Very rarely do you get to gather some of the city’s top sommeliers in one room, let them loose with a couple of bottles of wine in a bag for them to blind taste, and listen to them talk about what feeds their thirst for wine and spirits. But since they’ve all been nominated for a Tastemaker Award, we thought it might be a good excuse to get these experts to dish on something they love most: wine.
We organized a Monday evening blind tasting for this purpose and found that, while these laid back wine and cocktail experts with impeccably discerning palates all have an individual style, their passion for what they do has led them to collaborate and grow their strengths in recent years — the key ingredient in elevating Austin’s wine and cocktail scene across the board.
Josh Loving, wine director and Bar Manager at Fino Restaurant Patio & Bar
A native Texan, Loving moved to Austin from Corpus Christi in 1999 to attend the University of Texas. He’s worked in both the front of the house and back of the house at such distinguished Austin locales as Zoot, Vino Vino and Fino. He joined Fino when it opened in 2005 — one of the last original employees on board — and has since earned his Certified Sommelier pin through the Court of Master Sommeliers and took on the bar, Loving has a well-rounded appetite, knocking back neat spirits, craft brew from Jester King and Austin Beer Works, Vermouth and Soda, and German or Austrian wines.
Chris McFall, wine buyer and sommelier at Paggi House
After emigrating from Detroit “Rock City” to Georgetown at an early age, McFall almost qualifies as a native Texan. He attended Southwestern University and was an organizer for the International Student Foundation. After a night of plundering Coors Light and Jägermeister shots, his friend, who just happened to be a member of the famed Bertani Italian wine family, introduced him to the world of fine wine by uncorking a 1968 Bertani Amarone. McFall fell in love — with wine, that is.
McFall worked his way through the restaurant world at the likes of Georgetown’s Monica’s, Lamberts and Sullivan’s before knocking on the Paggi House door for an opportunity as wine buyer four years ago where the Certified Sommelier has since called home. McFall’s drink of choice is Fernet-Branca. He says, “Fernet is bitter and a little acidic. Just like me, it takes a little getting used to. Once you do, you’ll love it.”
Dirk Miller, bar manager at Wink Restaurant
Hailing from Shreveport, LA, Miller went to college in Nashville for a business degree, and did what lots of people do in Nashville; he played music. To fund his habit he turned to a life of work in fine dining in Nashville in 1998. He eventually made his way to Austin to pursue his passion in music, but continued his pursuit of fine wine and food. He has worked his way up at Wink from wine buyer to bar manager since 2006 and has also earned his pin as a Certified Sommelier.
Miller’s mood steers his personal drink selection. “I can never drink the same thing twice. There are so many good things to drink out there.” He likes the influx of Italian wine happening now, particularly Lambrusco and Friuli.
June Rodil, beverage director at Congress
Born in Philippines, Rodil moved to Dallas at age four and on to Austin to attend the University of Texas in 1998. She made her way through college and the Driskill Hotel, where she worked her way up from cocktail waitress to floor sommelier over the course of seven years. She then moved on as beverage director at Uchi and Uchiko, after which she helped to opened Congress.
Rodil holds an Advanced Sommelier (Level III) certification from the CMS. Her talents are well recognized as the 2009 Texas Best Sommelier at the Texas Sommelier Conference and as the Wine & Spirits Best New Sommeliers of 2011. Her drink of choice? “Bubbly, of course. It’s a panty dropper.”
Mark Sayre, sommelier at TRIO at the Four Seasons Hotel, Austin
Houston native Mark Sayre discovered his zeal for wine while waiting tables. An avid music fan, wine began to hit notes for him in the same way music did. Before long he had jumped into the world of wine with both feet. His passion and drive has earned him an Advanced Sommelier certification from the CMS and he will sit for the coveted Master Sommelier certification this July. (There are only seven Master Sommelier in the entire state of Texas. Sayre hopes to make it an even eight.)
He has been recognized as the 2007 Texas Best Sommelier and the Wine & Spirits Best New Sommeliers of 2010. When Sayre is off the clock, he prefers Champagne. “It is the perfect balance of things. High acid, cold and carbonated. It goes with everything and is the only thing that sounds good to me when I'm hung over. I don't think I've ever said, ‘no I can't do a glass of sparkling.’”
The room was quiet as the nominees swirled, sniffed and tasted both a white and two red wines, but after a minute or two, deliberate descriptors began to erupt from the group. For a crisp white wine words such as “vibrant,” “white flowers,” “baby powder,” “aggressively green” and “high minerality” circled through the room. Within a few moments, they all narrowed the mystery wine down to a 2010 French Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc).
The reds were just as easy. A California 2008 Pinot Noir from Sonoma prompted descriptions of “cinnamon,” “mint tea,” “orange blossom,” “hot,” “chocolatey” and “strawberries and cream,” while a 2009 Syrah blend from the Southern Rhone invited words like “chewy,” “meaty,” “peppery,” “iron,” “stinky.” (Our personal favorite was June Rodil’s comment on the Rhone wine as having an “animal, butt hair quality” — who says you have to be refined when it comes to wine?)
CultureMap: What makes a good Sommelier/Beverage Director?
Chris McFall, Paggi House: You really have to trust yourself and keep in mind that you’re not buying for your own particular palate. You have to fill in for what you think other people are going to like.
Josh Loving, Fino: I think you have to believe in what you’re doing, like Chris said. Let that guide your way. We’re all generally philosophically rooted. We might have to serve things that satisfy people but, you’d be amazed at what we’re able to introduce to people. You’d be surprised when you stick to your guns about the wine and cocktails you want to serve. It forces people to try something different.
Mark Sayre, Trio: The most important attribute is a lack of pretense; that unteachable characteristic of being able to serve with passion and help others. It is the antithesis of the caricature of the old stodgy sommelier with a cup around his neck looming around the dining room waiting to scoff at your choice or draw you into a price point that you’re not comfortable with.
CM: So, how does that effect your approach to customer service?
Dirk Miller, Wink: I think you really have to take yourself out of it sometimes. For me, my list is small and we have a lot of things by the glass. We will probably always have to have something that’s oaky and buttery, but it’s my job not to fill that spot with just any old California Chardonnay. It’s about finding something good and balanced that has a good reason to be there. I still want to be proud of that wines I’ve selected at the same time that I’m satisfying what people want.
Josh Loving, Fino: I have a more hardline approach. When you come to a restaurant, you order off the menu. You don’t tell the chef what to cook for you. For the most part, if you’re an intrepid diner, you probably don’t go to places that challenge your food palate. But if you like going to places to expand your horizons with the food, there should be no difference with cocktails or wine. We’re not in this to freak you out. We obviously like these things.
I don’t have an oaky Chardonnay, I have a really big, Viognier with tons of fruit, fresh acidity, higher alcohol, but it’s not juicy or fatty and oily, it lifts your palate. Wine is meant to go with food. Some of the wines that are big and over the top are going to kill your palate and our food doesn’t fit that. On the one night that you dine with us, you can have what we have on our menu. Other nights, drink whatever you want.
Mark Sayre, Trio: It’s important to read a guest to assess the level of assistance to offer and help them find something they want to drink. It’s a mistake to make selfish suggestions. Never make suggestions that ignore a customer’s needs.
Chris McFall, Paggi House: Everyone in this group like wines that taste like somewhere. We are all fortunate to work with fun, creative chefs and you can’t find their food anywhere else and we want our wines and cocktails to be the same. Enjoy it while you’re in this place.
CM: What are your biggest tips to for customers for getting you, the sommelier to help them best?
June Rodil, Congress: It’s simple, just tell me what you like!
Dirk Miller, Wink: You want people to “use their words” to describe wine. I encourage them to have fun with that, but a lot of times, what they’re saying and what they mean are not the same thing.
They may tell me, “For God sakes, I want a dry wine,” but after talking to them a bit, I find out that what they mean is that they really want a sweet wine. Or they say they like “earthy,” but really they mean “oaky.” That’s a lot to decipher. Sometimes it’s better to say what wines you have had that you like so that I can try to narrow down that category.
Chris McFall, Paggi House: We not only have to do our homework for our own lists, but we have to know what’s on everyone else’s list. If they say they had a certain wine at Congress, I will probably know it and can find something similar.
One of the hardest things for people is to realize that we’re here to help. We’re not snooty and we’re not trying to steal your wallet. The most expensive wine and the best wine may not be hand in hand. If you can give me some parameters, I can probably find you what you like to drink. Some of my best regulars are the ones who are willing to take the “Pepsi Challenge.” The ones that have the best time are the ones that give me a price and ask me to pick a red or white. I usually come in lower and they usually try something they weren’t expecting.
Josh Loving, Fino: I’ve had people come in and say, “I like Malbec... and Zinfandel... and Pinot Noir.” Because I technically tend bar, I can be a little more sarcastic and I’ll say, “Alright honey, you just named three of the most popular red varietals on the planet. So you’re telling me you like red wine.”
It’s like saying, "I like meat." Well, do you like beef, pork, chicken? You need to help us narrow it down.
June Rodil, Congress: Tell us what you like, and if you can’t say what you like specifically, don’t be afraid to let us do it for you. And don’t think we’re judging you. If you’re having a bad time, then we’re having a bad time. Oh, and don’t be afraid to say price.
Chris McFall, Paggi House: Yeah, definitely tell us a price. I like to work with people on the parameters they’ve set and have a great time doing it. Then they trust you and want to test the boundaries the next time. That’s the joy of going out.
CM: What makes a top notch wine program in Austin? Why is it that you guys were selected for being among the best?
June Rodil, Congress: I think it’s because we have autonomy. It wasn’t so long ago when there were no beverage directors in town. And now there are lots of them. The fact that there is someone in charge of these things in a restaurant means that it’s more alive
Dirk Miller, Wink: The culinary vibe here is on fire and that extends to wine and cocktails. Plus, we’re all pushing each other to be better. We’re all on the same team and have all studied together or tasted together at some point.
Mark Sayre, Trio: Successful wine programs combine diversity, value and personalized service. In Austin we are able to branch out and include boutique wines on the list and offer great value because we don’t have to stick to corporate mandated margins.
About six years ago, a group of serious wine professionals in town started going through the Master Sommelier program together. We really formed a bond. There is a natural magnetism because we share a common lofty goal to raise the bar to make Austin a serious food and wine town. This distinctive vibe is a culmination of what we started in creating this sommelier community. Because I was part of the initial stages of that happening here, I feel a responsibility to the quality of food and wine in Austin.
Josh Loving, Fino: I think the other cities in Texas are a lot more reserved, they’re a lot more brand driven, the dollars makes all the difference. It’s not like that in Austin. It’s better.
Chris McFall, Paggi House: More and more people are willing to talk with us and try new things. I just served a guy from Houston a bottle of Lebanon wine who would have never tried something like that five years ago.
At the end of the day, I’m glad to be in company with the other beverage directors in town. We’re all really passionate about it, but we’re not the snooty figures that most people think of when they think of sommeliers. Wine should be fun. It’s a beverage. It’s a condiment — well, sometimes it’s a more expensive condiment, but it should be fun.