Secrets of the (Texas) Sommeliers
Mon August 22, 2011 10:22 am

(Editor's Note: This guest post about last week's Texas Sommelier Conference comes from San Francisco food, wine and spirits writer Jordan Mackay, a James Beard Award-winning author for his 2010 book with Rajat Parr, "Secrets of the Sommeliers." But we knew him when!)

At TEXSOM, if you were not in a suit and tie, you’d have been likely to feel underdressed. But that’s part of the culture at the Texas Sommelier Conference: everyone’s suited up most all the time. Yet, thanks to the fact that they’re tasting wine all day, they’re likely still having more fun than you.

And when they’re not drinking wine, they’re drinking coffee. And when they’re not drinking coffee, they’re drinking Campari, which the bartender of the lobby bar in the Four Seasons at Las Colinas, where the convention took place, told me the hotel stocks up on before the conference. The thirsty, wined-out sommeliers likely drink as much of the red Italian aperitif (with soda or in Negronis), he said, as the hotel goes through the rest of the year. (Other preferred non-wine alcoholic beverages included Aperol and Fernet Branca, as well as mezcal.)

The bulk of the conference is taken up with education. In-depth wine seminars ran constantly for two days as heavily credentialed experts discoursed from the dais on subjects like “Grenache around the World” and “Red Wines of Burgundy's Cote d'Or” to hundreds sitting quietly in the audience, taking notes and trying not to spill any of the eight glasses of wine they had lined up before them.

And all the while this was going on, a crew of masters from the Court of Master Sommeliers, the premier sommelier training and certification organization in the world, was putting 23 young sommeliers through a grueling multi-day examination to determine the winner of the Texas Best Sommelier 2011. The ultimate champion, Bill Elsey, was crowned at TEXSOM’s concluding event, the Grand Tasting, at which dozens of invited wineries and importers poured their wares for all the convention’s attendees.

TEXSOM is of particular relevance to me as, when I left Austin and Texas Monthly in 2001 to pursue my own interest in wine outside Texas, there were, to my knowledge, no dedicated sommeliers in Austin. I hardly knew what a sommelier was when I arrived in San Francisco later that year. Yet destiny led me to fall in love with and, in 2006, marry, a sommelier. Last year, I published Secrets of the Sommeliers. These days, as I learned at TEXSOM, Austin has several sommeliers, like the spirited June Rodil (who won Texas Best Sommelier in 2009) of Congress and the affable Mark Sayre of the Four Seasons (2007’s winner).

Texas has long been an important place for wine, even if it wasn’t noted for its sommelier community. Rebecca Murphy, who was one of the first members of the modern sommelier profession in Texas, starting in Dallas in 1972, remembers there being no culture of the professional wine steward. “I was working by myself, figuring out how to be a sommelier on the job,” she said. Today Murphy writes periodically on wine for the Dallas Morning News and runs its wine competition

By all accounts this year, TEXSOM blew up. It received more press, more attention and certainly more attendance in years past. Major bigwigs in the national professional wine scene flocked to Dallas to participate as speakers, moderators, teachers and examiners. The feeling at the event was certainly that we were living a watershed moment, the feeling being that the professional wine scene in Texas was coalescing. Places like New York and San Francisco have large and active sommelier communities, so the emergence of one in Texas is particularly exciting. The country does not have a major annual sommelier convention and it seemed clear to me that TEXSOM might be destined to become it.

“We understand this possibility,” says TEXSOM co-founder (with Pappas Restaurant Group’s beverage Director Drew Hendricks) James Tidwell of the Four Seasons, “but we also really struggle to figure out ways to keep this from getting too big. We like the size of it right now, where we can still fit everyone in one big room and have room for local wine lovers to attend the seminars.”

For Murphy, the evolution of the Texas sommelier community and of TEXSOM itself is encapsulated by the examples of Devon Broglie and Craig Collins, who both passed the grueling examination this year to become one of the 118 Master Sommeliers in the United States.

“I remember them four years ago in the early days of this convention and they were just so fresh and little and didn’t know much at all,” she says.  This year, she notes, Devon, who is the wine buyer for Whole Foods, and Craig, who works for Glazer’s, a wine distributor, (neither, coincidentally, as sommeliers at restaurants) “were in their suits, poised and walking around managing the event. All grown up.” - JORDAN MACKAY

(Photos: Courtney Perry)

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