Pairing wine with food might not be as easy as it seems — especially when you have to do it on stage in front of a crowd of people, a few of whom are both judges and master sommeliers at the top of their field.

But a trio of advanced sommeliers from Colorado and Nevada are hoping to please palates this weekend with the return of Somms Under Fire, a rigorous, fast-paced competition featuring a series of food pairing challenges. The participating sommeliers will also go against each other in a cocktail contest at the Jan. 27 event. And audience members, like the judges, will be able to try all of the dishes and drinks.

Event organizer Diane Dixon, of local company Keeper Collection, said that people have told her "the event is a mix between ‘Chopped,’ ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Survivor.’ It’s really intense.”

It's also prestigious. Sommeliers from all over the country want to both compete in Somms Under Fire and volunteer at it, working behind the scenes to make sure the event goes smoothly, with the highest ranked sommeliers acting as judges. Plus, the number of people in attendance has gone up.

"We will have eight master sommeliers in the room, which is about 5 percent of all the master sommeliers in the U.S.," Dixon said. "Seeing the dedication and what everybody is giving to help it grow has just been so wonderful. We actually increased the number of audience members because we sold out so quickly in the past couple of years, growing from 250 to 300 people (in the audience). It's now a nationally recognized event that people ask about."


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This year's three competitors had to take a qualification exam to reach the Somms Under Fire stage. Hoping for the title of champion are Phil Laramore, owner and president of SAmandla Wine Imports in Denver; David Reuss, wine director at Shanahan’s Steakhouse also in Denver; and Kathleen Thomas, the training director of the Hakkasan Group in Las Vegas.

In front of the audience and judges that include James Tidwell and Melissa Monosoff, each of the three contestants are tasked to pair wines from the TEXSOM International Wine Awards — another quintessential Texas wine event — with food from local restaurants: Foreign & Domestic, Salt & Time and Trace at the W Hotel.

There's also the cocktail competition, which serves as a reminder for the sommeliers that their jobs, especially in restaurants, often entail doing more than offering wine recommendations to customers. Laramore, Reuss and Thomas will craft a mixed drink from Amador Double Barrel Bourbon, which Dixon said is a perfect spirit this year because it's a Kentucky bourbon that was finished in Napa Valley wine barrels, highlighting "two great U.S. areas that are known for whiskey and known for wine."

"The reason I think people want to come, the reason that word spreads that it's a fun event, is that you're getting educated not just on wine but on wine and food pairing. It's knowledge that they can use," Dixon said.

Tickets to the 2019 Somms Under Fire — $75 for general admission, $160 for VIP — are close to being sold out. Somms Under Fire starts at 5 p.m. Jan. 27 with a VIP tasting and educational seminar and at 7 p.m. for the wine and food pairing competition at the AT&T Education & Conference Center, 1900 University Ave.

For more information, visit keepercollection.com/somms-under-fire.