With her gin-based cocktail inspired by Beyoncé and a trio of daring wine-and-food pairings created in front of a live audience, Chicago-based Advanced Sommelier Jill Zimorski swept the awards at the seventh annual Somms Under Fire competition in Austin, Texas.
Held January 28 at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, Somms Under Fire "showcases the essence of what a sommelier's job should be, which is service," says James Tidwell, one of the four Master Sommeliers on the judging panel. "Our goal as sommeliers is to allow guest to have a wonderful time and to facilitate that."
For this year's event, Somms Under Fire Founder Diane Dixon's wine, food, and travel company Keeper Collection formed a strategic alliance with TEXSOM and the TEXSOM International Wine Awards. TEXSOM's annual August conference in Dallas is one of the nation's most respected gatherings of wine professionals, and its February wine awards draw nearly 4,000 entries from around the globe.
While Master Sommelier Devon Broglie, the event's co- emcee, believes that "to this day, folks still feel intimidated by wine." he says gatherings like Somms Under Fire aim to accommodate both experts and novices by "focusing on translating expertise into terms that anyone can understand." "It's about being able to speak to a high-end collector and also to talk to someone who rarely drinks wine." explains Broglie, who serves as the GlobalWine Buyer for Whole Foods Market." At Somms Under Fire, we get to watch them do it all in the moment in front of a crowd."
The creative synergy between TEXSOM and Keeper Collection- with their respective focuses on industry education and consumers- paved the way for a year of "firsts" at Somms Under Fire, including the event's first Champagne sponsor, the iconic French Champagne house Taittinger. The sheer talent and energy at the event- between the 20- plus volunteer somms facilitating the evening's service, the seven Master Sommeliers attending, and the banter between Broglie and co-emcee June Rodil- meant we were in for a memorable evening of laughter, learning, and beautifully-paired wine and food.
An hour before the doors opened to the new Zlotnik Family Ballroom, the sold-out crowd mingled for pre-dinner cocktails in the new Rowling Hall, with internationally- known artist José Parlá's mural 25-foot-tall mural "Amistad América" serving as a striking backdrop. As we waited, we cast our votes for one of the three petite drinks made with Citadelle Gin as part of the Citadelle Gin de France Cocktail Challenge (Somms Under Fire selects a different spirit for the competition each year).
Just a few days prior, the three finalists- Zimorski and fellow Advanced Sommeliers Nick Davis of Seattle and Michael "Mick" Descamps of Detroit- had received the rules for the competition: Their cocktail needed to highlight the botanicals of Citadelle while drawing inspiration from the contestant's favorite song.
Davis emulated the Isley Brothers cover of "Summer Breeze" through his Summer Derby cocktail with grapefruit juice and honey syrup, while Descamps called on his love for the Beastie Boys to dream up a spicy libation called the Paul Revere. Zimorski's winning creation BK I Slay, a clever gin spin on the Scotch-based Penicillin cocktail, took inspiration from Beyoncé's now-ubiquitous mantra to create a syrup flavored with tea, kelp, coffee, and other aromatics to mimic then smoky notes of single malt Scotch. "We couldn't use other spirits, just gin," Zimorski told the crowd. "So I took all these flavors components you'd find in an Islay Scotch and put them in a syrup."
The contestants certainly didn't have long to rest before conquering their next challenge. After the cocktail competition wrapped, we settled in the ballroom to experience their food and wine pairings. From a roster of 12 wines chosen from the TEXSOM International Wines Awards submissions, contestants handpicked selections to accompany The Carillon restaurant's rich foie gras tart and sous-vide lberico pork chop, with a dessert course of cheeses from Austin-based Antonelli's Cheese Shop.
Zimorski's winning wines- a Dr. Loosen Riesling GG with the tart, a Campo Viejo Rioja Gran Reserve with the pork, and a Rodney Strong Cabernet Reserve for the cheese course- earned her both the judges' award and the "Fan Favorite" honor. Zimorski's prizes include a weeklong internship in Burgundy with a travel grant from the TEXSOM Foundation, as well as a trip to Seattle to experience the Taste Washington wine and food festival in March.
"As a perpetual student, I encourage everyone I know to take every opportunity to enter contestants and go on enrichment trips," Zimorski says, adding she was "utterly thrilled" to visit Burgundy for the first time. "That's the incredible thing with this industry- the friendships you make around the world."