Masters of the Wine Universe

7 Austin wine experts compete for best sommelier in Texas


Melissa Lamb of the Wine & Food Foundation
Photo by Matt McGinnis
Scott Ota of Driskill Grill in Austin
Photo by Matt McGinnis
Brian Phillips of Eddie V's restaurant in Austin
Photo by Matt McGinnis
Sommelier Mandi Nelson at Republic in Austin
Photo by Matt McGinnis
Sommelier Paul Ozbirn at Olive & June restaurant in Austin
Photo by Matt McGinnis
Sommelier Marie-Louise Friedland at Congress restaurant in Austin
Photo by Matt McGinnis
Sommelier Paula Rester at Congress restaurant in Austin
Photo by Matt McGinnis

On August 8, the five-day Texas Sommelier Conference (TEXSOM) kicks off at the Four Seasons Resort & Club at Las Colinas in Dallas. Now in its ninth year, this educational wine conference is expected to draw more than 500 people eager to learn and sip some of the world’s best wines.

The highlight of TEXSOM is Sunday's Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition, an annual event that pits 25 of the region’s most talented sommeliers against each other to determine the reigning wine guru. The competition, presented by Texas Monthly, tests competitor’s blind tasting skills; wine service talents; knowledge of wine business; and understanding of sake, beer, coffee, tea and cigars. Texans who have not already passed the Court of Master Sommelier’s Advanced Exam (level III) are eligible to participate.

In the past eight years, four sommeliers from Austin — Devon Broglie, Mark Sayre, June Rodil and Bill Elsey — have brought home the coveted prize. This year the city has a chance to win the crown once again, as seven of the 24 competitors hail from Austin.

Competitor Brian Phillips is confident in his hometown sommeliers. “I think the chances of bringing it back to Austin are very high,” says Phillips. “Our sommelier community has excellent support. There is no reason we can’t [win] it.”  

Meet Austin’s participants in the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition.

Melissa Lamb, Auction Director, Wine and Food Foundation of Texas

During college, Melissa Lamb toured the Hill Country wineries and fell in love with the romance of the industry. The more she learned about wine, the deeper she wanted to go.

Lamb turned that passion into a career. “I knew I wanted to be a part of the wine industry, so I started working for the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. I never knew about the world of the sommelier until I met Bill Elsey. He got me interested in the profession and studying wine. I love working for the foundation, and knowing about wine is a big part of it.”

As the auction director at the foundation, Lamb runs the Annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction. After work hours, she can often be found serving wine at the Red Room Lounge.  

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I’m a highly competitive person. I participated in speech and debate competitions at UT for four years. I like to work on getting better at anything I do, and that’s what TEXSOM is all about. I know by preparing for and participating in this competition I’m going to get better. And it’s fun. Nothing bad is going to happen if I don’t win. It’s only growth. It’s only positive.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I set my own syllabus and study for two hours a day Monday through Friday and five hours on the weekends. I read the Guild Somm lessons, and Bill Elsey quizzes me. To practice blind tasting and wine service, I participate in a study group with Bill, Nathan Prater and Scott Ota (also competing). Nothing compares to that. You can grill yourself at home, but having people rake you over during service is really helpful.  

Why will you win? 

I will win because I don’t have the pressure to win. I’m so new to this, and it’s bold enough to just to enter the competition. It’s about the learning and development process.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas' Best Sommelier?

Champagne! Ruinart! Let’s drink some Ruinart.

Scott Ota, Sommelier and Wine Captain, Driskill Grill at the Driskill Hotel  

Scott Ota used to thrash on a skateboard until he tore his ACL jumping a flight of stairs. Now he tears it up as a Court of Master Sommeliers Level II Certified Sommelier at the Driskill Grill, where he has been since March 2011.

“It is my goal to continue the Driskill’s historical reputation,” said Ota. “Many of Austin's top talent, from the front-of-house staff to the kitchen, have a history with the property, and I am privileged [to have] the responsibility of maintaining excellence.”

Earlier this year Ota was a nominee for the 2013 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, and he won the challenging Somms Under Fire competition by wowing judges with his food and wine pairing talent. He will draw on that win and his previous experiences in the Texas’ Best when he competes next weekend. 

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I entered the competition to challenge myself. TEXSOM is an incredible opportunity to be criticized and graded by Master Sommeliers. For anyone who is looking to move through the Court of Masters, I would urge them to compete. It helps to show the level of knowledge required for the level III exam, and it offers an incredible opportunity to network with the best.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

Review theory, review theory, blind taste and review theory.

Why will you win? 

Preparation. I am putting in the time with the books. That and I've got the best tasting group in the state. I'll brag on their behalf. Advanced Sommeliers Nathan Prater and Bill Elsey, and Certified Sommelier Chris McFall are an incredible study group. 

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas' Best Sommelier?

Grower-producer Champagne, forever and always. Pierre Gimonnet Et Fils is my jam.

Brian Phillips, Manager and Sommelier, Eddie V's Restaurants Inc.

While studying abroad at a culinary school in Holland, Brian Phillips worked as an intern in a vineyard in Germany. That experience working in a winery in a bombed-out castle in the middle Rhine set his course.

Fourteen years ago, Philips made his way to Austin, where he has worked at the Driskill Hotel, Haddington’s and Mulberry.

Having achieved both a level I and level II certification, Philips not only studies wine, but he also makes it with a boutique private label, Ground Up Wines. Phillips likes to get his hands dirty both in making wine and in his role managing the beverage program at Eddie V’s. He hopes those facets help him to be successful in the competition.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I learn the most by getting my butt kicked. Sometimes you have to know what you need to know by failing. I see this competition as a free run at the Advanced Somm. It’s a good opportunity to surround myself with a lot of sharp people in the business. My studying is going pretty well, and I’m feeling confident in my blind tastings. I’m going to go for it and see what happens.  

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I study solo with a lot of maps and using the compendium on the Guild Somm site. Study solo. I blind taste with other people. I did a blind with Bill Elsey last night. My wife pours wines for me first thing in the morning before she goes to work. When I wake up, the wine flight is waiting for me.  

Why will you win? 

I can handle tough situations with grace. Maybe that will give me a few bonus points where I may miss points in another area.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas' Best Sommelier?

Champagne, of course. Pierre Péters Champagne Blanc de Blancs is my first choice. I like something clean, bright and refreshing with as much mineral as possible. Shortly after that, I’ll have a beer so I don’t have to think about it.  

Mandi Nelson, Fine Wines Specialist, Republic National Distributor

Food and beverage have been a big part of Mandi Nelson’s life for as long as she can remember. Her great grandfather ran a food supply company, and her father designs restaurants and bars. She started in the restaurant business at age 15 and fell in love with wine while working as a bartender. She helped Four Seasons with the introduction of Trio and created its wine list before handing over the sommelier reins to Mark Sayre.

“After turning over the wine program to Mark, I realized that was the best part of her job,” Nelson says. “I loved it. I loved working with the guests and the food, but wine was my passion.”

Nelson has passed her Introductory and Certified Exam and has continued her education and certification by completing the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Advanced Exam, CSW, and Wine Location Specialist Program for Champagne and Port. Nelson hopes to take the Advanced Exam in April 2014.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I see the competition as a free glimpse at the Advanced Exam and a great way to learn by going through a scary experience.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I do blind tasting twice a week; once in a completely blind format and the second in comparative sets with similar wines like Shiraz, Syrah and Merlot. I do my blind tastings with Vilma Mazaite (Owner of LaV Restaurant and Wine Bar), Paula Rester (also competing) and Paul Ozbirn (also competing).

The Guild Somm site is amazing for study guides. I live by that. I break down each region and study it in detail. I trace outlines of maps and then write out the specifics for each region. The physical drawing and color coding of wine region helps me remember it. I study by myself and exchange tests with others. I haven’t done any service yet, so I’m trying to get a group together to do that.     

Why will you win? 

I am not going with the intention of winning. I’m going with the intention of learning. The world of wine is so massive. The more I study, the more I realize there is so much more to study. I’ve been studying for years, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas' Best Sommelier?

Champagne, of course. I’ll drink the first bottle I see, but will go for Bollinger La Grande Annee 1985.

Paul Ozbirn, Sommelier, Olive & June  

Paul Ozbirn has tried his hand as a professional skateboarder in California and as a roadie for a rock band, but a trip to Greece and Italy after college sparked a love of wine. This Alabama boy with a gypsy spirit moved to Austin after that trip in order to being his pursuit.

“I started working at Vin Bistro in 2006, and that’s where I really started learning about wine and took my Intro exam a few years later,” Ozbirn says. “That got me in the door at Wink where I had the opportunity to nerd out on wine and introduce guests to wines they’ve never heard of. It was a great environment for learning and it inspired me to take the Certified Exam in April 2011.”

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I set out for 2013 to be a power year for wine education. I love TEXSOM and what it’s all about. It’s going to push me to do better whether I do well in the competition or do horribly. I’m going to learn something.

It’s going to be fun competing with a bunch of my friends. Wine is supposed to be fun. It’s a way for me to exercise creative juices. Blind tasting is like a puzzle. Service is like a dance. You are onstage working to provide something guests love.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I use the Guild Somm study guides a lot, supplemented by the Wine Atlas. I listed to a lot of Master Sommelier podcasts and review detailed maps. I do blind tasting with friends like Mandi Nelson (also competing), Paula Rester (also competing) and Vilma Mazaite. I also go to the Red Room Lounge to see what they can throw at me. I don’t do study groups because it’s so hard to coordinating schedules. Just managing a personal life is challenging. Skate boarding, music, and tattoos are still a part of my life. I don’t feel like those things need to be mutually exclusive from my professional life in wine.  

Why will you win? 

I don’t think I will win. I think Scott Ota will win and I think he deserves it. I’m going in with an open mind and a lot of curiosity. I think we will have a strong Austin showing in the competition.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas' Best Sommelier?

I’ll probably drink a Negroni or any rosé Champagne. Andre Clouet Rosé NV is my desert island wine. I’m a sucker for a Campari and soda or a Negroni after tasting wine all day. Or maybe I’ll have an ice-cold Lone Star with a lime.

Marie-Louise Friedland, Sommelier, Congress

You won’t meet many people who have held the title “cheesemonger,” but Marie-Louise Friedland has. After growing up in the restaurant business, she delved into the world of cheese while working at Henri’s Cheese Shop.

“Working in cheese, [wine] pairing became a huge thing,” Friedland says. “I got obsessed and couldn’t stop.”

Friedland’s wine journey was also shaped by her experience as a cocktail server at Uchi. While at Uchi, she joined a Court of Master Sommeliers study group with other staff members.

In 2011, Friedland passed her Level I Introductory Exam.  Less than two years later, she passed the Level II Certified Sommelier Exam in March 2013, earning the top score.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I’ve heard a lot of good things about the competition. On top of that, I’m extremely hard on myself. I like pushing myself to uncomfortable boundaries. I like to force myself to keep studying. Being stagnant is the worst thing. I wanted to participate in a competition that is affiliated with the Court of Master Somms to keep studying in a regimented progression.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I’m studying for the competition the same way I do for exams. I do blind tastings weekly and have ramped up to doing it twice a week as the competition is getting closer. I practice service every night.

Luckily I work in an excellent fine dining environment at Congress. I treat every table as if they are my competition judge. I do the wine service by the Court standards for every table. For studying the theory [wine knowledge], I use the Guild of Sommeliers website and create note cards from the content. Then I memorize, memorize, memorize.

I study for three to five hours a day. I grill myself even when I’m at the grocery store. I am on my own trajectory to study theory and don’t do it with a study group.

Why will you win? 

I got game-day skills. I’m calm, cool and collected when it counts. I don’t get nervous in service portion of the exam because I do this every night and I’ve been around it all my life. I grew up in my grandparents’ restaurant. It’s in my blood. I remind myself, “Don’t freak out.”  

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas' Best Sommelier?

Dom Pérignon Champagne. Duh! A bottle of 1996 would be preferable.

Paula Rester, Wine Director, Congress Austin  

Fine dining service is more than just pairing the right wine with an elegant dish and proper presentation of wine. Paula Rester knows that every visit a guest makes to Congress Austin is potentially for a very important meal and one worthy of her full attention. She brings her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to work with her every evening.

“I like to create a fun environment, put on a bit of a show and bring my sense of humor into a conversation about wine,” said Rester. “People come into my restaurant to have a good time. I am here to make sure that happens.”

Rester helped open Congress in 2010 and served as its sommelier for more than a year before departing for a stint as General Manager of Vino Vino. She returned to Congress last fall and has put her stamp on the wine program. Rester is Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators, a Level II Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for the Advanced Exam, which she hopes to take in April 2014.

Rester is banking on her showmanship and poise to bring her the win.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition? 

I entered the competition to get an introduction to the kinds of questions and situations I will find in the Advanced Sommelier exam. I also want to gain some notoriety among the Master Sommelier testers in hopes of being invited to take the Advanced Exam.

What is your method for studying for this competition?

I do blind tasting once or twice a week with several people in the sommelier community, including people who are competing. There is strength in number in blind tastings and I learn a lot from how others tastes. I study wine theory for two hours a day on my own and Vilma Mazaite (Owner of LaV Restaurant and Wine Bar) and I create quizzes for each other. I also like to study with flash cards. Oh, and I have maps of wine regions up around my house.

Why will you win? 

I have no illusions about winning at TEXSOM. If I have a shot at winning, it’s because I intend to enjoy the hell out of myself. I want to have fun and get put through the paces by Master Somms. I might have my ass handed to me, but I’m entering into the competition in the right frame of mind. I keep teasing Scott Ota by telling him I’ve got good money riding on him.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I’m going to double fist with a glass of vintage Blanc de Blancs Champagne in one hand and a Negroni in the other hand to calm the nerves and settle the stomach. Actually I’ll drink whatever Master Somm, Fred Dame, is pouring. I’ve had Fred Dame nightmares by the way.