What does it take to become the best sommelier in Texas? According to the panel of Master Sommelier's who judge for the special distinction each year at the Texas Sommeliers Conference (TEXSOM), it takes a LOT of hard work and then some.
TEXSOM is an annual conference held at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Las Colinas where sommeliers and wine industry professionals gather for a few days of networking, seminars on wine trends, regions and varieties and multiple wine tastings. Presented by the not-for-profit organizations the Texas Sommelier Association and the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas, it’s the only conference of its kind in the United States and, for the past 8 years, it has drawn more than 2,200 attendees from across the country.
“Every year, the conference reflects greater diversity,” says James Tidwell, Master Sommelier and co-founder of TEXSOM, along with Master Sommelier Drew Hendricks of Pappas Bros. in Houston. “This year we featured an amazing vertical tasting with celebrated winemaker Serge Hochar, who traveled all the way from Lebanon and shared wines dating back to 1969. We created this event to serve our local community and in doing so, we inadvertently attracted top talent from across the world because TEXSOM is unique.”
And while the conference features a number of expert wine educators, winery owners, wine makers and Master Sommeliers, the Best Texas Sommelier competition is one of the most anticipated events at TEXSOM. Each year 20 Texas sommeliers are selected to compete for the title. They must be from Texas and they cannot compete if they have already passed the Court of Master Sommelier's Advanced exam.
(Note: The Court of Master Sommeliers is the international examining body of Master Sommeliers. To become a Master Sommelier, you have to pass the Level 1, Certified, Advanced and Master exams. There are only 180 Master Sommeliers in the world. Only 94 in the U.S. And as of July, there are six in Texas, two of which are from Austin, Devon Broglie of Whole Foods and Craig Collins of Glazer's Distributors.)
This year six competitors were from Austin: Bill Elsey of Duchman Family Winery; Chris McFall and Lauren Holbrook of the Paggi House; Scott Ota of The Driskill Grill; Brad Sharp of Fonda San Miguel; and Nathan Prater of Spec's Wine.
In the days leading up to the competition, I checked in with a couple of our Austin sommeliers to see how confident they were feeling. For Chris McFall, preparing for the competition has been a progression of dedicated study throughout the past few years.
Having conquered his Introductory and Certified exams in 2008, he was encouraged, or bullied, depending on whom you talk to, by fellow sommelier Craig Collins of Glazer’s Distributors (one of the most recent Master Sommeliers in Texas), to compete in the prestigious TEXSOM competition. McFall, 27, spent time in a study group with Collins along with a few other notable Austin somms including Master Sommelier Devon Broglie of Whole Foods Market, June Rodil of Congress restaurant and Mark Sayre of Trio restaurant to take his understanding of theory, blind tasting and service to another level.
“Craig said I had to compete whether I liked it or not,” says McFall. “ My first year I made a lot of significant mistakes and felt like I could have been the butt end of a lot of jokes for the Master sommeliers who were judging me that day. But my second year I did better, and this is my third year. I feel good about it; like I’m not throwing darts in the dark anymore and I really have to thank TEXSOM for that.”
For fellow competitor Bill Elsey, 27, preparing for the competition in a study group was crucial. With a background as a restaurant general manager, wine steward, tasting room manager for Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood and now as a Director of Sales for D’Amore Wine Selections distributing company, Elsey’s wine background is strong, but not strong enough to ace this type of exam without a little help from his friends.
He paired up with Austin somms Nathan Prater and Scott Ota. "The study group is key," says Elsey. "We've been studying since April on wine knowledge, history, grape varietals and more. About two months before the competition we bumped our sessions to twice a week in addition to a blind tasting on a separate day. We'd probably blind taste a case of wine a week."
That's right, a case of wine a week. What does it mean to blind taste a wine? First, you’re given a wine without knowing what it is and your job is to use deductive reasoning to analyze the sight, smell and taste of the wine to determine the grape varietal, the country and region of origin and the vintage. It’s not easy. But it explains why tasting a dozen different wines a week trains the eyes, nose and taste buds to narrow down a fine list of possibilities during the test.
The Exam day for the 20 competitors looked like this:
At 7:45, all sommeliers were checked in for a 45-minute short answer exam including questions on anything from the common grape varietals of the Southern Rhone Valley of France to common grapevine diseases. (NOTE: These are example questions; the actual questions from the exam are not publicly revealed.)
Following the written exam was the tasting examination in which each sommelier stood before a panel of Master Sommeliers to blind taste, analyze and draw a final conclusion on four different wines in 16 minutes. The final conclusion requires sommeliers to determine a grape varietal, the country and region (appellation) of origin and the specific vintage (year the grapes were harvested).
Finally, the sommeliers were required to complete the service examination. Competitors walk into a room arranged with three different stations: one that requires a food and wine pairing; one that requires competitors to identify a selection of spirits (gin, vodka, whiskey, etc.) by nose; and one that requires competitors to flawlessly complete a red wine decanting service as performed in a fine dining environment.
"The service portion was the most difficult because you have to control your nerves while you serve a glass of wine in front of 10 Master Sommeliers," says Elsey. "They ask you questions while you're doing it too and you have to be able to answer with authority. When you're finished you need a Campari and jump in the pool to unwind."
I bumped into McFall in the hallway after he completed his test. His deer-in-the-headlights expression told me his nerves were on edge from the service exam. When I asked how he did, he looked straight through me and let out a delayed response, "Uhhh, good… I need to grab a stiff drink and walk this off."
Competitors had to wait a whole day before the results were revealed. But the myriad Sommeliers ducking in and out of TEXSOM seminars, not to mention the many hospitality suites featuring wines from around the world, were enough to distract them for the long wait.
In the end results were revealed at the Grand Tasting, the final event of the conference featuring hundreds of wines. It turns out Austin showed well with Bill Elsey claiming the first prize title and Nathan Prater nabbing second place.
“I’m excited to have put in the hard work and bring the trophy back to Austin. And I’m thrilled that one of my Austin study partners got second place. It proves we really pushed each other in the right direction,” says Elsey, whose goal this year was to achieve his Certified Specialist of Spirits, Certified Port, Certified Champagne, and Certified Educator Wine certifications along with the TEXSOM award this year before sitting for his Advanced sommelier exam in April 2012—a big year for the young wine enthusiast, but one he’s passing with flying colors. “That’s why TEXSOM is such an amazing opportunity. There’s no way I’d have things to work towards without it and you’re around so many like-minded people and I feel so fortunate to be a part of the Austin wine community.”
Elsey received a scholarship of $2,500 from the Guild of Sommeliers Education Foundation to be used for a Court of Master Sommeliers certification program. Nathan Prater from Spec’s Wine, Spirits and Finer Foods secured the first runner up spot and a $1,500 scholarship, and David Keck from the Prestige Division of Glazer’s Distributing was recognized as second runner up and given a $1,000 scholarship.
In McFall’s case, all is not lost. “It’s such a rush just to compete and there’s nothing quite like it. It’s a great preparation tool and every year is always a great learning experience,” says McFall, who intends to come back again next year for the competition. “Win, lose, or draw, you meet so many great people and even though you may not get the bragging rights, you are still in an amazing learning environment.”
All this talk of wine may be making you thirsty—at least it is for me. So, follow my lead, pour yourself a tasty vino and raise your glass to Austin’s competitors like McFall who attempted the challenge this year, and to Bill Elsey for making the Capital City proud with his Texas’ Best Sommelier 2011 trophy!