Houston Sommeliers to Compete for Texas’ Best Sommelier

TEXSOM 2013 Texas' Best Sommelier Competition

The 10th anniversary of TEXSOM will take place at the Four Seasons Resort & Club in Las Colinas, Texas, from August 9 to 11. The Texas Sommelier’s Conference hosts wine professionals and connoisseurs from around the world allowing them to attend educational seminars, network, and participate in certification opportunities.

One of the highlights of TEXSOM is the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition. The competition presented by Texas Monthly will include 25 Texas Sommeliers competing for the title. The competition pits sommeliers from around the state against each other and tests their sommelier skills in various aspects such as blind tasting, wine knowledge, and service. The winner receives scholarship money to use for their continuing Court of Master Sommeliers certification programs.

Last year, wine blogger and Certified Sommelier Matt McGinnis from Austin wrote a blog post on the Austin area competitors. I thought this was a great idea and this year I wanted to showcase the competitors from the Houston area which is where I live. I talked to Matt and we agreed to do dueling posts from the two cities because we are sure the winner is going to be from our particular city.

Matt may have history on his side though, because in the past nine years of the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition, five of the winners have been from Austin. When I first saw the list of competitors for this year, I knew Houston had a great chance at taking the title home because one of the participants came in third in last year’s competition. That was James Watkins who is the beverage directory of the Cordúa Restaurant Group.

One of the eligibility requirements for the competition is competitors must not yet have received the third level certification of Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. The day I received the list of competitors for this year, I was forewarned that James had just sat for the Advanced Sommelier exam and they were waiting for his results. Of course he passed making him ineligible for the competition.

I asked James about the Austin vs. Houston battle. He replied, “As a young sommelier, I chose to leave Austin for Houston, in large part because I wanted to broaden my horizons with wines I was not capable of seeing in Austin. Several years later, this is no longer the case. The sommelier scene has grown in Austin immensely. Moving back to Houston has made me the professional I am today, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Austin, because it was there that I got my start in this business. Overall, I think the competition brings more collaboration than competitive nature. I’ve worked with a few Austin sommeliers to help them out, and while I’d love to see the crown come to Houston, I fully believe that this conference is the reason behind the success of the sommelier trade in our state. The proof is in the pudding; 5 of the 13 to pass the Advanced Exam in Dallas last month were Texans.”

Even though James will not be competing in this year’s competition, I have faith that one of the Houston sommeliers will win. You can read about their Austin competitors at Matt’s post on his blog.

Here are the Houston sommeliers who will be participating in this year’s Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition.

Paulina Avendaño

Paulina Avendaño

Paulina Avendaño is manager and sommelier at the Hotel Granduca’s Cavour Restaurant. She was born in Mexico City and spent most of her life in the United States until moving to Monaco to pursue a career in cosmetics and fragrances. Living between France and Italy allowed her to be in contact with both cultures and discover the world of wine and gastronomy through a new perspective.

Avendaño said, “After studying in France, I moved to Seattle where I began to pursue a career as a sommelier. I’m continuing to study and visit different wine regions to enhance my knowledge of wine and the culture of wine, which I try to share with our guests.”

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I entered the competition because it would challenge me to study and test my own knowledge on competition day.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

It is very hard to find a balance between working full time and studying while keeping a healthy lifestyle. I have to be very focused and always keep studying and work as my two priorities.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

My goal is not to win, but to learn from myself and from other great sommeliers how it is that they sell wine and then apply their knowledge with the guests to provide a memorable experience.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

If I was to win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier, I would open a bottle of a vintage Champagne and share it with my friends.

Andres Blanco

Andres Blanco

Andres Blanco described his background: “My father in his 30’s worked as a waiter in fine dining restaurants back in Mexico. He still had time to play me Beatles’ songs with his guitar after work (and let me sip some of his Modelo Especial). That made it clear to what I wanted to be when I grew up (I also learned to play guitar). I learned my father’s people skills, while my mother taught me her entrepreneur spirit and selling skills through her cosmetics business. Since I was already a world history fanatic myself, it was only a matter of time before I would get sucked into the wine world.

“I have always worked in restaurants since I was 18, but starting in 2008 I entered the fine dining scene. With zero wine knowledge, my friend Dario (Najera) provided me the chance to meet the manager and train as a server at a prestigious Italian restaurant in Houston called Arcodoro. If I passed the two week training, I would get the job which I miraculously did.

“A great customer saw my curiosity as I saw him swirling the glass and he poured me my first sip of great wine, a 1996 Barolo Riserva. That same night I read all about it and never stopped. I’m still in touch with that same customer (Mr. Magee). After a couple years there, I was the ‘unofficial’ sommelier of the restaurant. I passed the CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers) Introductory Exam in August 2011, and two months later, I passed the Certified Sommelier exam in October.”

Blanco worked at other restaurants with different cuisines in following years. After seeing the movie SOMM, he returned to study and created a study group with his close friends and sommeliers to help other Latinos through the CMS. Their study group is called “MexSom” in honor of their first TEXSOM attendance years back and their accomplishment with educating a larger audience in wine education in the Spanish language.

Blanco is a consulting sommelier for small restaurants and is looking forward to his first attempt of the Advanced Sommelier Exam in 2015.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

Peer pressure (laughs). I decided to enter from my other friends and sommeliers who are also participating (Dario Najera and Paulina Avendaño). They convinced me to participate in order to get a little glimpse at the Advanced exam the three of us will be taking next year.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

I made a change to my sleep cycle and my work schedule to give me a chance to stay up late and study, and still get enough sleep during the day to retain the information. I taste wine twice a week with my “MexSom” study group (Dario, Paulina, Carlos Rosas, and our mentor Jaime De Leon). I’m also practicing service standards at work and recommending cocktails I never served before. Flash cards have never worked well for me, so I decided to travel back in time to ask a Roman emperor how he memorized his long speeches, and he gave me a method which has been very helpful memorizing everything else in my life (even shopping without a grocery list).

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

It would be a great reward dedicated to the Latino movement of sommeliers in Houston, which we have already accomplished to be the first group concentrated in educating in the Spanish language to the Latin community in the world of wine and hospitality, with a great vision to expand in the near future.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Win or lose, my amigos and I will have many choices to consider during the Grand Tasting, including my favorite style of Champagne (see photo with Ruinart). Although an old traditional Barolo Riserva will take me right back to my first glass of great wine back in 2008.

Jarrett Buffington

Jarrett Buffington

Jarrett Michael Buffington was raised in Houston and has a Bachelor’s degree in Music from Houston Baptist University. He is also a Certified Sommelier. Buffington’s three deepest passions are music, traveling, and wine.

Buffington said, “I fell in love with the wine industry a few years ago for a few reasons. One reason was because it was social; wine brings people together and gives us reasons to celebrate. Also, I love the possibilities in wine are endless. Nobody can ever say, “I know everything” or “I know enough.” Lastly, wine is Art, and with my background in music and traveling the globe, wine just seems to fit perfectly as an Art form that I was needing to connect with.”

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I chose to enter the competition for many reasons. All my life I’ve loved competition so it was only natural to want to prove myself competent among the rest of the wine community. Also, it gives me a chance to meet like-minded individuals and hopefully make long lasting connections.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

Finding the time to study in the midst of daily life is a challenge in itself. It’s a lot of late nights and early mornings in order to reach a goal or a vision that you have. But that is one of the most beautiful aspects of being a sommelier. So much of your progression depends on your drive and passion without someone pushing you.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Winning the competition would definitely help make a name for myself in the industry and at the same time hopefully open up new endeavors like winemaking. I imagine winning would bring new and exciting adventures into my life.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

After I win, I plan on drinking beer. It doesn’t matter what kind, as long as it’s cold.

Brett Forsberg

Brett Forsberg

Brett Forsberg is a twenty-five year old Houston native with a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Houston. He is the editor, soon-to-be-sommelier, and bartender for Master Sommelier candidate David Keck at Camerata at Paulie’s wine bar in the Montrose area of Houston.

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I wanted a chance to show the Texas sommelier community how much work I’ve put into becoming a compelling wine professional. I want to win for David Keck too. Texas should know that the best somms come from Houston and Camerata specifically.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

Because I work in a wine bar and because I have a mentor like David Keck, who will take time to give me mock service exams, studying for this competition and doing my job go hand in hand. I don’t do much other than study wine.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

It would be proof again that I am capable of the effort it takes to be successful in such a challenging environment.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Assuming it’s around, some ten-year-old Clos Rougeard.

Matthew Garcia

Matthew Garcia
Describing himself, Garcia said, “I always joke with my friends saying, ‘I came out of the womb with a serviette in one hand and a wine key in the other.’ The restaurant industry has always sparked a sense of curiosity, even at an early age, a curiosity that never went away. I have been working in the service industry for eight years. After leaving the industry for a year, I never felt the satisfaction as I do with wine, and have found myself back in the industry. I have held numerous positions with the most satisfying being educating others on the world of wine, and working hands on with the wine program. I am currently working with the wine program at The Capital Grille and enjoy every minute I get to help guests along the journey to discover wine they never knew they would.”

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

Jarrett Buffington, my fellow competitor and best friend, brought the idea to me and it just seemed like the right step to take. The competition will help me better understand my areas for opportunity.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

I have tried to not allow it to, however, I have been taking more time off to prepare. I have a big support system; I could not do it without my team.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

It would open doors to future advancement. I am going into this competition with the willingness to accept any outcome, and knowing the knowledge I have gained in preparation is invaluable.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

2004 Dom Perignon

Dario Najera

Dario Najera

Wine has always been a passion for Najera after almost 20 years of being in the fine and upscale hospitality industry (the finest restaurants, hotels, and even wine bars). Najera said, “I decided to do what any other serious oenophile would: take the humble path of education and aim for the most prestigious and respected certifications in the trade, and continue doing what I really enjoy. It has not been easy. I have sacrificed many things and put tremendous effort on my quest (all has been worth it) so here I am today.”

Najera has many certifications:

  • Certified Sommelier – (Court of Master Sommeliers) – 2010
  • AIS/NASA (Italian Sommelier Association / North American Sommelier Association) – 2012
  • CSW – Certified Specialist of Wine (Society of Wine Educators) – 2012
  • CSS – Certified Specialist of Spirits (Society of Wine Educators) – 2012
  • WSET Level 3 Certified Advanced (passed with merit) – WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) – 2012
  • Certified Sake Professional – (Sake Education Council) – 2013

Najera is sitting for the Certified Cicerone exam this year plus maybe one or two more certifications. He said he has been studying very hard and has no plans on stopping any time soon because the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Advanced exam is not easy. He said, “I am always interested in participating on study groups, events, seminars, lectures, proctoring, judging, and even volunteering. I am very proud to be part of the wine world and I am grateful for all the amazing people I have met and friends I have made along this great journey!”

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

I decided to enter this competition because it offers me the great opportunity to mingle with the best of the best of this trade, plus it helps me to get a deep view of my progress as a wine professional.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

Studying for this competition in my case is very difficult having a full time schedule. The few hours I get out of my schedule go directly towards studying. It is not easy, but when you choose the path of hospitality and wine, the definition of normal is very different than what any dictionary defines. If you want to provide your guest with the best of the best you have to offer, you will always end up going beyond expectations!

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

My participation in this competition is not about winning. It is just getting the reward that I am recognized as a sommelier who knows how to do his job the correct and proper way, and also knows how to do it in a way that I can inspire other industry professionals to follow the same path. This competition is not easy and I am very pleased to be competing with some of the most talented and respected fellow sommeliers in the state.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

Well, bubbles are great: Egly-Ouriet, Krug, Pierre Peters (my favorite), and even Movia Puro (I have day dreams about disgorging one of those myself). They are all great, but in this case I will settle with a more quiet way to celebrate: a nice ultra-smoked Oaxacan Real Minero Reserva Mezcal and an Arturo Fuente Chateau Belicoso cigar. That’s how I roll when I celebrate.

Whitney Seng

Whitney Seng

Whitney Seng is a rare Houston native who was born in the Heights. He said, “This evolving town has given me 30 years of love. I attended schools in the Heights, Montrose, and South Park. Though I pursued career opportunities outside of Texas, the diversity and vitality of Houstonians makes this city an ideal place for a burgeoning wine professional to cut his teeth. While working at long-lived institutions such as Houston Wine Merchant, Richard’s, and now River Oaks Country Club, I’ve assisted vivaciously curious new wine lovers as well as seasoned wine veterans who remember when Studewood Park was a farm and Château Lafite Rothschild cost seven dollars (have a drink before your head explodes).

Seng continued, “The array of personalities and wines in Houston is limitless. As a Certified Sommelier helping to manage one of the most impressive wine cellars in the country, I am limited only by the number of hours I find to hit the books and learn about the world of wine I have at my fingertips. It’s a humbling feeling. I hope to represent River Oaks Country Club and Houston well at TEXSOM. My amazing wife Lindsay is incredibly supportive, as is the rest of the Houston Sommelier community, coalesced in the Houston Sommelier Association.”

Why did you choose to enter the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition?

The Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition serves several purposes. It’s an effective way to put my skills to the test. Likewise it’s an effective reminder to learn the great Port vintages of the past fifty years. Above all TEXSOM is a cauldron to get to know like-minded professionals from around the Lone Star State.

How does studying for this competition affect your daily work?

Studying is part of the sommelier’s life. It has to be. We are charged with knowing every minute detail about the entire world. We represent the pinnacle of the service world and often act as concierge to far off places we’ve never visited. I commit myself daily anew to find the work-life balance to learn about the vast array of products I sell and have yet to sell.

What would winning the competition mean to your career?

Winning the Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition would be humbling and thrilling. I would humbly thank the many people who supported me these past six years.

What will you drink when you win the title of Texas’ Best Sommelier?

I would not so humbly sabre an entire case of 1997 Salon!


Comments

  1. Ryan Teddet says:

    As a former winner of this competition might I throw the idea out that there is also a DFW angle to this competition with several notable candidates and former winners from here. Too bad we don’t have cool wine bloggers tho;)

    • We tried a couple wine bloggers in the DFW area so all three cities could be covered, but were unsuccessful. Maybe next year!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Houston sommeliers think they have a shot at winning the title this year. Texas Wine Lover profiles the seven participants from Houston. […]

  2. […] to Joelle Cousins and all participants in the competition. We previously focused the Houston competitors in the competition and I talked to some of them after the announcement. To participate in the […]

Leave a Reply