In a weird year when nobody is where they need to be anymore, it seems appropriate that a guy who now works in Boston dominated the 2020 Iron Sommelier competition, held Thursday evening virtually and at both Backstreet Café and Hugo's.
Evan Turner, formerly the sommelier at Helen Greek Food & Wine—who is now working at Krasi Meze & Wine in Boston—swept the competition, winning the Iron Sommelier 2020 grand prize, the people's choice award, and the best presentation award for his curated wine selections under the theme, "Meet and Greek: Rare Grapes of Greece."
At Iron Sommelier, wine experts select two wines that fit a theme, presenting them to ticket-holders and judges. Master sommeliers Craig Collins and June Rodil and sommelier Antonio Gianola judged the competition on wine choice, presentation, creativity, and knowledge of their selections, while ticket-holders were asked to select the best sommelier presentation.
Turner's presence at Iron Somm was just another consequence of 2020: He was back in Houston for a while after being furloughed from Krasi Meze & Wine earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic.
Naturally, the impact of coronavirus weighed heavily on proceedings. Ticket-holders picked up a flight of 12 wines—one wine from each sommelier—at Backstreet Café before the event, then logged onto a Zoom call Thursday evening. They tasted their wines while watching the sommeliers take off their masks and present their picks. Hosts interviewed featured winemakers over Zoom, and event co-chair and H-Town Restaurant Group beverage director Sean Beck drove between the two live locations, checking in on Zoom from the parking lots.
Contestants also drew on this already-infamous year to inspire their sommelier presentations. Julie Dalton of Mastro's, who finished third in the grand prize competition, offered an escape from quarantine via two wines from beachfront locations in her presentation, "I See the Sea."
"I wanted to take you to the beach without needing to sit on an airplane," Dalton said.
Adele Corrigan, general manager of 13 Celsius, used the competition to point out the impact of increased tariffs placed by the U.S. government on food and drink items from numerous European nations. Her selections came from non-tariffed nations like Armenia.
Non-traditional wines were promoted hard by other sommeliers as well. Whitney Seng (The Coronado Club) presented two wines whose grapes were grown in arid conditions, including an Argentinian selection grown at high altitude (it's difficult to grow grapes in dry, high-altitude locations), while Justin Vann (Public Services) touted the strength of natural wine.
"I really like demystifying and proving that it's okay to think outside the box," Vann noted during his presentation.
The competition raised $237,000 for the Periwinkle Foundation, which provides programs and operates camps that support children living with and challenged by cancer.
Said Beck, "You made tonight happen at the hardest time for restaurants."