June Rodil’s Journey From Wine Geek to Restaurateur

“Bro,” she says, and lets out a sigh.

June Rodil, BA ’03, initially has a one-word answer when I ask about opening up Clark’s in Aspen, Austin-based McGuire Moorman Hospitality’s first restaurant outside of Texas. But that one word speaks multitudes about the now-faded exhaustion, the relief that it’s over, and the knowledge that she’s going to have to do something like it again very soon.

We’re near the end of our spring rolls at another MMH restaurant, Elizabeth Street Cafe, tired and winding down from gabbing and digesting, but the question elicits a visceral reaction from the Master Sommelier-slash-restaurateur. She spent weeks at a time in the resort town in anticipation of the June 11 opening, the day before her birthday, and four days before the Food & Wine Aspen Classic.

“It was so crazy,” Rodil says, after a beat, “but it was honestly really awesome in a way.” Then she pivots to how hard it is to staff in a resort town, with busboys and line cooks coming and going seemingly every week, and keeping eyes on a restaurant in a different state. “I mean, it’s a hot mess.”

Rodil is happy to be back in Austin, but not because that means that the MMH VP of operations is slumming it on her couch, her heels kicked up as she slurps from a can of Pearl, a case of which always resides in the refrigerator of a woman who has had the pleasure of tasting some of this planet’s finest spirits and wines.

No, Rodil is fresh off presenting one of her monthly staff trainings, this one on German wines; is in the process of adding another restaurant to MMH’s portfolio, Joann’s Fine Foods, a Mexican joint with a California diner aesthetic at Liz Lambert’s, BA ’85, JD ’91, Austin Motel; and is prepping to teach her first level-three sommelier class in October. Oh, and the restaurant with her name above the door, June’s All Day, just turned two.

No one would begrudge Rodil, one of only 25 female Master Sommeliers in North America, and the only woman in Austin to hold that title, if she grabbed a couple of those cans of Pearl and dropped out of life for a couple weeks, but she can’t. There’s too much to do. She has to make a living, and, crucially, she has something to prove—to her parents, to the mostly male sommelier (and restaurant) community, and to herself.

“Frankly, the odds are against me. I’m a female minority, working in an industry that many people, including my parents, do not quite really understand the legitimacy of,” Rodil, 38, says. “Is it a male-dominated industry? Yes, it is. Will it be forever? No. This just has traditionally been something that males have done. But it’s happening.”

Rodil’s restaurant journey didn’t begin with configuring the best pinot noir vintage pairing for a seven-course tasting menu, but by slinging shrimp scampi and endless breadsticks at the Olive Garden on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin in 1998. It was a job she chose sheerly for its flexibility, while majoring in English and philosophy at UT.

A Filipino immigrant, Rodil was born in a Manila suburb called Cavite City. Her mother, a nurse, moved her to Dallas when she was 5, having arrived a couple years earlier to get the family’s immigration papers in order. When she was 16, Rodil moved to Beaumont to attend Lamar University, as part of a hybrid high school/higher education program called the Texas Academy of Leadership in the Humanities.

In 1998, when Rodil moved to Austin to attend UT, it was still a “small town,” without a culture of fine dining to speak of. Still, she says, after her stint at the Olive Garden led to a job as a cocktail server at the Driskill Hotel in the late ’90s while still an undergrad, she fell in love with the food industry. She worked her way through the food and beverage program, becoming a front server, then a captain, and, near the end of her tenure at the oldest hotel in Austin and one of the few upscale haunts in a still-sleepy town, helping with the wine program.

“During that time,” Rodil says, “Austin just kinda really started getting on the map.”

In 2005, former Driskill chef David Bull and Uchi’s Tyson Cole were named best new chefs in Food & Wine magazine. Just two years out of school, Rodil was at a crossroads.

“I started falling in love with expensive eats and expensive wine,” Rodil says. “So I was like, ‘How am I gonna do this? I wanna start traveling, and go and visit these vineyards.’ I’ll go to law school.”

She was enamored with the industry, but passed the LSAT and was accepted at NYU Law in 2007. She interned with a couple Austin attorneys part-time, while working in restaurants at nights. Unsure about the legitimacy of a real career in food and wine, especially in Austin at that time, she kept deferring her admittance, keeping law school on the back-burner.

Rodil almost moved to New York to attend school, but balked when she calculated the amount of debt she would take on, when she realized, “I was perfectly happy with the trajectory that I was on.” So she doubled down. When the Driskill was sold and her managers left the company, she saw an ad that Uchi was looking for servers. Having served Cole and his wife at the Driskill for their anniversary dinner a few months before, Rodil decided that she wasn’t just going to make a lateral move. She went in to apply, and Cole recognized her. She told him she was going to be Uchi’s first-ever beverage director.

“And he honestly was like, ‘What is that?’ because they didn’t have one,” Rodil remembers. Despite its popularity and renown in a burgeoning Austin food industry, Uchi was using outside consultants for its beverage program. Rodil saw an opportunity, and it worked. She got the server job, but started studying for the sommelier certification exam, passing level one, and then level two about six months after joining Uchi. Level one is a survey class with two days of lectures and an exam, a “peek into the world of wine,” she says, and level two is notably more difficult, with blind tastings, service, and theory involved.

About a year in, she registered for the TEXSOM Best Sommelier Competition at the Four Seasons in Dallas. A relative unknown—she had started doing some wine trainings and tastings at Uchi—Rodil defeated seasoned sommeliers a level or two above her in certification, creating a buzz in the industry. She had also been interning with a wine importer to familiarize herself with Texas compliance laws to prepare herself to take the next step in her career. She called Cole and asked for the beverage director title.

Rodil has just helped open a 10th restaurant, Joann’s, so in the almost-decade between 2009, when she won TEXSOM and now, she has proven that she is more than someone who can perform what she calls “a parlor trick,” or, simply, tasting a wine and telling you generally what it is and where it is from.

After opening Uchiko in 2010, Rodil left the company to open Congress later the same year, ran Paul Qui’s restaurants for a bit, joined MMH and opened a bunch of other spots (including June’s), launched a private label of June’s Brut Rose, and became a certified Master Sommelier and teacher.

Her parents must be proud, right?

“They still ask me if I’m still gonna go [to law school]. To this day,” Rodil says, laughing. ’Do you think your LSAT score still stands?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Rodil chalks it up to her upbringing, or, more accurately, a combination of that and the perceived illegitimacy of the industry as a real career when she began on her journey.

“I definitely was still very much thinking that the legitimacy of having a career in the food and wine industry is not a thing,” Rodil says. “I also think a lot of it definitely has a lot to do with my background. I come from an Asian household. Many people become attorneys or doctors.”

James Tidwell, former beverage director for the Four Seasons Dallas (he’s now a consultant there) and founder of TEXSOM, met Rodil in the late aughts when she served him at Uchi. He remembers acquainting himself with a whip-smart, personable restaurant worker, who held court at the table and poured the group of five wine they’d never tried before.

“The great thing about her is she is very inquisitive and empathetic,” Tidwell says. “She identifies with people fairly easily and can hang out with anybody. It’s something I actually envy. I’m more the introverted wine geek. She can do that too, but she’s a lot of fun.”

David Keck, a partner at Goodnight Hospitality in Houston, met Rodil in 2011 at TEXSOM, and says that they became fast friends and are still very close.

“June is such a multi-faceted human being,” he says. “She’s an intense person both personally and professionally. She works really hard and she has extremely high standards in her work life and her expectations from her colleagues. We talk industry stuff but June is a critical thinker—we could talk current events, literature, philosophy, and she brings that intensity to bear there too.”

Rodil has the propensity in our short meal together to weave in pop culture and literary references into the story of her life. My favorite, from her explanation of why being a beverage director takes more than just knowing how old a grape is:

“Like, I love booze. I love wine makers. I love geography. I love the science of wine. I love tasting wine. I love nuances of flavors. But in the end, you can love all those just like I love reading David Foster Wallace, but I’m not gonna get paid to read David Foster Wallace.”

In may 2015, Keck was crying, and not because of how intense his friend is. In Aspen for his shot at the master sommelier exam, a three-pronged monster of a test, the tears fell because they had nowhere else to go. He had spent countless hours after work each week tasting and studying theory and wine menus and now here he was, head in his hands and not much to show for it.

He and Rodil had studied simultaneously for the test for months, bouncing ideas off each other, sharing drinks, and gearing up for the most difficult exam in the industry, with a pass rate of around 5 percent. Rodil and her now-husband, Aaron Rodil (“yes, he took my name!” she says) drove up in one car, Keck in the other, and at rest stops the two would jump into one car and quiz each other.

But this afternoon, Keck was trying to hold back, as his counterparts consoled him, because of the look on Rodil’s face. She came streaming out of the exam room, and Keck knew he had to pull it together. He didn’t want to spoil a day that for him was one of dejection and for her was one of ecstatic release.

Rodil, then beverage director at MMH, became just one of 158 Master Sommeliers in North America in passing the final hurdle of the exam on her last try, the dreaded theory section.

“So we caravanned back to Texas,” Keck says. “We had some good stops along the way, and some great celebrations back in Austin. We called it June Fest.” After our interview, Keck texts me to let me know that Rodil and her husband routinely tear it up on the dance floor, and that she can still do a split—a holdover from her high school cheerleading days, apparently.

Their small group of elite beverage personnel celebrated June Rodil then, and the rest of the world still does. Keck eventually passed, but still marvels at the fact that Rodil almost aced the entire exam on her first try, something almost no one does.

Fact is, Rodil says she bombed the theory section on her first try in 2013, even writing in “your mom” as an answer to a question that stumped her. (“It’s frowned upon if you don’t write anything,” she says.)

She missed it in 2014, too, and, knowing that she only had one shot to nail theory on her third attempt before having to take the entire exam all over again, buckled down in 2015. She left her job at Qui, knowing she was going to continue to spin her wheels without the proper time to study for the theory section.

Between her first and second exams, she started talking with Larry McGuire, of MMH, about becoming beverage director for their restaurants. After she nailed theory, in 2015, McGuire and Tom Moorman approached Rodil with an idea: the next restaurant concept, a South Congress bistro, should bear her name. Rodil initially balked.

“I 100 percent did not want my name on the door,” she says. “The pressure. But also, when you put your name on the door people expect you to be there the whole time, and that was not the way that I wanted my job to be. I was really, really worried. In the end I got outvoted.” McGuire and Moorman also made her partner in the restaurant. Last year, June’s All Day made Food & Wine’s 2017 Best New Restaurants list and it was listed in Bon Appetit’s Top 50 Finalists of Best Restaurants.

It’s enough to make her want to pop open a bottle of 1989 Pierre Paillard from Jeffrey’s or a fine Japanese whiskey at Elizabeth Street, but, for one, her brain is on to the next thing. And, there’s that case of Pearl in the back of her fridge.

“Am I gonna read Faulkner every day? Nah. Great stuff,” she says. “But my brain doesn’t have the capacity to do that. That’s too much of a thought process.”

Photos by Matt Harrington and Alex Valenti

 
 
 

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