Ten of Austin's Top Sommeliers
As we wind down our Drink, Drank, Drunk issue and as Somm winds down its run at the Violet Crown Theater, we spoke to 10 trendsetters and tastemakers in the Austin wine scene.
Our focus is on members of The Court of Master Sommeliers. The Court is one of a handful of certification bodies dealing with wine knowledge; all study is self-led and the tests are grueling – focused on blind tasting, theoretical knowledge, and trying service exams. Candidates have the opportunity to test through four levels: Introductory, Certified, Advanced, and Masters. The last two require an invitation to sit for the exams, and the highest level, Masters, has around a 10% passing rate; only 201 people have passed since its inception in 1969.
Texas has an important sommelier presence in the nation with the TexSom conference running its ninth year in Dallas this August. TexSom was started by two Masters Drew Hendricks and James Tidwell and offers a wealth of knowledge to anyone enthusiastic about wine. It also offers a difficult Top Texas Sommelier competition for those who have passed the Certified level. The test draws contestants from all over the state to compete and out of the last eight years, four winners were Austin sommeliers. We are lucky to have such talent in this town.
Below is our look at 10 of the top sommeliers in Austin and their influence on our local wine industry. Each entry is followed by their Twitter handle, so you can follow them yourself.
Dalla Terra – Craig Collins, MS
We start at the top with Master Sommelier Craig Collins, working with Italian importer Dalla Terra as the South Central Regional Manager. To be clear, the American wine industry functions on a three-tier system: importers and suppliers who discover and bring wine into the market, distributors who sell wine to the stores and restaurants, and retail establishments who provide wine directly to customers. Master Collins is influencing at the top tier, seeking out new wines and managing a vast portfolio of hand-selected bottles from Italy.
We asked him about the role of an importer in the Austin beverage scene and he said, “Importers and distributors are often overlooked as tastemakers. They are the ones showing wine buyers the new trends.” He explained there are many talented and knowledgeable people building wine portfolios at the restaurant level around town, but the majority of establishments rely on suppliers and sales representatives to educate them on the next hot thing. Collins spends at least two weeks in Italy every year, traveling and tasting, in search of undiscovered treasures. His new favorite? Wines from the Mt Etna region in Sicily made from the nerello mascalese grape. “It’s like a cross between Barbaresco and great red Burgundy – definitely some of the most exciting wines in the world right now. No one knows about them in Texas yet, but they will.”
Collins is involved in every step of wine selection and enjoyment. In addition to researching and discovering new wines, he spends a lot of time educating sales and restaurant staff, as well as hosting wine dinners and talking directly to customers. In his free time, he donates to the wine community in town, helping to coordinate and host events, educate wine professionals and the public.
To see if one your wines is a Dalla Terra selection, look on the back of your bottle for their importer label. @ccollinsms
Whole Foods Market – Devon Broglie, MS
Master Sommelier Devon Broglie has been with Whole Foods Market since 2001, starting as a beer specialist in Durham, North Carolina. In following years, he held several hands-on positions buying and selling wine, from a wine specialist in Sante Fe and Plano, to the wine and beer buyer for their Southwest region. He now oversees all the specialty departments as the Executive Coordinator of Purchasing for the Southwest region; this entails watching trends and driving a vision on product selections, including wine.
The job keeps him on the road most of the time, but when he is in Austin, he’s busy educating hopeful sommeliers and volunteering for several wine events, including Ribera del Duero, Somms Under Fire, and the Food and Wine Foundation of Texas' Rare and Fine Wine Auction. @dbrogues
Qui – June Rodil
Advanced Sommelier and General Manager of Qui June Rodil has several restaurant wine lists with her stamp. She was beverage director at Uchi, then opened Congress, building their list from scratch. She has numerous professional awards under her belt as well, including Best Texas Sommelier in 2009, and Best New Sommelier from Wine and Spirits Magazine in 2011. Her list at Congress was recognized by Wine Enthusiast Magazine as one of the top 100 in the nation.
When we asked her to describe the method for building Qui’s list, she emphasized working in tandem with Chef Paul Qui, his vision, and spontaneity. “We're not about stable wine lists here, we're about what goes best. And have you ever worked with Paul? He's creative and loves throwing out new ideas every second. My biggest hurdle will be keeping up with him. The thing I'm least worried about? Boredom.” She is also focused on wines that work with Texas heat and the light proteins on the menu, as well as the overall restaurant personality, which she describes as "a little zany and a lot passionate.”
The front and back of the house staff at Qui underwent an integrated four-week training, including the dishwashers. Rodil taught them to calibrate their palates and to understand the structure and pairing abilities of the wines. Although diners may not find all the familiar choices on Rodil's list, a server can help you select a wine that fits your preferences and excites the palate. It’s a great environment to discover something new to love, then visit often to experience something different. @junerodil
Trio – Mark Devin Sayre
Mark Sayre, an Advanced Sommelier and Beverage Director of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, has been working with the wine program at Trio for six years, starting a few months before they opened. He began serving in their café, before there was any consideration of a full-time sommelier position, but when Sayre won Best Texas Sommelier in 2007, and the restaurant underwent renovations, they reconsidered their approach.
Turns out it was a wise choice. Sayre has built a wide-ranging list with wines at all price points and from all over the world, including by the glass selections from Texas. Studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers has influenced his selections: “Because of my study, it translates to how I create this list. I try to cover the globe and have a dynamic list in terms of what I offer. The food concept is really a blessing – simple ingredients done well. It leaves the wine list open.” It is important to Sayre to offer wines that are food-friendly and true to their region, representing the best it has to offer. “I like picking the small family guys that do it right.”
Sayre is dapper on the floor, dressed in a suit and elegant in his speech, but his approach is anything but intimidating. His goal is help guests find a wine they like, in their budget, and with no judgment. He says his job is to be a good people reader and give them the best wine possible: “The best wine is one they are happiest with, and most comfortable with, so they come back again. It’s about building a relationship.” @markdevinsayre
The Red Room – Bill Elsey
Advanced Sommelier, winner of Best Texas Sommelier in 2011, and manager of Red Room, Bill Elsey has created a unique space to enjoy wine in Austin. Set like a speakeasy, there is no name on the door, no windows to peer in. You have to find the red-light-lined awning and step through a set of heavy curtains to descend into a basement set with several living rooms; on some nights, it’s password protected. It’s the top spot for Austin wine enthusiasts.
The Red Room is connected to wines.com and personalwine.com, so the bottle and constantly changing by the glass lists are diverse and span most of the globe. There is always something to explore. Elsey is the young, handsome gentleman, often manning the bar. Tell him what you like and relax into the skill of his selection. @billelsey
Congress, Bar Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen – Paula Rester
Paula Rester, Certified Sommelier and Wine Director, has returned to Congress to run their wine program, two years after helping open the establishment as a server and commis sommelier. Rester has a rich history in wine, from working at Uchi with June Rodil, to managing VinoVino and leading their wine program. She said at Congress much of Rodil’s work will remain the same, but the list is gradually shifting to include Rester’s eclectic taste, especially as more wines are available in Texas and new, exciting producers emerge. She has a passion for discovery and is continually exploring new options, especially natural wines from small producers. One of her favorites right now is pinot noir from Antica Terra in Oregon. She said the wines crafted by winemaker Maggie Harrison are sustainably grown and beautifully balanced. Her wines by the glass list changes regularly as well, reflecting the nature of the seasons.
Congress has developed a reputation for offering flawless food pairings with its three- and seven-course prix-fixe menus. That is no accident. Rester said she works closely with Chef David Bull to develop exciting and balanced flavors across the meal. She explained it’s a culture of conversation and experimentation where everyone’s voice is considered. The staff has a 45-minute pre-shift meeting every day where they taste food, wines, cocktails, and new spirits and learn how to talk about and pair them. “It’s a place where you can show up every day and be inspired,” says Rester. @pollydell
Driskill Grill – Scott Ota
Scott Ota, Certified Sommelier and Wine Captain of the Driskill Grill, is making wine geeks out of his servers. For two years now, he has offered free wine training for the staff, and the majority come religiously and focus hard on their studies. All but one have passed at least the Introductory level of the Court and several are preparing to be certified. When we spoke, education of his staff and pride in their dedication was Ota's number one priority.
His wine list reflects that education. Ota is responsible for maintaining and keeping fresh a 400 bottle selection for the restaurant and he does so almost exclusively on taste. "When I taste a wine, I don't look at the price sheet or the label. They create a bias." He searches for wines of quality and value and shies away from point ratings: "The only thing it alerts me to is the price has gone up and it has lost its value." His list is well balanced between new and old world selections and he seeks out versatility. At this moment, rieslings are quickly gaining a strong place because of their variability, pairing potential, and value for the price. He hopes to have the largest riesling selection in Austin by the end of summer. @scottota
Chris McFall, Certified Sommelier, is his own entity. He worked with Paggi House for 5 years, fighting hard to build their incredible, Burgundian driven wine list. He left them this March to start as a General Manager and beverage director at a new unnamed restaurant, slotted to open in sometime in the next two years.
His influence on Paggi was unmistakable. He was unwavering in his vision to develop a truly international wine program with selections from almost every region and in every price range, from $30 to $5,000. He said it took some convincing of his investors, asking for forgiveness instead of permission sometimes. But his efforts made Paggi one of the top wine locations in this city, and certainly the top location for the best Champagnes and Burgundies. In addition to his restaurant work, he travels to Burgundy to help collectors build their wine cellars. “I am a Sherpa for wine buyers,” he jokes.
He is already building the wine list for the new restaurant and plans a similar design of breadth and depth, as well as an aggressive by the glass program, so guests can easily try new things. Heads up future somms: “I plan on having several sommeliers on the floor and hope wine geeks will come running to the restaurant to fill those positions.” @c_mcfall
Paggi House – Lauren Holbrook
Lauren Holbrook, Certified Sommelier and Wine Buyer at Paggi House has been a sommelier on the floor for four years, working closely with Chris McFall to build their list. She moved into the Wine Buyer position a month ago and plans to maintain McFall’s vision while adding a taste of her own. Holbrook’s passion lies in “Wines with soul, farmer wines.” We talked about “Garage” style wines, like the MOVI (Movimiento de Vinateros Indepedentes) selections coming out of Chile – small producers (literally families in garages) using only traditional techniques to produce high quality, high value wines true to the region and the purity of the grape. It’s a pushback against the consolidated industry that controlled Chile for so long. That sort of renegade, integrity-driven production inspires Holbrook and will be inspiring her list.
And Holbrook is about the most charming personality in the business: genuine, graceful, and unafraid to laugh. When she said she wants people to feel comfortable and loves to read between the lines to find something they love, we believed her wholeheartedly. She is a rising star is in this town and one to watch.
Wine for the People – Rae Wilson
Rae Wilson, Certified Sommelier, started her business Wine for the People to offer consulting, wine event planning, and marketing. She consults on several lists in town, including the phenomenal Whip In selection, Thai Fresh and Snack Bar, helping them build a dynamic portfolio to match their food. Or in the case of the Whip In, offer a little bit of everything from all over the world at extremely good prices. That price point is important in all of her projects; she wants quality wine to be accessible to everyone.
Her focus is on wines from smaller producers made with minimal manipulation and intervention; she has no interest in mass marketed, mass produced food or drink. “Wine is food. Only 5-15% is alcohol, so what is the other 85% to 95%? It’s food matter and it shouldn’t be manipulated,” she explained. That passion came from working in wine cellars across Napa, Portugal, and the Alsace region in France and having her hands in the product, working with it from grape to bottle. As it stands now, wine labels do not have to list all the ingredients used in making the wine, so Wilson spends a significant amount of time researching every producer to understand their philosophy and techniques.
She is also helping Texas wineries Lewis Wines and Compass Rose Cellars market themselves in Austin, arranging events and tastings around town. She holds wine classes for the restaurant staff and she is planning to start public classes again soon. @wine4thepeople
As a sidenote, three of our Advanced Sommeliers: June Rodil, Nathan Prater (formally of the Driskill Grill), and Mark Sayre are in Dallas for their Masters exam this week. That is an incredible showing for Austin. We wish them luck and good wines.
Read more stories behind the bar and deep in the jigger at austinchronicle.com/drink-drank-drunk. The Austin Chronicle's Drink Drank Drunk issue hit stands Wednesday, July 3.