Spotlight: Austin

When we came to Austin about ten years ago, the professional wine community was pretty nonexistent, at least from a standpoint of people actively pursuing education in the service industry. We were introduced to each other by Guy Stout and soon found ourselves studying together for a few years, eventually achieving our Master Sommelier pins. Along the way, we had a few join us in the pursuit, including Mark Sayre and June Rodil. But eventually that number grew.

Austin's come a long way. Sure, it's known for live music, outdoor recreation, a robust dining scene, and an (unfortunate) association with slackers, hipsters and keeping the city weird. But it's also become a haven for wine professionals! Much of that is due to the evolving restaurant industry here. There's a vibrancy of creative energy coming from chefs and restaurateurs that has garnered the city a speedy ascent to national acclaim with a large media following and a couple of James Beard Awards embellishing its appeal. 

Austin is at the forefront of American cities for tourism right now. And it's forced us to up our game in terms of service. Part of that evolution has included more emphasis on bringing in beverage professionals to the restaurant model to complement the creativity of chefs with well-appointed wine and cocktail menus. The shift towards a more deliberate beverage program has prompted more and more people to see that opportunity as a real career path. 

But it's important to note that it's the Austin consumer that has driven such an uptick in beverage professionalism. If they aren't already living in Austin, chances are the average person sitting at a bar, eating at the latest hot restaurant, or strolling the wine aisles at Whole Foods is visiting from another large city. And they're usually looking for something a little more interesting than an over-oaked Cali Chard. Austin consumers are a lot more savvy when it comes to wine. Beyond that, they're eager to learn more than they already know. That has translated to a need for beverage professionals who can help meet their demand. 

Ten years ago, finding a wide variety of wines either in retail locations or in restaurants was difficult. But with a more progressive dining scene alongside an influx of highly educated, moderate- to high-income consumers in the city, the demand for more specialized wine programs has increased. 

At some point we lost track of everyone who was in this with us. What started as a small group working towards specific goals within the Court of Master Sommeliers—and in our own careers—has proliferated into a community of like-minded beverage professionals; we had more than 60 attend a city-wide sommelier meeting we put together last fall. Now there are dozens of study groups that have cropped up to help each other out with service, blind tasting, and theory.  Looking back on how this community has grown, we're amazed at how things have flourished here. A decade ago, there was no one to work with. But now, we're organizing field trips to the Hill Country wineries in our free time for more than 40 people. And we've had six Austin sommeliers take the title for TEXSOM's "Best Texas Sommelier" out of the 10 years it's been running. Really, this group of wine professionals is a reflection of what Austin is in general: a young, vibrant community that is open to new things and giving. There's a sense of camaraderie here that we've never felt anywhere else.   

- Craig Collins MS, ELM Restaurant Group and Devon Broglie MS, Whole Foods Market

Featured below are a few of Austin's dynamic sommeliers sharing their thoughts on the Capital City: June Rodil (beverage director, McGuire Moorman Hospitality), Mark Sayre (service director, ELM Restaurant Group), Joelle Cousins (sommelier/general manager, Red Room Lounge), Scott Ota (sommelier, Arro) Lauren Holbrook (sommelier, Jeffrey's)

How would you characterize the Austin Sommelier community? 

Mark: You know, I've been in this for a while and I'm just proud of where it's come and the ever-increasing amount of interest in this community. It's crazy to think about it, but we've created this family tree. It doesn't just start with Devon and Craig or June and myself. Before us, there was Guy Stout, who helped a lot of Texas sommeliers get going. And the Austin Wine Merchant. People don't realize what a foundation that place has been for Austin. They've always been dedicated to the right thing and out of that place have come some amazing wine professionals like Adam Lee of Siduri and James Cahill of Soter. 

June: It's family. Sometimes I want to yell at some of them and ring their necks, but they're our family and you want the best for them. We're there for each other and our successes are each other's successes. No one really thought of Austin as a wine destination before, but we all have the same goal in hand and people are now coming strictly for the food and wine. 

Lauren: The Austin Sommelier community is very special. It consists of a tight knit group of professionals and connoisseurs that are committed to the success of all of our professions and to the food and beverage hospitality of this city at large. While I hope that this kind of fellowship among the sommelier community exists elsewhere, I know that it has really reached an extraordinary level here in Austin. 

Scott: It's about both community and responsibility. As any community grows there's that responsibility of the generation before. What's so strong is the excitement and the momentum—people want to do better and to stand out, and I see that is so alive in the sommelier community here. When I first got into wine, there was Devon, Craig and Mark... but then it was June, Chris McFall, Bill Elsey, and Nathan Prater. You see the hospitality from them and their willingness to teach and it really makes you want to give it back and do it even better. 

What are the most exciting wine and beverage trends hitting Austin now?

Mark: I think the concept of regionally focused wine programs has been a more widely popular format. And we have an uptick in diners thinking about what they're eating and drinking from a regional standpoint. French food should be served with French wine. Italian should be the same. I don't know that it's a trend in other parts of the country, but it's fairly new to Austin.  

Joelle: I love that restaurants are writing their wine lists to reflect the culture of a cuisine. But we're also starting to see an influx of people who have private collections that are offered to the public. The customer base in Austin is enthusiastic about wine, which fuels the fires for more variety. 

June: It seems like the consumers in Austin are just more knowledgable these days. It's really fun to be on the floor right now! But at the same time, there's a lot more behind-the-scenes editing work in beverage programs. You see a lot more focus towards thoughtful wine selections without throwing a whole book at customers. 

How does the Austin restaurant scene compare to other big cities/metropolitan in Texas like Dallas or Houston? 

Mark: Houston and Dallas have always had a cross-section of restaurants that operate at a very high level. Austin's different in that it's grown so quickly in recent years; instead of seeing one or two restaurants rise to a top level at different times, we've all sort of risen together. And you see that here, rather than acting alone like a few big islands in the city, we're all in it together.

Joelle: Dallas and Houston are larger cities and have had a lot of other wines available to them, but I think the passion of the community in Austin is really unique and has attracted amazing winemakers and importers to town. They're seeing that Austin is a viable and knowledgeable wine market and it's really exciting. It helps that we're a tight-knit group between sommeliers, customers and buyers. We all really work together to raise the bar. 

June: Austin has this constant buzz and energy. Dallas, Houston and San Antonio seem to still have the power lunches, the happy hours and dinners out, but here, the schedules of the general public are much more varied. You'll see people coming in for lunch well past 2 pm or for dinner after 9 pm. A lot of people here are entrepreneurs with their own hours, and their lifestyle feeds this vibrancy around town. Restaurants seem to be busy all the time. We also have a lot of restaurants with a "no reservations" policy, which means people stand in line for a long time, or they choose to eat at less-trafficked times of the day. 

What do you think are the strengths of Austin beverage scene? 

Mark: It's sort of a tired statement, but in Austin, people are more adventurous and that translates to our sommeliers and beverage directors. As a community we're always looking towards the stars a little bit. We've got a lot of talent here and instead of trying to create great beverage programs in Texas, we're trying to have great programs in the nation. 

Scott: To me, it's the camaraderie within the professional wine community. I've never seen anything as cohesive in other cities. We're all willing to help each other out and share our knowledge. I can go to any other beverage program here and ask, where the got a certain wine or what their guests are asking for and they are always happy to share. We'll even work with each other to satisfy an order minimum if it means being able to get wines to the city. 

June: Our strength is that we have a really kick-ass community. We talk to each other. I am on the phone at least twice day with other friends in the business to find a wine or spirit that I want. There's strength in numbers. Maybe that's because we're still a small town compared to others, but whatever we're doing, it's working!

We still have to be nimble to receive wine from importers whose hubs are Houston and Dallas. But it helps to have friends in those cities. There may be a little stalkery with each other but we are all so familiar with each other's programs that we know who might want some of what I'm going to order and I can call them to get them in the loop. I share a lot with James Tidwell in Dallas or Justin Vann or David Keck in Houston. If we're all on board for something specific, we'll often go directly to a producers to get their product distributed in Texas.

What's the most popular category of wine on your list? 

Scott: At Arro, we're seeing a rise of interest in Cabernet Franc. It used to all be about Napa Cab all the time, but people are much more open to moving beyond that. Our list is exclusively French and it's hard to imagine anything would beat Bordeaux or Burgundy, but Cabernet Franc is our third-most selling grape. It used to take 3-4 months to get through a case and now we're doing a case and a half every week. 

Joelle: For us, we sort of specialize in Bordeaux, and we see a lot of people interested in that because we offer vintage selections that are in a good price range. Burgundy can be a bit higher, but some of these older vintage Bordeaux are available at a great value. We're also seeing people that want to try wines from all over the world. Since we're not a restaurant and operate more as a bar and retail outlet, we do not have a cuisine to work around and so we do try to have a good world representation. But it's Bordeaux with some age on it. That's what people seem to want at the Red Room. 

June: At Jeffrey's, I love that we sell a lot of Bordeaux and Burgundy. There's a lot of demand for French wines. The Rhône really kills it here, too because people want fish and meat and it needs something with a medium body and the right flavor. But it's different at a restaurant like Perla's, where we're getting ready for rosé season. It's more of a patio place and people want something crisp and refreshing and pink. At Perla's, Clark's, and Elizabeth Street, our biggest seller is always sparkling rosé. That placement is key for producers.

What are the most important details to you when it comes to service? The least important? 

Mark: Comfort. That's primary for me. You have to have a dialogue with your guests, not a monologue about what wines you think they should drink. It has to be a conversation that fits the guest as well. Reading the guest is so important. If they feel you have their best interest in mind, they're more relaxed and willing to come back and do it again. If we take the guest out of that zone at any point then we've lost. That means the least important thing is YOU. Be their guide and usher them through. Give them what they want and be able to provide the experience with ease.

Joelle: For us, we're all about taking every step of service seriously, and we've developed a theme of education at the Red Room Lounge. We want to allow sommeliers to practice and work on their studies here. We take care of every step of service to produce the whole experience with the customer—using coasters, candles with decanters, the proper glass shape—and people have really enjoyed that. It's really not something you see every day in Austin. We've always been known for being casual. 

June: You have to put your ego aside. Remember, you are trying to get the right thing to the customer. Sometimes that's intuitive for people in this business, but other times it's not. You may know more than the customer about wine, but they may not care and you have to be willing to spot that early when dealing with guests. That's always #1. 

It's so great that so many people are studying for certifications, but it's important that when you're on the floor, your studying stops. You've got to be focused on your service. I'll sometimes see my staff sell a lot of a particular wine, believing that it's all for the guest. But I like to double check them. I'll say, "Are you sure they really wanted that Etna wine? Does it matter that much to them?"

Scott: Showing guests that you're having fun goes a long way. When you think of great wine service you think of white table cloths, good posture, great wine knowledge, and things like that. But it seems a bit cold. I want it to be fun; friendly. That's so important to our guests, especially in a place like Austin, that's so laid back. The other day I dropped off a dish for a lady and she said, "You know what I love so much about coming here? Y'all look like you're having fun!" That's what it's all about. Wine should be fun. It shouldn't be fussy. It's meant to be shared.

What is the value of certification (through the CMS or other bodies) in your market today?

Lauren: I think continuous education is paramount to our profession. Seeking certification provides that necessary education. It is an investment for the future of each of our individual career paths and of the food and beverage industry of Austin as a whole.

Joelle: There's definitely been a growing interest in our business from the public and I think certifications have become a bit of a focal point in Austin in general. People who want to be serious about this as a career path think that the education is such an integral part of that. I don't think that it's 100% necessary, but it's definitely a trend that's caught on. It's made me have to check myself and be honest with myself about what I know and what I need to learn. 

But when it comes to my job, that's really not at the forefront for me. What's important is your experience and industry know-how. Generally the certifications are a lot about wine knowledge and less about business, although I've noticed a difference in this sort of content from the Guild of Sommeliers and I love the relevancy of that. It's a valuable tool.

Mark: I've noticed in Austin that more and more restaurants are using certifications as a way to engage a wine professional. From a hiring standpoint, it's something that shows a level of dedication to the profession. Just like anything though, certifications are only one part of what makes someone a professional in a field. They don't always run in line with general street knowledge, or having a personality for great service. 

Aside from your own restaurant, what do you feel are some of your best wine and cocktail programs in Austin? 

Mark: It's easy to list some of my friends here. It's always fun to dig around June's lists at Clark's and Josephine House and I think Vilma at LaV has a great list. I respect focused lists driven toward the cuisine like Arro. But I also love going to Elizabeth Street cafe where there is this hybrid of Vietnamese-French cuisine and they have fun punches, aperitifs and a basic French wine list. And I love that they have Kronenburg on draft! 

For cocktails, I really like the Midnight Cowboy and Weather Up, but one of the most underrated places is the Fire House. No one talks about that as a cocktail bar, but they're missing out. Fire House bartenders deliver a high level of cocktail knowledge and craftsmanship wrapped in a completely unpretentious atmosphere right off the Dirty 6th Street vibe. But they're just as happy to sling Lone Stars across the bar as the are making a Mai Tai or a classic Daiquiri.

June: I went to visit Qui after I left and Rachel Del Le Rocco did my pairings and she ruled. She may not have as much experience as some, but she's got what it takes and has service down pat. Justin Elliott, who does cocktails at Qui takes whim and and technique and understands the fast-paced environment and he really comes out with fantastic products. 

Scott: I love what Mark has done at Lenoir. I like a small wine list and an ever-changing wine list. It gives me a reason to come back. For as much as I love wine, I love hanging out with my girlfriend and not having to spend time flipping through a book. For cocktails, I've had a man crush on Jason Stevens of Bar Congress for a while. The care that he gives to cocktails is very impressive. Not just the quality, but the service. He's open and friendly. There's often this exclusivity in cocktail places and I can't stand that. And you don't find that with him. He's good, but he's humble. It doesn't go unnoticed. 

What are your thoughts on Texas Wine? Is it relevant in the discussion of global wine today? What are some of your favorite producers? 

Mark: I think it's worth paying attention to more and more these days. There has been a swing in quality in the past few years and now is the time when people can really taste that in the wines we bring into restaurants. I used to talk about Texas wine's future potential, but now we're seeing more of an identity and attention to detail in winemaking and I'd say it's a an important change. 

But I should say this: you can't talk about it in one lump sum. We were going through Languedoc-Roussillon wines for a dinner at Arro and it's sort of similar to that. It's equally hard to say that you should just drink Languedoc wines. The question is: which Languedoc wines? Overall, the quality is getting better, and you should try the whole range of what is available. But it really comes down to producers. The quality and identity of Texas wine is currently shouldered on the backs of the few. But that's how every region starts out, and hopefully these initial successes will spiral into more successes in the future. I'm always pointing people to Duchman Family Winery and McPherson Cellars. Kim McPherson's work and his longevity in Texas is a source of inspiration for quality across the state. But I like what I see at William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars and in the evolution of Fall Creek Vineyards, which is one of the oldest wineries in the state. I love the fact that they're not living on a reputation and want to do things better and more thoughtfully. 

June: I'm with Mark, Duchman Family Winery and McPherson are the two I love. They're super-accessible in taste, quality, and price. I think Texas is great and getting better every vintage. We're finally seeing producers and growers stripping things down to micro-regions. It's a really big state and what works in the High Plains doesn't necessarily work in the Hill Country. The biggest challenge continues to be price. I think as the industry grows, the price point will drop and they'll be more accessible. Right now, the really great go-to stuff is expensive, but I think that will change.

Scott: It's no secret I'm a huge fan of Duchman Family Winery. Seeing how they've grown and what they're willing to try with wines using Italian grapes like Aglianico and Montepulciano. That's the one I've championed for a long time. If you're coming to Texas you've got to try these wines. 

Are there any stereotypes about Austin that youd like to see go away?

Joelle: I kind of like that we're stereotyped as cowboys, but I hate the stereotype that we're a bunch of hippies. This is a hard-working community and that slacker mentality is not really what we're all about. That could go away and I'd be ok with it. But for the most part, it has a great reputation for being a place with nice people who enjoy culture, art and food.

June: That we keep it weird. Give me a break. That's it.