This week the Texas sommelier community marked a momentous occasion when it celebrated the tenth anniversary of TEXSOM, the nation's largest wine education conference. This two-day event brought together leading wine professionals and connisseurs from around the world to discuss the industry—and to taste a lot of wine, of course.
"The ten-year anniversary is important as a milestone for TEXSOM, but we would rather look forward than look back," said James Tidwell, TEXSOM's co-founder, a master sommelier, and the beverage director of the Four Seasons Las Colinas, where the conference was held. "The point has never been to make it the biggest conference; the goal has always been to make it the most effective conference."
Since it was founded in 2004 by Tidwell and Drew Hendricks, a master sommelier at Rudd Oakville Estate, TEXSOM has gained signifcant clout among the international wine community. It's the only conference in the world to be co-presented by the primary wine education organizations in the world—the Guild of Sommeliers , Court of Master Sommeliers–Americas, Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and Society of Wine Educators —and organizers brought in high-profile speakers and judges, including 39 master sommeliers, ten certified wine educators, and six masters of wine. (Some of the Texas-based experts included Bobby Heugel of Houston's Anvil Bar & Refuge and the Pastry War; Craig Collins, a master somm at Arro, in Austin; Houston's coffee guru David Buehrer of Greenway Coffee Company; and Melissa Monosoff, a master sommelier from Dallas).
The conference also saw its greatest attendance to date—more than 500 participants from all over America, as well as France, Austria, London, Spain, and more. There was more than enough to keep them busy, with 24 educational seminars taking place in the four sizable hotel conference and ball rooms. (Full disclosure: Texas Monthly was a conference sponsor.)
The signature event of the conference is the competition to become Texas's best sommelier, and this year's winner was Joelle Cousins of the Red Room Lounge in Austin. "Being awarded Texas' Best Sommelier 2014 by some of the most successful professionals in the industry is the greatest honor I have received thus far," said Cousins. "It means that my passion for this business is justified and that I can continue to learn and grow in my career."
The competition pits 25 budding sommeliers against each other, testing them on three primary occupational categories used in the test administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers: theory (wine knowledge), blind tasting, and service. (The documentary film SOMM really captures the intense difficulty of the Court's test; only three percent of those who take the master exam pass.)
The applicants spend months preparing for the rigorous test. For months prior to the competition, Adam Ehmer, a certified sommelier who works with Otto's in Fredericksburg, worked with his restaurant staff and sales reps on blind tastings, read through notes and wine materials each morning, and flipped through flashcards with friends via Facebook as often as possible. "I practice service every night at our restaurant, though we're not as formal as the expectations of the Court," Ehmer told me just before the test. "I feel a little underprepared after having worked sixteen straight nights at the restaurant, but I think my performance here will give me a better idea about whether I'm ready for the advanced level." Ehmer, who did not place in the top three this year, plans to seek out the next level of certification through the Court later this year.
But the benefits to winning this competition are invaluable in the business. Scott Ota, from Arro, last year's competition winner, compared it to "going to a Lebron James basketball camp. When I first did it, I was nowhere near where I needed to be in experience, but I was around the best of the best." It clearly paid off. Ota recently earned his level three advanced sommelier pin, earning the highest score among his peer group. "There's nothing to lose in a competition like this, especially if you want to move forward" Ota said about the TEXSOM competition. "You're simulating that game day stress of a real advanced level exam. If you are serious about becoming a wine professional, then you have to do this. You have to be confident in yourself and your potential."
At the conference's culminating Grand Tasting event, competitors lined up to hear the announcement. When the emcee said Cousins's name, she was overcome with emotion. Applause erupted from the crowd, and a master sommelier who judged Cousins' blind tasting segment was overheard saying, "Her tasting skills were amazing. She was unbelievable."
Cousins is the sixth Austin sommelier to take home the top honor in the competition's ten-year history, proving there is a strong community of sommelier support in the city. She is also the second woman to take the title (June Rodil of Austin's McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group, which includes Jeffrey's, Josephine House, Clark's, Perla's, and Lamberts, won in 2009.)
The third runner-up was Austin's Nathan Fausti of Arro, who received $1,000 Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation award to be used for a Court of Master Sommeliers certification program. The second runner-up was Rene Fagoaga of the Four Seasons Resort and Club at Las Colinas; he received $1,500 in scholarship winnings. Cousin's first-place win gets her $2,500 in scholarship money.