Hardly a week goes by without some sort of food event or food competition here. From tacos to chicken wings, truffles to Caesar salad, the format is the same: Chefs create dishes that adhere to a theme, get judged and win a title. Iron Sommelier is another type of competition entirely. Its competitors need to be creative, for sure, but in lieu of chefs, it’s sommeliers duking it out for the top prize. And for anyone who loves wine, it’s by far the best annual wine event in the city.
Back for its 11th run, Iron Sommelier 2018 took place November 8 at The Houstonian Hotel, and raised $320,000 for The Periwinkle Foundation (which develops programs to support kids with cancer and other serious illnesses). As in past years, each of this year’s 14 competitors were tasked with choosing a wine theme, selecting three wines to best represent that theme, then presenting the wines to guests and judges for a shot at the Iron Sommelier title or People’s Choice title.
The format is significant because you will not encounter a single bad wine in the bunch. With 14 competitors, that’s a whopping 42 wines representing a broad cross-section of regions and varietals, hand-picked by professionals who hope you will love them as much as they love them. Organizer Sean Beck, beverage director at Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol, and Xochi, describes it best: “This is the event where the somms get to share what they love.”
Matt Crawford, beverage director at State of Grace and La Lucha—this year’s People’s Choice winner and second runner up—says it’s more than that. “I always pick something I’m passionate about, something I want to learn more about, but also something I want to share with people,” he says. Three years ago, it was “Burgundy Beyond the Golden Slope.” Last year, he championed British sparkling wine with the theme, “British Bubbles, The Next Big Thing,” but it wasn’t until this year that he struck gold with a theme of “Gimme Saumur."
Saumur, Crawford asserts, is not only a fun play on words, but it also describes an appellation in the Loire Valley of France that is “a highly pedigreed part of wine world that had been disregarded after World War II,” and that is also producing Chenin Blancs and Cabernet Francs that don’t taste like those produced anywhere else. His three choices—a Thierry Germain, “Bulles de Roche” Vin Mousseaux Saumur non-vintage bubbly; a 2016 Chateau Yvonne Saumur Blanc; and a 2016 Arnaud Lambert Chateau de Breze “Clos Mazurique” Saumur Rouge exemplified that fact.
Angie Chang of Backstreet Cafe, whose team sported beautiful flower crowns in keeping with her theme of “Flower Power: Garden in a Glass,” poured wines whose floral aromas gripped you with just a whiff, while Emily Tolbert of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, whose theme of “Argentina: More than Malbec,” had you complete her round of three tastings with an aperitif of Argentina’s national drink, Fernet Branca with Coke, in which Fernet was poured down an ice luge.
In the end, there could only be one winner, and this year’s was a standout. Julie Dalton of Mastro’s nailed her theme of “Drink Gneiss Schist,” a play on words about wines that can be found growing in soils with either a “gneiss” or “schist” component.
She chose a Fonseca Siroco White Pork NV from Oporto, Portugal (schist), mixing it with tonic and serving it as a port and tonic, to show that white ports exist and don’t necessarily have to be sweet. Her second wine was a Pinot Blanc from Austria, a delicious 2016 Hirtzberger Weissburgunder “Steinporz” from Wachau, Austria selected to demonstrate that skinny tall bottles are not always sweet. Her final selection, a 2015 Domaine La Tour Vieille, La Pinede from Collioure, France, was also chosen to highlight the dry reds from this area.
A first-time competitor, and the first female to win the Iron Sommelier title, Dalton was not only honored but thankful to be there. Her gut reaction? “Holy schist, what am I going to do next year?”