Area boasts four master sommeliers | AspenTimes.com

Area boasts four master sommeliers

Stewart Oksenhorn

Jason Smith, master sommelier at The Little Nell. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

In all the world, there are approximately 140 wine experts certified by the London-based Court of Master Sommeliers. Some 74 of those are in the United States, meaning, on average, each state gets one and a half master sommeliers to call their own. And now The Little Nell hotel can claim to have two resident master sommeliers.Aspenite Jason Smith flew to London Nov. 1 and, after passing the brief but intense 25-minute blind tasting, returned home several days later, a member of the court. Smith, The Little Nell’s beverage manager, joins wine director Richard Betts as the second master sommelier on the staff of the 92-room hotel. At 27, Smith is the youngest current member of the court, and one of the youngest ever. Alpana Singh, of Chicago, passed her test at age 26.

Smith joins two more master sommeliers, besides Betts, residing in the Roaring Fork Valley: Jay Fletcher, of Aspen Wine Sense, and Carbondalian Damon Ornowski, of Paterno Wines International. The concentration surpasses that of any other part of the country – even Las Vegas, which in recent years, has become a food and wine capital.”And I don’t think they count,” said Smith, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who has been sommelier at New York City’s 21 Club and Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s before coming to Aspen a year ago. “We have 92 rooms and two master sommeliers. The Bellagio probably has 5,000 rooms and two or three sommeliers. Aspen is a town of 6,000 people with three master sommeliers, and another in Carbondale. That’s just out of control.”Having been certified, Smith isn’t about to relax. He likened being a master sommelier to being a doctor (allowing for the fact that a sommelier who messes up might lose a customer, rather than a patient). Maintaining an expertise in wine is a continuing process of learning new vintages, emerging regions and keeping one’s palette sharp.

“Even now, I’m a master sommelier, technically an expert. And I’m only scratching the surface,” he said. “It’s like a doctor – it’s constantly changing and you have to stay on top of it or you’re completely left behind.” And being recognized as an expert comes with its own pressures: “I feel like every time someone asks a question, I can’t get it wrong. I do a blind tasting, I feel I have to know the wine.”Fortunately, Smith has a perfect opportunity to keep his taste buds sharp. Jonathan Pullis, another wine guy who holds the title of sommelier at The Little Nell, may take his test as early as February. And just as Smith was whipped into shape through numerous blind tastings given by Betts and Fletcher, Smith is now helping get Pullis in top shape with a vigorous training regimen. (Should Pullis pass, The Little Nell could boast a mind-boggling three master sommeliers on its floor – a sure occasion for popping some bubbly.)It sounds like a lot of wine-drinking. And Smith isn’t about to say it isn’t. But the job of master sommelier is not quite as glamorous – or Bacchanalian – as one might suppose.

“The glory spot that makes people want to be a sommelier is when they see us opening a $1,000 bottle of wine at a table,” he said. “But that’s one half of 1 percent of what the job is. Most of it is maintenance of the wine cellar, inventory control, staff training, trying to find new wines for the wine list. Making sure there are no typos on the wine menu. Most of the day is far more mundane than the pizzazz of opening up those special bottles.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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