TexSom 2014 – The Texas Sommelier Conference
For our first post here on SASA I thought I’d share my experience at TexSom. TexSom is a conference started in Austin in 2005 by Master Sommeliers James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks. Neither were Master Sommeliers at the time, but they wanted to create a conference for sommeliers throughout the state and country. I won’t go through the entire history of it, but it did eventually move to Dallas (Las Colinas), TX and James and Drew are still in charge of it. This year was the second year of the expansion. While the conference itself is still two days of seminars, TexSom has continued to expand the certifications available to those in the industry.
This year marks the addition of the WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) to the group. While no WSET certifications were offered, they became a sponsor. Besides being able to take the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Course and Examination as usual, one was also able to take their Certified Sommelier Exam. In addition, the Society of Wine Educators offered both their Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Specialist of Spirits exams. And if you’re into tea, then you could also take exams offered by the Specialty Tea Institute. In the past a sake certification has been offered. TexSom is essentially the largest conference of its kind in the world.
I’ve been going to TexSom since 2009. I’ve seen it grow from about 150 – 200 attendees all going to the same seminars and only being two days to what it is now. Almost a full week of multiple simultaneous seminars (still two days) and certifications. I got introduced to it because I took my Level 1 CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers) exam there. I registered for it early that year and found out about the conference by accident. I’ve been hooked ever since.
This year was different for me. I attended as a competitor for the Texas’ Best Sommelier. I also volunteered as much as I could pre-conference. I can’t begin to tell you the incredible time and opportunity I had to do both. I will apply to be in the competition next year and I hope to volunteer the entire time next year. This year I had a combination of scheduled “me” time for review and physical issues that prevented me from volunteering on Saturday and Monday. I’ll have a more detailed post about the competition in a different post as I want to talk about the entire experience this year and general tips and info for anyone wanting to go in the future.
First, you might as well block the second weekend of August every year. That’s typically when the conference is now. Next year’s conference dates have not been set, so it is possible they could change. In the Spring they open up registration for the conference. I’d follow their Twitter account, @TexSom, to keep informed as to when registration opens up. Or just visit their site, TexSom daily starting in May! Once registration opens up, make sure you sign up for the seminars you want. Sometimes not every slot is assigned so you may have to revisit the site to see what any “TBD” seminars have become. Many times specific seminars fill up quickly, so register as early as you can.
One of those this year was the Guildsomm Presents: Burgundy’s Last (Decade) of the Last (Century). Being a Competitor meant that I wasn’t able to register for the conference. Well, I could have, but the competition takes place on the first day of the conference so it’s a waste of money. The side benefit is that I can be on the waiting list for a seminar. I just show up and then wait in line in the hopes of getting in once they’ve let everyone else in and wait for any stragglers. I can tell you that even for someone like me that isn’t a disciple of the Church of Burgundy/Pinot Noir, it was some pretty amazing wine. And that’s not the only seminar that will have amazing wines. Every year there are multiple seminars like that. This seminar was actually on the same day as the competition. I was lucky to have finished before noon, so I was able to make one of the seminars that day.
Anyway, since you now choose the seminars, choose wisely. Go crazy with your interests. One of the benefits of simultaneous seminars is getting your money’s worth on going to a seminar that interests you just about every time. When it was everyone going to the same seminar, I’d notice a half-full room sometimes. I never understood that as I go to learn and even a seminar that might not be cool or hip is still going to teach me something. Plus I did pay for it, so I felt like I needed to attend every seminar.
One other thing to realize is that each seminar is taught by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine. Every. Single. One. This conference has more Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine at one time in the world than any other event. And they are all approachable. They will have some additional presenters that may be writers or other wine personalities, but each one will also have a Master or two.
Lodging. I can’t stress enough how convenient it is to stay at the conference hotel, the Four Seasons. Besides being an incredible property, they give attendees a pretty decent rate. For 2014 the rates for the typical room you could get are between $370 and $415. The rate this year was $160. A steal. My first year staying there was 2010, and I paid $130. So a $30 increase over 4 years isn’t too terribly bad. Hotels nearby are about $20-$30 per night cheaper, but you don’t have the convenience of being able to go to your room whenever you want. Especially nice during the time between the last seminar and any dinner plans you may have. Or just to freshen up quickly before heading the to hospitality suites. But you do need to book as soon as you register for the conference. I don’t remember if they booked up in previous years, but we were told that the hotel was booked solid for the conference rates at least. Also the rates are good for the entire time there are any events. This year they were good a few days prior. This is really helpful to the volunteers too since it takes days to set this whole thing up. Last year I was able to stay an extra day afterwards in order to enjoy the resort and they gave me the special rate. Not sure if they did it to be nice or it was already set up.
Besides seminars, there are Tasting Breaks between each seminar. Sponsored by different wineries, distributors, or organizations, these are great opportunities to do the real business of conferences, networking. Every conference around the world is the same. While the seminars are hopefully informative and worth attending, it’s all the hallway networking you do. And what better way to do it than over a glass of wine! Lunches both days are also sponsored. So you get a free lunch and free wine too. Nothing like sitting next to a Master Sommelier or Master of Wine that you may have just listened to and be able to talk shop or shoot the breeze with them. One year I learned a lesson in deductive tasting (aka blind tasting) from Master Sommelier Peter Neptune. He trains his students to taste first, then smell. Structure is what tells you what a wine is, and the palate is how you determine that. Now I still do it the traditional way of smelling first, but I now pay attention to the structure more.
And the hospitality suites. Again, everything is free. Wines and sprits from all over the world. It’s very much kid in a candy store. Most of the people don’t overindulge. They may enjoy themselves, but everyone is fairly well behaved. Again, staying at the hotel is recommended. Anyway, the hospitality suites are another great way to talk to the winemakers or owners. Not every suite, but you are getting great access to wine that you may not be able to taste normally. How many of you are able to have a rep just pop by with a Grand Cru Burgundy just to taste? Normally they are asking how much you want to order with no tasting. And this also holds true for the Grand Tasting on Monday night. Same rules apply here. Be smart and don’t overindulge.
So what’s it like as a volunteer? Well, let me tell you. It’s work. Fun work, but work nonetheless. And since they’ve been doing it for ten years, they have their act together. June Rodil is in charge and she’s incredible. She has a great team of Captains to help her. Everyone works together. The vast majority of what you do the few days leading up to the conference is polish glassware. Like 15,000 glasses. Besides that there’s moving the glassware to staging areas, moving hundreds of cases of wine, moving other stuff, room setup, and polishing more glassware.
TexSom takes care of the volunteers too. This year we had sponsored lunches with Messina Hof. Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo are the owners of the winery and they joined us for three days at lunch. They provided the wine and education of not only their wines, but Texas wine and wine in general. One of the coolest things for me was day three (I missed day one) when they brought a refractometer. That’s the tool used to test the sugar level in a grape to determine if it’s time to harvest. Even though I only got to look through it for a short time, and there really isn’t anything to see other than a line on scale, it’s was still one of the highlights of my entire week. And being around the Bonarrigos is also great (every Texas winery owner or winemaker I’ve met over the years has been the same). We also had sponsored dinners. Nothing fancy. Just the group getting together to share wine and food at casual restaurants. I cannot tell you how valuable it was to experience this. The people I met were great and I hope to see them again next year.
So next year. I’m already hoping that I can be there as early as I can to help volunteer and contribute even more. Yes, I’ll also apply to be in the competition, but I’ll be prepared for it. I still may take the Saturday to relax. Maybe spend half the day with the volunteers for some human interaction, but also realize that to succeed in the competition I’ll need some “me” time. And then Monday back to volunteering. Now, volunteering does mean that I can’t pick and choose seminars the second day, but honestly, any seminar I go to will be informative. And there’s always the chance that I get pulled out during a seminar to help elsewhere. I’ve helped with these types of things in the past and I get a lot out of it. I’ve also organized much smaller events so I can appreciate all the hard work that goes into it.
One of the things I hope to see next year is more of us from San Antonio attending. Every year we’ve have a very small contingent since I’ve been going. I’d even venture to say that some years I may have been one of two or three San Antonians. One of the things we can do as a group is connect with our fellow industry people in the state, and TexSom is the perfect place to do that. Nowhere else will you find the level of knowledge and talent in one place.
Until next time,
Links for further information:
Four Seasons Las Colinas
Society of Wine Educators
Wine and Spirits Education Trust
Specialty Tea Institute