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.