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And Texas’s Best Sommelier Is…

Following a rigorous competition at the ninth annual TEXSOM conference, Austin sommelier Scott Ota, of Arro restaurant, takes top honors in what has been called a game-changing year for the state's wine industry.

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Monday night, TEXSOM, the nation’s largest wine education conference, wrapped up at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Las Colinas, but not before announcing the winner of its Texas Best Sommelier Competition: Scott Ota of Arro Restaraunt in Austin.

In its ninth year, TEXSOM—also known as the Texas Sommelier’s Conference—is a two-day event where leading wine professionals and connoisseurs from around the world gather to address current industry topics and trends—and to taste a lot of wine, natch. (Full disclosure: Texas Monthly was a conference sponsor.)

The conference was founded in 2004 by Texas sommeliers James Tidwell of Four Seasons (Las Colinas) and Drew Hendricks of Rudd Winery, both master sommeliers through the Court of Master Sommeliers. These wine lovers were looking for a way to accomplish two goals: bring professionals together for a weekend to talk shop and create a competition among Texas somms that could help strengthen the presence of wine professionals in the state. Back in 2005 there was only one master sommelier in the state, Guy Stout of Glazer’s Distributing, and only four candidates in line to attempt achieving the title. Today there are seven master sommeliers and “so many Texas Advanced-level candidates in line that I can hardly count,” James Tidwell told me.

The competition is only open to Texas participants who are required to apply months in advance to secure one of 25 spots. The primary requirements to enter are that candidates must not have achieved their third level certification of Advanced Sommelier through the CMS, and they must be a Texas resident. Those who don’t win the first year are free to apply as many times as they like until they do.

“When we created this competition, we wanted to offer a way to support Texas sommeliers as they pursue higher levels of service and certifications in their career,” Tidwell said. “This was a way we could challenge them to sharpen their skills and compete on a higher level.” 

Melissa Lamb of the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas, a co-presenter of TEXSOM, started the process of studying wine nine months ago and says while tasting has been a great chance for her to play detective, the theory portion of the competition was the most daunting. 

“Preparing for this competition has been very humbling,” Lamb said. 

The event takes place during the course of a day as a multitude of conference seminars take place for TEXSOM attendees. Competitors are tested on the three primary occupational categories through the CMS: theory (wine knowledge), blind tasting, and service. Those who have seen the documentary film SOMM, have a sense of the difficulty of this test—as the film points out, only three percent of master sommelier candidates achieve the title. But with this competition, the stakes are even higher. While it’s geared towards sommeliers who have not yet made the third level of Advanced Sommelier through the CMS, it is also designed to designate a clear winner. 

“For the Advanced Level exam, there’s a baseline that we’re looking for from the exam that candidates either pass or don’t pass. But this exam has to have a winner. It’s meant to allow at least one person to clearly rise to the top,” said master sommelier Eric Entriken, one of the TEXSOM presenters who sat in to judge a portion of the competition. 

Bill Elsey of the Red Room Lounge in Austin is a former winner of the competition and said the benefits of competing have been invaluable to him. 

“TEXSOM has put Texas firmly at the center of what is going on in the beverage and sommelier professional community and the competition brings the focus back to what the conference is all about: education,” Elsey said.

At the conference’s culminating Grand Tasting event, competitors were lined up in anticipation of an announced winner. This year’s winner of Texas’ Best Sommelier, Scott Ota (pictured, center, above), joined the competitor pool for his third year, and his calm, reserved nature throughout the examination process had many suspecting that this year he might take the win. 

Ota is the first to admit that he tends to “geek out” on the theory portion of the exam. “It’s provided a fantastic opportunity to gauge my skill set and receive criticism from some of the best professionals in the industry,” he said. “Although I’ll admit, I hate is the lack of sleep from the long hours after work flipping notecards. I’ll be glad not to have any more nightmares about service and blind tasting.” 

Ota is the fifth Austin sommelier to take home the top honor out of the competition’s nine-year history further, proving there is a strong community of sommelier support in the city. The third runner-up was James Watkins of Cordua Restaurants in Houston, 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 Luis La Torre of Spec’s Fine Wines in Dallas; he received $1,500 in scholarship winnings. Ota’s first-place win gets him $2,500 in scholarship money.

The full list of contestants can be found here.

Upon revealing this year’s winners, Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth of the Guild of Sommeliers commented on how amazed he was at the quality stock of competitors this year. “Texas has made a giant leap forward with the level of wine professionalism this year,” said Kruth. “This was a game-changing year for Texas and the competition.” 

Following a flurry of photographs and hugs from friends and fellow sommeliers, Ota managed a speech to thank TEXSOM for the win as well as his Austin-based wine study group and, of course, his girlfriend, who has endured his countless hours of obsessive studying. 

When asked offstage how he felt having won the hard-sought award, he simply said, “All I want to do is drink some Champagne.” 

Spoken like a true wine professional. 

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