April 30 2010 issue

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PAGES (24-27) April 30 2010

SOMMELIER SPOTLIGHT Jason Smith, Bellagio, Las Vegas Fred Minnick

This Master Sommelier is redefining the wine-director position from the vantage point of a luxury resort.

Jason Smith certainly knows his wine: he is equally adept at pairing an exotic Riesling with Cantonese cuisine and explaining the subtle differences between 2006 New Zealand and 2007 Oregon Sauvignon Blancs. He can work a table as well as anyone in the business. But what really makes Smith special is his ability to act on customer trends, work with vendors, and create wine events that have turned the opulent Bellagio into an epicurean destination on the Las Vegas Strip.

Smith, a native of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., earned an associate degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1998 and the Master Sommelier certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2005. Since his hiring as Bellagio’s wine director in 2008, the 32-year-old Smith has become an integral part of the management team and a major reason why the hotel has thrived in tough times. In the words of his boss, vice president of food and beverage Ana Marie Mormando, "His young talent and incredible expertise have taken our food and beverage to the next level."

Smith manages a multimillion-dollar wine program that involves a 1,600-bottle master wine list, 5,250 individual bottles, 250 wines by the glass, and a $95 average price per bottle. He oversees 32 wine-serving outlets and 17 sommeliers, including three Masters. Even more significant, Smith has rewritten the job requirements for his position. His enthusiasm and organizational skills were at least partly responsible for the unveiling in March of Bellagio’s Epicurean Epicenter series, in which guests can enjoy unique, interactive culinary experiences with chefs and sommeliers.

The $75 seminars have featured topics such as "A Master Sommelier’s View on Organic Wines," with Smith and Steven Olson, owner of AKA Wine Geek and wine and spirits consultant for Bon Appétit ; "A Piece of Chocolate and a Glass of Wine" at Bellagio’s Tuscany Kitchen, highlighting executive pastry chef Jean-Marie Auboine’s sumptuous desserts and Smith’s wine pairings; and "Wine Scores and Ratings: What Do They Actually Mean?" with Smith, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat Vineyards, and Pierre Rovani, former reviewer for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and now president of Burgundy’s Remoissenet Père et Fils. Smith has also orchestrated an Iron Chef-style event and a golf outing, and he’s taken the show on the road to other states, all with the aim of strategically linking the Bellagio to the world’s finest gastronomic adventures. A perfect example was the $275 Opus One dinner in the Tuscany Kitchen in February, pairing 1980, 1996, 2000, 2001, and 2005 vintages with a stellar menu by Prime Steakhouse executive chef Sean Griffin. Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci was on hand to discuss his wines with the 70 invited guests.

Smith says the main objective is to wow his customers with six to eight dinners a year, but the events are also an opportunity to enhance relationships with important vendors. "It’s a chance for us to work with our friends in the business," he explains. And when he pitches these ideas to his colleagues, it’s almost impossible for them to say no. "His ability to prepare ahead of time is amazing," says Mormando. "By the time he presents it to us, he’s already done so much of the legwork."

Working the floor in Las Vegas does have its challenges. Can you imagine a guest wearing flip-flops and a Hawaiian pineapple shirt, ordering wines for $1,000 and up? It happens here. "That’s what makes Vegas fun," Smith says. "No two tables are probably looking for same exact thing."

Smith believes it’s imperative for his sommeliers to learn how to read the guests. If the flip-flop character takes one look at the wine list, shuts it tight, and requests a bold red wine to go with the scallops, Smith coaches his staff to—as they say at Bellagio’s felt tables—"let it ride." "You don’t want to tell them their wine choice is bad," Smith says. "For me, food-and-wine pairing is about somebody being happy. If they are drinking a wine they love with a dish they love, it’s probably going to be OK."

On the other hand, if the guest peruses the list, asks a few questions, and selects an inappropriate wine, then there’s an opening for the sommelier to make a suggestion. Of course, on many occasions, the customers ask for specific recommendations. "At Bellagio, we are from the school if you try it and don’t like it, we’re happy to bring you something else," says Smith. "There’s nothing worse than sitting down to wine you have not tried before and you’re not liking it."

Smith and his fellow sommeliers constantly taste with one another and with suppliers to keep their palates sharp. They discuss trends, pairings, and how to better sell certain wines, always with the goal of improving the guest experience. "Being in more of a luxury property," Smith notes, "we attract the high level of clientele, so our guests want the best wines, the best service, the best of everything. We’re going to certainly provide that for them."

Smith’s 12-week wine course for the food-and-beverage staff ensures that everyone from the head sommelier to the server is well prepared to field wine queries at the table. The class, covering wine regions, viticulture, winemaking, and food-and-wine pairing, is limited to 50 people at a time. It’s been such a success that there’s a waiting list, but Mormando says the hotel wants to keep the experience intimate enough to retain students’ interest.

Besides his wine knowledge, Smith displays an obvious rapport with his staff and colleagues. "He manages with great poise, and he’s quite humble about how good he is," Mormando says. "Of course, you’re talking to one of his top fans." Bellagio guests could also be included in that club.

Bellagio Hotel and Casino
3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(888) 987-6667
www.bellagio.com