Written by Phil Cerroni
There is a group of epicures which has existed almost unbeknownst to the people they serve every day. They are everywhere: you see them in restaurants, you read about them in the newspaper but unless you know their secret heraldry, you will rarely realize you met one.
They are America’s sommeliers, a small but prestigious group of individuals who have dedicated themselves to the art of wine, and they gathered at the Four Seasons in Irving to for the 8th annual Texas Sommelier Conference (TEXSOM) and the Texas’ Best Sommelier competition on the weekend of Aug. 11-12.
Fred Dame, a member of the English Court of Master Sommeliers and the man who established the tradition to America, elaborated on the significance of TEXSOM.
“This event is two-fold,” Dame said. “First of all, it’s to support the hospitality industry and the sommelier profession in the State of Texas and to show the great food and wine we have here. Most of all, it’s to have a great time drinking wine and eating food because, in the end, that’s why we all do this – otherwise it’d be pounding nails.”
Sommeliers from all around the nation attend TEXSOM every year in order to hone their skills. Julie Dalton, a sommelier at the Four Seasons in Baltimore, MD has been coming to TEXSOM for three years.
“This is like a sommelier’s dream come true – über-geeky seminars with amazing people. It’s my favorite thing – I look forward to it every year,” Dalton said. “Wine is the most multi-disciplinary subject there is. It’s exciting to be able to talk about the weather, religion, biochemistry, taxonomy and geology in one conversation. No meal is complete without wine – to be able to talk about that all day long –who wouldn’t want to be able to do that?”
Although it takes a lifetime to become a true master sommelier, even at the entry level, certified and advanced certified sommeliers are vigorously tested to prove their worthiness to serve as the moral compass of America wine drinkers and restaurant goers. Mike De La Vega, a certified sommelier at Biga on the Banks in San Antonio talked about some of the tasks that aspiring sommeliers must face.
“Level 1 is a seventy-two to seventy-five question theory examination all on paper,” Biga said. “Level 2 is a very similar theory examination on paper followed by one white and one red in a blind setting. You deduct what the wine isn’t to determine what the wine possibly is. The third scenario in level 2 is the service examination in which you enter a room and you have Master Sommeliers at a circular table as if they were in a dining setting asking you questions off the top of their heads such as how do you make a Sidecar or what’s in a Cosmopolitan. Wine, liquor, beer, sake, cigars – a Master is a walking encyclopedia of beverages in the restaurant setting.”
De La Vega was also one of the participants in this year’s Texas’ Best Sommelier competition, which besides being a chance for young sommeliers to face off with each other, is a scholarship opportunity for continuing education in the field. He revealed some of the rigorous challenges competitors were subjected to.
“When I walked into my theoretical examination, it was a four page exam, fifty to sixty very difficult and particular questions that your average clientele are not asking for,” De La Vega said. “The second part of our examination had to do with our blind setting. The blind setting that I experienced yesterday was two whites and two reds in front of me on a table with a panel of four Master Sommeliers. The third part was a service examination where the Master Sommelier would say “I’m going to have a Sidecar to start off with as an aperitif; make it - the bar’s right there.’”
Although it might be easy for sommeliers to put on airs of superiority, Dame said that this is completely contrary to what being a sommelier is all about.
“Wine is fun. It’s not a challenge, it’s not an exercise, it’s not a board game,” he said. “The real adventure of wine is the fact that it’s not the same. It’s not like going to buy ‘X’ brand of beer because it’s what you’ve been drinking for the last twenty years of your life. Even if you buy the same brand of wine, every vintage is going to change. You never have the same experience twice, and I think that’s really a cool thing.”