Iron Sommelier Wine Competition for Charity Returns on November 8

Fourteen of Houston’s top wine pros are going to break out their best, most interesting wine pours for an appreciative crowd when the annual Iron Sommelier competition returns to The Houstonian at 111 North Post Oak on November 8. An all-out extravaganza of a tasting event, it benefits the Periwinkle Foundation, a Houston nonprofit that raises money for programs and initiatives that help children, young adults and their families who are undergoing cancer and other serious illness care at Texas Children’s Hospital. Iron Sommelier runs from 6 to 10 p.m. and advance tickets are available online now. Tickets are $200 if purchased in advance and $225 at the door or on the day of the event.

The sommeliers competing for the coveted Iron Somm title include Sonoma Wine Bar’s Farrah Cauley, Backstreet Cafe’s Angie Chang, (who was first runner-up last year when she was at Yauatcha), 13 Celsius Wine Bar’s Adele Corrigan, State of Grace and La Luca’s Matt Crawford, Mastro’s Steakhouse’s Julie Dalton, Brennan’s of Houston’s Marcus Gausepohl, Dolce Vita’s Geoff Stephens, Del Frisco’s Emily Tolbert, Emmaline’s Evan Turner (the 2015 title winner), River Oaks Country Club’s Christian Varas (who won the title in 2016 and 2013), Pappas Bros. Steakhouses’s Chris Walter, Yauatcha’s Robert L. Waltrip III, Georgia James and Underbelly Hospitality’s Alicia Wolf and Public Services Wine & Whiskey Bar and Theodore Rex’s Justin Vann.

Caracol’s Andres Blanco won last year. However, this year he is the emcee for a special underwriter tasting, so the stage is set for a new champion. In fact, nearly half of this year’s entrants are first-time competitors: Dalton, Gausepohl, Stephens, Tolbert, Walter, Wolf and Vann.

Iron Somm buffet
A variety of restaurants will have food for guests attending the Iron Sommelier event at The Houstonian. Photo by Dave Rossman.

For the competition, all the sommeliers have to pick a specific wine genre to explore — hopefully one that is going to also charm the attendees into voting for them. It might be a series of Greek wines (a perpetual theme for Turner, who was previously at Helen Greek Food & Wine), or a deep dive into a wine region like France’s Rhone. Each sommelier offers event attendees tastes of different wines within his or her chosen category, and provides a presentation about what makes them so great. The somms are judged on their wine knowledge and their creative flair in their presentations. Some of this year’s topics include Gausepohl’s “Bandol Is For Lovers”, Stephen’s “Italy’s Killer B’s: Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello” and Waltrip’s “Seeing Pink Elephants on Parade: A Magical Journey with Sparkling Wines from Around the World”.

Interestingly, even though he was named a Sommelier of the Year way back in 2013 by Food & Wine, this is the first time Vann is competing in Iron Sommelier, a top wine competition in Houston. The theme he’s chosen, South African wines, may be a hard sell — or may introduce the crowd to an eye-opening selection.

Justin Vann
Justin Vann of Public Services Wine & Whisky and Theodore Rex. Photo by Jenn Duncan

Vann said he realized his own knowledge about South African wines was lacking and he couldn’t figure out why. He figures it’s because he’d never really tasted any he thought were exceptional. But then something happened: while he was at TexSomm this year, he won a trip to South Africa, where he spent nine days tasting wines and learning about the country’s winemaking processes.

“The whole reason I even wanted to go in the first place was because I thought I had to be missing something,” he said. “I mean, there’s just no way that all the wines a country makes aren’t great — even if the ones I’d tried here weren’t ones that blew me away.” The trip changed his perspective on what South African wines could be, and he quickly came to the conclusion that he had only just scratched the surface of the South African winemaking industry, and that he wanted to bring the wines that dazzled him to Texas. The selections he’s pouring at Iron Sommelier include Crystallum Pinot Noir, from South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, and Le Lude sparkling wine.

“I love the idea that Iron Somm is an opportunity to show a wine — any wine — to 500 people,” he said. “And I’m not one to waste an audience.”

In addition to sampling the wines and chatting up the somms, guests can check out food selections from each of the sommelier’s restaurants. Details about what is being served are still being ironed out, but in addition to the 14 spots represented in the competition, several other Houston restaurants will be sharing peeks at their menus. The Houstonian is providing a culinary station with house smoked brisket, jalapeño potato gratin and miniature honey yeast rolls, as well as a bruschetta bar and desserts. Hopdoddy is serving its signature burgers and Hugo’s, in partnership with 8th Wonder Brewery, is putting together a salsa bar.

Both self-parking and valet are available for guests. Self-parking is free, while the valet cost is $18. Additional information about the event can be found on the Iron Sommelier website.

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