Navigating a wine list in Las Vegas restaurants can be challenging. In most restaurants, particularly fine dining restaurants, it’s no longer a question of white or red — now it’s which white and which red and what are you eating and will it pair well.
Luckily, there is a select group of men and women who make it their job and priority to find you that perfect glass of wine for any occasion. They’re called sommeliers, and they make choosing a bottle of wine a lot easier.
You have probably interacted with a sommelier while dining at a restaurant. But the sommelier isn’t just responsible for pouring a glass of Chardonnay. Jason Smith, director of wine at Bellagio, is responsible for the 90,000 bottles of wine in stock at the hotel, and says it’s much more than just a simple pour.
“Everybody has this romantic notion of a sommelier standing out on the floor with their jacket and tie opening up thousand dollar bottles of wine, but that’s actually only .001 percent of the time,” says Smith.
In addition to wine service while the restaurant is open, Smith says sommeliers are responsible for the wine itself, such as storing it at the perfect temperature and the upkeep of the bottles and the cellars.
Smith should know. He is part of The Court of Master Sommeliers, an organization dedicated to promoting excellence in the wine field. There are four levels in the court, passed only by intense wine examinations. Smith is a master sommelier, the highest degree of prestige. He is one of only 118 in the world. To put that number in perspective, more people have been to outer space than have passed the master sommelier exam.
In addition to Smith, Bellagio has two other master sommeliers, Joseph Phillips at Michael Mina and Robert Smith at Picasso. Bellagio is the only property in the world with three master sommeliers under one roof.
There are an additional 10 master sommeliers in Las Vegas.
“There are quite a few [master sommeliers] here in Las Vegas and I think that shows the commitment Las Vegas has to fine wine,” says Smith.
As director of wine at The Bellagio, Smith is responsible for everything having to do with wine, including all 17 sommeliers, the education of Bellagio’s 3,500 service employees, purchasing 3,500 – 4,000 labels at any given time, wine dinners and special events.
In order to constantly improve Bellagio’s wine program, Smith and the other sommeliers meet with chefs to compare notes and pair wine with food.
“Tasting is certainly an important part and it’s always fun,” says Smith.
But having his finger on the pulse of what guests want is his true priority. Smith and his staff ask guests what they’re looking for.
“It’s not all about what the sommeliers are looking for or what Bellagio is looking for, it’s really all about the experience our guests want to have,” says Smith.
If you’ve ever wondered how a wine makes it to your table, the wine choices are mostly made based on the sommelier and the type of restaurant.
“I think it’s a very personal thing and it’s very unique based on restaurant. A good portion of it depends on the style and the concept of the restaurant,” says Smith.
For example, Picasso, has more of a Spanish influence to the wine list because the cuisine is Spanish and French. Circo has a lot of Italian wine and a lot of hidden gems and rare finds, thanks to Sommelier William Moss’ quest to find quality smaller labels.
If you’re looking for a great wine at an affordable price at Bellagio, Smith suggests you go off the beaten path.
“Everyone’s familiar with Chardonnay and Cabernet, but sometimes if you go for the Spanish varietal or something like that you’re able to get some better values.”
Smith suggests something like Palacios Remondo La Montesa from the Rioja region of Spain as a great option. A bottle of La Montesa retails for under $20 — an excellent buy.
Alternatively, Bellagio also offers fine wines for thousands of dollars per bottle. For example, The Bellagio has a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-conti, 1995 for $58,000. Let’s hope you win big.
If you’re curious as to how wine is priced, it mainly has to do with simple economics: supply and demand. For example, the bottle of Romanée-Conti is the perfect storm of greatness:
“It’s the greatest region for pinot noir, Burgundy, that comes from the greatest vineyard from the greatest producers. They make such a small amount of it so you literally have a couple thousand bottles and you’re trying to supply the entire world. So, demand is very high and supply is very low,” says Smith.
Let’s get back to that pesky wine list. With such vast pricing options you don’t want to make a mistake that will land you in the poor house. But, you do want your wine to be just right. While a wine list can read like a book and can be very overwhelming, it’s important to ask the sommelier for help.
“If there’s a sommelier there, always ask for some help and be honest about what you want,” says Smith.
Smith explains it’s important to be up front about what flavors your looking for, what food you’d like to pair it with and if you’d like something new. He also says that it’s ok to mention price, but if you’re among diners and you don’t feel comfortable, there’s a clever and tasteful way to handle your wine selection.
If it’s a date or a business meeting and you don’t want to say the number out loud, point at a selection in the wine list. Then have the sommelier look and say you’re looking at a bottle in this range.
“It may not work to say a number in front of your guests, but to let the server or sommelier know is perfectly fine — and very helpful,” says Smith.
Generally, a good sommelier or a good server will recommend a wine in that price point, as well as a good pick slightly above your choice and one that is less expensive, to give you some options. Smith suggests if you’re in a larger group, a bottle of white and a bottle of red usually keeps everyone happy.
In other words, it’s the sommelier’s job to target what you’re looking for in terms of price, without compromising the flavor or type of wine you are aiming for.
Most of us have a favorite brand or type of wine — maybe you’re a Chardonnay fan or a big fan of Barolo or Viognier. Perhaps some of your favorite labels are the more popular ones, such as Ferrari-Carano or Cakebread. However, sometimes it is nice to try a new wine.
“It’s a delicate balance whether you should talk someone into a wine or you just let them go with what they’re interested in the beginning, you really have to read the guest. But I think you’re really able to turn people on to new things,” says Smith.
So the next time you’re dining in Las Vegas and need some help choosing a bottle of wine, ask for the sommelier. They are qualified to answer any questions you have and steer you toward the perfect selection. Cheers!