For the second year in a row, a Houston-based wine professional has won the prestigious "Best Sommelier Competition" held at the Texsom conference last weekend at the Four Seasons Resort in Irving.
Caracol manager and floor sommelier Andres Blanco brought the highly coveted title back to Houston for a second consecutive year, edging out fellow competitors from Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico (until two years ago, the event, which was launched in 2005, was known as the "Best Sommelier in Texas" competition but was expanded last year to include adjacent states and widen the field to the ever growing number of wine professionals who attend the gathering).
Born in Mexico City, Blanco has been working in the Houston restaurant scene for 10 years, including stints at La Fisheria, Arcodoro, Amalfi, and the now closed Convivio. He joined the staff at Hugo Ortega's wildly successful seafood restaurant in 2013 when it first opened and became its manager and floor sommelier more than two years ago.
Contestants in the competition must complete three exams: Wine theory, which includes 50 questions on wines from across the globe; a "blind tasting" of four wines, in which they have to identify the grape varieties and origins of the wines (without being able to view their labels); and wine service, a mock restaurant scenario where the guests are Master Sommeliers (one of the highest titles attainable among wine professionals today) who pepper the competitors with often arcane and obscure questions on wine and how it is properly described and presented to diners.
Reached by phone as he returned from the Dallas area yesterday, he described the blind tasting as the most challenging because it includes not only a white and a red wine, but also sparkling and dessert entries. The sparkling wine, he said, is often the hardest to identify (the exam proctors never reveal the results or the wines of the blind tasting but he was confident that his sparkling wine was a Prosecco, which he was able to recognize thanks to its "texture," he explained).
As the winner of this year's title, Blanco will receive a $2,500 scholarship from the event's organizers. Last year's winner was then Houston-based Rachel DelRocco, who has since moved to Oaxaca, Mexico.
In his spare time, Blanco runs MexSom (not related to Texsom), a web-based portal that provides Spanish-language wine education for aspiring Latino sommeliers.
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"Even though most Latinos are bilingual," said Blanco, "education in our native language makes for a deeper connection" to the wines.
He points to Jaime De Leon, wine buyer for Kroger's in the Heights and current Master Sommelier candidate, as one of the few role models for the Latino community of wine professionals in Houston, home to one of the fastest growing and most diverse fine wine scenes in the United States.
"I created MexSom to help give the Latino community [of restaurant professionals] more role models," he told the Houston Press. He plans to expand the project to include Spanish-language media featuring other Latino wine professionals.
"I want to give [the community] role models that they can distinguish from 90 percent of the Latinos working in restaurants," he said.