Austin's premier wine affair attracts national talent like never before

Calling out the best possible wine pairings with excellent cuisine is the name of the game at Somms Under Fire, a national wine and food pairing competition dreamt up by Austin wine impresario Diane Dixon of Keeper Collection.

Held at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on Sunday, January 24, the general public is invited for a night where expert judges test the mettle of three wine professionals in an in-the-moment food and wine pairing challenge, naming one the 2016 Somms Under Fire champion.

The event rundown

It starts with a 4:30 pm VIP wine tasting and education session presented by Napa Valley Vintners with renowned winemakers from Gallica, Louis Martini Winery, Peju, and Long Meadow Ranch Winery. The winemakers will present eight wines, offering VIP guests an opportunity to taste similarities and differences of the regions.

At 6 pm, the competing sommeliers will present cocktail recipes made with Chopin Vodka and inspired by a song from their favorite band. The winner, as selected by Jason Stevens, director of bars and beverage for La Corsha Hospitality Group, and Craig Collins, beverage director of ELM Restaurant Group, will get a competitive advantage in the food and wine pairing competition.

The main event begins at 7 pm. Sommeliers are challenged to match wine from all over the world with dishes prepared by Chef Drew Curren of ELM Restaurant Group. Curren will take inspiration from his restaurants Arro, Italic, and Easy Tiger to create cuisine for the competitors, and the sommeliers will select an appropriate wine to pair with the dishes in front of a panel of expert judges and the audience.

“Somms Under Fire is a great way for people to explore wines and better understand their palate,” says Dixon. “It is a fun way to learn new wine and food pairings and to try them at home. It’s also a way for people to understand the role of a sommelier so they are comfortable working with one at a restaurant.”

June Rodil, the event’s first winner in 2011, will serve as emcee. As a master somm and the wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality, she sees Somms Under Fire as a fun way to learn about wine. “People get to taste a huge range of wines paired with excellent food that you wouldn’t get to taste in a normal night.”

Serious competition

This year marks the first time in five years that there will not be a sommelier from Texas participating for the crown. (Sommeliers from Texas have won each of the last four competitions.)

There was roughly a 25 percent increase in sommeliers taking the exam to earn a coveted spot in the competition, and this was the first year there were more out-of-state applicants. Dixon is excited by this development. “It has always been our goal to attract national competition. We set out to create a competition that sommeliers aspire to have on their resume as they pursue the title of master sommelier.”

The three finalists competing for the title of Somms Under Fire 2016 champion are:

Advanced Sommelier, Luke Boland

Recently appointed wine director at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s first new restaurant in New York in the last decade, La Sirena, Boland got his start three years ago while working at Del Posto. He will also be sitting for his Master Sommelier Diploma Examination-Theory in March.

Advanced Sommelier, Blake Leja

Leja is a district manager at Southern Wine & Spirits in Chicago currently studying for his masters diploma with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Certified Sommelier, Ryan Robinson

Robinson is the manager and sommelier at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Boise, Idaho and is determined to give Idaho some street cred with a solid showing in this competition.

Sitting in judgment

The judging panel includes wine industry luminaries from the U.S. and France: Master Sommelier Craig Collins, Peju winemaker Sara Fowler, Burgundy winemaker Nicolas Rossignol of Domaine Nicolas Rossignol, and Peter Wasserman of Becky Wasserman & Co.

What does it take to win? "The winner will be able to recreate the customer hospitality experience onstage, without getting too geeky about the wine," explains former emcee Devon Broglie. "The folks who have won in the past were able to quickly come up with their pairings, were confident in their choices, and excited by them."

Rodil offers insight on how to score the prize. "First, know how to make a cocktail. Really understand creation rather than assessment of a cocktail. Second, be able to concisely talk about wine. Having excitement and speaking with fluidity about the wine gets you everywhere."

Guests will vote for a fan favorite, who will win a four-day educational trip to Napa Valley. The grand prize is a one-week internship in Burgundy, France, that includes the opportunity to hear from winemakers in the cellars and vineyards of this storied region. In addition, the winner will receive a $2,000 travel grant provided by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

"You can’t pay for an experience like this," explains Rodil. "You just can’t go and do it on your own. There is no way to see that level of wine producer in what is heralded in the best wine region in the world is undoable. It’s an amazing prize."


Tickets to Somms Under Fire are still available: VIP tickets are $130 and general admission is $65.