Wine Guides

By Kristi Willis
Photography by Marc Brown

The grand ballroom of the Four Seasons Las Colinas, in Irving, is packed and lessons in geology, geography, agriculture and chemistry are flowing over the crowd. If not for the sets of wineglasses in front of each participant, it would be easy to mistake TEXSOM, the Texas Sommelier Conference, for a science symposium. Certified and aspiring sommeliers attend this annual conference to hone the exacting art of helping customers choose the perfect bottle or glass of wine. What most of those customers don’t realize, though, is how demanding and evolving this craft truly is.

The stereotype of a sommelier as a pretentious, suited wine expert who intimidates patrons with the depth of their knowledge is fading. Today’s sommeliers are as likely to work in more casual restaurants, grocery stores or even public relations. Many come to the profession through a love of food—either from attending culinary school or working in restaurants—and they are lured to the wine side of the business by the challenge of pairing food and wine and the constant discovery of new wines.

Caption for photo above (left to right): Scott Ota, wine captain, The Driskill Grill; Paula Rester, wine director, Congress Austin;
Devon Broglie, executive coordinator of purchasing, Whole Foods Market; 
June Rodil, general manager, Qui and East Side King; Mark Sayre, sommelier, Four Seasons Hotel Austin.

 

Drew Hendricks of Rudd Winery and cofounder of the TEXSOM conference says that the industry is changing in part because younger people are choosing to become sommeliers straight out of college or culinary school. “When I became a sommelier,” says Hendricks, “I sort of backed into it—it took me a while to get to it. But now, you can choose to be a sommelier, which wasn’t the case ten years ago.”

More women are joining the business, as well. “It’s difficult to be a sommelier on the floor if you are interested in dating,” June Rodil, general manager of Qui and East Side King says, only half-teasingly. “I think it’s a little bit more difficult for women because the hours in a restaurant are not traditional to have a family. But if people look more into the industry, they would see there are a lot of fantastic women out there who are a driving force—it’s just they have chosen a different outlet: the writers, winemakers, suppliers and marketers.”

Working with wine all day might seem like a dream job, but the certification process is grueling and requires candidates to know history, science, farming and culinary arts, among other disciplines. The Institute of Masters of Wine in London, for example, offers a certification that requires a minimum of two years of study and includes an annual one-week intensive seminar, a theory paper and exams. And the Court of Master Sommeliers has a four-tier path (introductory, certified, advanced and master) to earn a master sommelier accreditation, with exams that include written tests, blind tastings and service exams with on-the-spot quizzing. Hopeful candidates from both programs form study groups—testing and guiding one another through blind tastings—as they prepare to learn to think on their feet, a requisite skill to surviving the service portion of the exam, where students say it’s not uncommon to have practical math questions pop up (If I have two cases of wine and there’s a party of 30, what is the pour and how much are you going to charge?). “It’s definitely one of the true unconquerable disciplines,” says sommelier Paula Rester, wine director at Congress Austin. “Just when I think I know something, I figure out how much I have left to learn.”

Of course all of that hard work pays off when it’s time to work with customers and help them select the perfect wine. Jessica Dupuy, freelance food writer and certified sommelier, encourages wine lovers to have a conversation with their sommelier and ask plenty of questions. “Sommeliers are so excited to share what they know with other people, and they want to do it in a way that’s not pretentious. They want people to develop an appreciation; it’s exciting for them.”

James Tidwell, cofounder of TEXSOM and beverage manager and master sommelier at Four Seasons Las Colinas, encourages guests to be unafraid and to avoid becoming intimidated. “I am happy when people come in and ask questions. My job is about being able to answer questions at whatever spot a person is in their wine progression, and help them find what they enjoy.”

Sommeliers want feedback from customers, as well. Craig Collins and Devon Broglie are Austin’s only master sommeliers, and they both work in non-restaurant environments: Collins for Dalla Terra, distributors of Italian wine, and Broglie as a buyer at Whole Foods Market. They remind people to let their retail wine buyers know what they enjoyed and what they didn’t based on their recommendations. “It might take two or three times of making personal recommendations,” says Collins, “but if you ask for help, in a very short time, the retailer is going to recognize you, start to understand what your palate is and start putting things in your hand that you love every time.”

Knowing what questions to ask customers is one of the keys to helping them feel comfortable while guiding them to try something new. “The most important thing is to figure out what they drink normally, and understand that people often drink wine not only for the fruit flavors, but for the texture—they like the way wine feels,” says Mark Sayre, sommelier at the Four Seasons Austin. “If they like full-bodied cabernets, you can get them into other full-bodied regions like Priorat.”

Being a good listener may be the most important trait for a successful sommelier—engaging guests as part of a conversation rather than a lecture. “Most people don’t know the technical vocabulary of wine, but they know what they like,” explains Rester. “You have to be willing to enter into that void with [the customer]. Listening to your guest and what they want is the key to being a successful sommelier.”

 

AUSTIN SOMMELIERS ON PAIRING

To successfully pair food and wine, our sommeliers suggest starting with the food, and to keep the flavors of the dish in mind while selecting the wine. Also, choose whether you want one bottle for the entire dinner or different wines for each course. At a restaurant, talk to the sommelier about the dishes you have in mind and how you want to approach the pairings.

 

DEVON BROGLIE

Executive Coordinator of Purchasing, Whole Foods Market

“The depth of what is available now is breathtaking and inspiring—wines from Portugal, Greece and Hungary that are just fascinating.”

Pollo al Carbon and Rosé

Serve with Laurel Vineyard Rosé, Teutonic Wine Company, Willamette Valley, 2012

“Delicious char-grilled chicken served out of brown paper with street corn, charro beans and Mexican rice is one of my favorite quick, easy meals to grab from the drive-through window [and go] straight to my shaded patio on a blazing Austin day. The fresh berry and watermelon notes of a crisp, young rosé pair effortlessly with the rich, spicy chicken and beans. My favorite is 100 percent pinot noir-based 2012 Teutonic Wine Company Laurel Vineyard Rosé from the Willamette Valley.”

Backyard Burger and Malbec

Serve with Bodega Tamari Reserva Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, 2011

“I make the ultimate burger by having our butchers grind equal parts sirloin, boneless rib and brisket. I form half-pound patties...then grill them to pink in the middle. My cheese of choice is blue, but make it your own! Thick-sliced and lightly grilled red onions, thick-sliced heirloom tomatoes and romaine. Ketchup, mustard, mayo and Cholula. Malbec’s juicy, ripe blueberry fruit and present, but softer than cab, tannins go perfectly with the meaty, fatty, grilled goodness. I love the 2011 Bodega Tamari Malbec Reserva for its easy-to-handle price tag and its crowd pleasingly classic malbec character.”

 

SCOTT OTA

Wine Captain, The Driskill Grill

“It doesn’t matter if you are spending thirty dollars or three thousand dollars—I don’t care. I just want you to have a good experience.”


Pecan-Crusted, Braised Pork Belly, Cornbread Puree, Red Wine Demi

Serve with Marc Hébrart Brut Rosé 1er Cru Mareiul-sur-Aÿ, Champagne, France, NV

“Textures and flavors are in complete harmony. Apples and pork are classic together, while the yeasty tones of the Champagne fare well with the pecan and corn bread, and the wine’s minerality carries the sweetness of the red wine demi.”


Pan-Seared Cobia, Toasted Orzo, Sweet Peas, Maitake Mushrooms, Sage Butter

Serve with Weingut Knoll Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria, 2008

“Bold earth textures and the fish’s density require a bold, voluptuous wine. Cobia and orzo together require weight while the ripe fruit tones of the grüner help bring out the sweetness of the peas and mushrooms. And since grüner gives many herbal tones, the wine will emphasize the sage in the butter sauce.”

 

PAULA RESTER

Wine Director, Congress Austin

“The blind-tasting experience is very much a left-brain-meets-right-brain exercise—it requires a lot of surrender on your part to listen to what is in the glass. The exact same thing happens when you are at the table with your guest—listening to your guest and what they want and what they are looking for.”


Sugar Snap Pea Salad with Barbecued Eel, Pea Tendrils, Red Shiso and Foie Gras

Serve with Kiralyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec, 2009

“When considering Hungarian wines, we often think of sweet, dessert-style wines. This one, however, is made in a crisp, dry style and has savory fennel tones to complement the green elements of the dish, and enough vibrant acidity to cut though the richness of both the eel and the foie gras mousse.”

 

JUNE RODIL

General Manager, Qui and East Side King

“Wine encompasses a little bit of everything I like: a little science, subjectivity as far as what I personally enjoy and there’s a little bit of psychology with talking to guests. When in doubt, Champagne with anything! Fatty foods and high-acid wines are the best. And who doesn’t love bubbly? In essence, I feel guilty when I eat fatty foods, and bubbles, ideally Champagne, does just the trick to cleanse my palate and conscience. Specifically, a rosé with fried chicken so you have a little more weight and bright strawberry notes to go with something a little heavier, and a blanc de blancs with your favorite shoestring fries and aioli. For something a little quirkier, I’ve had a lot of fun recently with Flanders red beers like Duchesse de Bourgogne and cookies—I find that oatmeal cookies with cranberries and walnuts the most transcendent, while a traditional chocolate chip cookie does quite well.”

 

MARK SAYRE

Sommelier, Four Seasons Austin

“I really fell in love with wine because of the story it told about people and place. It’s like music to me. Pairing wines with foods and food styles from the same country or region is one of the best ways to put food and wine together—it helps drive the symbiosis between the two. In Spain, they eat a ton of lamb and one of my favorite pairings is pan-roasted lamb rack with Priorat. Priorat is a region known for intense, old-vine garnacha (grenache) and cariñena (carignan)—making wines that have tremendous fruit power and complex minerality. Another favorite pairing of mine is roasted Gulf grouper and green mole with grüner veltliner. Green mole is more herb-and-tomatillo based than traditional dark mole, and the herbaceous tones can prove difficult to pair with wine. Grüner veltliner is an Austrian specialty that has lightning-like acidity, citrus and stone-fruit flavors and aromas, and this unique peppery, vegetal undertone that helps it pair with foods that lean to the ‘green’ side.”