Behind the Scenes at The Iron Sommelier Competition
To his right, fellow sommelier Jonathan Honefenger encouraged his fellow somms along with cries of: "Hustle! Hustle!" The two men moved swiftly from one seat to the next, pouring a deliberate ounce into one wine glass at a time from dark green bottles that bore the crusty scars of something that had once had barnacles growing on it.
Gianola and Honefenger were two of the non-participating sommeliers helping to fill judges' wine glasses at the annual Iron Sommelier competition last night at the Houstonian. In the sequestered Grand Tasting room, they -- along with four other somms -- rushed quietly and intently across the carpeted floors with bottles in hand, filling a dozen wine glasses at each judging station as they went.
In only a short amount of time, the room was packed with people. And all of the glasses were filled.
This is where the Iron Sommelier award is decided, where a dozen somms from across the city come to present a curated selection of wines before a panel of wine connoisseurs and judges. It's a display of both showmanship and wine knowledge, two uniquely important qualities in a sommelier.
But the Iron Sommelier competition is much more than that: It's also a fund-raising event that benefits the Periwinkle Foundation, a local charity out of Texas Children's Hospital that provides programs to positively change the lives of children, young adults and families who are challenged by cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
From the back of the Grand Tasting room, Sean Beck -- the wine director for Backstreet Cafe, Trevisio and Hugo's, who has won the Iron Sommelier competition so many times in past years that he no longer participates out of good sportsmanship -- gave the signal to begin. The first sommelier walked forward.
Mike Sammons, co-owner and proprietor of 13 Celsius, strode to the front of the room as the emcee read a short bio to the assembled judges. A brief mention in Sammons's bio of a massive "collection of unicorn art" drew confused laughter from the room.
This bottle of sea-aged spumante from Italy was one of the many rare wines served at the competition.
"I wrote that," Beck had giggled conspiratorially before the competition began.
The barnacle-encrusted wine bottle from earlier in the evening was the first to make an appearance. It's aged in the sea, Sammons explained of the Abissi Bisson spumanti. It's not terribly expensive, but it is rare: Only six bottles made it into Texas. Sammons poured two of them tonight for the judges.
Outside in the main ballroom of the event, the dozen sommeliers were also responsible for manning tables that held three additional selections of wine -- wine meant for the general-admission guests to enjoy, wine for the People's Choice award of the night. At Sammons's table, he and fellow 13 Celsius bartender Adele Corrigan were showcasing a slew of unusual wines -- such as that 2009 Abissi Bisson -- and making equally unusual wine "flips" out of them.