The sedate, well-heeled Dallas suburb of Las Colinas looks as sleepy as you’d expect on a Sunday afternoon in mid-August. Even in the tony Four Seasons lobby, foot traffic seems slow as families check in for quick retreats and business travelers text at the bar. Yet down the hotel corridor, something is afoot. Burly security guards patrol the hall, carefully allowing entry only to the lanyard-clad. Around the next turn, well-dressed men and women pour from double magnums of Perrier-Jouët and Gosset Champagne and make small talk with guests. In the next room, friendly Australians offer samples of ultra-rare library pours of Bass Phillip pinot noir and Leeuwin Estate Art Series chardonnay. At other tables, dozens of bottles of high-end Burgundy, Barolo, and pinot noir stand open for guests to self-pour at their leisure. (To the horror of most casual wine drinkers, most attendees also carry a plastic cup in one hand, spitting 90 percent of their sips in genteel fashion.)
These aren’t just hotel guests. The TEXSOM conference attendees are the professionals who will likely choose the wine for your next anniversary dinner or sell said bottle to your local retail shop. These successful sommeliers are flanked by several hundred of the best wine educators, distributors, and importers, and even a stray winemaker or two. This is, in short, the most important annual gathering of wine professionals in the United States.
That’s not how TEXSOM began. “The first year, we had 80 people. This year, there were 1,300 guests and 200 volunteers,” says James Tidwell, the event’s co-founder. Along with fellow master sommelier Drew Hendricks, Tidwell started the conference in 2005 with the goal of improving wine service and knowledge within Texas. Over time, the convergence of wine’s growing popularity increased interest in the sommelier profession (brought about in part by the documentary Somm), and a 2011 visit from legendary Lebanese winemaker Serge Hochar shifted the conference’s influence from regional to international. Tickets are now in such demand that registration is limited to pre-screened professionals only, and even so, fervor from the sommelier community caused the conference’s website to crash within moments of opening for registration. “It’s easier to get better at your job in a room full of people who all want to be better, too,” says Austin-based master sommelier June Rodil. “Everybody gets this communal surge to get through the rest of the year and remembers why they do what they do.”
The conference’s guests come from across the world to network and discuss industry shifts. Chicago sommelier Jhea Fulgaro cites trendspotting as a key factor in her attendance. “TEXSOM is a forerunner,” she said. “My big takeaway this year was how Chilean wines are blossoming, and the conference started educating us on them four years ago.” She cited Greece and the still wines of Portugal as two other trends that TEXSOM highlighted before they made it to store shelves and restaurant menus. Washington winemaker Morgan Lee took home notes on how to handle her own grapes. “I’m one of the only producers of zinfandel in Washington. I don’t have anyone to share [zinfandel] ideas with up there,” she said. “It was great to hear that my instinct… led me to handle a difficult grape exactly the same way some top producers do in California.” And, of course, there’s the networking, with over two dozen master sommeliers and another dozen masters of wine roaming (and running) the conference.
The unparalleled access to these elite professionals is a key reason why over two hundred sommeliers volunteer to work at the conference at their own expense, taking vacation time away from their restaurants in order to network, practice, learn, and socialize. “The volunteers are the most engaged and dynamic group within the conference,” said Tidwell. “Our goal is to take good care of them. We feed them and give them learning opportunities daily.” That includes chances to practice wine service and get feedback from a master sommelier, a valuable professional reward after logging twelve-plus hour days polishing glasses and checking in wines.
Twenty-five volunteers also participate in the grueling TEXSOM Best Sommelier Competition (Texas Monthly is a sponsor of the contest). The podium prizes are simple scholarship checks to study wine, but the prestige of winning can help make a career: past winners include master sommeliers Devon Broglie (now the global beverage buyer for Whole Foods) and June Rodil (now VP of operations for mammoth Austin restaurateurs McGuire Moorman Hospitality). Jacob Brown, who works at Austin’s Italic and competed this year, described the process as “incredibly fair, though rigorous and stressful—it helps all of us benchmark where we are compared to our peers.”
The conference’s burgeoning scope has also introduced the country’s somms to the breadth and quality of modern Texas wines. A sold-out seminar from Texas Monthly’s contributing wine editor, Jessica Dupuy, and British food and wine writer Francis Percival showcased recent award-winning Texas bottles, and at a happy hour tasting, virtual reality glasses took guests through vineyards in the Texas High Plains and Texas Hill Country. Publicist and sommelier Denise Clarke saw marked enthusiasm from out-of-state somms. “They wanted to taste [everything], and liked the diversity of wines being made from grapes well-suited to the Texas climate,” she said, citing white grapes like Albarino and Roussanne and reds like Tempranillo and Tannat as examples of wines gaining popularity with both Texas winemakers and consumers.
This year’s event showed an encouraging increase in diversity, both in wine and the gender and nationality of speakers. In an industry with an old boy’s club history, women comprised roughly 35 percent of the panel and lecture positions at the 2018 conference, although Tidwell noted that all speakers are chosen solely based on their expertise. “Selecting people you’d want to hear is like having a dinner party—all the best ones have diverse people and opinions,” he said. “That’s why we started bringing in more international speakers.” That same ethos applied to the wines, as selections from Turkey, Uruguay, Georgia, and Israel shared space with better-known European and domestic choices. The conference’s endnote was one of discovery for many and a sense that even the experts have a lot to learn. “I’ve been here as an attendee, a competitor, a volunteer, and a lecturer,” said Rodil. “You can go back each time and be something different.”