To be a good sommelier, you have to have a certain charisma... just knowing a lot about wine isn’t going to cut it. And though it helps to have your arsenal of wine keys, service towels, a notepad and a few pens stashed within your suit and a deft skill for whisking a tray of fragile wine glasses around a room along with a bottle of wine, it’s not enough to really bring you success.
To really be good at the job, you have to have to be likable. You have to posses a certain ease of character that makes both amateurs and self-professed wine enthusiasts feel as though they can trust you with their deepest, darkest secrets — or at least their pocketbook.
When it comes to likability, Chris McFall of Paggi House has it in spades. The stylish, fun-loving gentleman has a disarming charm that emanates throughout the room, and as he approaches your table you could easily mistake him for someone who wants to talk baseball stats or music, rather than just your wine selection for the evening. That’s what makes him good.
"McFall’s got the goods. He puts others first and thrives on making his guests happy. There is no doubt he loves what he does which makes it impossible not to love him." - June Rodil"
So good in fact, that he was just nominated as one of the Best New Sommeliers of 2012 by Wine & Spirits Magazine. Each year, the national magazine's team of editors poll the top members of the wine industry to sleuth out young sommeliers from around that country that they feel have the most potential to make a lasting mark in the field.
This year they selected six, and Austin's own McFall was one of them. He’s the only Texan in the group, but he follows a distinguished list of Austin peers who have nabbed the title before him. In 2010, it was Mark Sayre of Trio restaurant at the Four Seasons Austin and in 2011, it was June Rodil of Congress Restaurant.
“It’s really wild that we’ve been given this recognition three years in a row. June and Mark are two of my very best friends and we’ve all worked really hard together as a study group,” says McFall, adding that his win this year makes a sweet victory for this trifecta of sommeliers.
By “study group,” he means specifically for wine knowledge, service and tasting. For a few years now, Sayre, Rodil and McFall have all dedicated countless hours to weekly meetings flipping through flash cards on wine facts; critiquing each other on how better to suggest a food pairing or open a 50-year-old bottle of wine; and how to determine the exact grape, region and vintage of a wine simply by smelling and tasting it.
The end goal for all of this work is to prep for the Advanced and Master sommelier levels through the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). McFall plans to sit for his Advanced exam — the third of four levels in the CMS — while both Rodil and Sayre are working towards their final Master Sommelier level, which can sometimes take a few years to achieve.
It’s not an easy regiment, but when you’ve devoted yourself to a career in wine service, it’s just part of the game. And it helps to be in such good company. Austin’s own Craig Collins of Dalla Terra wine importers and Devon Broglie of Whole Foods Market have achieved the Master Sommelier level and were also originally part of McFall’s study group. And there are a handful of other sommeliers who band together to help each other out, including Scott Ota of the Driskill Grill and Bill Elsey of the Red Room Lounge who just earned his Advanced level certification in August.
But if you ask any of them, they’ll tell you that the dedicated study isn’t just for academic achievement and a few extra letters behind your name.
“We’re just trying to keep each other sharp,” says McFall who explains that depending on restaurant schedules, the study group has often met as early as 6 a.m. and as late as midnight for a study session, but always weekly. “We make sure the practice is hard so the games can be fun.”
""The sommelier with his nose turned in the air who just wants to pop open expensive bottles is crazy. I think the job of a good sommelier is to really put an honest list together." - Chris McFall "
At the age of 28, McFall is still fairly new to the industry, but his love for wine began when he first tasted a bottle of 1968 Bertani Amarone from a friend in college. He worked his way through restaurants such as Georgetown’s Monica’s, Lamberts and Sullivan’s before walking up the stairs at Paggi House four years ago to become the beverage director.
“Getting this award is like Michael Jordan telling a high school freshman basketball player he's got the goods,” says June Rodil. “McFall’s got the goods. He puts others first and thrives on making his guests happy. There is no doubt he loves what he does which makes it impossible not to love him.”
McFall has also looked beyond Austin’s borders to gain a better understanding of the world of wine, traveling to some of the best wine regions in the U.S., not to mention multiple excursions to the great regions of Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux in France. He’s also found value in networking with sommeliers from all over the country at the educational Texas Sommeliers Conference (TexSom) held each year in Dallas.
“It’s like a Star Wars conference for wine geeks,” says McFall. “I’ve met so many people there who have all been a part of helping me get to this point.”
Master Sommelier Devon Broglie, one of the board members of TexSom, has proudly watched McFall grow not only in his education but maturity.
“Chris is one of the brightest young sommeliers in the Texas wine scene,” says Broglie. “He is passionate, knowledgable and has an awesome palate. He also understands the most important element of the guest experience, service. He curates a focused beverage program with plenty of variety for all tastes and budgets and is always eager to help his guests find their perfect bottle of wine on the list.”
And that’s really what it's all about: service. You really can’t be good at service if you don’t have that aforementioned quality of charisma. McFall is, indeed, likable. But he also makes the subject of wine accessible to everyone he serves.
“The sommelier with his nose turned in the air who just wants to pop open expensive bottles is crazy. I think the job of a good sommelier is to really put an honest list together. It has to be something you believe in, but you also have to really find out what somebody likes, what they’re eating and whether they’re willing to take the walk off the beaten path. We’re very fortunate to have people in Austin who like to have that experience,” says McFall.
“I’m always looking for people who are interested in wine but need someone to kind of show them the way and watch them grow. Because without people reaching out and helping me along the way, I would not be where I am today.”