten, velvet furred and wispy tongued. A classic from the Eola-Amity Hills in Oregon, the 2013 Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate pinot noir gleams like Dorothy’s ruby slippers with aromas of wet leaves, Bing cherries, and mocha. It has bright black cherry, raspberry, and chocolate flavors that give way to an earthiness characteristic of Oregon pinot noir. It is great with salmon and sells for $30.

Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir
Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir


9. The ninth day is a little naughty. Cinsaut is a tryst at the office Christmas party. Emblematic of a night of debauchery is the 2014 Bonny Doon cinsaut counoise from vineyards in California’s Paso Robles, Mendocino, and Lodi. Its looks are deceiving. The light ruby color of this wine is as delicate as the newest Beaujolais Nouveau, but its taste is anything but subtle. Wild strawberry, raspberry, and cranberry scents endorse the red berry, satiny chocolate, and herbal flavors. It pairs exceedingly well with quail and sells for $35.

Bonnie Doon Cinsault
Bonnie Doon Cinsault


10. The 10th day is sophisticated. There is nothing as erudite as a snifter of brandy. A Spanish delight, Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva is made from Palomino grapes and aged for 15 years in the same intricate fashion that sherry is made. The century-old oak casks used in the aging give it vanilla and honey flavors that envelop a bourbon-esque core like a velvet smoking jacket. Serve it at room temperature to savor the unmistakable imprint of sherry with its telltale oxidized sea-breeze taste. I could sip this all night after opening gifts. Deelish. It goes for $46.

Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva
Lepanto Brandy


11. The 11th day wakes up early for a cup of coffee. Coffee with a dose of cheer, of course. Coffee with liquor is the next best thing to snuggling with a ski bunny. Pour a couple ounces of Frangelico into your cup. The sweet hazelnut and vanilla flavors will perk up any morning. Pouring from the distinct bottle with the rope belt is a lot of fun too. Be careful not to overdo it because even in coffee it can get you drunk as a monk. Grab a bottle for $25.

Frangelico Coffee
Frangelico Coffee


12. By the 12th day you are bound to be in need of a tummy soothing digestifAmaro Averna soothes the flames of holiday indulgence with a luxurious blend of honey and bitter-sweet chocolate flavors. Sip a small glass neat or with an ice cube and let the sweet, thick herbs and citrus do their trick. It’s a lovely way to wind down the holidays for $30/bottle.

Amaro Averna
Amaro Averna


If you must sing a Christmas carol while enjoying any of these drinks, please make it “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Cheers to a happy holiday!

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: I received samples to review of most of the products included in this post.

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Armadillo’s Leap wine tasting room opens in Fredericksburg

Armadillos Leap Tasting Room
Armadillos Leap Tasting Room


There are dozens of wineries in the Texas Hill country, with many of them congregated along the 30 mile stretch between Johnson City and Fredericksburg on or near Highway 290. In a sign that the booming growth of the Texas wine industry isn’t slowing down, the folks behind Pedernales Cellars are opening a new tasting room for its second label, Armadillo’s Leap wines on Tuesday, December 8.

The Kuhlken-Osterberg family, who opened the Pedernales Cellars tasting room in Stonewall on December 8, 2008, are celebrating the winery’s seventh anniversary with the opening of Armadillo’s leap. The new tasting room is just a leap west from the current winery, located at 6258 Highway 290 in Fredericksburg. The quaint stone and log building used to be home to the Pink Pig restaurant and is well-situated in the high-traffic winery crawl.

The wines, made by Pedernales winemaker, David Kuhlken, are more value oriented than the Pedernales line-up with price from $14.99 to $29.99 per bottle. The accessible, playful wines include a Sparkling Moscato, a Viognier-Roussanne blend, a red blend, a Viognier, and a Muscat. They are offered as part of a six-wine tasting menu for $10 a person.

“We’re delighted to be opening this new tasting room directly on the 290 Wine Trail,” said Julie Kuhlken, co-owner of Armadillo’s Leap. “We’ve enjoyed launching Armadillo’s Leap and creating this brand of wines, and we felt the time was right to give them a higher profile with their own tasting room. We look forward to more people discovering how fun they are, starting with a label that pays homage, albeit tongue-in-cheek, to a truly Texas animal.”

The tasting room will be open 11-6 every day, except for major holidays.

This story was originally published on Texas Wine and Trail Magazine.

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Texas Hill Country lands major event with 2016 Wine Tourism Conference

Perissos Vineyard

Here is a shot in the arm that is sorely needed for the Texas wine industry. The organizers of the 2016 Wine Tourism Conference selected Fredericksburg and the Texas Hill Country as the hosts for next year’s shindig. This is just the second time that the conference will be held outside the West Coast and the first time it will be held in the southern U.S.

I recently wrote about the need for a more concerted effort in Texas wine tourism in my article, “I’m Embarrassed to be Texan,” and this is a great step in the right direction.

The 2016 Wine Tourism Conference will take place November 8-10, 2016 in Fredericksburg, TX, with seminars, discussions, and business information about growing and improving wine tourism.

Wine Tourism Conference Director, Allan Wright, said, “The Wine Tourism Conference will bring wine tourism industry leaders from throughout the country and world to Texas. This is not only a great opportunity for Texans to meet and learn from top wine tourism experts but also a showcase for the booming wine tourism industry in the state.”

The Texas Hill Country Wineries‘ successful bid to land the conference was in no-doubt aided by the regions recent national recognition and its growing reputation for both quality wine and as an excellent tourism destination.  The Texas Hill Country wine industry was named one of the “ten best wine travel destinations in the world for 2014” by Wine Enthusiast and one of the “10 Best Wine Destinations” by USA Today.

Fredericksburg is home to more than 30 wineries and tasting rooms, making it a major concentration of the more than 350 wineries in Texas. Its located smack in the Texas Hill Country American Viticultural Area (AVA), which is the third largest AVA in the nation.

“Texas Hill Country Wineries is thrilled to host the 2016 Wine Tourism Conference in the heart of Texas Wine Country,” says January Wiese, executive director of the Texas Hill Country Wineries. “We are ready to welcome our colleagues from all over the world and have planned a number of excellent events to really share what the thriving Texas wine industry has to offer.”

The conference will be organized by Zephyr Adventures, with sponsorship coming from the Texas Hill Country Wineries Association, the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau, and the GOTEXAN program of the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Time to get organized to show the world just how great Texas wine really is. To really make hay with this, the Texas wine industry would be well served to seek broader public and private funding for longer-term wine tourism and marketing programs. It would be a shame for this event to come and go with out long-lasting plans to make the most of the effort.

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The reinvention of Texas’ oldest winery: Llano Estacado

The first winery in Texas since Prohibition is in the midst of a revival. Founded in 1976 in Lubbock by Texas Tech professors Clinton “Doc” McPherson and Bob Reed, Llano Estacado has built a strong following and has become one of the state’s largest wineries – it’s number two in sales behind Ste. Genevieve.

The new Llano Estacado Tasting Room
The new Llano Estacado Tasting Room


Under the direction of president and CEO, Mark Hyman, Texas’ oldest winery has grown from producing 3,800 cases when he started in 1994 to more than 165,000 cases today. Much of that growth has been through the sales of inexpensive wines that elbow for space in the grocery store with the likes of Barefoot Wine and Cupcake Wines. Llano Estacado intends to keep a strong hold on its sales in grocery stores with the “Harvest” line of wines developed specifically for H.E.B., the largest wine retailer in the state.

Llano Estacado CEO Mark Hyman
Llano Estacado CEO Mark Hyman


Hyman is proud of the winery’s growth, but he’s not satisfied with only being known only for grocery store wine. Along with executive winemaker, Greg Bruni, Hyman is engineering a massive makeover with a substantial facelift of the winery, a revamp of the wine portfolio, and a change in where the wines are sold.

Llano Estacado Exec Winemaker Greg Bruni
Llano Estacado Exec Winemaker Greg Bruni


“It is time to recreate ourselves, both physically with our facilities and with our portfolio. We just completed our fifth expansion since 2000. The first three expansions were all production oriented. Now we’ve created the ambiance to go along with our production. We have a new modern tasting room, events center, conference room and outdoor patio overlooking our new estate vineyard.”

With the recent promotion of Bruni to executive winemaker, and Jason Centanni to winemaker, Llano Estacado is breathing new life into its wines. The winery has introduced innovative winemaking techniques, added new varieties, and has greatly expanded its lineup of wines with an increased emphasis on fine wines.

Llano Estacado Wines
Llano Estacado Wines


Llano Estacado is eager to shed its reputation for making only cheap wines by introducing new families of fine wines such as 1836, Mont Sec and T.H.P. in addition to its Viviano in a fine wine portfolio. The winery makes more than 163,000 cases of its Llano Estacado brand and only 2,000 cases of its fine wines. Hyman is bullish about the changes.

Llano Estacado THP
Llano Estacado THP


“Everybody knows our Llano Estacado brand. We sometimes have the connotation that we are just inexpensive, sweet wines. We’re not. We have a beautiful, emerging wine club portfolio that is growing by leaps and bounds. We’re making a lot of newer styles that we weren’t doing 5 years ago even. We want to make wines that are different from the wines you will find in the grocery stores. Wines that are special.”

It hopes to further change its image with a leap from the Randall’s aisles to the sommelier’s list. Landing on the table of fine restaurants like Lonesome DoveMonument Café and The Scarlett Rabbit in Austin; Stampede 66, Y.O. Ranch, Gilleys, and Gaylord Texan in Dallas; La Perla Negra and Lonesome Dove in Fort Worth; Good Dog, Coppa Osteria, Texas Borders, The Empty Glass, The Cellar Door, Bob’s Steak & Chop, and South Shore Harbour in Houston, is part of its reinvention.

Llano Estacado went so far to get a spot on the Stephan Pyles’ restaurants wine lists that it made a completely new line of wines, called T.H.P., explicitly for Stampeded 66 in Dallas. It is a lighter Bordeaux style wine intended to invite a second glass, or even a second bottle.

The multi-pronged approach to grocery store sales, boutique wines and special wines for restaurants is Bruni’s way of taking on the big wine companies outside of Texas.

“We’re the big guy in the Texas wine industry, but we compete against the international giants. In that way, we are an ant. There are wineries out there that are either boutique or big. We’re trying to pave a new path and do it all.”

It takes a lot of grapes to make all of that wine. Most of the by Llano Estacado wines are produced using Texas-grown grapes from the High Plains – where the majority of wine grapes are grown in the state. The grapes for Llano Estacado are sourced from long-time vineyard partners in such as Newsome Vineyards and Reddy Vineyards.

Vijay Reddy and his wife Subata farm 30 varieties of grapes on the 310 acre Reddy Vineyard, just outside Brownfield, Texas.  Neal Newsom and his wife Janice farm 92 acres which produce nearly 400 tons of 12 varieties of grapes a year on Newsom Vineyards outside of Plains, Texas, which is just 15 miles from the New Mexico border. Both vineyards are at relatively high elevations of 3,500 to 3,900 feet, which supports ideal growing climates with hot days and cool nights.

Winemakers Bruni and Centanni regularly kick the dirt in the vineyards with Reddy and Newsom frequently.

Centanni says, “We visit the vineyards several times in the season. We know when the grapes should be ripening and check the chemistry and condition of the grapes to determine whether to drop crops. We come out in the spring and then heavily in July through harvest. We take samples back to the lab to test the grapes’ flavor and maturity.”

The vineyards and the winery enjoy a tight working relationship. The long-term commitment to shared success has led to a unique working relationship.

As Newsom explains it, “Most of our contracts with wineries are for five years: except Llano. It’s evergreen. We don’t have to worry about it.”

Bruni added, “Contracts are for when you can’t get along. They are the referee. We essentially have a verbal contract. We trust each other to do the work we need to do.”

Centanni, Reddy, Bruni and Newsom
Centanni, Reddy, Bruni and Newsom


Wines to Try

  • 2014 Viognier Mont Sec Vineyards: made with Viognier grapes planted in the 1990s in the Chihuahuan Desert south east of El Paso at 4,080 ft in elevation, this wine has a broad texture, with bright lemon and fleshy peach flavors. It pairs well with chicken fajitas or pan-seared scallops.
  • 2013 Montepulciano: a dead ringer for an Italian wine made with a blend of Montepulciano, Aglianico and Barbera. This is a standout wine that will change how you think about Texas wines. Crisp cranberry, juicy cherry and tobacco leaf flavors are delicious with pasta and arrabbiata sauce.
  • 2013 Mont Sec Viviano Cabernet Sauvignon: a “Super Tuscan” style wine that blends Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese grapes grown in Texas High Plains. It’s bold and rustic with loads of blackberry flavors and goes great with grilled steak or pizza.

A version of this article was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: Llano Estacado provided transportation to Lubbock and wine tastings at no charge. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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