Behind the Scenes at The Iron Sommelier Competition
A good sommelier never travels without a supply of Underberg handy.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
"In ten minutes, they're gonna be in the room," said sommelier Antonio Gianola with a tone of urgency.
To his right, fellow sommelier Jonathan Honefenger encouraged his fellow somms along with cries of: "Hustle! Hustle!" The two men moved swiftly from one seat to the next, pouring a deliberate ounce into one wine glass at a time from dark green bottles that bore the crusty scars of something that had once had barnacles growing on it.
Gianola and Honefenger were two of the non-participating sommeliers helping to fill judges' wine glasses at the annual Iron Sommelier competition last night at the Houstonian. In the sequestered Grand Tasting room, they -- along with four other somms -- rushed quietly and intently across the carpeted floors with bottles in hand, filling a dozen wine glasses at each judging station as they went.
In only a short amount of time, the room was packed with people. And all of the glasses were filled.
This is where the Iron Sommelier award is decided, where a dozen somms from across the city come to present a curated selection of wines before a panel of wine connoisseurs and judges. It's a display of both showmanship and wine knowledge, two uniquely important qualities in a sommelier.
But the Iron Sommelier competition is much more than that: It's also a fund-raising event that benefits the Periwinkle Foundation, a local charity out of Texas Children's Hospital that provides programs to positively change the lives of children, young adults and families who are challenged by cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
From the back of the Grand Tasting room, Sean Beck -- the wine director for Backstreet Cafe, Trevisio and Hugo's, who has won the Iron Sommelier competition so many times in past years that he no longer participates out of good sportsmanship -- gave the signal to begin. The first sommelier walked forward.
This bottle of sea-aged spumante from Italy was one of the many rare wines served at the competition.
Mike Sammons, co-owner and proprietor of 13 Celsius, strode to the front of the room as the emcee read a short bio to the assembled judges. A brief mention in Sammons's bio of a massive "collection of unicorn art" drew confused laughter from the room.
"I wrote that," Beck had giggled conspiratorially before the competition began.
The barnacle-encrusted wine bottle from earlier in the evening was the first to make an appearance. It's aged in the sea, Sammons explained of the Abissi Bisson spumanti. It's not terribly expensive, but it is rare: Only six bottles made it into Texas. Sammons poured two of them tonight for the judges.
Outside in the main ballroom of the event, the dozen sommeliers were also responsible for manning tables that held three additional selections of wine -- wine meant for the general-admission guests to enjoy, wine for the People's Choice award of the night. At Sammons's table, he and fellow 13 Celsius bartender Adele Corrigan were showcasing a slew of unusual wines -- such as that 2009 Abissi Bisson -- and making equally unusual wine "flips" out of them.
Sammons shook an egg white over ice with some Barolo Chinato, a spiced and fortified aperitif made from old Barolo wine. It foamed up with a fine, plush head just like a flip, the heavy wine acting as a stout beer would. Sammons topped it with a dusting of nutmeg and it drank as a lighter, fruitier and altogether more delicious flip than the "standard" version of the antique drink.
At each table, another sommelier had a theme of their own: For Vanessa Treviño Boyd of Philippe, it was "Sommeliers Turned Winemakers." In the Grand Tasting room, she showcased an "Oregogne" Pinot Noir from André Mack and made an O.P.P. joke (Mack is also a graphic designer and makes wine-related shirts with pop culture puns on them -- O.P.P. standing for "Other People's Pinot" in this case). The joke, sadly, seemed to fly right over most judges' heads.
Evan Turner with fellow wine rep Janiz Frago from Pioneer Wine Company.
At Evan Turner's table, the ambassador of all things Greek was spotlighting Greek wines. Turner, who has had a flare for the dramatic since his days at Branch Water Tavern, poured a 2001 Kir-Yianni "Ramnista" Xinomavro from a double magnum Jeroboam that dwarfed all the other wine bottles near it. Clad in lime green Chucks and a matching lime green shirt under his suit, Turner effused about Greek wines and the full-bodied Xinomavro grape, which he calls "Greece's answer to Barolo."
Unsurprisingly, it was Turner -- of Janco Beverage Importing & Distributing -- who went home with the Grand Tasting award for his showmanship. It's mostly impossible to get the wines that Turner poured for the competition, but he hopes that will change soon. Perhaps his ceaselessly preached gospel of Greek wines is finally gaining traction among consumers, as Greek grapes are said to be the next big thing in the wine world just as modern Greek cuisine is about to be food's next big dish.
The People's Choice award went to Christian Varras of River Oaks Country Club, who entered the Grand Tasting room to wild applause from some of his patrons and who served the ballroom crowd an intriguing selection of wines that Varras described as having a big, ballsy umami flavor to them.
And the biggest award of all, the Iron Sommelier award, went to Canadian contestant Ben Roberts of Masraff's, with Steven McDonald of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse -- whom Jeremy Parzen recently profiled -- as runner-up.
Auction items for sale also helped raise money for the Periwinkle Foundation.
No word yet on how much the event raised for the Periwinkle Foundation, but you can bet it's a large number: General admission tickets were $150, while VIP packages started at $800 -- and that's not counting the large number of auction items for sale. And with the continued success of the once biannual Iron Sommelier competition, it looks like this wine-off will now become a yearly event.
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