This month, Wines from Spain sat down with Master Sommelier, Sommelier Magazine publisher, and TEXSOM co-founder James Tidwell to talk about the explosive growth of wine education in the last few years, emerging DO’s that offer inspiring wines ripe for enjoyment and meditation, and how the dizzying breadth of native choices makes it nearly impossible to pick just one “desert island” Spanish wine.
James, you have one of the most impressive resumes in the wine industry: one of only 256 Master Sommeliers in the world, you’re the publisher of Sommelier magazine, Co-Founder of TEXSOM, Co-Owner and Producer of the TEXSOM International Wine Awards, and Master Sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts—just to mention, well, a few highlights. How did you get your start in the wine world?
I was reared in a family that did not drink, but loved to eat! I was pursuing a business degree in university and decided that I needed to learn wine for the business world, so I enrolled in a wine appreciation class. After university, I was fortunate to participate in a work exchange program which took me to Germany. I worked for a small, family-owned food service equipment manufacturer. My boss was French, and we drove all over Europe in his old Citroen station wagon calling on some of—what I later learned were—the best restaurants and hotels in Europe. He knew “the best,” whether the best wurst in Dusseldorf or the best croissant in France—there was always an adventure of a slight detour down a side road. He arranged my first haute cuisine meal, a multi-course French affair with wines. This made me even more interested in food and wine, and my boss encouraged me to get into the hospitality business. Upon returning to the United States, I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. I did some research, then walked into one of the best wine shops in the state and said, “I don’t know much about wine, but I am willing to learn and have some skills.” I handed the owner, Lee Johnson, my CV and he immediately said, “I think we have a spot for you.” So, I can’t even compete in those games where sommeliers try to “one-up” each other with the well-known names where they first worked. But, all seems to have gone okay so far! Detours down side roads in search of vinous adventures have kept me well-occupied.
What are some emerging trends in the industry that you are tracking?
The use of autochthonous and lesser-known grape varieties is encouraging for the diversity this creates in selection and styles.
Are there any trends specific to Spanish wine that you see in restaurants, media, and beverage education that surprise or excite you?
Just as I am following the emphasis on different grape varieties generally, I am following the use of lesser-known grape varieties in Spain There are some exciting wines being made in Spain using grapes that are not as well-known to the everyday wine consumer. However, I always like to visit the classics too!
What regions or DOs in Spain inspire you right now? Where should wine lovers be looking to discover their next favorite Spanish wine?
I am fascinated by “Green Spain,” though I have never been. I drink wines from there as often as possible. Godello and Mencia are interesting grapes that provide both pleasurable drinking and opportunity for meditation, striking a nice balance of styles. The DO’s of Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro, Monterrei, Bierzo, and of course the three Txakolina DO’s are producing some exciting wines apace with modern tastes.
TEXSOM is considered to be the premier professional beverage education event in America. What inspired you to co-found it in 2005 with Drew Hendricks MS, and how has wine and beverage education grown and changed since then?
TEXSOM was founded as the Texas Sommelier Conference to help raise the standards for wine service, expose sommeliers to what was happening in the wider wine world, show those who were influential that sommeliers were interested in exploration of wine, and to offer insight into certification opportunities.
Many aspects of the industry have changed in fifteen years. Sommeliers have much more opportunity to taste wines and travel to regions. Guildsomm and SommFoundation were created as resources for learning. The major organizations of Wine and Spirits Education Trust, Court of Master Sommeliers, and Institute of Masters of Wine all have seen explosive growth. The movie SOMM shined a spotlight on the profession. And so many other things that affect education, training, and certification have happened. All of these have shaped the industry, which in turn has shaped TEXSOM. We are fortunate that all of these organizations are involved with TEXSOM.
Wine education has been experiencing a renaissance over the last decade, in so small part due to your efforts and the efforts of your colleagues. How would you define your approach to wine education? What does the future hold?
We attempt to get input from as many sources as possible in understanding the wine world, the interests of sommeliers, and the opportunities and challenges that the industry could be facing. Based upon this information, we create seminars and commission speakers to deliver them. This approach is unlike many other conferences, but has maintained the integrity of the education at TEXSOM. The future can never be known, so our role is to help beverage professionals increase their value and relevance by delivering superior service and hospitality and running sustainable programs in any eventuality.
What are your go-to Spanish wine pairings, both for guests at the Four Seasons, and for yourself at home?
Steak is a staple food in Texas, so Rioja and Ribera del Duero are excellent choices. Gulf Coast seafood is another favorite in Texas, and with that I like Txakolina or Godello.
You’re stranded on adesert island, and you have only one case of Spanish wine to keep you company (and to pair with whatever you can find to eat). What would you choose?
Can I get a mixed case of wine!? Because this question short-circuits my brain to even consider choosing only one wine. The diversity of great Spanish wines can’t be narrowed to a single wine!