So a few weeks ago I attended my 7th TEXSOM. My first one was in 2010 when I also passed my Intro Sommelier Exam. I’ve been going ever since. This is my 3rd straight year participating as a volunteer. And this is my second time competing in the TEXSOM Best Sommelier competition (the first time was 2014). I thought I’d recap my week there.
Since I’ve been volunteering I’ve been going up to Dallas fairly early. This year I drove up on the Tuesday prior to the conference. I left really early in the morning so that I could arrive before lunch in Dallas. I had some errands I wanted to finish up there and I just like getting there early.
As usual, the Four Seasons in Las Colinas was ready for me. Being so early, plus they weren’t at capacity from any other conferences, I was able to get into my room once I arrived. A side note here, I can’t afford regular Four Seasons rates, they provide a really good conference rate to us that I take advantage of. I ran my errands, came back and relaxed.
For the next three days, I was 100% in volunteer mode. So what exactly does that mean? Well, this early in the game it means polishing wine glasses. Lots of wine glasses. No, really, a $#%@-ton of wine glasses. Like more than 20,000 of them. Our team is small in comparison to how big it will be in a few days, but we keep cranking out the “stems” (slang for wine glasses).
We also move stuff around. Besides towers of wine glasses that are 7-racks high (175 glasses), there are hundreds (for real) of cases of wine to relocate into the “wine room.” There’s also bottled water to move, and various other tasks. During all of this our “Captains” and sponsors make sure we are taken care of. We have a light breakfast provided to us, a great lunch every day sponsored by a wine group or winery, and volunteer dinners. Plus the “Somm Lounge” is in full effect on Day One.
Highlights of these lunches/dinners include pretty cool wines. And amazing presentations by great people including Master Sommeliers. For instance, one lunch featured wines from Quintessa. A dinner featured wines from Torbreck and Penfold’s, including a 2000 Penfold’s Grange. You could say, dinners and lunches don’t suck.
Just to be clear, yes we are getting some awesome free stuff, but it’s also assumed that we are professionals and not getting plowed at dinner and especially at lunch. In addition, we have some amazing wines available each day in the Somm Lounge. One day featured vintage port dating back to 1941 from Kopke. Again, these are perks and not invitations to get drunk all day.
I look at this as opportunities to try wines I’ll never have access to. And that’s really the intent. We are Somms and the best way to get us to understand certain wines is for us to actually try them.
TIME TO GET YOUR GAME FACE ON
Friday afternoon, and I’m officially done with volunteering. I head to the registration desk and go pick up my Competitor badge. From this point on I’m in a different mode. I even go eat by myself. At Taco Bell of all places! OK, so I have to explain this one. Back in the day they had an item called a Chilito. One of my favorite fast food items. At some point they changed the name to Chili Cheese Burrito over some legal dispute. Then it was discontinued. However, some Taco Bells can still make them. Actually I think every Taco Bell can, it’s just a matter of if there’s someone there who knows. Anyway, the Taco Bell in Las Colinas knows how to make them so every year I make sure to eat there once. After dinner, head back to the Four Seasons and relax.
Saturday I’m signed up to attend a Deductive Tasting (aka blind tasting) Course. I figure this will be a good overall review and help with some things I struggle with. Plus what better way to “train” the day before a competition that will have this as one of the components? This is an all day seminar. We go over some great material and highlight specific things about deductive tasting. Near the end they ask for volunteers to “do the grid” from start to finish on the clock.
The first person does it, then they ask for another. After a few seconds of no-one wanting to volunteer, I raise my hand. I figure, why not? I pretty much bomb. Well maybe not that bad, but I took a few wrong turns to get to my final conclusion, though I correctly identify that it’s a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine. I get good feedback which was my goal.
I finish early and head over to the Grand Ballroom where one of my employees is finishing up his Intro Somm course and should be taking his exam. I wait for a while and he comes out. He’s very nervous about how he did. I chat him up and talk him of my experience 7 years ago. Eventually they call all the students over to get their results. I head to the bar to drink more Strega 🙂 My employee eventually comes over and shows me his pin. I’m stoked. I have my first protege.
The rest of the night is going to the Spa and dinner at the resort. I get a really nice massage at the Spa. This was suggested to me by one of my fellow Somms two years ago, but I wasn’t able to do it then. This time, yes. I then head to the restaurant in the hotel and have an outstanding dinner by myself. Again, by design. I had a few invites I had to turn down as I wanted to stay focused and not get distracted going out.
Sunday. Competition day. Have breakfast in the room and check in down stairs. At this time we are given our times for Tasting and Service. Before I get started, as per usual, I won’t reveal any specifics of the competition. Partially because the organizers expect us not to, but also some of the specifics won’t matter as each year there are slight differences since it is a competition.
OK, so what is this competition? Up until last year it was called the TEXSOM Texas’ Best Sommelier. Last year they included the neighboring states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. They select 25 of us to compete. One of the main criteria is that no one can be an Advanced Sommelier. So Certified and Intro is what they are looking for. The prizes are monetary and intended to help our studies to the next level. The competition is based on the Advanced Sommelier Exam. Which is a harder version of the Certified. It has three sections – Theory, Tasting, and Service.
First up is Theory. We are all in the same room together. We have 40 minutes to finish the exam. I honestly can’t remember how many questions it was. But probably 40ish. I can tell you that the exam seemed to be right on as far as the level of difficulty. As I skipped questions I didn’t know, I kept hearing myself say, “if you had done your studies like you were supposed to, you would have known the answer.” There were a few questions that I flat out wouldn’t know. Especially since my first syllabus was somewhat compressed. But overall, I really didn’t think anything was really a Master level question. I took a little over 20 minutes to finish mine. No sense racking my brain for something that’s either not in it, or I’m not going to remember after looking at the question 5 times.
I now have about 2 hours or so to wait until my Tasting portion of the exam. Some people go into it immediately, and a different group of people do their Service portion first. So instead of going up to my room, I hang out in the lounge in the lobby. There really isn’t a whole lot of studying I can really do at this point since I just finished Theory. So I pretty my rest my eyes until it is time.
I arrive to my area a few minutes early. They call my name and I’m taken into one of the Breakout rooms they have. A small meeting room with a table and two Master Sommeliers facing me. One of which is Shayn Bjornholm, who is only the Examination Director for the Court of Master Sommeliers. No pressure 🙂 Unfortunately I never got the name of the other Master and I can’t recall meeting him in the past.
I am presented with the wines and given my time limit. I dive into them. As I’m working the grid, I’m struggling to smell and taste everything. I don’t know if I’m nervous or if I’m just having a bad day. I know that the day before I struggled with some of the same things. But it’s white wine first and I have a history of struggling with white wines.
I move on to the reds. But it’s the same thing. And really I pretty much describe all the wines about the same. Well maybe not the same, but when give my conclusions I think that some of them aren’t supported by everything I just told them. I run out of time on the last wine, but, in reality, I was on pace to finish a full flight in an exam situation. I thank the Masters and head out.
Lunch time. I go grab some lunch and then relax some more. My Service exam isn’t until almost 2:00. I report to the area a little early. There are about 5 of us all waiting. This year we are all in the same room. It’s a pretty large room and we have a mock restaurant set-up. Two years ago I was by myself in a regular hotel suite doing Service. So each year it can be different.
We are given the scenario for the exam and really the first part of the exam starts there with our uniform inspection. We each enter the room and approach our assigned table. We are all only told the “host” of our table. Mine is Andrew McNamara. He was the host for my Service exam two years ago. He’s also a former Examination Director for the Court of Master Sommeliers. Again, no pressure.
As I approach the table, who do I see as the second guest? No other than Fred Dame. Yeah, I’m screwed. I mean, having just one of these two Masters can already be stressful enough, but both? I introduce myself and I get the impression that Master McNamara remembers me. Now I’m really screwed. I really bombed Service two years ago.
But wait, am I screwed? I mean, who BETTER than these two to have? I mean, Fred Dame is the whole reason we even have the American Chapter of the Court. I’ve interacted with him at TEXSOM over the years in a very relaxed and brief way. And he truly is here to teach us. Plus Andrew McNamara remembers me? And I KNOW I’ll do better this time. So there’s an opportunity to show improvement to one of the top Masters in the country. And that’s the attitude I adopted.
So I proceed. Yes, I make some stupid little mistakes in the mechanics of service. But they expect that. Not that you can go through this part of the exam/competition and wing opening wine, but they are looking at your composure mostly. The rest is important, but they want to see how you operate under stress.
I present wines, I answer questions, and try to engage in some banter, but I don’t really do that well on that last one which is a surprise. The questions? Yeah, some I do OK on, while others I struggle. I can tell you that on one group of questions I’m not concerned as these are truly outside of what I would be expected to know right now. However these are the questions that are going to separate the competitors. Unfortunately I’m on the wrong side of those questions. Though I at least knew one of them. Fred, “Are you guessing these are the grapes, or are you telling me?” Me, “I’m telling you those are the grapes they use for these wines.” Fred, “Excellent, thank you.” With a smile on his face. Again, no pressure 🙂
I finish this portion and thank them both. We all go over to an area of the room facing the wall (actually a huge floor to ceiling window) until everyone is finished and then leave. We all let out a sigh of relief. I head over the the conference area to taste some wine. At some point I got recruited to help do a setup in the Grand Ballroom with a bunch of other volunteers. One of them was a fellow competitor who was finished. I asked him how he did and he said horrible. I felt bad as this guy has done great the past couple years getting 2nd place. So if he did bad, wow.
We finish and I head out to enjoy the rest of the evening. This includes getting some dinner, hitting the hospitality suites, and having a gathering in my room.
I wake up Monday morning. A little groggy. And a knee that hurts?! I decide that maybe I can use the hot tub to make it feel better. I head to the hot tub to find that it’s raining outside. So yeah. I head back upstairs to sleep some more. I wake up to more pain in my knee. I mean, it’s pretty bad. So I eventually head to the local emergency clinic. The short version is after being there forever, there’s nothing wrong with my knee. I’m given a brace and weak painkillers. Yes there’s a story there somewhere about my knee, but I honestly don’t know it. I leave it at that.
I head back to the Four Seasons and let a lot of people know I won’t be attending the Grand Tasting that night which is when they announce the winners of the competition. I already know I’m not going to win, but I still tell a few people that if my name does get called to call me. So I spend the night in my room, have dinner and watch the Olympics.
I don’t get a phone call 🙁 LOL. However, remember that guy who said he did horrible? Yeah, he got 2nd again. Not the result he wanted, but definitely not as bad as he expected I guess.
I relax at the hotel the next day. The knee improves (I give updates on Facebook). I call the doctor from the day before as he was getting some other opinions on the x-rays. From what he tells me, nothing has changed. I go have dinner at a place next to the hotel and find out one of my former employees from like 7 years ago has moved to Dallas and works there. Small world.
Wednesday and it’s time to head home. I pack up and say goodbye to Dallas until next year.
Will I compete next year? Well, I don’t plan on it. I plan on passing my Advanced Exam some time in the 2nd quarter of next year. That would make me ineligible for it. If I don’t pass, then yes I will compete. I will always volunteer. The friends you make and the things you learn are invaluable.
If you’ve always wanted to attend TEXSOM, then do it. If you attend and want to volunteer? Do it. This is the best conference in our industry. There is another conference that is relatively new called Somm Con. I’m interested in checking it out some time, but I haven’t had the chance. I only have so much vacation time and money to travel, and for me, TEXSOM is perfect.
Thank you for reading my story. I’ll have some reviews coming soon!