In 2000 Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House occupied its first home on Sixth Avenue and nearly four decades later the floor-to-ceiling windows and white tablecloths remain. Yet the established Manhattan eatery, and every one of the 11 additional locations nationwide, has earned its well deserved esteem for something other than their famed hand-cut steak and Australian cold water lobster tail. With a soaring wine program that attracts a fanbase of loyal patrons as well as traveling enthusiasts, the front of house model, under Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group management, is mostly made up of female sommeliers. And to emphasize this is a new kind of wine dinner: Somm Wars.
Throughout the month of October, the company’s top three female sommeliers will compete in a three-tiered, four-course food and wine pairing competition in New York, Chicago and Dallas. The event could remind one of reality TV competitions like Top Chef, but DFRG Vice President of Marketing Lisa Kislak noted that no competition has achieved the mix between expert and consumer input like the Somm Wars has. Kislak noted, “The fact that Del Frisco’s can blend having fun, great food, great wine and sommeliers that are well-educated into one evening, and guests get to vote on what they like throughout the course of the night ㅡ you’ve got a winner.” And an emphasis on well-educated sommeliers is exactly what brought the program to fruition in the first place. With the amount of talent that DFRG has nurtured, why not a little friendly competition?
Del Frisco’s Director of Wine Education Jessica Norris started her career as a server for the steakhouse and soonafter found her true passion for wine. Through this discovery and a happenstance to work with a company that encourages higher education, Norris is now an alum of the American Sommelier Association and a candidate for The Court of Masters, an elite group which since 1973 has honored 149 individuals, less than 15 percent of whom are women. Here, Kislak stressed, is where DFRG claims its differences. “We give a wine education to anyone in the company that is interested, male or female, and for us, about 40 percent of our level one certifications are from females. And I’m going to speculate that that is higher than any of the other steakhouses.”
So although the numbers seem to be against them, the three sommeliers heading into the proverbial ‘ring’ are anything but underprepared. And in an industry where the climate sways toward female underrepresentation, they’re proof of exactly why that may not be the case for much longer. Del Frisco’s New York Wine Director Crystl Faye Horton is also a candidate for the third level in The Court of Masters and oversees a wine list of over 2,000 selections. Horton also teaches for the American Sommelier Association in Manhattan. Amy Lutchen, Wine Director of Del Frisco’s Chicago and seasoned sommelier, is currently awaiting invitation to sit for The Court of Masters Advanced Exam. Lastly, Wine Director of Del Frisco’s Dallas Chantal Daves holds a Level I Sommelier Certification specializing in wine and food pairings.
For Daves, being at the helm of the Somm Wars’ final stop is anything but intimidating, even though the event as a whole is more like a team effort than a gloves-off approach. And as Daves predicts, guests “are in the driver seat [and] the friendly female competition will be in full effect. That, with some big Texas sized hospitality and phenomenal wines, I can’t wait!” In the Texas final round the three sommeliers will be challenged to “go big or go home,” or in Somm Wars’ terms, everyone better be ready for a “cab” fight.
Following the October 13th first round, Somm Wars will have its second round in Chicago on October 21st and its final round in Dallas on October 27th. Tickets are $225 per person and can be found on delfriscos.com.