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Competition Tips from TEXSOM’s Newly Named Best Sommelier

Andres Blanco, of Houston’s Caracol, on what it takes to win

Andres Blanco, of Houston’s Carocal
Andres Blanco, of Houston’s Carocal. Photo courtesy of TexSom.

To win the title of TEXSOM Best Sommelier, you better know dessert wines. And sparkling wines. Those are critical, in addition to the standard-bearer reds and whites. At least, that’s how 2017 champion Andres Blanco sees it. This week, Blanco topped 25 other candidates to win the Best Sommelier title at TEXSOM, where candidates are evaluated on service, blind tasting, and theory.

Blanco works as a floor manager and sommelier at Caracol, a Mexican seafood restaurant in Houston, whose chef, Hugo Ortega, won this year’s James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. Blanco was raised in a hospitality-loving family with a father who worked in the restaurant industry, so he had known for years that he wanted to work in restaurants. But it was a chance tasting of Barolo that made him fall hard and fast for wine. While training on the floor at Houston’s Italian restaurant Arcodoro, a regular patron, Neil McGee, ordered a Barolo—a 1996 Aldo Conterno—and the staff went crazy.

“I was curious about all these emotions a bottle of wine was causing,” Blanco says. “At the end of the night, the wine was on Mr. McGee’s table in the decanter, and I noticed he was swirling the wine with his friends and talking about all these flavors—truffle, earth, raspberries, tobacco, leather—and I’m over there listening to it and thinking, Did they put all that stuff inside? That was my first naive thought about wine.”

McGee took note of Blanco’s eavesdropping, poured him a sample, and walked him through the tasting. Blanco was blown away—and hooked. “I couldn’t believe what I was tasting,” he says. “I had never smelled or tasted anything like Barolo before. It didn’t taste like those cheap Pinot Noirs I’d been introduced to at other restaurants.”

Blanco thanked McGee and went home and “Googled the hell out of Barolo,” researching the grape, the region, why it smelled the way it did, and more. “Next thing you know, the new guy [Blanco] at the restaurant is selling $200 bottles of Barolo all over the place,” he says. Blanco credits McGee for making him a somm, but he may be selling himself a bit short. He went so deep into his subject—and became so passionate about Italian wines—that he learned Italian.

In 2011, Blanco passed his Court of Sommeliers Level 1 exam during TEXSOM; two months later he passed Level 2 in Austin. He sat for his Advanced exam in March of this year, and though he didn’t pass, he received a lot of good feedback and is hoping to be accepted to test again next March. The experience of studying for the Advanced exam helped lead him to victory this summer.

Here’s Blanco’s advice for those looking to compete for the TEXSOM Best Sommelier title in 2018:

What was your training regimen?

To be honest, I had a short time to prepare, but the reason I was able to recall a lot of information was that four months ago I took the Advanced exam in Portland, Oregon, and the preparation for that, from September to February, was so intense. Basically, my intense prep for the Advanced exam in March helped me to retain information and apply it.

The way I studied was to draw maps and put all of the most important information on those maps. Once you’ve got that visual information in your mind, if you close your eyes and imagine that map, you can call it up.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known going into the contest?

I should have tasted more outside of white and red—dessert and sparkling wines. That was the only thing that caught me off-guard as far as the tasting part. The last wine was a dessert wine I wasn’t sure about. It was a brown wine. Maybe I need to get more tasting on the brown wines.

So know more dessert wines, and also know more about New World wines.

What advice would you give next year’s contestants?

Give yourself three to four months to prepare, in which you divide the weeks and topics to study. Put together a 12-week itinerary leading up to the competition. And of course, study with someone who is going for the same goal or for a higher certification than you.

When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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