Up a back staircase, in what was once a few small efficiency apartments above the Viscardi Family Grocery in the historic Clarksville neighborhood, there is now a classroom. Long gone is the grocery downstairs, replaced in 1975 by Jeffrey’s, one of Austin’s most iconic and long-lived restaurants that was reinvented and reopened in 2013 by the McGuire Moorman Hospitality (MMH) group as a modern fine-dining establishment.
The classroom is bright with restored blonde hardwood floors, recessed lighting and a table stretching its length, which, on this blustery February afternoon, is populated by two dozen representatives from across the MMH empire. All rungs of the corporate ladder are in attendance—from restaurant GMs to Sammy, an autodidactic busboy. They’re here on their time off to learn, and Master Sommelier June Rodil is their teacher.
If you were to conjure an image of a master sommelier in your mind, you might picture a besuited older Frenchman solemnly swirling a glass of wine, or one of the hyper-competitive bros featured in the documentary, “Somm.” One way or another, the image probably wouldn’t be of a 5-foot-tall Filipino-American woman in her 30s with the kind of energy, humor and charm one might usually associate with a daytime talk-show host. But maybe it should be.
This is a special day to be in class; Rodil is leading the group in tasting a series of Grand Cru Bourgogne wines from the Côte de Nuits, otherwise considered by many as the best, most sublime pinot noir produced on the planet. “Grand Cru is like Madonna,” Rodil tells her students. “It needs no other name.”
The group tastes across the 2011 vintage, a year Rodil says was remarkable for its challenges. Plagued with wildly fluctuating temperatures, hail and the onset of mildew, vintners at these storied wineries were forced to use their ingenuity and centuries of know-how to produce wines of such rare excellence. The metaphors offered by a year like 2011 aren’t lost on Rodil, who, like the vintners of that year, is undaunted by challenges. “I’m a bit of a bulldog,” she says. “You make that vintage your strongest vintage ever.”
Rodil counts her own rough seasons as 2014 and 2015, with two unsuccessful tries at getting into the Court of Master Sommeliers. “I passed Tasting and Service my first try, and I didn’t pass [the Theory portion of the exam] until my third try,” she says. “I goose-egged in the middle, and that was humbling.”
Achieving the Master Sommelier diploma is somewhat equivalent to getting your Ph.D. in wine, and some would even argue it’s more difficult than a traditional academic degree. It takes years of study and testing to earn, and most people who take the exams don’t pass. Currently, there have only been 236 Master Somms worldwide, and Rodil is one of only 25 women in this elite club. Not bad for a person who began her career working at Olive Garden. “I was eighteen years old and I lasted a year,” Rodil says of her first job. “I remember my friends—nobody—thought I would make it in the service industry.”
At times, Rodil didn’t think she’d make it in the service industry either, but she worked her way through University of Texas in the famous bar and dining room at The Driskill, while also moonlighting as a law clerk. After graduation, she accepted an invitation to study at NYU’s law school, but she backed out at the last minute. “It was the realization that if I became some really great lawyer, that wouldn’t fulfill something [for me]. And in the end, the thing that I was already doing was really awesome, and I really enjoyed it. It was a great growing-up moment to realize that…to accept the person that you have become and be happy about it; knowing when something is a bad decision even when it sounds like a great opportunity.”
External expectations, however, are something different. There’s a vast, rocky valley between telling your parents you want to be a lawyer and telling them you want to be in restaurants as your life’s work. Rodil describes herself as ambitious and competitive, and says she put a lot of pressure on herself to try to understand the meaning of success. “That’s one of the reasons I received [the Master Somm diploma],” she says. “To give credibility to the industry. I want the people who work with us to also be proud of that, and to be proud of themselves…to understand that this is a legitimate career.” Also, she turned to the Court because it gave her a sense of completion. “I’m more structure-oriented like that,” she says. “I need the structure of understanding that I am climbing a ladder, that there are levels that I am completing to give me this sense of satisfaction, and for me to be able to feel proud of myself. Those things are important.”
This afternoon’s wine tasting, then, is really an expression of Rodil’s tenacity. When she returned after failing to earn her Master Somm credentials the second time, she took her current position as beverage director for MMH and began this educational series for the staff. “Nothing will teach you more than having to teach other people,” she says. “Those guys rely on me to be right. I can’t make shit up! I have to be right! It also allowed me to be more honest with myself when I didn’t have the information. To be like, ‘I don’t know. That’s a great question. Let’s find that out together.’ Being responsible for other people allows you to be responsible for yourself, and that’s what pushed me through to finish my test.”
While her parents may still wonder what might have been for June Rodil, Esquire (“Up until about five years ago, I feel like they still thought maybe I would go to law school one day”), she’s never looked back. “I like what I’m doing! What’s wrong with liking what I’m doing?”
For their part, her old bosses at the law firm where she clerked regularly come in to visit Rodil in her restaurants. “What’s so funny is I still remember their sandwich order—tuna fish on wheat, Thundercloud Subs, no pickles ever.” And how do they feel about her career choices? “They’re so cute,” Rodil says. “They’re always like, ‘You’re our most famous law clerk! We’re so glad you didn’t become another f$#kin’ lawyer!’”
By Adam Boles • Photography by Dustin Meyer