What’s the world’s toughest professional examination? Did you name a certain state’s bar exam or medical boards? Maybe the CPA exam? Anyone who has passed any of those tests has plenty of reason to be proud. But if you go out to one of the world’s finest restaurants to celebrate that feat, the person who provides the perfect bottle of wine for the occasion may have had to endure an even more grueling certification process.
The highest professional honor that can be achieved by someone in the wine world is Master Sommelier. Awarded for the first time in 1969, it’s overseen by an international governing body known as the Court of Master Sommeliers. In 2013, Forbes magazine asked whether the final of four certifications offered was the “World’s Toughest Diploma.”
Difficulty, of course, is subjective. But the numbers demonstrate that a Master Sommelier’s diploma and the signature lapel pin that accompany it are not easy to come by. In the history of The Court’s American chapter, only 158 people have completed all three of the oral portions — theory, blind tasting and service — within the required three-year window. Of those, 11 are currently living and working in the Las Vegas area. By way of comparison, the entire state of New York is home to 14, while America’s wine capital, California, has 50.
Luxury spoke to nine Las Vegas master somms, as they are sometimes called, and discovered a diverse group. Only three are employed on The Strip. Another is a partner in a brand-new Chinatown restaurant and wine bar. One, the only non-drinker of the group, oversees a popular Boulder City restaurant and wine retailer. Some are employed by wine distributors and wineries. Another spends his time educating other wine professionals and preparing them for exams. Two of the eleven are women. And Las Vegas is home to the only husband-and-wife team of masters in the United States.
What they all have in common, however, is a knowledge of wine that few will ever achieve, and the confidence to cut through the pompousness and pretense so often associated with enjoying a glass of vino. So who better to ask for a little oenophilic advice?
Milo’s Best Cellars, Boulder City
UP-AND-COMING REGION: I’m out on a limb here, but it’s Idaho. They grow famous potatoes and beets and feed corn there, but watch for the Sawtooth District to blossom with wine grapes and well-made wines.
FOR EVERYDAY DRINKING: Anything Chilean, and lots of it, great to take to BYOB Indian restaurants or a friend’s house.
OVERRATED: Wines that people make themselves. It’s really fun and rewarding to make your own juice. But the wines are all plain and they don’t keep well.
UNDERRATED: The labels folks concoct for wines they make themselves. Fabulous stuff.
Will Costello Estates ambassador, Bien Nacido & Solomon Hills Estate Wines
UP-AND-COMING REGION: Santa Maria Valley, California
FAVORITE SPECIAL OCCASION WINE:
Grand Cru Chablis! You can ball out without too much cash out.
SOMMELIER SECRET: Most great wine is offered between $18-$60. Much over that is marketing dollars.
GREATEST WINE FALLACY: European wine is better than anything else.
Ira M. Harmon Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits
UP-AND-COMING REGION: There are quite a few including Jura, Valle De Guadalupe, Corsica and, of course, Oregon hasn’t quite reached its full potential yet.
FAVORITE EVERYDAY WINE: Red: Pinot Noir. White: Riesling
SOMMELIER SECRET: When you take any white wine out of an ice bucket, discreetly turn it upside down to blend the wine temperature.
GUILTY PLEASURE: I love great Porto with Stilton cheese.
Jason Smith Executive director of beverage, MGM Resorts International
UP-AND-COMING REGION: The true Sonoma Coast. These cool-climate Pinot Noirs are world class: Hirsch, Littorai, Peay and Flowers are all excellent.
FAVORITE EVERYDAY WINE: Champagne. Too often people think of Champagne as just a special occasion beverage, but it is actually fantastic anytime.
GUILTY PLEASURE: Miller High Life. After a long day tasting lots of wine, I want something light and refreshing that isn’t wine — this works perfectly!
UNDERRATED: Riesling. Whether it is bone-dry with mouthwatering acidity or with a touch of sweetness, this is one of the great wines of the world, and it deserves your attention.
Lindsey Geddes Wine director, Charlie Palmer Steak
UP-AND-COMING REGION: Patagonia, in both Chile and Argentina. The pinot noir from both of these regions is sensational — similar in style to New Zealand and Burgundy.
FAVORITE EVERYDAY WINE: Sauvignon Blanc. I like this grape best from Italy. It has the right balance for my body.
GREATEST WINE FALLACY: All wines have to be aged for years. You can drink a wine at any time. Wineries will suggest you drink their wines between one to three years, one to five years, five to 10 years, or after 20 years. These are suggestions. A wine will taste different at different stages of its life.
GUILTY PLEASURE: Rosé all day, all year. Let’s be honest, it really does not get cold in Las Vegas, so rosé is not seasonal here.
Steven Geddes West Coast director of operations, Charlie Palmer Group
UP-AND-COMING REGION: Basque Country, especially Txakolina.
FAVORITE EVERYDAY WINE: Currently Patrick Piuze Val de Mer, Cremant de Bourgogne Rosé. Delicious and refreshing strawberries and happiness.
GREATEST WINE FALLACY: Wines get better with age. The majority of all wine produced in the world is meant to be drunk as soon as it is bottled.
GUILTY PLEASURE: Mezcal and snakebites (beer and cider)
Joseph Phillips Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits
FAVORITE EVERYDAY WINE: Whatever is left over from the day, typically. Overall though, I prefer unoaked, dry, aromatic white wines (Riesling, Albariño, Moschofilero, Assyrtico, Grüner Veltliner, Fiano, et al).
SOMMELIER SECRET: Use your trusted retail shop and sommelier to help you explore the world of wine. Learn to speak their language. If you like Pinot Grigio, tell them you want something like that but made from a different grape and ask for suggestions from different countries. Challenge your sommelier and wine merchant to help you explore the world of wine. Everyone will benefit.
GUILTY PLEASURE: I like to make my own blends, especially rosés. I often make my own glass of rosé by mixing a couple of different reds into my white wine.
UNDERRATED: Alternative closures for wine, especially cans. One of the hinderances for taking wine to cookouts, camping trips, sporting events has been the glass bottle, cork and need for glasses or cups. Good wine is now available in cans and other forms of individual servings.
Brandon Tebbe Wine educator and mentor for Master Sommelier candidates
UP-AND-COMING REGION: Hungary! Every time I visit Hungary I bring back wines to cellar (they age really well) and to drink.
FAVORITE EVERYDAY WINE: Italian wine, red and white. I drink a lot of Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and various whites of quality. My favorite Sangioveses are from Brunello and single-vineyard Chianti Classico Riservas and Chianti Rufina Riservas. For the price versus quality, you just can’t beat them.
FAVORITE SPECIAL OCCASION WINE:
Either Grower’s Champagne or any red or white wine with age. Grower’s Champagne is quite different from the large producers we are all familiar with. They cost significantly less and bring a lot more complexity to the table. Benoît Lahaye, Egly-Ouriet, Jacques-Selosse, Frederic Savart and David Léclapart are my favorites.
GREATEST WINE FALLACY: Great wines are expensive. Once you hit the $100 price point retail and $300 restaurant price, with a few exceptions, you gain nothing by spending more
— except paying for a name.
Luis De Santos Partner, Mordeo
UP-AND-COMING REGION: Still considered
to be a remote area in Washington, Walla Walla has the potential with its upcoming Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
GREATEST WINE FALLACY: Understanding wine corks; please don’t smell it! Check for firmness as it indicates whether the wine is stored on its side versus standing up.
OVERRATED: Napa cult wines. I understand the supply and demand, which dictate the prices. But come on now.
UNDERRATED: Portuguese wines. I just recently (sampled) some local grapes that were tasty.