Aspen Times Weekly: Uncorking ‘Uncorked’ |

Aspen Times Weekly: Uncorking ‘Uncorked’

by Kelly J. Hayes
The somms of "Uncorked," from left, Morgan Harris, Dana Gaiser, Josh Nadel, Jack Mason, Jane Lopes and Yannick Benjamin.
Esquire Network | Special to the Daily |


Not only is The Little Nell hotel the site of the Advanced Sommeliers exam seen in “Uncorked,” it is the home of the largest collection of Court members anywhere. This year, 39 members of the current staff have achieved at least Level 1, Introductory Sommelier status under the tutelage of Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy.

Over the years there have been 11 Master Sommeliers who have worked at the Little Nell:

Carlton James McCoy Jr., 2013

Sabato Sagaria, 2012

Brian McClintic, 2011

Dustin Wilson , 2011

Jonathan Pullis, 2009

Jason Smith, 2005

Bobby Stuckey, 2004

Richard Betts, 2003

Virginia Philip, 2002

Jay Fletcher, 1996

Damon Ornowski, 1996

Aspen’s Little nell hotel takes a star turn this upcoming Tuesday night (Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. MST) on the Esquire Network, when it serves as the site for the pre-recorded climax of the new reality television series “Uncorked.”

For the uninitiated, and surely most are as the fledging Esquire Network is still a tough find, “Uncorked” is a six-part series that follows a half-dozen New York sommeliers as they strive to pass the final exam in their quest to become Master Sommeliers. The series was shot over the months leading up to the exam, which was administered at the Little Nell hotel in May. Former Little Nell Director of Food and Beverage Sabato Sagaria, who is now the Chief Restaurant Officer of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, is prominently featured in the series.

“Uncorked” is informative, as it uses bumpers to have each of the show’s stars explain wine basics and defines arcane wine terms. But it scores highest for creating drama and tension amongst the candidates as they vie for acclaim and accomplishment.

In real life, we know who reached the ultimate rank by passing all three elements of the grueling exam — blind tasting, wine theory and service. But in the world of “reality television,” the drama has been building each Tuesday since the launch of the series and the “winners” will be revealed in the final episode.

The Court of Master Sommeliers was founded in England in 1969 with the intent of bringing some semblance of order to the profession of wine service. That year, three individuals (George Clarke, Danny Lydon and Cyril Ware) became the first class to claim mastery in the world of wine. Since then, just 227 others, the vast majority members of the American Chapter that began testing in 1986, have passed an ever-changing exam in an ever-changing world of wine to get the coveted Pin that designates them as Master Sommeliers.

Over the years, the Pin, which is worn with pride on the lapel of those who have earned it, has become more than just an accouterment celebrating excellence and knowledge, but a ticket to a career in the wine world. For those who wish to work in wine it is the equivalent of a degree from, say, Wharton or the Stanford Graduate School of Business. While many Masters continue to work the floors of the nation’s top restaurants for a pretty fee, others move on to make their fortunes as consultants or in the employ of major wine distributors and importers.

In 2012, director Jason Wise shined a light on Master Sommeliers in his film, “SOMM.” Like “Uncorked,” which lists Wise and his wife, Christina, as executive producers, the film followed four candidates from San Francisco as they chased the Pin. The success of “SOMM” inspired others in the business to follow the dream, much like watching the New York Marathon might inspire 10k runners to try to go 26.2 miles.

The stars of “Uncorked” are all knowledgeable, likable and photogenic. They include Jack Mason, a soft-spoken 28-year-old, Texas-raised Christian with a streak of nerves that shows up when the heat is on; Jane Lopes, the only woman of the chosen six, who has a degree from the University of Chicago and a scholar’s way with study; and Dana Gaiser, a flamboyant, though seemingly shy, tasting savant who can be as flawed as a corked wine depending upon the challenge.

They, along with the other three candidates, are seen living a glamorous life in the tightest of suits in locales ranging from New York gourmet hot spots 11 Madison Park, Marta and Chef’s Club to the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival. But rather than expressing joy in drinking the finest wines, rubbing shoulders with star chef Daniel Boulud or Fred Dame (the Bill Belichick of Master Somms), the mood is dark and nervous throughout. You just keep waiting for the other glass to drop.

The narrative of the series tends to focus on the inner flaws and fears of each of these career accomplished sommeliers as they fall victim to mental and physical faux pas in front of those who judge them on their journey. From candidates blanking on the names of Barolo’s top producers to inexplicably pushing the corks of aged wines into the bottles as they try to open them, no sin goes unnoticed.

The angst and discomfort amongst the candidates in every episode is palpable. “With the Master exam around the corner, it’s just kind of depressing to think that you might have spent an inordinate amount of your…year…working for this thing that you are not quite there yet for,” says Morgan Harris, an affable and gifted somm who plies his trade at Aureole in New York. We will not reveal here whether Morgan made the grade, but he did host a blind tasting as a “TV personality” on the “Today” show this week with Hoda and Kathie Lee in advance of the “Uncorked” finale. NBC owns the Esquire Network, so this was an obvious pairing.

It is good and worthy to use the power of television to expose people to the world of wine. But the downside is that the Court of Master Sommeliers, rather than be depicted as a collegial group of truly remarkable, dedicated and gifted professionals, is reduced to simply being fodder for another cable reality concept.

Despite this nitpick, the climactic episode promises to be captivating TV. Some will pass. Some will fail. But for my money. all are winners in this game of wine.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at