Somms Under Fire is Austin’s own unique competition that puts wine professionals through a challenging gauntlet: they must create craft cocktails, demonstrate food and wine pairing expertise, and endure rigorous questioning from knowledgeable judges, all in front of a room packed with wine buffs. It’s all the brainchild of Diane Dixon, who, along with husband Earl, is a beloved figure in Austin’s modern wine scene.
In advance of this weekend’s event, Eater spoke to Dixon and event co-host and master sommelier Devon Broglie of Whole Foods Market to discuss the origins of the competition, Austin’s current wine scene, and how the Dixons became one of the bedrocks of Austin’s sommelier community.
How did you get involved with Austin’s wine community?
Diane Dixon: Devon [Brogile told] me about the Court of Master Sommeliers, explaining how professionals study. I didn’t understand that these students had to acquire their own wine, study on their own time, and really give years of dedication. Earl and I talked and said: “Can we adopt this guy?” We wanted to be on the journey: we’d pull bottles from our cellar and help Devon and others with their learning.
Devon Broglie: Diane effectively became the guardian angel or patron saint of the Austin sommelier community. Over time, she turned into the most influential wine consumer in Austin.
Dixon: Devon introduced us to [ELM Restaurant Group’s] Craig Collins, and he began to join us. Then a server at Uchi approached us, said she’d heard about our group, and wanted to join — that was [now with McGuire Moorman Hospitality] June Rodil, who is emceeing this year with Devon.
Broglie: That group really started the current generation of Austin’s sommelier community, but we certainly weren’t the first group — there was a great generation of wine experts before us, with professionals like A.J. Hernandez, Michael Vilim, and the Austin Wine Merchant team, but there wasn’t the real restaurant-specific expertise or a sense of a sommelier community then.
It’s a bit shocking now to realize that in 2005, the number of great Austin wine spots could likely be counted on one hand.
Broglie: When we opened the Whole Foods flagship, I had to beg for allocations of wine that only went to Houston and Dallas to build a decent set of Bordeauxs and Burgundies.
Did the idea of doing a competition like Somms Under Fire actually originate during these informal tastings?
Dixon: I wanted to start earlier than we did. We began as Chefs Under Fire because the awareness for wine and sommeliers wasn’t there yet. I wanted to gain experience and build a event brand people would trust. I suspected that somms were about to get time in the limelight. But at the time, chef-driven restaurants were taking hold, so we did that to showcase their talents for three years, before moving to the Somms Under Fire idea in 2012.
Do you have any misgivings about not having any Texas sommeliers this year?
Dixon: We wanted to give the Texas sommeliers the chance to see what national competition was like. If we restricted it to Texas, it wouldn’t be the same. The sommelier community looks at the event as a great place to network. We’re also had professionals attend, and then decide to move to Austin to work for June, Craig, or others. The community wants to help each other get better. Sommeliers are flying in from cities like Chicago and Baltimore on their own time to volunteer for the event.
Your volunteer group is a stellar who’s who of sommeliers, correct?
Broglie: I dare say. There are a few nights a year where you probably shouldn’t go out to a restaurant for great wine service.
How do you feel about the finalists participating this year? What does the entry process involve?
Broglie: The process is in-depth and involved. The applicants are now highly-regarded professionals from around the country. These are great finalists — I wouldn’t want to compete against them, I’ll say that much. [This year’s finalists are Eric S. Crane, Hai Tran, and Jill Zimorski.]
Dixon: It’s designed to test not just knowledge or theory, but how the sommelier communicate with their customers. It also attempts to demystify the sommelier for the guest — people are sometimes intimidated around sommeliers, and we’re trying to change that. They’re just people. Ask your sommelier questions when you dine — they’re there to help.
The VIP ticket adds on a class on a specific wine region. How do you choose that?
Dixon: This year, we’re doing the wines of Austria. Wine consumers don’t get that level of knowledge you get when traveling, so we’re aiming to bring that to our guests in this class. We try to pick something unique.
Broglie: The VIP event is designed to be deeper dive. Last year, there was a big buzz about Napa and California’s resurgence. As more people broaden their knowledge of wine and look toward lighter, crisper wines, doing something like Austria is prescient.
Dixon: Both Grüner Veltliner and Riesling are such great food wines — that was one thing we wanted to get across. But the Austrian versions of each are so different than what people may be familiar with from Germany.
Somms Under Fire 2017 takes place on Sunday, January 29 at AT&T Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets are available at the event website.