The Cabernet Grill wine expert shares her journey through the vines.
By Kristen O’Brien, Photos courtesy of Cabernet Grill
Elizabeth Rodriguez is responsible for 1,200 bottles of Texas wine. This is a substantial amount of bottles considering Rodriguez didn’t realize her passion for wine—and hadn’t tasted much wine—until she arrived at Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg, Texas, in 2005.
“I knew my whites and pink, but that was it,” Rodriguez says.
Now the restaurant, led by Owner and Executive Chef Ross Burtwell, and Rodriguez’s carefully curated wine list have been honored by Wine Enthusiast Magazine as one of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants of 2018.
Although Rodriguez has been in Fredericksburg since her teen years, she is a native of San Miguel de Allende, the enchanting town in Mexico known more for its enchiladas mineras and pacholas guanajuatenses than for its vineyards and vines. She says the only time she experienced wine growing up was during Christmas or New Year’s Eve when her father opened a bottle of Champagne and she and her six siblings were allowed to try some and raise a toast with their parents. Rodriguez’s father was a server in an upscale restaurant and hotel owned by iconic Mexican actor Mario Cantinflas.
“Dad would go to market and bring back the best things because he was inspired by what he saw at the restaurant,” Rodriguez says. “I was blessed to experience a lot of different foods through my father’s work. I liked hearing his stories about the people he met.”
It’s no wonder food and cooking became a passion and Rodriguez found herself drawn to the hospitality industry. In her teen years, the family moved to Texas and Rodriguez enrolled in high school in Fredericksburg, where she also got her first job in the restaurant industry, cleaning tables for the breakfast and lunch crowds at a local barbecue joint.
In 2005, after marrying and having two children, Rodriguez decided it was time to return to work. She approached Cabernet Grill about a waitstaff position. On the job, she started learning about wine, and Burtwell encouraged her learning. When the restaurant switched to an all-Texas wine menu in 2006, Rodriguez started to take trips to the local wineries and meet winemakers.
“If you are going to do something, do it well,” she says proudly. “I tell my kids, ‘Whatever you do, do it with passion. And then it’s not work.And don’t be afraid to ask questions.’ ”
Rodriguez eventually passed her first-level sommelier examination with the Court of Master Sommeliers and traveled to Napa Valley, Calif., to study mastering wine with nationally recognized wine expert, journalist and author Karen MacNeil at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone campus.
As wine director and sommelier at Cabernet Grill, Rodriguez has the responsibility to keep learning, to keep looking for new wineries, new wines and new varietals. As part of extensive staff training, she conducts weekly blind tastings, aroma workshops, Texas versus the world tastings, winery field trips, food-and-wine pairings and in-house meet-the-winemaker sessions.
“It’s a lot of work behind doors keeping up with pricing and vintages, as Texas wines can change year to year and the vintage can taste different,” she says.
In terms of challenges in a traditionally male-dominated industry, Rodriguez says she has faced her share, not just in the wine industry, but everywhere.
“I walk through the dining room and get asked by people to see the somm,” she says. “It is challenging, but I like challenges. It takes a moment sometimes for people to realize that I am the somm. Because I am 5 feet 2 inches tall and 110 pounds, they think, ‘You? You are running a restaurant?’ and I think, ‘I’ll show you.’ ”
Rodriguez never seems to tire of learning and says she’d love to continue her wine education by taking a viticulture class and playing a part in blending wines, not as a winemaker, she is quick to point out, but “to create something. The winemaking process is crazy and winemaking hours are crazy.”
To unwind from the long hours she puts in at Cabernet Grill, she spends time with her kids, cooking and “walking up and down Main Street, playing tourist and not taking for granted the beautiful town [we]live in.” And when she’s off duty, is she drinking wine?
“When I relax and have the time,” she says, “I like to enjoy a glass of Champagne or sparkling [wine]. It represents happy times.”
Elizabeth Rodriguez’s Top Five Texas Wine Picks
“It’s so difficult to select five wines from our extensive wine list of more than 100 different wines,” says Elizabeth Rodriguez, wine director and sommelier at Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg, Texas. “For Texas Wine Month, I would like to suggest these five wines that are relatively easy to get your hands on and great representation of exceptional wines being made in Texas.”
1. McPherson Cellars Sparkling Wine
“Delicious and delicate, this bubbly is made from chenin blanc grapes and is a fabulous aperitif. Don’t wait for a celebration; enjoy this often and with friends.”
2. Bending Branch Winery Texas Tannat
“I love the structure and complexity of this wine—a lot like a young Bordeaux wine—with big, bold fruit, peppercorn and tobacco flavors that can stand up to a Texas-sized steak.”
3. Brennan Vineyards Super Nero
“Another great representation of what Texas has to offer, this red wine from the Italian grape nero d’Avola is very versatile and pairs great with an array of dishes, from tomato-based pastas to smoky barbecue and rib-eyes.”
4. Fall Creek Vineyards Meritus
“For those merlot lovers, this robust yet elegant red blend is 80 percent merlot and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon from the Hill Country, offering notes of red and black currant, cedar and coffee.”
5. Pedernales Cellars Texas Viognier
“A nice alternative to chardonnay, this wine has lots of floral, tropical and stone-fruit notes. Pair [it]with roast chicken on a cool fall day.”