Vino and Veritas
Rachel DelRocco, Texas’s best sommelier, on the state’s wine industry, pairing Champagne and fried chicken, and how to talk about wine when you don’t know much.
Last month at the twelfth annual gathering of TEXSOM, the nation’s largest wine and spirits educational conference, Rachel DelRocco, of Camerata at Paulie’s wine bar in Houston, was named the winner of the Texas Best Sommelier competition.
Twenty-five candidates were tested on the three primary occupational categories through the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS): theory (wine knowledge), blind tasting, and service. Anyone who has seen the documentary SOMM has a sense of the difficulty of this test—as the film points out, only three percent of master sommelier candidates achieve that particular title. And while this test is not meant to designate a master sommelier—it’s geared toward sommeliers who have not yet made the third level of advanced sommelier through the CMS—it still is designed to name a clear winner. (Full disclosure: Texas Monthly was a conference sponsor.)
This year’s winner was a sommelier who has risen to the top in both Austin and Houston, where her sommelier career has been fostered by some of the state’s most prominent somms, including June Rodil of McGuire Moorman Hospitality and David Keck of Camerata.
Originally from New Jersey, DelRocco has always had her hands in the food industry working for caterers at country clubs, counter service for an ice cream store, and eventually waiting tables and managing a tea house while in college in New York. She migrated to Austin in 2010 where she fell in love with cocktails, spirits and wine, and worked at places like Fino, Midnight Cowboy, Contigo, and Qui where she eventually became beverage director. A little more than a year ago, she took an opportunity at Camerata.
We had a few minutes to catch up with Delrocco about her new title and some of her favorite wine finds.
Jessica Dupuy: What made you want to pursue a career in this industry?
Rachel DelRocco: I don’t know if I can say that I actively pursued; it would be more accurate to say it found me. I fought it for a long time, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, but thenl I realized that I spent all of my time studying classic cocktails, wine regions, and food cultures. So I thought maybe this was something I could actually be pretty good at.
JD: What do you love most about it and what do you hope to achieve?
RD: A good friend of mine told me he got into the business because it was always interesting. It also crosses multiple fields of interest. When you’re learning to be a sommelier, you’re learning about culture, language, history, math, design, agriculture, and that’s all blended with real human interaction.
In the future, I hope to bridge the gap one day between the culture of the industry and bringing awareness to different issues in our industry—underestimated producers, cultural influences. I’m not quite sure how I’ll do it, but I’m actively trying to figure out.
JD: What’s the biggest challenge you face in sharing wine with others?
RD: I think the biggest challenge is getting people out of their comfort zones. But there’s always a way to ease people in to trying something new, generally by providing good conversation and a great experience.
JD: Having worked in both the Austin and Houston markets, what are your impressions of how consumers are approaching wine in Texas? Are they interested in specific things? Open to new things?
RD: I’ve had the opportunity to work with some progressive wine lists in both Austin and Houston, and it’s clear people are looking to try new things and looking for someone to tell them what to drink. I think minds are opening, and with more talented people putting out some stellar lists and programs, it’s only going to get better.
JD: What do you think is the biggest barrier for people who would like to know more about wine, but are intimidated by it?
RD: I think the biggest barrier is feeling comfortable enough igniting the conversation with professionals. Sommeliers and beverage professionals want to sell what they’re excited about—something different and new. And I think some people are afraid to ask questions or admit what they know and what they don’t know. But that’s exactly why we pursue the craft and the knowledge so we can be that liaison between guest and product, and to find something that a guest can be just as excited and passionate about as we are. On the other hand, as beverage professionals, we have a responsibility to make our guests feel comfortable enough to ask those questions.
JD: Taking three standard wines that people may already know—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon—what are some wines you would direct people toward that have similar characteristics but are something new and exciting to try?
RD: For Chardonnay, it depends on what the guest generally prefers regarding oak, acidity, and body, so I try and find out the answers to those questions and steer clear of this obsession with variety.
If it’s dry and mineral-driven, I like to recommend Austrian Gruner Veltliner or some Muscadets that have recently come into the market with some great character. If it’s oak and body, I like to recommend aromatic varieties, Viognier or heavier Chenins with riper characteristics.
For Pinot Noir, I recommend Pinot Noir! I love getting people to drink German Spätburgunder [the German term for Pinot Noir], or some really beautiful Sonoma wines at times. If they like lighter styles, there’s always Beaujolais or the natural, green wines of France’s Loire Valley, or a lighter style of Cabernet Franc, or maybe some lighter, New World-style Grenache.
For Cabernet Sauvignon, I have the same oak versus fruit question. If people like that vanilla, coconut flavor, I’ll recommend anything with oak but mainly Tempranillos from Rioja. They can be more complex, structured, and spiced but still have a familiar bridge. For riper styles, we’ve been recommending at Camerata more concentrated French style of wines, more oak on Cabernet Franc, or oak on Southern Rhone styles of wine and it’s been going over well.
JD: What are three types of styles of wine that you think people should be trying right now?
RD: Always sparkling! I love Franciacorta from Italy and wish people knew more about it. Australian Riesling is a perfect pairing with lots of great food, perfect for hot summers in Texas, and hits all those notes that people don’t know they’re even asking for. I also love Spanish Garnacha and the variety you can get, especially with what some more natural producers are doing with it in Spain.
JD: What’s your favorite food and wine pairing?
RD: Champagne and fried chicken, hands down.
JD: What are a couple of wines that you regularly have at home for enjoying in your free time?
RD: I actually drink more mezcal and vermouth at home. I’m obsessed with vermouth and soda, anything from Lacuesta, Miro, to Bonal. I rarely bring wine home because it doesn’t last that long.