Molly Austad is from Boerne, Texas. While she was growing up, her parents never had a deep passion for wine, but they had a love for travel. During her teenage years, her family took yearly trips abroad and drank table wine in places such as Chile, South Africa, Ecuador, Spain and Italy. This sparked her interest in wine. She remembers strangers, friends, and distant relatives always being welcomed into her home — her parents loved to entertain. At cocktail parties in her youth, she was tasked with refilling drinks, passing hors d’oeuvres, taking coats, etc. Later in high school and college, she worked in various restaurants that solidified the passion for hospitality her parents had unknowingly instilled in her. She went on to study design at UCLA and moved to Paris to work with a fashion designer in the same year she graduated. Her weekends were spent in Burgundy where she spent time with passionate winemakers. It was in Burgundy that she fell truly in love with wine. She made her way back to Texas after an internship in France and started working for McGuire Moorman Hospitality. Under the guidance of beverage director June Rodil, she obtained her Introductory Sommelier degree through the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2015. By 2016, she was a certified sommelier and a full-time floor somm at Jeffrey’s, a fine dining concept within the hospitality group. She competed at TEXSOM in 2018 and will compete again in 2019.
Sandra Ban is an academic-turned-sommelier based in Chicago. From a family with a long tradition of wine making and drinking, she began her wine career in the winery at City Winery Chicago, where she is now lead sommelier, and where she occasionally has the opportunity to use her French. She feels privileged to use her passion for wine and hospitality in the service of making guests happy and helping others learn about the wide world of libations. Through the Court of Master Sommeliers and WSET, she continues to develop professionally and indulge her curiosity.
Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, a St. Louis native, began working in restaurants in 2004 after studying equestrian science and biology at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri. In 2007, her passion grew for wine and food pairing while waiting tables at fine dining seafood restaurant Oceano Bistro in Clayton, Missouri. Blackwell-Calvert was inspired to continue learning and decided to pursue a career in wine sales. She began her rep career with Ionia Atlantic Imports in 2012, where Italian wine became a specialty, followed by wholesale distributor Vintegrity Wine & Spirits in 2015. Alisha is a Certified Sommelier and received the 2015 Walter Clore Certified Sommelier Scholarship for top score at the Kansas City exam that July. She also attained the Certified Specialist of Wine certification through the Society of Wine Educators in early 2015 with a 99% score. It was in early 2017 when Reeds American Table approached her with a Sommelier position and an opportunity to work alongside Advanced Sommelier Andrey Ivanov. Wine Enthusiast Magazine has awarded Reeds American Table one of the “Top 100 Wine Restaurants” for three years in a row. Feast Magazine named Alisha a “Rising Star” for 2018. Most recently, she was named one of Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s “Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers” in 2018. Alisha continues striving to introduce quality wine into Reeds while delivering elevated, but comfortable, service. Blackwell-Calvert is currently preparing to sit for the French Wine Scholar and Advanced Sommelier examinations. In her free time, Alisha enjoys working with draft horses.
Molly Brooks’ thirst for knowledge first led her down the path of academia. She earned a BA in history from Pitzer College in Los Angeles, then an MA in history from San Diego State University before setting her focus of study on the synthesis of life’s gastronomic and intellectual pleasures through the food, beverage, and hospitality industry. A Southern California native, Molly managed the wine programs at the Barrel Room and Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant in San Diego leaving the restaurant floor after passing the Advanced Sommelier Exam to manage retail, import, distribution, and event operations at Truly Fine Wine, Inc, also based in San Diego. In August 2019, Molly joined the Epic Wines and Spirits team as a member of the San Diego Salesforce, where she continues to preach the good word of great wine and service.
Jacob Brown is the beverage director at Italic, a rustic Italian restaurant in downtown Austin. Jacob moved to Texas from Park City, Utah in 2016 in pursuit of furthering his career in the hospitality industry. He participated in the 2017 and 2018 TEXSOM Best Sommelier Competition, the Cochon 555, and was a finalist for the Star Chefs 2017 Rising Star of the Year award. Jacob started his career in the beverage world as a ski bum bartender at a peanut bar in Utah. Although still a ski bum, the lack of mountains and snow in Texas prove this pursuit difficult. In November of 2015, Jacob passed the Certified Sommelier exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers and is working towards the next level.
Rachel is currently working as a sommelier at Michelin-starred and Wine Spectator “Grand Award” recipient restaurant Spruce. Prior to Spruce, Rachel was the general manager at Park Tavern, which was named one of San Francisco’s “Top 100 Restaurants” by the San Francisco Chronicle. Rachel was the runner-up in the 2018 San Francisco Ruinart Sommelier Challenge. In addition to being a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, she attended the Advanced Sommelier Course in April 2018. Rachel is also a Certified Specialist of Wine and has completed WSET Level 3.
Dustin Chabert is the fifth generation in his family to work in the restaurant industry. He currently works as the Illinois market manager for DNS Wines, as well as a sommelier at Spiaggia in Chicago. Having recently passed the CMS Advanced Exam in October 2018, he is currently working towards his Master Sommelier Diploma.
Alexandra Cherniavsky began her career in restaurants in her early teens working for her parents in their family-owned restaurant in Oxford, Pennsylvania. She discovered an interest in wine as a career while working at Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi restaurants in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She returned home to Philadelphia in 2013 with stints as wine director at Le Bec Fin, avance, and Amada. Her current role as beverage manager at Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr’s The Love gave her the opportunity to write a fun, approachable wine list composed of several mini wine lists, each with their own perspective and each containing wines that are ready to drink now. The Love was named one of the 100 Best Wine Restaurants 2018 by Wine Enthusiast and one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants 2018. Alexandra is an Advanced Sommelier, as well as a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is currently studying for the Master Sommelier diploma.
Eric S. Crane, a Georgia native, is the Director of Training and Business Development for Empire Distributors, Inc. based in Atlanta. His career with wine started over 20 years ago and has taken him around the world. He has achieved the title of Certified Wine Educator from the Society of Wine Educators and the title of Advanced Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers. As Empire’s Director of Training, he regularly teaches classes on wine and spirits to his company and customers. Eric regularly works with Sommeliers and has been a judge in previous wine competitions and speaks at National Wine Festivals. It’s been said he likes to talk about wine too much and loves the sound of his own voice. So there’s that. His spare time finds him enjoying his family and with his nose in either a book or a glass of wine.
Matthew Crawford is a native of Greenville, South Carolina and has 17 years of experience in the restaurant industry in Greenville, Atlanta, and now Houston. This experience paired with an authentic passion for all things wine and his natural ease and competency in guest relations made him a perfect fit for general manager and sommelier at Chef Ford Fry’s first Houston restaurant, State of Grace, and most recently, La Lucha, Fry’s second Houston restaurant. “I believe in the story of a wine and supporting winemakers that not only have a deep commitment to producing great wine that shows a sense of place, but also an understanding of the importance of personal relationships and how that translates tableside,” he said. Crawford continues to seek and further his knowledge of wine and hospitality through the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently seeking the Master Sommelier Diploma.
Jaime Deleon is currently the Adult Beverage Manager in Houston, Texas for the Kroger company, the largest traditional grocery chain in the U.S. Jaime has been with the Kroger company since 1987 and currently oversees the beer/wine department for the Kroger Company’s Houston Division. He developed an interest in wine while attending a portfolio trade wine tasting and ever since then, Jaime continues to further his wine education. Jaime has landed coverage in print and broadcast including the Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, KHOU, and CW39. Jaime passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier Exam in April, 2015, and holds the Certified Specialist of Wine certification from the Society of Wine Educators. Jaime currently mentors a local study group called “AweSomm-Houston” while pursuing the Master Sommelier Diploma.
Michael (Mick) Descamps has spent about 20 years working in food and beverage—all of that time spent in restaurants and retailers in the Metro Detroit area. For many years, he spent many years working alongside his mentor and friend Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon in the (former) Matt Prentice Group restaurants working as sommelier at multiple restaurants. After a several year stint there, he joined the Michael Mina Restaurant Group where he served faithfully as Sommelier and Beverage Director for the (now defunct) Bourbon Steak and SaltWater restaurants located at MGM Grand Detroit. For the sake of family, he left the restaurant business behind and joined the retail side of the wine business. For a little more than 2 years, Mick served as sommelier for Plum Market of Michigan, before joining the Farida family as wine director for southeastern Michigan’s Red Wagon Wine Shoppes, where he has overseen wine retail operations for the past 5 years. An ardent student in beverage, Mick is an Advanced Level Sommelier (through the Court of Master Sommeliers) and is a Certified Beer Server (through the Cicerone program).
David Donalson found wine later in life when his wife informed him they needed to become more cultured and took a wine appreciation class on their honeymoon. Almost immediately the wine bug set in, leading down the path that would eventually lead to him leaving a career as a school teacher in 2011 to help open a new arm of a local retail chain as the wine buyer. During his tenure there, managing over 3,000 different wines, he was also able to attain the title of Certified Sommelier in 2013 and stood on the podium of the TEXSOM Best Sommelier Competition the last 3 years running. David now works for Classified Wines as a marketing manager for Dallas/Fort Worth representing some of the best wines in the world.
Bill Elsey is currently the Wine Director for Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Downtown Houston. In this role, he has had the privilege of shaping the wine program from the ground up, which now offers more than 2,500 wine selections, highlighting the greatest wines from around the globe. Winner of the Texas Best Sommelier Competition in 2011, he is also a proud member of the TEXSOM volunteer team. Being a part of such an educational and influential conference is something he looks forward to every year.
Anna Englehart was a student at ICC in Manhattan, New York, and graduated and passed her Certified exam in December of 2016. She is currently the general manager and wine buyer at Saint Ann Restaurant and Bar within the Harwood Hospitality group in Dallas. She also plays an active role in wine tasting and purchasing for other concepts in the group, such as the fine dining Italian restaurant, Dolce Riviera, which won a Wine Spectator two-glass award in 2018; Mercat Bistro, a French concept; and an upcoming Latin restaurant which will specialize in Latin American and Spanish wines.
Ganna Fedorova started her world tour as a child, moving with her family from Arkhangelsk, a city in Northern Russia where she was born, to a small coal-mining town in Eastern Ukraine, where she grew up deeply immersed in the atlases and books of her parents’ library. She explored the space within ourselves and our relationship to the universe while studying philosophy at the University of Kyiv. Ganna holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophical ethics. In her early twenties, she crossed the ocean, moved to New York and discovered a passion for hospitality and service. She started as a server and quickly worked her way up to management while learning all aspects of the job as a barback, host and maître d’. On her days off, she learned the back of the house operations by prepping for service with the kitchen team, working the line and volunteering as a prep cook at a local homeless shelter. She honed her skills managing fine-dining restaurants in Albany and Saratoga Springs, New York. Her means of exploration found a new form, discovering far-off lands and stories captured in time capsules: bottles of fine wine. A Certified Sommelier, Ganna joined City Winery New York as a beverage director in July 2017. She became National Beverage Director in October 2018, now overseeing eight beverage programs and beverage training at all City Winery’s properties across six states.
Brandon Ford is one of 600 Advanced Sommeliers in the world. He’s run many award-winning beverage programs including multiple Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning wine programs. He has extensive experience in both teaching and training consumers as well as hospitality professionals. He believes classics are classics for a reason and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel; the devil’s in the details and the details are what matters. He has an innate ability to take a complex topic and break it down with such an infectious enthusiasm that even his four-year-old son can understand it. After visiting many wine regions including Burgundy, Napa, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Sonoma, Hacienda Patron, Bourbon County, and others, he realizes that it is people that make the beverage world go ‘round and wants to share his love and knowledge for this amazing industry.
To Amanda Fraga, every glass of wine is like traveling and visiting a new place. She first discovered her love for hospitality working at a local bar while attending Florida International University. To explore the industry further, Fraga took a wine course at FIU, which is known for its wine program, and fell in love. After graduating in 2011 with her bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management and a minor in Beverage Management, Fraga earned a position as a wine steward at The Setai, Miami Beach. There, she was introduced to the high standards of fine dining and wine and gained the knowledge and experience to become an assistant sommelier at Miami’s Lippi restaurant (now closed). Always looking for opportunities to continue her education, Amanda traveled to Burgundy, France in 2014, and worked for five weeks with Nicolas Potel at Domaine de Bellene. Her journey exposed her to winemaking from the ground up, starting with picking and sorting grapes, and finishing with pigeage and remontage. These firsthand experiences further solidified her appreciation of wine and helped her gain valuable insight into various winemaking techniques. After returning from France, Fraga joined the esteemed team at The Genuine Hospitality Group (TGHG). She began as a sommelier at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink before transitioning to Beverage Manager. Fraga is now the Sommelier at Amara at Paraiso, Chef Michael Schwartz’s newest Miami restaurant defined as his “love letter to Miami”. Here, Fraga draws inspiration for the wine program from the restaurant’s coastal Miami and Latin American-inspired cuisine, and the beautiful waterfront surroundings of the restaurant. She’s found unexpected wines from a variety of Latin American countries beyond the expected Argentina, including Mexico, Peru, and Chile. Her current favorite wine by the glass is a Moscatel/Riesling Blend from Itata Chile. Her innovative approach to training is predicated on a consistent curriculum and engaging the staff through “Wine Wednesday” trainings on various topics beyond pairings and taste profiles, including the importance of back story, sense of place – not just terrior, and personal context in winemaking. In her career, Amanda has been awarded the Level 2 Sommelier certification and is currently studying to complete Level 3 of the Court of Master Sommelier’s exam.
A native of Chicago, Illinois, Jason has been in Texas since 2007. He is a graduate of University of Nevada Las Vegas and began his career at Eiffel Tower Restaurant at the Paris Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Jason has participated in the TEXSOM Conference and Texas’ Best Sommelier Competition since 2007. Jason is the Texas State Portfolio Manager for Republic National Distributing Company. His past experience includes Pappas Bros. Steakhouse which promotes a wine list of over 35,000 bottles and 2,500 premium selections, and was named Best Steakhouse in Texas, by Texas Monthly Magazine.
Colleen fell in love with wine while working as a Beverage Manager in downtown Chicago at Bar Toma, one of Tony Mantuano’s restaurants. She left that job to allow the time to study for the Certified Sommelier Exam. While studying, she applied for internships to work harvest. This lead her to packing her life up with one week’s notice to move to Portland. She landed at Pamplin Family Winery, in 2015, and worked harvest as a vineyard intern and in 2017 she was a cellar intern. Previously, Colleen managed bars and restaurants in Chicago, including a venue in Wrigley Field. In the Portland metro area, she has managed beverage programs for multiple restaurants. Currently, she is part of the wine team and oversees bar operations as the Assistant General Manager & Bar Director at Nostrana & Enoteca Nostrana.
Catherine Kurth is a Certified Sommelier and the Wine Director for Lady of the House; a James Beard Award Semi-Finalist, New American restaurant in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood. She is based in downtown Detroit, Michigan. In her spare time, she enjoys mentoring other community members and exposing friends and strangers alike to the wide and fascinating world of wine.
Kaysie Lackey came into the wine world after a successful career as a pastry chef. While traveling the world to give master classes and compete in Food Network Challenge shows, she made excursions to wine regions where she caught the wine bug. Considering wine as another adventure and career, she returned to Seattle, passed the CMS Intro and Certified exams in short order, and began the WSET Diploma program. Now working as a sommelier at Wild Ginger with their Grand Award-winning list and also in distribution for Vinum, she sees herself just at the beginning of her career in wine. Looking to the future, she hopes to run a wine program and continue her wine education.
Stacey Land comes by the restaurant business honestly. Her father was educated at the Culinary Institute of America and she found her passion for the business while working in his restaurants. Her culinary pedigree and experience in restaurant ownership make Stacey a perfect fit for the role of General Manager at 1618 Midtown, where her discerning menu selections won the restaurant a 2018 Wine Spectator Award. Stacey is a Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers and is one of only two Certified Somms in the city of Greensboro. She is also a Certified Sake Advisor (CSA) and a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW). In 2016, as one of seven hand-selected guests at Domaine Serene’s Somm Select event in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Stacey wowed the judges and came home with the winning cuvée. Stacey is currently brushing up for a run at Advanced Sommelier and is heading to Dusseldorf for ProWein in March, to, Irving, Texas to attend the Advanced course in April, and to Oregon for Pinot Camp in June.
My humble beginnings in the wine business began when I won a servers’ contest for selling the most Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet at the Auburn Hotel and Conference Center while attending Auburn University and studying finance. The prize was a weekend at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. It really opened my eyes to how much I didn’t know but wanted to know. I have been involved in all facets of the wine business from running restaurant wine programs to buying and selling wine for retail wine programs in the resort community of Steamboat Springs. In 2003, I took my experience from wholesale and started a distribution business with three partners called Baroness Wines. We sold the business in 2014 to Empire Distributing. I then started my own import/brokerage business called SAmandla Wine Imports that currently operates in 15 markets. I am currently sitting for the theory portion of the Master Sommelier Exam. I live in Denver, Colorado, where I am extremely active in the restaurant scene, both here and in the mountain areas. I enjoy the active lifestyle of Colorado, including skiing in the winter and biking in the summer.
After moving to St. Louis from her hometown of Deming, New Mexico, Andrea Martinez began working in the restaurant industry, eventually making her way behind the bar, where she fell in love with the bartending craft. Soon after, she began bartending at a wine-driven restaurant and was instantly hooked on the subject of wine. She quickly started dedicating any free time to learning, studying every day about wine and pursuing the role of a sommelier. In less than a year, she passed the Certified Sommelier Exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Currently, she is the assistant wine buyer at 57th Street Wines in Chicago, Illinois. She also teaches classes and hosts weekly tastings. She is now studying for the Certified Specialist of Wine exam, as well as the Advanced Sommelier Exam.
Originally hailing from “the Garden State,” New Jersey, Advanced Sommelier Melissa J. McAvoy has been an Orlando local since 1998. With a degree from the University of Central Florida in business administration and a minor in horticulture, she is a well-rounded passionate woman who started mentoring in the hospitality industry at the age of 14. She worked at Walt Disney World’s flagship resort for 18 years. In 2013, the summer of wine began with her induction to the Court of Master Sommeliers. She became a Certified Sommelier in spring 2014 and was invited to take her Advanced Course in spring 2015. Melissa is an active member in her community mentoring sommeliers and created a tasting group to further their knowledge. She is currently a co-owner of Swirlery, a wine tasting shop where she has involved the Orlando community with all things wine since 2015.
After falling head over heels for a bottle of 1967 Bertani Amarone while studying at Southwestern University, Chris McFall, now Advanced Sommelier and MS Candidate, dove head first into the world of wine. Managing and developing programs in Austin, Houston, and Chicago, Chris is a paradigm of hospitality. Chris is currently residing at Mastro’s Steakhouse at the Post Oak Hotel in Houston, Texas, working with an all-star cast while continuing his education and sharing his passion with guests and coworkers alike.
Rebecca Miles-Steiner graduated from Wells College, in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, with a degree in theatre. While working as a stage manager in Chicago, her college-sparked love of Riesling and a Jancis Robinson book set her on a path to a career in wine and spirits. She helped to open, and then managed, a boutique wine and spirits store in Lincoln Park; worked as a wine and spirit buyer for a Whole Foods store in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood; and has recently made the shift to on-premise. She is currently a server and wine captain at City Winery Chicago. She is a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, a French Wine Scholar, and is currently making her way through the WSET Diploma program. In her spare time, she practices barrow archery, reads wine books, and plans her next wine adventure.
Andrea is the Wine Director and Sommelier of La Traviata, a longstanding staple for Italian cuisine in downtown Austin, Texas. After assuming the wine program in 2015, she refocused the list on classic Italy to create an authentic Italian dining experience for the guest, while featuring funky, off the beaten path selections to encourage consumer engagement and education. Before arriving in Austin, Andrea began her career at a prominent wine shop in Columbus, Ohio, followed by a full harvest internship in Russian River Valley. She successfully completed the Certified Specialist of Wine program in 2013 and the Certified Sommelier examination in 2017. More recently, she has shadowed John Roenigk of The Austin Wine Merchant to venture out from Italy and advance her administrative sales experience.
Cat Nguyen fell in love with wine at an early age. She inherited her first wine program when she was only twenty-one years old. Over the next ten years, she ran successful wine programs from casual to fine dining restaurants all over Houston, Texas. In 2015, Cat left the restaurant floor to pursue a career in distribution as a Vanguard representative for Republic National Distributing Company. She holds an Advanced Certification with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators and a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. She is continuing her studies in the future to advance to the next levels with the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
Patrick is currently the Assistant Wine Director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality group based in Austin, Texas. His home base, currently, is Jeffrey’s which is one of the signature wine restaurants of the group also including June’s, Clark’s Oyster Bar, Lambert’s, and others. Patrick sat for Master Theory for the first time in 2018 and will attempt again in 2019. Patrick, formerly a wine professional at the Four Seasons St. Louis, has only lived in Texas for six months but has attended Texsom International Wine Awards and Texsom for the past four years.
In 2005, Scott Ota began his career in restaurants to help pay for college. It is now 2019, and he has never left “the business.” From fine dining to hotels, to wine bars, sharing his love for wine has been a mission for many years. As of 2016, he is now the General Manager and Beverage Director for High Street Wine Co in San Antonio, TX. Scott’s accolades include the Somms Under Fire champion 2013, TEXSOM champion 2013, Rudd Scholar at his CMS Advanced exam 2014, being named one of Wine & Spirits Magazine’s “Best New Sommeliers” 2014, and being named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Tastemakers to Revolutionize the Business” 2018. Scott continues to work towards the MS diploma, and he aims to make High Street a top wine experience in the country. His mantra: be humble, be hospitable, drink well, and have fun.
Bridget began her career in food and beverage as a means to pay for a biology degree at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston. After graduation, she decided to stay in the food and beverage industry. She began in earnest to learn more, working with Chef Erin Smith at Plonk!, then Chef Seth Siegel-Gardner and Chef Terrance Gallivan at Pass and Provisions. In 2012, she joined the team at Chef Justin Yu’s Oxheart as a wine steward and is now currently the sommelier of Chef Yu’s Theodore Rex.
Laura’s love of food and wine began in her Italian grandmother’s kitchen as she rolled homemade pasta, kneaded focaccia, stewed Bolognese sauce, sliced biscotti and pressed pizzelles. It picked up a few decades later at a 10-week cooking class at Home Chef in San Francisco in early 1997, followed with culinary trips to France and Italy. In 2003, Laura received her Grand Diplôme in Classic Culinary Arts with Artisanal Baking from the French Culinary Institute led by Chefs Jacques Pépin, André Soltner and Alain Sailhac, as well as the Fundamentals of Wine course taught by Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson. Laura was the culinary assistant to Marcella Hazan in her “Master Class in Italian Cooking” and received the Outstanding Service Award, Certificate of Excellence upon graduating. While in New York, Laura cooked for and assisted some of the world’s best chefs, many at the renowned James Beard House, including Eric Bedousha (Financier), Mario Lohninger (Danube, David Bouley), Morimoto (Morimoto and Iron Chef), Mark Franz & Emily Luchetti (Farallon), Michael Romano (Union Square.)
Katelyn Peil began working in the wine trade in 2007 after being inspired by the beverage industry when she decided to defer entry to graduate school to take some time to travel throughout the world. Travels to multiple wine regions inspired her to see the cultural aspect of wine and shifted her focus of wine being a product to being a liquid art form that should be the center point to share with good food, good friends and good experiences. She studied with the International Sommelier Guild and became certified with the Court of Master Sommelier program. The beverage industry excites her because it is rooted so much in history but is simultaneously focused on progression. She is constantly learning something new every day, and is not only interested in the knowledge of wine, but is also driven to learn the business side of running a profitable beverage program. She has been running multiple independent locations for Seattle based Heavy Restaurant Group for over a decade and was named Seattle Magazine’s2017 Sommelier of the Year.
Peter Plaehn is a 20+ year veteran of the hospitality industry with experience in restaurant operations, corporate training & development, education and wholesale distribution. He has opened nearly a dozen restaurants across the West Coast for a variety of concepts as a trainer and manager. Upon returning to the Midwest, he focused on wine and beverage and has held positions as General Manager and Sommelier for the award-winning Nicollet Island Inn, Luxury/Craft Specialist for Wirtz Beverage Group and was the opening Beverage Director for the JW Marriott Minneapolis, Minnesota’s top luxury hotel, and Beverage Director for The Landing Hotel and Ninetwentyfive restaurant with 6-time JBF nominee Chef Lenny Russo. He is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators and in 2016 became the first sommelier in Minnesota to achieve the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Advanced Sommelier certificate. In 2018 he relocated to Houston, Texas, to take a position with Grand Award-winning Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and prepare for the Master Sommelier diploma exam.
Andrew Rastello is a wine professional with a career spanning 23 years and experience from distribution to the restaurant floor. He is currently Assistant Wine Director at Eleven Madison Park.
After years of training under Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, David set off on his own and is now wine director of Shanahan’s Steakhouse in the Denver Tech Center. He plans to sit for the Advanced Exam in Spring of 2019 and continue his journey to become a Master Sommelier.
A native of Annapolis, Maryland, Michelle Richards’ passion lies in the world of fine wine and craft cocktails. Being a long time student of Italian wine and cuisine, she began her career at Alleia Restaurant. There, under James Beard-nominated Chef Daniel Lindley, she developed her expertise in the wine industry. In 2012, eager to expand beyond Italian wine, Michelle sought out work under Josh Carter, wine director at Wine Spectator Award-winning Saint John’s Restaurant. In that same year, she also earned her sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. After years of hard work and dedication, she went on to lead the staff as general manager. Richards’ strives each night to provide remarkable service to her guests, doing so with her utmost attention to detail and honest intentionality.
Based in Miami, Florida, Ray Sholes is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Ray has a discerning palate and is a passionate wine lover. He is known not only for his incredible tasting abilities and vast knowledge but also for his friendly, relaxed and professional approach to wine education (with a few jokes along the way.) Having grown up in Compton, California, Ray admits, “I come from a world where education in fine wines, sake, craft brews, and spirits did not exist.” His fascination for wine took off after graduation from Johnson & Wales University where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree of Food Service Management. Ray’s thirst for wine has taken him across the globe to vineyards where he learned and improved his skills beyond textbooks. Ray has been in the restaurant and hospitality industry since 2005 and has wine list creation, dynamic staff training and restaurant management under his belt. When he isn’t hosting tasting events, he works as beverage account manager at Carisam-Samuel Meisel, Inc. Ray is motivated to one day have a platform to educate those that typically that do not have the opportunity to learn about the amazing beverages of the world.
A professionally trained chef, Dawn’s passion for wine emerged as a direct result of her experiences in the kitchen. The daughter of a chef mother, Dawn grew up in the restaurant business. While working as an instructor at a culinary college, she was given the opportunity to take wine classes and one class just led to another, and then another…Dawn has earned certifications from the International Sommelier Guild, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and is an Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. She has worked as Assistant Wine Director at Canlis Restaurant in Seattle, Wine Director of three restaurants for the Heavy Restaurant Group in Bellevue, the Wine Director and General Manager at Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Lead Sommelier at Stoneburner Restaurant in Ballard, and as a Sommelier at John Howie Steak Restaurant. Having recently moved from Seattle to Whidbey Island, Dawn is excited to have joined the restaurant team at The Inn at Langley as their Sommelier and wine buyer.
Jason Smith is an Advanced Sommelier, a Walter Clore Scholar, and a Certified Specialist of Wine. He works as Assistant Wine Director at Wild Ginger, a Wine Spectator Grand Award recipient in Seattle, Washington. Before making a decisive career switch to wine, Jason worked in film, photography, social services, theater production, fine art, and many restaurant kitchens. His passion for wine began innocently when, disappointed by a hastily purchased bottle leftover from a recipe calling for a single cup, Jason picked up a wine book. A few cautious pages in, rabid curiosity and an obsessive nature took over. Jason has been gleefully volunteering for TEXSOM since 2016.
Kat Thomas joined the Hakkasan Group family in 2016 as a sommelier for their Las Vegas restaurant. Her happy and outgoing personality and energetic, fun demeanor quickly gained traction with guests, peers, and company leaders. Kat’s passion for wine is contagious and she has shared it with her colleagues throughout the United States after being promoted in October 2017 to the role of National Training Manager, Wine for the Hakkasan Group. Kat has been a fixture in the Las Vegas service industry with tenures at ARIA, Bellagio and Cosmopolitan. Her peers refer to her as the “Wine Goddess” (or perhaps it’s self-dubbed), and she usually carries a small saber with her just in case there is a bottle of Champagne that needs opening.
Adam Toon is honored to be participating in the TEXSOM International Wine Awards. Formerly a floor sommelier and member of a hardscrabble team at a Houston wine bar, he currently works with the Vanguard team of Republic National Distributing Company. A former competitor in the TEXSOM Best Sommelier Competition and a national finalist in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Best Young Sommelier competition, Adam is passionate about education and spreading his love for wine with his colleagues in the Houston Sommelier Association.
Monica Townsend is the wine director at Willie G’s Seafood in Houston, Texas. Prior to her position there, she was a sommelier at Camerata at Paulie’s, also in Houston.
Monica was the winner of the Wines of Portugal “Portugal Sommelier of the Year” in October 2018 and the Treasury Wine Estates “Luxicon Blind Tasting Competition” winner in November 2017.
She passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Course in June 2017 and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Drama/Philosophy from the University of Houston.
Justin Vann is the wine buyer for Public Services Bar, Theodore Rex, Better Luck Tomorrow, Mala Sichuan Restaurants, and the OKRA Charity Bar. He also likes to drink it.
A native of Houston, Texas, has spent the last 18 years working in hospitality in a multitude of capacities. An Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, he is avidly pursuing the Master Sommelier certification. A graduate of The University of Texas in 2005, he spends his free time keeping up with and attending major sporting events. As a long time restauranteur, he loves attending wine and hospitality conferences as well as Sommelier competitions. James is currently the Prestige Accounts Manager for Paul Hobbs wines, representing Pauls projects from across the globe.