It is June Rodil's 34th birthday and she's spending part of it cloistered in the Napoleon Room at Jeffrey's, taking a break from receiving, sorting, and putting away dozens upon dozens of bottles of wine. This particular day marks two and a half weeks since starting her new position as beverage director at McGuire Moorman Hospitality group – comprising Jeffrey's, Josephine House, Clark's, Lamberts, Perla's, and Elizabeth Street Café – and she's hit the ground running.
One of Food & Wine magazine's Sommeliers of the Year for 2014, Rodil is one of those lucky folks who get to do what they love – and what they're good at – for a living. For Rodil, that means a work life immersed in wine: tasting it, buying it, teaching people about it, and guiding diners to the perfect pairing to accompany their dinner. Like many success stories, Rodil didn't plan on a career in hospitality; it found her.
Rodil, who was born in the Philippines and raised in Dallas, moved to Austin in 1998 to study English at the University of Texas. Like many college students do, she sought work in the service industry, landing a job as a cocktail waitress at the Driskill. As she completed her degree, she moved up the ranks from bartender to dining room captain in the swanky Driskill Grill, slowly gaining more independent control of the wine program under the mentorship of Scott Walker. While she'd planned to pursue a law degree, her love of food and drink led her to follow her passion in lieu of the paper chase.
From the Driskill, Rodil sought a position at Uchi, joining initially as a server but rapidly ascending to sommelier and eventually opening Uchiko with her friend and future employer, Paul Qui. During her tenure with the Uchi Restaurants group, Rodil competed in and won the Texas' Best Sommelier competition in 2009, which garnered her not only some serious bragging rights, but also a $3,000 scholarship to continue her wine education and certification. The following year, Walker, who serves as the vice president of operations with the La Corsha Hospitality Group, recruited her to help open the acclaimed Downtown operation, where she managed the beverage program for David Bull's high-end Congress along with the adjoining Bar Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen.
After two years there, she made a high-profile, career-changing jump to director of operations for Paul Qui's burgeoning empire, a job that entailed assembling a restaurant group from the ground up, from vetting real estate agents to hiring building contractors to determining the need for a comptroller. "She's extremely professional and works really hard to educate herself about the industry. I love working with people that have a passion," says Qui of his former colleague. Running the business of Austin's highest-profile chef is by anyone's estimation the best possible career move one could make in the hospitality industry, and Rodil wouldn't disagree.
"[It gave] me great job security to understand how the entire business works," says Rodil, but the experience also made her realize that her professional growth needed to balance new challenges while staying rooted in her oenophilic pursuits. "I would be bored if I were just on the floor, pulling corks," she laughs, but as it turns out, the position at Qui provided a little too much growth.
"I loved my time at Qui and I learned so much, but as the days went on, I was getting further and further away from the thing that I'm known for and that I love the most," says Rodil. "More often than not, I was having to say no to tastings with reps or other things that would help me grow as a beverage person or a wine professional because our group was growing." As it happens, Rodil's longtime friend and former co-worker at the Driskill and Congress, Rebecca Meeker, is the executive chef of the McGuire Moorman group, and the two started having conversations along the lines of, "What if we worked together again?" From Meeker's point of view, having Rodil on the McGuire Moorman team is the ultimate get.
"Her knowledge of wine is mind-blowing to me," says Meeker. "As her friend, I knew of her love for wine, but it wasn't until we worked together at Congress that I realized how good she was at all things wine. She taught me how to season food with wine pairings. She is able to describe to a guest the way wine tastes and smells that makes them feel comfortable and, more importantly, excited about what they are drinking. Now, she is creating wine lists that are being talked about nationally and recognized by her food and wine peers."
To be a successful sommelier, says Rodil, "you have to love food and wine. And if you're not on the floor, you don't know what people want, and you're just making lists for yourself. You have to love hospitality. The reason I do this is that I want to make people feel the way I want to feel when I go out to eat."
This philosophy bears itself out in the testimonials provided by Rodil's longtime guests. Dr. Stephen Sonnenberg, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who teaches in various programs at UT-Austin, along with his wife Dale, have sought out Rodil since first encountering her at the Driskill in 2000. "We immediately loved her: She knew food, wine, and was just a very friendly and supersmart person," writes Dr. Sonnenberg in an email. "We would advise her about her future, we told her to leave Austin and go to law school at NYU. Then we told her to leave Austin so she could learn more about food and wine. We were totally wrong on both counts!"
Ann Seals, a Houston-area resident who first encountered Rodil at the Driskill in 2006 while out celebrating her son's 21st birthday, writes that she and her husband have seen Rodil grow professionally while maintaining her cheerful personality. "What we find absolutely engaging is that she has not changed one iota in her demeanor and exuberance for every customer that she comes in contact with," writes Seals. "Being June's guest is like no other for us. First you immediately feel like she is a good friend talking to you about what she loves. Her descriptions of the wines and why she paired them with the course you are eating are not formal and stiff but warm and engaging. She makes you excited to try new things and new wines that you may not think you would enjoy."
Indeed, by all rights, June Rodil is a success story parents dream of for their children: a good education, a powerful work ethic, a passion and drive to keep learning, and a growing national reputation in her chosen profession. What's more, she is beloved of her friends and colleagues. Says Craig Collins, a Master Sommelier, former wine distributor, and current beverage director for ELM Restaurant Group (Arro, Easy Tiger, 24 Diner), "She has always been one of the most professional and organized buyers to deal with. Her passion, knowledge, and bubbly attitude make her a standout in the field. She is also a lot of fun to drink with!"
And yet, there's one accomplishment that eludes her: successful completion of the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam in the Court of Master Sommeliers. While Rodil is an Advanced Sommelier and has passed the tasting and service portions of the Master-level exam, she has one more chance to pass the theory portion before she has to start all over. This particular hurdle makes Rodil somewhat circumspect: If she doesn't pass it next year, does she continue her pursuit of the Master certification? Or does she let her body of work speak for itself, and continue the quest for growth as a wine professional? Is it really that important to be a member of the Court?
There are some who would argue – this writer included – that Rodil should continue her pursuit of the Master certification because there need to be more female Master Sommeliers. Out of the 140 people holding the title in North America, only 21 are women. We as a culture are in a weird feminist moment, negotiating a tension between the need for more representation of women in fields where they have typically been underrepresented – chefs, sommeliers, engineers, CEOs – and a distaste for the qualifier of "lady chef," "lady sommelier," and so on. Theoretically, more representation of women in these fields will negate the use of the qualifier.
Rodil is aware of this paradox, but for her it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. "I'm not going to lie, there are definitely a lot more dude Master Somms out there than ladies, but we've also gotta open our eyes and understand that Jancis Robinson is one of the most wonderful wine educators and writers of our time, but she's not in the Court. There are wonderful women winemakers everywhere. There are definitely other outlets.
"People do still expect the image of the male sommelier. I don't take offense when someone is surprised that I'm their sommelier; I find it kind of funny. I promise I will still pick out a really good bottle of wine for you," she laughs, wholeheartedly and honestly, the kind of laughter that both convinces you to trust her and also to invite her to sit down and share that bottle with you.
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.