Where the somms add up

Friday, 27. October 2017 - 11:45

TEXSOM/Courtney Perry

What would draw America’s top wine professionals, most in suits, many self-identified with sommelier pins, to Dallas, Texas, in the middle of the blazing August heat? It turns out it’s not the barbecue, though there is plenty of that too. It’s the opportunity to taste with and learn from Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine and other wine experts from around the globe at what has become one of the top wine conferences in the world — TEXSOM.

Every August the wine cognoscenti converges on the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas for an intense few days of competition, certification and seminars, fleshed out with networking dinners, walkabout tastings and hospitality suites. The who’s who of America’s wine industry is here and, in recent years, there’s been a very strong global showing as well, capped with the announcement in July 2017 that ProWein has backed the event as a major sponsor. The alliance has affirmed that TEXSOM, a dozen years after its humble beginnings, is a major force in the global wine trade world. 

From small beginnings
When co-founders James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks came up with the idea for TEXSOM back in 2004, they were simply trying to raise the standards of their profession in Texas, where they had both recently passed the Advanced Sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. As Tidwell remembers, though he and Hendricks were enrolled in the same programmes and following the same career trajectory, there was little wine community to network with or resources to utilise. 

“I had moved to Texas in 2002 while finishing the second half of the WSET Diploma,” he says. “Drew was enrolled in the Diploma at the same time. In addition, we both passed the Certified Wine Educator certification from the Society of Wine Educators during this period. Yet we had not met.” They finally met at the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition in 2004 when they were assigned the same panel. Realising that they would benefit from sharing study tips and work experience, they knew that many others in their stream would be in the same solo boat.

“There weren’t opportunities for Texas sommeliers to engage with producers and other people with direct knowledge of regions (this was prior to Google, Guildsomm, and the many opportunities available today),” says Tidwell. “Many sommeliers were studying for these exams and certificates without knowing the process and standards. So we decided to create a conference where we would bring experts from outside Texas to present so that they could see the interest from Texas sommeliers, and so that Texas sommeliers could learn from those with direct experience.” At the same time, they created a competition for Texas sommeliers who had not passed the Advanced Course, as there were only four people in the state who had achieved that level in 2004, along with Guy Stout, then Texas’s sole Master Sommelier. 

“We had no model,” reflects Tidwell. “We knew what we did and did not want. We had no idea how to create a conference so we decided to pick some subjects that we would like to learn more about, then determined who we would like to hear present those subjects. That is the model to this day. We create the seminar themes and titles, then commission the speakers for each seminar.” 

How it works
Those tenets remain a rarity today, as TEXSOM adheres to its policy of no sponsored seminars. This means that a generic wine marketing body can’t show up with a seminar proposal, a big budget and buy a space to present. Topics are chosen by a small committee, based upon trends seen in America and globally. The committee also canvasses other beverage professionals for theme suggestion and input. This year’s topics included South American Overview: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay; Regional Focus: Arizona; Old Vines Phenomenon; and Winemaking Philosophies: A Discussion of Ideology, Authenticity and Intervention. Once they have decided on topics for the year, they approach well-respected speakers, usually those with letters before or after their name, to present. One thing the speakers cannot possess, however, is a direct vested financial interest in the topics they are presenting.

That doesn’t mean TEXSOM runs alone. There are numerous other sponsorship opportunities, as with ProWein, that have worked to draw the competitive wine industry together, while building a very stable base of supporters across numerous fields. 
“Our most important relationships are the ones that have developed over time and represent the best aspects of our industry,” notes Tidwell. “The conference brings together organisations in a way that is unique in the wine industry. Rival distributors including national distributors such as SGWS, RNDC and Breakthru Beverage, along many of the Texas distributors, work in concert to help ensure a successful conference. 

“The highest level of wine education and certification organisations are co-presenting sponsors: Court of Master Sommeliers — Americas, Wine and Spirit Education Trust, SommFoundation, Guildsomm, and Society of Wine Educators.” 

A solid reputation and a commitment to uphold those strict values have paid off.  According to Tidwell, many of their loyal sponsors recruit other sponsors, so when they have space to accommodate new sponsors — yes, there is a wait list — there’s already a familiarity and accountability in place. They currently have 167 sponsors at various levels of involvement. 
Benefits of sponsorship flow both ways. For ProWein’s Marius Berlemann, the global head of wine and spirits, the alignment with TEXSOM is a way of establishing themselves in the North American market. “TEXSOM is an ideal platform for us to directly reach the US wine industry with all its top wine buyers and decision makers,” he says. “North America is one of the most important international visitor markets for ProWein.” 

He adds that ProWein, together with its partners, has developed tools to access the US market:  “One example is ‘Route USA’, which specifically connects our exhibitors with US importers and distribution partners. Our co-operation with TEXSOM is a further important measure to attract additional US visitors to ProWein in Düsseldorf.”

The numerous sponsorship partners help keep costs as low as possible for attendees, which in 2017 was $495.00 for the full conference package (two full days of seminars and lunches, not including accommodation). The demand is certainly there for this trade-only event; TEXSOM sells out rapidly every year, with many seminars filling up within a day of being released. This year more than 1,250 guests were able to listen to 53 speakers, thanks to the TEXSOM team and their skilled 200-plus crew of volunteers. 

Complementary projects
For those who can’t attend, they publish Sommelier magazine. The 228-page publication was created to complement the sommelier conference, offering themes introduced at TEXSOM, while also introducing new regions and wines. Sommelier is also where the winners of the TEXSOM International Wine Awards (IWA) are published, easily absorbing more than half the page count, and a useful guide to the winning wines. 

The TEXSOM International Wine Awards (IWA) has become an industry standard for wine competitions in the States and another arm of the TEXSOM empire. These were the same awards where Tidwell and Hendricks met as judges in 2004, when it was The Dallas Morning News Wine Competition. In 2008, awards founder Rebecca Murphy approached Fred Dame MS at the TEXSOM Conference for advice on how to get the competition to like-minded people who would honor its two-decade legacy. Dame recommend the founders of TEXSOM, arranged the meeting the next morning — fittingly, in a local bar — and it was a natural fit. 

TEXSOM took ownership of the awards in 2014, improving the competition in the quantity and diversity of entries, and the judges. The competition has grown 33% since 2015; this year there were more than 3,500 entries from 29 countries, including 19 US states. With vintages spanning 40 years and wines ranging in value from $2.99 to $700.00, 71 judges — including 16 MSs and 18 MWs — spent two intense days judging the entries. Tidwell produces the awards alongside Donaji Lira and Kyle Miller and with the support of a tiny team of employees and a large 80-ish group of volunteers. 

So TEXSOM embodies the US major wine industry conference, a keepsake magazine and a respected awards programme, not to mention the numerous wine certification programmes and a competition that runs throughout the week. All this from people who have day jobs. Drew Hendricks is the director of business development at Republic National Distributing Company, and James Tidwell is Master Sommelier at Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas, where he also is involved with the hotel group’s corporate core wine selections, consulting at other properties when needed. 

It’s a vastly different wine landscape for sommeliers from when they started out. Tidwell, who started in kitchens, graduated with honours from the Culinary Institute of America and passed the Master Sommelier exam in 2009, sees the sommelier profession following the rise in visibility given to chefs, largely in part due to the Food Network and other accessible, high-profile media. “With understanding of both professions came a greater level of respect and more responsibility,” he believes. “This caused the role to shift from being strictly a wine server position. A corresponding precedent can be seen with the chef profession.”

Tidwell splits his time between Dallas and the road, travelling frequently across the United States to judge, speak and consult, and overseas for collaborations and to continue his own ongoing wine education (he is enrolled in the MW programme). When asked about trends he’s seeing in the US wine community, he brought it back home. “Truly local where that’s possible,” he says. “Biodynamic, organic and sustainable are common themes throughout the country, not just in specific restaurants or cities.” 

Tidwell revealed that the team is developing the TEXSOM Sommelier Retreat as a bootcamp or basic training event involving many of the aspects covered in the first years of the TEXSOM conference. “The conference has evolved over the years from a format that rotated educational seminars with blind tasting technique sessions to a conference that explores a wider range of themes,” he says. “We have some of the best wine professionals in the world at the TEXSOM International Wine Awards, so have created another event that offers the additional ability to utilise their expertise while at the Awards. 

“The goal is to offer sommeliers and aspiring sommeliers practice in the three areas that define the sommelier profession: service, tasting and theory knowledge. As we continue to develop this event, we will open the opportunity to more people.”

As Tidwell notes, “This is an exciting time to be a sommelier.”
Treve Ring

Treve Ring was a presenter at TEXSOM 2017. This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2017.