If you are on a fall-color bike ride around the valley the next couple of weeks and you get passed by a familiar face on the roads, it may well be Aspen’s legendary master sommelier Jay Fletcher. He has been out getting in shape for his next challenge: running the beverage program at Matsuhisa Aspen, where his first night will be Oct. 1.
“I got a 45-mile ride in yesterday,” he said about his training to get back on the floor to pour wines, something he has not done on a nightly basis for over 20 years when he last was a full-time sommelier at the late lamented Syzygy in Aspen. “You know I have pulled shifts at Cache Cache with Alex (Harvier, the sommelier) during the holidays and poured wines at Art Crush and corporate events on occasion. But being on the floor every night is different. You pour hundreds of glasses, you walk about 5 miles a night and then there are the boxes and cases of wine you need to move.”
“It’s a young man’s game. You don’t see many out-of-shape somms,” he added with a chuckle.
This pairing of venerable Aspen stalwarts makes for one of the best local hospitality stories of the season. Fletcher, perhaps the key player in making Aspen the significant wine town it is, brings his considerable talents to one of Aspen’s most iconic restaurants and comes full circle to the position in which he made his reputation.
“The opportunity to try and improve an already excellent program was just too good to pass up,” Fletcher said about the move.
For close to two decades, Fletcher has been the executive director of fine wine for Southern Glazer Wine and Spirits, one of the most unique jobs in the world of wine: “I oversaw the fine wine portfolio, was the lead educator for the company and worked closely with key accounts selling the finest wines in the world. It was an incredible experience, but I was just constantly busy. During the last year with this COVID thing I began to start thinking about how I spent my time and what I wanted to do. Then this came up and it seemed like a perfect time to go back to working like a real somm rather than a paper somm.”
While he is starting with a proven program, Fletcher has a few plans: “I’ll just be trying to grow on the current list’s excellence and focus a little bit on building a collection of the classics.”
Matsuhisa has created a world-class beverage program catering to a clientele that expects only the best.
“The red and white Burgundy offerings, the cocktail program and the sake program are as complete as any in the world. But I want to make sure we have a cellar with the best wines, the best vintages from France, Italy and Spain. We may get a few red Bordeaux wines that we don’t have now, because people like to drink great red wine, even with Asian foods,” said Fletcher, who has long been considered an authority on the wines of Bordeaux. He also wants to upgrade the wines-by-the-glass list, provide some more affordable wine options for diners, put together pairing dinners and perhaps even offer a wine class.
While pairing wines with both the subtlety of sushi and the more powerful flavors of other Asian-inspired dishes can be a challenge, Fletcher has worked this magic before. “A few years ago I worked with chef Nobu Matsuhisa on a 13-course tasting dinner. Chef Nobu’s cuisine can be very complicated, but we paired beer, sake and wine with the courses and did not use anything from the same grape or the same country twice.”
The Matsuhisa team, including operating partners Michael and Steve Goldberg and director of operations Todd Clark, are looking forward to welcoming Fletcher.
“I have known Jay for 25 years,” Clark said. “He has been a mentor, a friend and a ski buddy, and to have him on board is kind of a dream that all just came together.”
Clark met with Jay in his backyard on Juan St. and asked if he might be interested. “I asked him, ‘Hey do you think this could work?’ He is super passionate about this and we are really excited to have one of the best sommeliers in the world.”
Fletcher concurs, noting, “Family is a big deal to ownership. Todd is one of my best friends and I’ll be able to work with Dave Musser (Matsuhisa sommelier), who I knew from our time at Southern.”
Fletcher first came to Aspen 43 winters ago with a pair of skis and a pool cue. “The first two months here I lived in the Difficult Campground,” he recalled in a 2019 interview. “I could play pool pretty well, and I made some money gambling to support myself.”
He soon took the standard route of working in local establishments to pay the bills and discovered wine. “I think the first wine that really hit me was a Joseph Drouhin Puligny-Montrachet. I was working as a busboy in Charlemagne (an old Main Street French restaurant) and somehow got to taste the wine. I began reading books and studying wine a bit.”
But it was stint at Krabloonik on Snowmass where he really began to explore the pleasure of the grape. “We took a list of 15 wines and built it to 300 selections. Every night we would open something great and learn about it.” A chance reading of an article in 1993 about a fledgling organization called the Court of Master Sommeliers and an introductory wine course in Vail literally changed his life.
“I was immediately hooked and began studying places and wines and service to become a master,” he said. But it was a harder road than he thought. “I took the Masters for the first time in the summer of 1994 and I got destroyed,” he said with a voice still tinged with pain. “I just wasn’t ready. They told me I should quit. It beat me up pretty bad.” But instead of quitting, he persevered, and on Nov. 6, 1996, he received his Masters pin at the Dorchester Hotel in London. In 2008 he would become the chairman of the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Back in Aspen, he worked the floor as sommelier at the aforementioned Syzygy while spreading the gospel of fine wine to both his customers and a growing group of young somms who had drunk the Kool-Aid, as it were, of the Court of Master Sommeliers. The Wizard of Juan Street, as he came be known, mentored an entire generation of Aspen sommeliers, including Bobby Stuckey, Jonathan Pullis, Sabato Sagaria, Dustin Wilson and others through the Masters certification process.
We asked Jay Fletcher to pick a special bottle from Matsuhisa’s cellar and tell us about it:
2017 Domaine Michel Niellon Chavalier-Montrachet
“There is nothing better to go with fine Japanese cuisine than grand cru white burgundy.
The Michel Niellon Chavalier-Montrachet is located just above Le Montrachet on rocky, calcareous soils. Planted in 1962 this small parcel produces wine of outstanding power with refined elegance and a linear minerality backed by hints of sweet oak. With a production of just five barrels, it is a rare treat.”
Just this week he was conducting individual “coaching sessions” with five local somms who were off to St. Louis to sit for the final exam to become master sommeliers. “I really love the mentorship and will continue to help when I can.”
Twenty years ago, when Fletcher left the floor to take the corporate job, he did so as a father with responsibilities. “I had two daughters who were everything to me. I used to work 25 straight days through the Christmas holidays. It was just too much.”
But now both are grown, and Fletcher is itching for a third act.
“The best days of my life have been pouring wine in restaurants. This is a chance to have days free to ski and spend time with my wife and go to work at night and do what I do best,” he concluded. “Change is good for the human spirit.”