Texas wine has been getting more accolades and attention than ever — but it’s not just the winemakers of the state who are getting national credit for their work with wine.
A couple of key educational events and competitions have also helped Texas become known for fostering sommeliers, the knowledgeable wine stewards at bars and restaurants who create the wine lists, help to explain the wines to customers, and pair the wines with food from the restaurant menu.
One of those events is Somms Under Fire, a competition, returning this weekend on Jan. 28, that tests the mettle of three sommeliers who have to think on their feet for a series of food pairing challenges. Each one is trying to win the top prize from a set of judges and the fan favorite prize from the audience, both of which will help the sommeliers with furthering their wine education.
The audience, like the judges, will get to try each of the wine and food pairings and hear from the sommeliers about why they paired what they did.
Now in its seventh year, it’s a fast-paced, raucously fun time that organizer Diane Dixon, of local company Keeper Collection, promises is probably not like anything you’ve been to before.
"If you had to put it in TV terms, I’ve had people tell me that the event is a mix between ‘Chopped,’ ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Survivor.’ It’s really intense," she said.
It’s a testament to Somms Under Fire’s now nationally recognized reputation among the wine service industry that the three competing sommeliers aren’t from Texas and the more than 20 sommeliers donating their time to serving at the event also come from all over the country, she said.
All three of the finalists — who had to take a qualification exam to reach the Somms Under Fire stage — are advanced sommeliers. Nick Davis hails from Seattle, Washington, where he heads up a beverage consulting and events company. Michael "Mick" Descamps has spent 20 years working in various restaurants and retailers in Detroit, Michigan. And Jill Zimorski, from Chicago, Illinois, is a champagne specialist.
How it works: They will have to pair wines that were entrants in the TEXSOM International Wine Awards — another of Texas’ prestigious events for sommeliers and other wine lovers — with food from the Carillon, the refined restaurant within the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center, where Somms Under Fire is held. The sommeliers will talk about why the pairing is superb, and both judges and audience will try it.
Once again, two of Austin’s master sommeliers, June Rodil and Devon Broglie, will emcee Somms Under Fire. (Their easy repartee is on full display in this promo video for the event.)
For Rodil, the first winner of Somms Under Fire, the competition serves as a way for up-and-coming sommeliers to see what they’re made of. They’re not just pairing food and wine in front of an audience and the panel of judges, all of whom are also master sommeliers. The competitors also have to win over the crowd and two additional judges in a preceding cocktail competition.
"The idea behind it is it's just like a bar program you might be in charge of at a restaurant. Your job is not just wine as a beverage director," she said, noting that the cocktail aspect is often the hardest part of the competition for the sommeliers.
She should know what it takes: Rodil serves as the beverage director for the McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group restaurants, including June’s All Day, where she doubles as one of the restaurant partners. You can bet the stylish South Congress Avenue eatery has one of the best wine lists in town.
This year, the Somms Under Fire competitors are whipping up drinks featuring Citadelle Gin. Whoever wins that contest will get a competitive advantage for the main event, the food-and-wine pairing challenge.
"We created this competition to lessen the distance between the consumer and the sommelier," Dixon said. "So customers feel more comfortable talking to them about wine, and sommeliers understand, look, I know you study theory, but really, (the average person) doesn’t want to hear about acidity and minerality. They want to hear a story about the wine. So know your information, but then have fun with it."
"Wine doesn’t have to be fussy," she added.
Somms Under Fire’s VIP tickets sold out fast, but there are still $75 general admission tickets you can purchase at keepercollection.com/somms-under-fire. The cocktail challenge starts at 6 p.m. Jan. 28, and the main competition starts at 6:30 p.m., at the AT&T center at 1900 University Ave.
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