Feature – The Somms of Vail
January 31, 2017
Educated 'winos' in Vail's restaurant scene help diners enjoy the wine experience
By Traci J. Macnamara • Photos by Dominique Taylor
When navigating the wide world of wine, even the most adventurous travelers will often find themselves needing the advice of an expert guide. In Vail, especially, where wine lists are chosen to complement extraordinary menus and also delight the tastes of international diners, choosing from among a multi-page wine menu can be exciting for some — and daunting for others. But making that drink decision becomes so much easier when there's a sommelier in the dining room.
A sommelier — roughly pronounced suh-mel-yay, with the accent on the yay — is most simply the person in a restaurant in charge of serving wine. Many of Vail's sommeliers go way beyond this basic requirement in possessing an interesting blend of skills that makes them seem more like wine superheroes — or at least very passionate people who do well in a role that involves being equal parts coach, geek and magician.
In helping diners choose perfect pairings, sommeliers field questions that can cover anything from taste to history and geography. Some sommeliers also act as beverage directors, which involves balancing budgets, ordering stock and receiving monster shipments. Sans doubt, sommeliers are oenophiles — connoisseurs of wine — but they're also normal people, too, with families, and career aspirations, and the desire to blow off work on a powder day.
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To an outsider, a career in wine might seem like some sort of an idyllic experience involving drink tastings and dining activities that resemble the shadow of real work. But as with all successful career paths, major dedication is required. And if a person plans to make it to the top, then extreme commitment is compulsory.
For Sean Razee, one of Vail's wine experts who has achieved the certification level of Master Sommelier, the process of reaching this pinnacle took more than five years, which is quick, considering that only around 230 people in the world have attained this level of certified expertise since 1969. Most who dare to pursue the Master Sommelier process fail multiple times along the way or find it ultimately impossible to achieve the next step.
But Razee, who began his career bussing tables at Beano's Cabin in 1996, discovered that learning more about wine satisfied his academic interests and his curiosity in topics related to language, culture, food and geography. Eventually, he met Jay Fletcher, a Master Sommelier in Aspen, who inspired him to pursue a career in wine even though the career possibilities at that time still seemed dubious at best.
"I lived with flashcards and notes," says Razee of his years studying for exams. "My wife quizzed me while I drove the car, and I studied notecards while doing everything from going snowshoeing to pushing my newborn daughter around in a stroller while she slept." All of this was necessary preparation for the three-part exam that covers wine theory, blind taste testing and service.
While attaining higher levels of certification opens up additional opportunities in the wine industry for buying and selling wine and for directing beverage programs, Razee ultimately considers the pursuit of knowledge satisfactory in itself. "I love learning, and I’m still following my passion. Isn't that what most people want out of their work, too?" he asks.
Razee now works as a wine representative. "It takes a long time to gain experience and build up knowledge," says Razee. "Staying current is a day-to-day process — and the learning is never-ending." In this way, achieving a high-level title such as Master Sommelier was the end of Razee's long examination process but still nearly the beginning of his inspired career.
THE STUDENT TEACHER
Root & Flower, Vail's biggest little wine bar, doubles as a hip hangout for wine lovers and a hotbed for those who want to learn more. This tiny space tucked into one of Vail Village's side streets is where Jeremy Campbell, co-owner and wine director, is working to elevate the status of Vail as a wine center, with Root & Flower at the heart of that community.
Campbell, a self-proclaimed history buff, has created a distinguished wine and cocktail list at Root & Flower while also teaching classes designed to foster appreciation of wine and its history. With a rotating schedule of sessions he's developed on topics ranging from "The Art of Tasting" to "Drunken History," Root & Flower is becoming a place where people can have fun while learning new things — and also simply enjoy good food and drink.
Campbell worked as a sommelier at restaurant Kelly Liken before opening Root & Flower with partner Samantha Biszantz in 2015. He attained his Advanced Sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2012 and is currently working toward becoming a Master Sommelier. In addition to being accomplished in his field already and ambitious when it comes to his future, humility is also a part of what he believes makes a good sommelier.
"A sommelier is just someone who can talk with people about wine," says Campbell. "A piece of paper doesn't necessarily make someone good at wine or serving it to others, but I like how the Master Sommelier certification process is pushing me to be the best I can at my chosen profession. That's what I'm trying to do here."
THE NOT-SO-STUFFY WINE GUY
The easiest part of Andreas Harl's job as beverage director at Matsuhisa Vail, celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa's destination dining location in Solaris, happens to be when he's out on a packed dining room floor, talking with people about wine. But he reckons he really only spends about 25 percent of the time there, with the other 75 percent devoted to behind-the-scenes grunt work that includes balancing budgets, tracking shipments, talking with distributors, evaluating inventory and organizing boxes.
"Almost everything except cooking vinegar is within my realm here," says Harl, who grew up in Austria and attributes his love of kitchen culture to his grandmother, a chef and the owner of a restaurant near Salzburg. He radiates a youthful exuberance, and even though Harl has worked at other Vail locations with award-winning wine lists, including the Sonnenalp, his past five years at Matsuhisa have taught him that working with a team of successful sommeliers requires social skills, wine smarts and a deep drive to improve.
"Listening is half of what I do when I'm on the dining room floor," Harl says. "I listen to people describe what they already like, and I work with them to decide whether they're willing to try new things or if they want to stay in their comfort zone. Then it's my job to deliver what gives them the experience they're hoping for."
In order to make that happen, Harl has worked to expand Matsuhisa's initial wine list of 75 selections to its current of more than 650. With an inventory of more than 5,000 bottles in stock, that's a lot of wine to know. At Matsuhisa, white wines outsell reds — primarily due to the food with which it's paired — and overall, wine sales double those of spirits. Even though Matsuhisa is the place to go for sake in Vail, sake sales still rank lower than those of wine or spirits.
"If I stop reading and learning about wine, I'm behind the ball," Harl says. "This career choice doesn't let me be lazy for too long. And at the same time, I don't want to be that stuffy wine guy. This job isn't pretentious for me. It's just wine, right? I want to enjoy it and help other people enjoy it, too."
THE NEXT GENERATION
Throughout the cold winter season, The 10th is the hottest restaurant on Vail mountain for a ski-in, ski-out lunch with an award-winning wine list. Nicole Jeffrey began working at The 10th as a bartender in 2013 and is stepping into a new role this season as the restaurant's lead beverage specialist, which will involve being responsible for the restaurant's beverage program while also working in the dining room as sommelier.
In Vail, Jeffrey says she's surrounded by a community of people in the wine industry who encourage her and also help push her to be her best. "Both men and women have been inspirations and mentors to me. Sill, I'm female and younger than most of my peers in an industry where these two things make me a minority. Knowing where I'm at motivates me to take my career seriously," says Jeffrey, who is studying to pass her Certified Sommelier exam this year.
Jeffrey likes learning all things about wine, but she's most interested in the ways that climate change dynamics have heightened interest in wine production. "People are putting more attention into sustainability and environmentally friendly practices now, and that's important to me. Even though vineyards in France have been producing in sustainable ways for centuries, there's growing focus on care for the earth."
Jeffrey also feels more at ease within a wine industry that seems to be lightening up. Being an expert doesn't equate to being a member of the elusive elite, and she likes the freedom she has to have fun. "I like offering wine descriptions that make people smile," she says. "I'm a person and not a robot, so when others see me as approachable, I think that everyone has a better experience."
If you're looking to expand your knowledge of wine or push the boundaries of your tastes this winter, then take some time to get to know the sommelier at your favorite restaurant. With what's in the glass to begin this beautiful relationship, it's not difficult to do. You'll likely discover stories like these from a few sommeliers whose influence shapes the Vail wine scene, one cork pop at a time.
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