Top Sommeliers Uncork the Latest Trends
by robert haynes-peterson
By any standard, it’s a small group: There are currently only 129 wine professionals and restaurateurs in North America who have passed the rigorous series of tests administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers to earn the ultra-prestigious title of master sommelier. Yet Nevada is home to 12—more than any other state except California. We gathered seven of these dedicated wine connoisseurs at Todd English’s Olives in Bellagio, which has three master somms (as many as in all of Manhattan).
Between tastes of everything from Merlot to sake, they discussed all things fine wine, including holiday pairings and what it will take to get the educated Vegas oenophile to the next level.
Thanks, everyone, for coming today.
JAY JAMES: The last time we got together, some of us weren’t even masters yet!
JASON SMITH: We said we’d get together bimonthly. Yet here we are, years later…
V: Glad we could bring all of you together. Let’s start by talking about the culture of wine, specifically in Las Vegas.
JAMES: Wine has become its own channel of entertainment, and at a scale that doesn’t exist anywhere else: Bellagio and Wynn are, I think, tied for the two largest wine accounts on the planet.
How has wine consumption and the wine drinker’s perception changed here?
JAMES: I moved here in 1998 to help open Bellagio, which was the first to have, on a mega scale, this sort of wine program. When we started, we were only looking at superstar wines, particularly the ones that weren’t yet in Las Vegas. A lot of our conversations ended with, “We love you guys, but Vegas isn’t the place we want to be.” By the end of that first year the tables completely turned. Soon people were calling us.
Did the customer change? Could Bellagio’s top-end food and wine program have existed five years before it did?
LARRY O’BRIEN: Things were changing. You had to offer other attractions, and wine was a great option.
JAMES: Our philosophy was that the consumer base was always there, but the opportunities weren’t. We needed to show them the stuff.
LUIS DE SANTOS: That’s one of the big things that’s changed: We went from the gaming center of the world, to a culinary destination.
JAMES: That shift has been amazing. There’s an old story about a GM at Caesars Palace who hosted a big event, and did $250,000 of food and beverage business in one weekend. He went to tell his boss, who said, “That’s great. I just wrote off $4 million in gambling losses tonight.” No matter how well the food and drink did, it was a drop in the bucket compared with gaming. That has all changed.
IRA HARMON: The ratio of gaming to luxury-life dollars increased until it’s become about the same.
Each sommelier has brought a favorite bottle to discuss. To start, Joseph Phillips presents Champagne Tarlant Cuvee Louis NV, which was disgorged in 2009 and is 50 percent Chardonnay, 50 percent Pinot Noir, and costs about $200-$210 on wine lists.
PHILLIPS: “It’s grower produced. The base wine is aged in barrels, which is unusual. This gives the wine a little oxidation, and a better ratio of the lees, because the wine is aging in small barrels. It’s a single terroir Champagne, from Vineyard Les Crayons in Oeuilly. The specific chalk soil comes through so clearly on this. V: How has the role of the sommelier changed over the past decade?
JAMES: It’s become a profession. There’s recognition of the business skills that are so important. It’s not enough to just bring knowledge to the table anymore.
O’BRIEN: I was asked to give a one-word answer describing what I do, and my answer was, “Professional.” It’s about budgets, timelines, staff, inventory. The title of master sommelier is really the cherry on top of your years of experience. The journey—from server, to assistant sommelier, to management—that’s the real heart to what we do. We are providing service. I used to describe myself as the best-dressed busboy in Tampa, or wherever I was at the moment.
How does the Court of Master Sommeliers distinguish itself from other sommelier programs?
JAMES: We aren’t there to train you, but to see how far your work and life experiences have brought you. The founders’ idea is that being a master sommelier isn’t just about knowledge; it’s an experiential process.
THOMAS BURKE: People have no idea how truly challenging the exams are. I was blissfully ignorant my first time, and I got destroyed. We’re not training you to pass a test, but to be a great sommelier.
HARMON: And you don’t have to be in the program to be a great sommelier.
Luis de Santos presents Tedorigawa Gold Blossom Kinka, Nama Daigingo, from the Ishikawa Prefecture, about $80-$90 on wine lists.
DE SANTOS: This sake must stay chilled from brewery to home or restaurant, and it has a short shelf life. The flavors are super concentrated. Vivid and poised, it has a full, clean taste with a nice balance of sweetness and acidity overlaying delicate flavors of plum, honeydew, and peaches. V: How do sommeliers approach sake?
DE SANTOS: When I became a master sommelier, they told me you have to specialize. For some odd reason I chose sake, so I promote it with enthusiasm and experience.
SMITH: Here at Bellagio, Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant & Lounge of course has the most sake, but it’s also on other menus throughout the resort, sometimes on tasting menus as a pairing.
DE SANTOS: A sommelier tends to be the bridge between the chef and the winemaker. Sake is deliberately made to pair with the foods in the specific region it’s from, but that means it’s also great for experimenting with other cuisines. I always say there are five main ingredients in sake: rice, water, yeast, koji (a native mold used in fermentation), and the last ingredient is love. It’s a very specific beverage that requires a lot of attention and dedication from the sake brew master.
HARMON: Sake has grown tremendously as a category in the US in the past five years. But there are still a lot of Americans who don’t know about the beauty of cold sake.
DE SANTOS: In Las Vegas, we do an event in April called “Sake Fever.” We partner with resorts, chefs and restaurants all over the city. The lines are crazy!
Ira Harmon presents 2008 Emmerich Knoll Grüner Veltliner Loibenberg Vineyard, Smaragd Level, about $240 on wine lists.
HARMON: The depths of flavors are incredible, and it pairs brilliantly with a lot of different foods. The family’s been making wines in Austria for decades, about 90 years, and it’s a premier vineyard. The wine inside is truly amazing, despite the gothic, gaudy label.
Jay James presents 2010 Weingut Robert Weil Kiedricher Gräfenberg Riesling Spätlese, Germany, about $220 on wine lists.
JAMES: I debated about bringing a Riesling, because I figured everyone would bring one. Sommeliers have long geeked out on Riesling, because it’s so complex and so varied. This one is extremely intense. On the palate it is slightly sweet with notes of pineapple and a slight resin overtone. On the nose, it doesn’t give a hint of the residual sugar, even though it’s a Spätlese [late harvest] wine.
How do you decide when it’s time to bring on an unusual new wine region?
PHILLIPS: On one menu, we called it “The Wines of Consequence,” and it was a catch-all category. Slowly, some of them, you bring into their own category.
JAMES: South Africa, for example, has always been this question mark. Fifteen years ago, what we could get in the U.S. wasn’t that palatable; now we can get the good ones.
HARMON: South Africa still hasn’t found themselves.
BURKE: We’re all impatient for them to do it. There are so many things waiting in the wings.
Has the position of sommelier gained some “cool cred” the way chefs have?
JAMES: In the old days, the story goes, they would take the meanest person in the restaurant and relegate him to the wine cellars, making him the sommelier. That stereotype really began to change in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s become a young profession, and that’s fantastic. The downside has been that, because of the astronomical growth of places with wine programs, at times there have been more jobs than sommeliers to fill them. Sometimes people get moved up prematurely.
O’BRIEN: I support the recognition of sommelier as a hip profession and the industry getting younger and more diverse. But sometimes a young sommelier can study hard and meet the academic standards, and still need time on the floor.
Jason Smith presents 2006 Domaine Perrot-Minot Morey-Saint-Denis, 100 percent Pinot Noir, about $160 on wine lists.
SMITH: The wines of Morey-Saint-Denis possess the power and silkiness you want in Burgundy, but Perrot-Minot creates a modern style, so it can be a good introduction for those who like Oregon or California Pinot Noirs. A great joy of Burgundy is its complexity; it’s like you have 10 different wines in one glass. The nose on this is earthy, with essences of ripe dark fruits and fresh clean dust. The mouth has great tannic structure and very generous spice.
Larry O’Brien presents 2006 Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates Taylor Peak Merlot, Bennett Valley, California, about $115–$125 on wine lists.
O’BRIEN: Why Merlot? Because I’m sick of everyone coming down on it. Our job is to give the people what they want but also let them know what they might be missing. This is a single vineyard wine from the cooler side of Knights Valley in Sonoma. It marries Old and New World styles, with dense California fruit counterbalanced with bright, Old World acidity. It’s food-worthy, versus, say, a trophy Cabernet that may have no affinity for food.
How do you prepare a wine list for an audience that is as diverse as Las Vegas’s?
O’BRIEN: It’s always been about balance. I build a shell menu: How many Chardonnays do you want? What’s the price range? Ideally, there’s something for everyone on the menu, including myself.
JAMES: On large properties like we have in Las Vegas, you still have destinations that cater to sub-demos, which makes the process easier. Here at Bellagio, you have Olives, Michael Mina, and Le Cirque, and they serve three very different crowds overall.
PHILLIPS: You need to make lists within the same property more individual. There are literally thousands of wine SKUs [labels] out there. We want a lot of individuality instead of one big “Bellagio Program.”
JAMES: And now you have to take into consideration all the new crazy wines! Dry wines from Hungary, dry reds from Portugal.
HARMON: Greek red wines, the list goes on and on.
JAMES: And you have to decide if there is room for them or not.
It’s holiday time. Can you recommend some good wines and pairings to celebrate?
HARMON: The cru Beaujolais are excellent holiday choices: 2009 and 2010 were exceptionally strong among smaller producers, and they’re inexpensive.
PHILLIPS: There are good-quality red sparkling wines on the market now. Heavier Australian sparkling Shiraz, lighter sparkling Lambruscos. You have Italian Proseccos, Spanish Cavas, and French Cremants from Alsace.
HARMON: I think Moscato is a great wine for the holidays, and modern America has fed the Moscato category.
JAMES: It’s a serious wine.
DE SANTOS: There’s also a relatively new category of fruit-infused sake, Zipang. It goes great with deep-fried turkey (a popular Filipino dish). And I love it in a cocktail I call the Ja’Bellini, a blend of Zipang, white-peach syrup, and muddled raspberries.
Thomas Burke presents a 2008 Clos Pissarra El Mont, Priorat, Spain, about $175 on wine lists.
BURKE: This wine is made by Emmanuel Kemiji, a fellow master sommelier. One of the hot buttons in wine is alcohol levels. Priorat is a hot region, which can increase alcohol levels and potentially kill character and complexity. But with Priorat, regardless of the alcohol and grape blend, you get this incredible sense of place, as you do with Champagne and Burgundy. It’s a very old and defined region, with a unique soil called “llicorella,” a slate/volcanic blend that defines the edges of the wine. On the nose this wine is rich in spices and chocolate. On the mouth, rich and round, but bright, with medium tannins, medium acids, and plenty of fruit.
Interesting. Master somms are making wine themselves now?
BURKE: They’re not just crazy enough to become a master sommelier, they’re also crazy enough to be a winemaker. Greg Harrington, the chair of the CMS, has Gramercy Cellars in Washington state and been a Vegas master sommelier. He has an extreme depth of understanding of what is going on with the wines. V: What’s coming up for wine in Las Vegas?
PHILLIPS: One of the biggest challenges today is how savvy the customer is and how much access they have to wine information and pricing via the Web. They can find a bargain on a wine somewhere online and wonder why it’s so expensive in a restaurant. The markup doesn’t just reflect a profit, but the knowledge of the sommelier and the staff, the costs of proper storage, and so on.
DE SANTOS: In the end, we’re in the service industry, and that’s incredibly profound and humbling. To know you have the opportunity to create a unique experience—especially in some place like Las Vegas—without being pretentious about it.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SETH OLENICK
Celebrating 11 fabulous years with cover star Gabrielle Union at Drai's Beach Club Night Club, Las Vegas.