Spotlight: Sin City Somms

During my time in the food and wine world in New York City, Chicago and Aspen, I always thought that Las Vegas would be the last place I would ever end up working. That's where sommeliers go to die. After moving here seven years ago, my opinion certainly has changed...either that or I am already in heaven. Now I can understand why some wine people wouldn't want to sell '82 Bordeaux and DRC on a nightly basis, but why would they be so scared of the hustle and bustle that is #VegasBaby? We do some things extremely well here and, of course, others not so much. Generally speaking, we are known for having all of the greatest hits. California, Bordeaux, super Tuscan...we have you covered. The most recent hipster discovery that was just Instagram-ed and labeled "#UnicornWine" probably isn't our forte.

The Las Vegas sommelier community is something that I am very proud to be a part of. We have a plethora of Certified and Advanced Somms that are talented, hungry and not stuck-up a$$holes. (The city's Masters, on the other hand, are a lost cause!) The food scene here is another area of excitement. Obviously the Las Vegas Strip offers an endless amount of choices, but there are also many stellar restaurants off of the strip. The combination of a talented food and wine scene is sure to make Vegas an exciting location to work of the next several years.

-Jason Smith MS

Featured in this spotlight are Las Vegas-based Sommeliers and members of the Guild: Nick Hetzel MS (Head Sommelier, Sage Restaurant, and most recent Master Sommelier), Will Costello (Wine Director, Mandarin Oriental), Clarissa Castillo (Sommelier, Aria), Kim Wood (Director of Wine, Aria), Jeffrey Bencus (Lead Sommelier, Julian Serrano), and Catherine Morel (Sommelier, Sirio Ristorante).

What currently excites you in food and wine pairing?

Clarissa: Although I love traditional pairings, I must say I am a big fan of the unexpected match. Bringing balance to a dish or adding texture are fun opportunities to make memorable pairings. Coming from a Spanish restaurant, I love pairing Amontillado Dulce Sherry with salty ham dishes. I am loving dry Rieslings right now, so I am using them with our salt-baked corvine and marinated cod dishes.

Jeffrey: We have several dishes which utilize squid ink. The ink acts as a bridge between lighter dishes with white fish and fuller-bodied, Tempranillo-based red wines like Ribera del Duero, Toro, and modern-style Rioja.

What’s the strangest food and wine pairing request you’ve had or seen?

Will: I had a woman with dreadlocks down to her ass ask for a pairing with only vegan wines. This was a nightmare, but thankfully I was able to pull it off with some creative Sake introductions and some “biological” wines and beers from Europe

What are the current cocktail trends in Sin City?

Will: Many smaller cocktails joints are going for the old School movement. I know it has been in resurgence in the past couple years, but there are some really cool things going on. Herbs & Rye, The Laundry Room, and even off-the-beaten-path places like Frankie’s Tiki Room are doing great things!

ClarissaCocktails are huge right now! Mixology is a big draw in the city, especially with all of the options available, and classics are making a comeback. Six ingredients in a cocktail is out, paving the way for simpler, quicker, well-balanced recipes. Our bars cover more guests in a night than most bars will do in a week. Beer cocktails are also growing in popularity as well.

NIck: Vegas has come a long way in the last four years with the addition of some key distribution people who offer knowledge, passion and training to all that want it. I feel like barrel-aging and beer cocktails are popping up more and more right now.

What are some of your favorite wines you are working with currently?

Clarissa: Dry Rieslings are my latest craze. The pairing opportunities are endless.

Will: I'm happy to have the DUBL rosato from Feudi di San Gregorio. This is a wine made by Anselme Selosse from 100-year-old Aglianico vines that have to be harvested with a cherry picker. The story is awesome and the wine follows suit. I also love the Domaine Pattes Loup Chablis 1er Cru "Butteaux." This stuff is clean, bright, and mineral-driven but has tons of character.

Jeffrey: I am a big fan of the wines in the Jose Pastor portfolio, micro-production offerings from all over Spain. 2011 Mendall “Finca Abeurador” Macabeo from Terra Alta, done in an un-sulfured natural style, and NV Bermejo Brut Nature Malvasia from Lanzarotte in the Canary Islands are a couple of really interesting selections.

Catherine: I have been in love with Nerello Mascalese for some time. We have the Passopisciaro Contrada single vineyard wines on their way and we just received Terre Nere Etna Rosso & Palari Rosso del Soprano. All great stuff.

Kim: The old British guy that lives in my soul loves tasting older grande marque Champagne!

How do you get customers to try wines or spirits that may be new to them?

Clarissa: It is important to really know the product you are selling.  The more knowledge you have, the more they are inclined to listen and trust. I never sell anything that I feel will take them too far out of their comfort zone. Baby steps.

Nick: Be passionate! If I go to the furniture store and say that I want a leather chair and the salesperson says that I should try faux suede instead, my inclination to waiver will be impacted by their level of excitement and knowledge of the faux suede.

Jeffrey: Las Vegas can be a challenging town in that capacity--especially if you are trying to run a Sherry program! A coursed wine pairing is a great way to introduce unfamiliar beverages.

With so many people coming in from around the world, how do you cater to the masses in your beverage programs?

Nick: Something I learned years ago from Chris Blanchard MS: for every two wines I put on the list for myself, I add one wine for my mother. Fortunately our clientele is pretty open-minded and generally wants to try new things.

Will: In my opinion, American wine will always be a highlight for our foreign customers. In my wine pairing I always include one American wine, and the wine list certainly has a large portion of American wines among the European examples. I couldn’t imagine not pouring an American wine at some point for a guest. They would kill me.

Catherine: I was once asked why I had so many Italian wines on my my Italian restaurant...

What are the most important and least important parts of wine service in your opinion?

Nick: Being a friendly, humble, passionate professional is most important. It is too easy to get jaded and want everyone to drink DRC, but that is not reality. The reality is that wine service is just a portion of SERVICE. Every guest, whether drinking DRC or iced tea, deserves great service.

Kim: The most important part is service and communication. Most every major and mid-major city in the US can get their hands on highly allocated products, so that alone won’t make a program stand out. Service is still a moving target and a guest will always recognize when it’s done well and will typically go back to experience it again. Communication is the second part of this: you always have to listen to the guest and figure out what they’re trying to tell you in order to make a good recommendation. The best somms always work as if they’re the least important part of the experience, even though they are typically not.

Will: Giving the guest what they were expecting is the most important part of service, and likely the hardest element as well, because at most times they are not able to articulate their needs exactly, or they have left it completely in your hands. Without a little probing, you will most times leave them underwhelmed. The least important part of service is looking good while doing it! I like to dress well while on the floor, but sometimes I see sommeliers that look amazing but can’t get the job done.

What is your barometer for the guest experience?

Jeffrey: At its highest point, when you know that a “thank you” at the end of a meal is heartfelt, that is about as rewarding as it gets in our business.

Nick: People spend a lot of money in restaurants in this town, and as somms I feel it is paramount that we ensure the best service. We are the ones that generally have the link between the kitchen, servers, bar, management, and guests. A lot can hinge on whether we are able to read the situation and create an individualized experience. However, at the end of the day I suppose the barometer lies in repeat guests. There are a lot of great restaurants in this city; if I see guests every time they’re in town I’d say they’ve had a great experience. For some it’s once a year on their annual march madness trip; for others it’s during a monthly gambling trip from So Cal.

Kim: Recidivism.

What’s the most bizarre or amazing “high roller” request you’ve had during service?

Catherine: I've only been here for 14 months and the most bizarre thing is that I have not had any strange requests from high rollers. They are usually pretty cool.

Will: I had some princes from Saudi Arabia come in with a 16-top. Only four of them were drinking, but they wanted the 6L of older Romanée St. Vivant from DRC. I didn’t even have enough magnum decanters to decant it all, and they drank one glass and then headed out to the night club. I had to wash out several smaller bottles and fill them with the DRC so I could keep it from oxidizing and send it to their suite. After they got back at 6 in the morning they wanted to know what happened to all of their leftover DRC from the night before. I had to explain that the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley and all of the others were just “temporary containers” for their elixir!

Clarissa: A small vertical tasting of Vega Sicilia Unicos. Not bizarre, but truly amazing.

Kim: It’s still the “money’s no object” requests. I used to think I understood what money was…then I moved to Vegas.

Nick: XO Cognac oyster shooters. Yum.

What wine programs do you admire in Vegas?

Kim: Bank’s wine list at Chada. It’s a very small Thai restaurant in Chinatown. He has a somm's palate and a very modest markup; the wines I get most excited to buy are almost always on his list.

Will: I love the program at Joel Robuchon, primarily because it has some serious depth and they run through a lot of incredible wine. I also love the wine program at Chada Thai and Wine. Bank over there has the right idea. Low mark-ups, incredible bottles and an every changing inventory. No big names wines on that list either.

Nick: Chada. All those who have had the pleasure of dining at Lotus of Siam in the past need to head to the new project from Bank Atcharawan. He’s up to his old tricks offering great wines at insane prices.

In a place with so many celebrity chefs and well known restaurants, where do you like to go to grab a bite to eat?

Nick: Bouchon. Top to bottom nothing beats it in this town. The food is amazing, consistent and changes seasonally. The atmosphere makes you feel like you’re in Paris. And Paul Peterson is killing it with his beverage program!  Whether you’re there for a ridiculous Ramos Gin Fizz at brunch, or Raveneau for dinner it’s always great.

Kim: On the strip the flagship restaurants are your best bet. If the Chef’s name is on the door you’re almost guaranteed an interesting, well thought-out menu. Off the strip, anyone whose been in business 10+ years is usually not a fluke…and Chada always!

Will: B&B Bistro in the Venetian is a great experience. Wonderful food, wonderful staff, and great wine list. The pasta there is to die for. For lesser known spots, I really like Marche Bacchus. This is off the beaten path in Desert Shores. Sitting outside next to the manmade lake, drinking a bottle of wine you chose from their retail outlet, eating food that is rock-solid really is the all-encompassing experience.

Where do you go for a nightcap?

Nick: My local pub John Cutter.  Sassy bar staff, great grub and all the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale I need.

Catherine: Anywhere not on the strip! If out with coworkers: Steiners. If friends are in town: Herbs & Rye. If I am on my own: home.

Clockwise from bottom left: Will Costello, Clarissa Castillo, Nick Hetzel MS, Jeffrey Bencus, Kim Wood, Catherine Morel