By Amanda McDougall
e’re all familiar with the celebrity chefs’ restaurants in Vegas – from Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten to more recent comers, like Charlie Trotter and Mario Batali. They each have their Sin City outlets, most doing Vegas-style hundreds of covers a day to experience-seeking gamblers, tourists, and other desert revelers. And where there is great food, there is also great wine: in bigger-is-better Vegas that translates to massive, multi-million dollar wine collections with what amounts to celebrity labels.
Then, of course, there are the Master Sommeliers who were brought in to manage these collections. In the end, it all amounts to Vegas being the home to the some of the country’s finest wine collections and the largest number of Master Sommeliers. For an up-and-coming sommelier, and even the more experienced sommelier, Vegas can look like a desert dream come true – a wine oasis – with an ever-expanding repertoire of restaurants, casino-backed wine collections, and a close-knit group of Master Sommeliers to apprentice under and learn from.
But to get down to the nuts and bolts of this phenomenon, we decided to go straight to the source. We asked a few up-and-coming sommeliers to join us for a roundtable discussion about the wine and sommelier culture that’s developed in Las Vegas. And we recorded it. Sommeliers Jason Quinn of Prime, Michael Shearin of DJT, and Desmond Echavarrie of Restaurant Charlie joined us. You can download the discussion and listen to it via the link below.
We also asked a half-dozen sommeliers for written responses to the same questions. The respondents represent a fairly diverse range of experience, in Vegas and outside of it; two are Master Sommeliers; two others will be taking their Master examinations later in the year; all of them anticipate nothing less than continued growth for the Vegas wine and sommelier culture. Respondents include Jason Quinn of Prime, Michael Shearin of DJT, Desmond Echavarrie of Restaurant Charlie, Jason Smith of Michael Mina, Jeff Eichelberger of RM Seafood, and Joseph Phillips of Sensi.
Press play below for the Vegas Sommelier Roundtable Discussion with Sommelier Jason Quinn of Prime, Michael Shearin of DJT, and Desmond Echavarrie of Restaurant Charlie.
How long have you been in Vegas?
Jason Quinn:I am one of the few natives born and raised in Las Vegas. That gives me 32 years here.
Michael Shearin: I have been here for 22 years.
Desmond Echavarrie: 4 years
Jason Smith: Over 2 years
Jeff Eichelberger: This is my second tour in the city. The first time was for 18 years. I’ve been back for about a year and a half.
Joseph Phillips: 12 years
What brought you to Vegas or to pursue wine in Vegas?
JQ:I was hired at the Bellagio to run the wine vault because of my stockroom management background. After reading books to learn how to organize the wines, an opportunity to take the certificate exam was presented to me and from there I was immersed in the restaurant business as a sommelier and thought it was the ideal job for me.
MS:I was just fascinated by the fact that wine lists had so many wines; I wanted to know why.
DE: The opportunity to be around great chefs and other great sommeliers
JS: To work with Michael Mina and the Bellagio wine program
JE: I love the city. There is so much energy and growth here. Las Vegas is also blessed with having a high concentration of amazingly talented beverage professionals. There are a lot of wonderful role models and a lot of people to challenge you as you challenge yourself to achieve more.
JP: I came out here to teach music. I got back into the restaurant business shortly after moving out and was excited by the potential of the industry. I started taking wine classes with some of the Master Sommeliers (there were only about 6 at that time) and now I am one of Las Vegas' Master Sommeliers.
Why has Vegas become such a huge wine town and sommelier destination?
JQ: It was never thought that the food and wine business would have much success here. But when big name chefs from around the globe started having huge success with their restaurants here, of course the wine followed.
MS: There are not many places where people come to a town with the plan to spend money and enjoy the finer things quite like they do in Vegas. We are just supplying their demands.
DE: Sommeliers are simply a part of an ever-growing gastronomic destination. Sommeliers go where the greatest chefs go, and the best chefs in the world have embraced Las Vegas.
JS: There was a need for talented sommeliers to take care of the casinos' wealthy guests. When all of the great chefs came to the city, Las Vegas also became a food destination and this created an even greater need for sommeliers.
JE: We are a tourist destination. People come here for entertainment and to simply have fun. I think great wine and great food go hand in hand, which fits nicely with the huge amount of talent in the kitchens here. I think the sommeliers are feeding off that talent. Creative, talented chefs give us the canvas to push our own knowledge and creativity. People who are serious about their profession enjoy being around others who work at a top level.
JP: It's a combination of several things: the gradual build up of great chefs, the need for world-class wine programs to support their cuisine, and the support network created by all the sommeliers pursuing the MS Diploma.
Who are these massive wine collections for?
MS: There are lots of casino players who drink big wines because they are comped, but with the addition of more prestigious chefs, there is a new kind of guest who is coming to Vegas just to dine and to enjoy wines that they cannot always find in their hometowns… and they are not comped!
JS: Everyone who enjoys wine, from the wealthiest casino players to wine collectors to your average person having dinner.
DE: They are for the guests in Las Vegas who want to have every possible beverage option afforded to them because it is an ultra luxury experience that they seek.
JE: I think they are for everyone. Simply by being massive, they require that a little of everything is represented; multiple price points and a lot of countries are required to be in the mix as well. This gives people a chance to experiment and experience new parts of the wine world that they might not have the chance to see otherwise.
What’s the most expensive bottle of wine you’ve sold to a guest?
JQ: We recently sold a 1947 Chateau Petrus for $18,000+.
MS: A magnum of 2003 DRC Romanee Conti at around $12K, and a ridiculous amount of ‘82 Petrus over the years at prices from $8K to $12K.
DE: The most expensive bottle I have sold was tens of thousands of dollars, though it’s insignificant in comparison to the wines that I have tasted that were brought in by guests. However, I feel most sommeliers don’t think about wines in terms of price. Chefs do not look at a piece of fish they are about to fabricate and only see dollar signs. There is an element of artistry that is involved, just as any good wine has an element of artistry with the way it was produced.
Vegas has the country’s largest number of Master Sommeliers – why is this?
JQ:Considering that a sommelier’s job is to compliment the chef’s food, and with the number of restaurants and big name chefs that are here, there is a massive draw for Master Sommeliers to come to Las Vegas. Also the opportunity to run huge hotel programs with 10 or more restaurants and several sommeliers in different outlets takes the knowhow and experience that Master Sommeliers can offer.
MS: Vegas is home to great wine professionals who have a passion to learn and also have the luxury of many great MS teachers to guide us along the way to becoming a MS, which continues to produce more.
JE: I think the Masters that are here are amazing people who have a strong desire to give back. I see a lot of support for the sommeliers who are learning and growing (myself included). That strong support by the Masters is going to bring results. The city really supports the Court of Master Sommeliers as well. I think restaurateurs here respect the efforts these professionals have made in their careers and want that talent in Las Vegas.
JP: The early Las Vegas Masters did an amazing job inspiring all of us to pursue the MS Diploma. The famous Monday night sessions with Ron, Ira and Steve helped us to focus our studying. Now sommeliers from all over the country come here to join in the numerous classes and study groups taking place all over the city. There is a lot of guidance from the Masters in Las Vegas.
How important are the levels of sommelier certification in Vegas?
JQ:While the job doesn't require that you have the Court of Master Sommelier certifications, with so many younger people looking to get into the field as the restaurant business grows here, it definitely helps to reassure both your employers and the patrons that you are taking care of by trained professionals of the highest levels.
MS: Not all of Vegas’ great sommeliers are in the Court’s program, but I think our wine community definitely encourages it.
DE: Important, but not required. The Las Vegas food and beverage community has embraced the Court of Master Sommeliers as the educational body for the certification of sommeliers. It is important to realize, however, that here, as it is throughout the world, career experience is most important to sommeliers’ credentials.
JS: I think the certification levels are important in the sommelier community throughout the country, as well as in Las Vegas. The levels encourage education and camaraderie among sommeliers and in the end, the winners are all of the guests who dine in our restaurants.
JE: In some cases it is important, but overall I think people are more interested in ability and how the individual will fit the job being offered.
What does Vegas offer a sommelier that other restaurant towns don’t?
JQ:Exposure to many different styles of dining and service, as well as food and wines. In a hotel that has 15 restaurants in it, you are able to buy wines that are small in production as well as wines that are not typically seen outside of the countries they are produced in.
MS: I think there are a lot of restaurants that sell a lot of wine, so the opportunities to grow are probably better here. Also the amount of Master Sommeliers here definitely helps our education.
DE: The best chefs and cuisine from around the planet brought to one small town – it’s sommelier heaven!
JE: There is a great local community where people get out and support one another. Most of us know each other in one way or another and there is a great camaraderie here as a result. The talented chefs and beautiful restaurants make it a lot of fun and a challenge. And people are willing to give you their trust and let you turn them on to something new. It’s not that these things don’t exist in other places, it’s just concentrated here.
JP: Access to the world's top chefs; access to some of the best wine in the world; stunning restaurant design (and they are big); 40 million visitors from all over the world; a fantastic support network of sommeliers pursuing the Master Sommelier Diploma.
Where are the lady sommeliers?
JQ:They are the up-and-coming sommeliers in this city with fantastic palates and more descriptors for the colors and aromas in wine. They are going to continue to grow in number in this business.
MS: There are a few great female sommeliers in town including Julia Moretti at Fiamma, Danielle Price at Wynn, and my assistant Elisabeth Wolf.
DE: The lady sommeliers are here and often keep us boys in line. They are an important part of the community of sommeliers here, and we are hopeful to see more of them in the near future!
JS: I wish there were more!
JE: They are here. I work with a very talented young lady named Julie Lin here at RM Seafood who keeps me on my toes. My most energetic server, when it comes to being excited by and supporting wine in our restaurant, is a smart young lady. There are some really talented women talking about beverage in this city and in this country and the number is growing.
JP: They are all over the city. We have four at Bellagio.
What are the trends you’re seeing in terms of wines and sommeliers in Vegas?
JQ:The trend I see is growth in every direction. From small production domestic wines to up-and-coming new wine areas from around the world to older areas that are making significant changes to up the quality of their wines to the classic areas that have a long history of fantastic wines. I see nothing but continued growth especially with a younger generation becoming more exposed and interested in the wine culture.
MS: I think we are beginning to see a more educated diner than we have had in the past; this gives us a better opportunity to sell the lesser known wines that we love. I can see the amount of Master Sommeliers more than doubling in the next five years.
DE: There is a trend moving toward small producers and sustainable and biodynamic winemakers.
JS: There are more creative wine lists being put together that are utilizing smaller produced wineries and different areas of the world.
JE: On the sommelier side: smarter and younger. There is a lot of energy and definitely people here with a great future. On the wine side: more people willing to try different styles from smaller parts of the wine world. While the blue-chip regions of the world never tire or loose popularity, there is a growing openness to something beyond those areas. I think there is a growing interest by guests to have beverages paired specifically with the menu being presented.
JP: Sustainable agricultural practices
What is the future of the wine culture and community in Vegas?
JQ:The pace of the growth has been rapid and difficult to keep up with at times. With the growing sense of community between the sommeliers in the town and the ever-increasing standards of service that people expect, it is up to us to continue to push each other to provide the highest levels of service and knowledge to our patrons.
MS: It is only getting better and I am excited to be a part of it.
DE: It has a bright future. As Vegas continues to grow and becomes more of a gastronomic destination, the wine culture will prosper.
JS: I would like to see a closer knit sommelier community, similar to San Francisco. Obviously, this is something that is much easier to say than to accomplish.
JE: I think it’s growing and that this growth will continue. Las Vegas and the wine community are here to stay.