Houston Wine Competition Featuring Top Sommeliers Goes Virtual for 2020

Iron Sommelier trophy

One of Houston’s most-loved food and drink events is back, albeit modified for the current times. The 2020 Iron Sommelier competition takes place November 12. The yearly event, which usually fills a ballroom at The Houstonian Hotel, brings together Bayou City sommeliers to showcase their creativity and presentation skills in friendly competition. It benefits The Periwinkle Foundation, a Houston non-profit that provides activities and support for children, young adults and families who are living with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, and are receiving care at Texas Children’s Hospital. Tickets are $100 per person.

Iron Sommelier 2020 wine kit
The Iron Sommelier at-home tasting kit includes a dozen wines and there’s an optional food add-on. Courtesy photo.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Iron Sommelier, like many events before it, is going mostly virtual (in-person experiences are available for event underwriters), but anyone who thinks that means just another Zoom meeting better think twice. Sean Beck, sommelier and beverage director for H-Town Restaurant Group and co-chair of Iron Somm, has been preparing for the event for months. “We’re having different competing sommeliers emcee throughout the night, and the audience will get 12 amazing wines to taste,” he said. “The sommeliers will talk about those, take questions, offer them some details they wouldn’t normally get when tasting a wine. Depending on how many people we get, we might even do break-out rooms. This is definitely a high-energy, interactive evening.”

Ticket buyers receive a tasting flight of 12 wines to enjoy at home, as well as Zoom access to the virtual Iron Sommelier judging presentation and live presentations from guest winemakers. There’s also a wine pull, auction and children’s art for sale, as well as a raffle for a 2016 Alexander Valley Cabernet package valued at $2,500. Guests who’d like full bottles of wine at home can also order cases of six different bottles or a case of 12 with two each of the six, all selected by Beck.

Beck said there’s also a food add-on available from Backstreet Cafe to go along with the virtual tasting. “If they want a meal, there’s a three-course menu they can purchase for $35. It’s easy to reheat and plate at home to enjoy along with the festivities.”

This year’s competing somms include Farrah Cauley  of Sonoma Wine Bar, Adele Corrigan of 13 celsius, Matt Crawford from State of Grace, Julie Dalton of Mastro’s Steakhouse (who was last year’s first runner up), Eric Estefano from Pappas Bros Steakhouse, Marcus Gausepohl of Brennan’s, Whitney Seng of The Coronado Club, Lindsay Thomas from River Oaks Country Club, Emily Tolbert of Savoir, Evan Turner, formerly in Houston but now at Krasi Meze & Wine in Boston (who last year tied for Best Presentation), Justin Vann of Public Services Wine & Whisky and Theodore Rex, and Jeffrey Young of Georgia James. Each of will offer three wines that showcase a particular wine region, grape or style. They’ll be judged on their wine choice, presentation, creativity and knowledge. (Last year’s winner, Andres Blanco, is not competing but is hosting one of the onsite activities for underwriters — a Mexican wine tasting alongside tapas.) 

Judging the competition this year are Master Sommeliers June Rodil with Rosie Cannonball and Craig Collins with Vintus, as well as longtime Houston sommelier and wine expert Antonio Gianola of Houston Wine Merchant.

Marcus Gausepohl
Marcus Gausepohl of Brennan’s of Houston is just one of a dozen talented professionals competing in Iron Sommelier this year. Courtesy photo.

Beck said Iron Somm guests can expect an event that’s akin to a show like The Late Show. He’ll serve as host, but he intends to make the event “a breezy, fun interaction,” where the audience will hear from several voices and can ask questions and feel like they’re part of the event. He also stressed the importance of supporting The Periwinkle Foundation. “This is a tremendous cause,” he said. “They need support now more than ever for the important work they do for children.”

He’s confident that both former attendees of Iron Somm and newcomers alike will find this year’s competition original and engaging. “We’re going to put on a really good show. We’ve made Zoom painless, engaging and fun,” he said. “How often to do you get this kind of access, to try wines like this where you also have access to sommeliers and wine makers, and enjoy it all in the safety of your own home?”

Individual tickets can be purchased online. There are also opportunities for underwriting the event. Underwriters will have access to live presentations and interactive conversation with the sommeliers at Backstreet Cafe or Hugo’s. They may also, if they prefer, participate virtually from home.

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