ASPEN - When Sabato Sagaria took his master sommelier exam last month, the smart money was on him passing the test. Sagaria had home-field advantage: the test, for the first time, was given in Aspen, at The Little Nell, where Sagaria has been the director of food and beverage for five years. But more significantly, if Sagaria had not passed the blind tasting portion of the exam this time, he would have had to go back to the beginning, and retake the service and theory portions as well, which he had already passed.
History shows that Sagaria doesn't like to waste time when it comes to his culinary career.
Early on in his years at Cornell University, Sagaria discovered a neat loophole in New York's alcohol laws: A 19-year-old could drink wine legally if it was for educational purposes. That was enough for Sagaria to enroll in a wine class and narrow his focus in the school's hotel and restaurant management program.
"When you're in college, that's pretty cool: You can get credit for drinking wine? Who's not going to sign up for that class?" said the 36-year-old Sagaria, who did, in fact, pass the recent test, becoming certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. "People made fun of us - they're studying economics and I'm reading a cookbook. But when I'd come back with two bottles of wine they'd take it a little more seriously. That was Wednesday night, and the wine would last till Thursday. I did a lot of extracurricular studying."
Sanctioned underage drinking was only part of the appeal. When Sagaria was a kid in Columbus, Ohio, his father's side of the family, all Italian-born, would make their own wine - then drink it on the rocks, with peaches in it. "They called it wine. Now that I know better, I know it wasn't wine. It was over-fermented, high-octane grape juice," he said. At Cornell, prominent winemakers and oenologists would visit and Sagaria got a more refined perspective on wine.
"I was fascinated with the history, the differences between wines," he said. "I got bitten by the bug."
Sagaria's first job out of college was at the Greenbrier, as a cook and management trainee. It was an elegant resort and the opportunities were good, but it didn't take long for restlessness to set in. "I was in rural West Virginia and wanted to see something else," he said. Sagaria's mentor at the Greenbrier, apparently impressed with Sagaria's potential, gave him an offer: If he stayed, he would be made beverage director, with chances to further his education in France and Italy.
"Who else was going to put a 22-year-old in charge of a wine program at an 800-room hotel?" Sagaria said. "They invested in me. That catapulted me into this world."
After two years as wine director, and a six-month stint at the Four Seasons in Palm Beach, Sagaria returned to West Virginia. The Greenbrier was adding a new property, and Sagaria was given the chance to build a beverage program from scratch. He was 25 at the time. Two years later he moved on to the prestigious Inn at Little Washington, a restaurant and hotel near Washington, D.C. whose wine list was a regular recipient of Wine Spectator's Grand Award.
Sagaria was also pursuing his sommelier certification. He passed the introductory exam in 2002 and the advanced exam in 2005. But working as a food and beverage director exhausted his time, and when he moved to Aspen, he found himself surrounded by master sommeliers.
"I fell off the radar," Sagaria said. "At the Nell, I was involved very little with wine. We had Richard at first" - Richard Betts, one of the few to pass his master sommelier exam on his first try - "then Jonathan" - Jonathan Pullis, the current wine director at the Nell. "They had great wine people and I've let them run it. We talked about the vision of the program, but I let them run it."
Eventually, being around so much wine talent became inspiring. In 2009, Sagaria went to Healdsburg, Calif. to take the master sommelier exam. He didn't pass any of the three sections, but he wasn't discouraged.
"I went in saying, 'I'm not afraid of failing, I just don't want to flail,'" he said. "I got good feedback, saying I was close in all sections."
He passed the service portion in 2010 and the theory part in 2011. In late May, he was one of four people, out of 63 sitting for the exam, to be certified as a master sommelier.
The latest crop makes a total of 122 master sommeliers in the U.S. Impressively, eight of them have been affiliated with The Little Nell around the time of their passing the exam.
"People in the Court call it a factory, a machine," Sagaria said of the Nell's wine program. "It's that culture. Our line staff, the servers and chefs, see us drawing maps, quizzing each other, testing. That sparks something. It's almost like a boot camp in this town who are in pursuit of a masters diploma."
Sagaria doesn't plan to use his certification as a ticket to the next job, a new town. He's got a hand in the upcoming major redesign of The Little Nell's Montagna restaurant. Beyond food and wine, his plan is to enjoy everything he's missed out on in Aspen these last few years.
"I've been studying basically since I got here. On powder days, I was locked in the library 12 hours a day, drawing maps," he said. "Because I wasn't involved in wine on a daily basis. I felt like if I skipped a day, I'd never get it back."