How Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher helped Aspen become a Wine Mecca
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Drop Jay Fletcher’s name in the company of sommeliers anywhere in the country and you’ll get knowing looks along with stories from those who have met him, tasted with him or admired him from afar. But it is with the homeboys, the Aspen crew, that he has formed his most personal relationships. These are some of their reflections about the man they call a mentor and a friend.
“While Aspen has been fortunate enough to have many great wine personalities, none have had nearly the impact as Jay Fletcher. Jay has been a mentor for all of the Master Sommeliers that have run the Nell, as well as every other restaurant in town. For me personally, his mentorship was less about just wine as it was about my approach to life and interaction with people. This will serve me far longer than any wine fact.”
Carlton McCoy, MS, CEO and president of Heitz Cellar (and former director of wine at the Little Nell Hotel)
“Jay is a Master of Masters. He is like Yoda (except not little, old or green) and many young Padawans/aspiring sommeliers make the pilgrimage to learn from him. Internalizing Jay’s tasting technique is using the Force. The ability is within you, you just need to train and channel it. His commitment to excellence inspired me and countless others to pursue the Master Sommelier certification. He truly provided the roadmap to our success.”
Jonathan Pullis, MS, wine director at 7908
“In the sommelier community, Jay is like the pebble that you throw in the pond that just continues to reverberate outwardly. There are so many young somms that have been trained by those that Jay trained because he passed on the values of mentorship. Some don’t even know that the roots of their training originated with Jay. As an MS, he taught me to keep trying and it was not about getting the pin…it was about the adventure. I was with him recently at Clark’s in Aspen and even though he has not worked the floor in years there were guests who recognized him and asked for wine suggestions.”
Bobby Stuckey, MS, proprietor of Frasca Food & Wine, Boulder, Colorado
“He’s my biggest mentor and has put thousands of hours of his time into helping everyone improve. He has this knack for knowing just when to tell you that you screwed up and when to inspire hope. This generosity is contagious, and so the whole sommelier community in town is always trying to raise the bar. There’s really nothing like it elsewhere.”
Greg Van Wagner, wine director at Jimmy’s
“In life, it is rare to find a true mentor - someone who really cares, someone who selflessly focuses on your development, and someone who fully understands how you are. Jay is that person. He will build you up, push you for your absolute best performance - even under pressure, and even when you are your own worst enemy. Through the MS program, Jay became that mentor for me, a personal friend, and a lifelong teacher, someone who fully understands my way of thinking, and someone who absolutely deserves to be called a master. If you are lucky and over at his house, and especially after a few of bottles of wine (and some chartreuse, of course) you can personally witness the great man decanting bottles of wine on a bongo-board while listening to Kool and the Gang – a pretty bizarre scene, yet one that fully fits his profile.”
Csaba Oveges, food and beverage director at The Little Nell
Catch your customer’s palate and you can bring them things they love. You can actually make their lives better.”
So began Jay Fletcher’s presentation in early June to a packed room of 72 candidates, gathered in Aspen’s Limelight Hotel for their first day of the Court of Master Sommeliers introductory exam. It was quintessential Fletcher, as the man who has been described as the “Yoda of Master Sommeliers” explained to the young somms that if you possess the knowledge to know a wine drinker’s deepest desires, you can exceed their expectations exponentially.
There have been many significant personalities who have impacted modern day Aspen. The Paepckes — Elizabeth and Walter — brought culture and an intellectual curiosity that manifests itself to this day in the Aspen Music Festival and at the Aspen Institute. Men like Dick Durrance and Friedl Pfeiffer introduced Aspen to a global stage as they created a skiing lifestyle that made the town the envy of the sporting world. Then there is Jay Fletcher, who, over the past 40 years, has been the catalyst in making Aspen known and respected throughout the wine world.
Why aspen is a wine town
When the Food & Wine Classic returns to Aspen June 14-16, thousands of wine lovers will pour into local restaurants and order many of the best bottles of wine available anywhere. And they will be served by what are arguably the most well-educated wine professionals in the country. Much of that is a direct result of Fletcher’s influence as a passionate proponent of wine and his generosity as a mentor to a generation of sommeliers and wine enthusiasts.
“Aspen has evolved over the last 30 years or so into one of the great wine towns on Earth,” Fletcher said when asked to describe why his adopted hometown is so revered in the greater world of wine. “There are so many prominent collectors and cellars in this community because of the wealth. But there is also a generosity of spirit. If you do a good job (as a sommelier) and know your stuff, these people are willing to buy and open the best wines in the world and share them with you. Few communities offer that kind of access to excellent wines.”
The same is true of the visitors who come to sample Aspen’s multitude of great wine lists at places like The Little Nell or Jimmy’s or L’Hostaria or Cache Cache. “The clientele can afford the best and we have to provide it,” he continued. “You know we are fortunate to live in a relatively small state in the middle of the country. The allocations of the world’s best wines on the East Coast come from Europe and get swallowed up. On the West Coast the small allocation of a great California wine has to be divided amongst L.A. and San Francisco and Seattle. Colorado might get just a few cases of most highly allocated wines from those European and California wines, but you can bet most of that will end up here.”
He also credits the Food & Wine Classic for bringing an annual influx of consumers and winemakers to town, as well as the international tourists who bring a taste for fine wine year-round on their visits.
“But you know what?” he asks. “The greatest thing about Aspen is the community of wine education that has evolved over the last 20 years. We have 10 Master Sommeliers who have come through The Little Nell hotel just by itself. That is more than any other property in the world.” Aspen, as was the case at the Limelight classes last week, has become a magnet for those who wish to study and pass the hyper-intense exams that can lead to being named a Master Sommelier. It is a place where aspiring wine professionals come to study and taste with like-minded wine aficionados. Many come directly to Fletcher’s home on Juan Street for a coveted opportunity to learn from one of the most accomplished wine tasters on Earth.
When Fletcher first came to Aspen 41 years ago, he had little more than a pool cue and a desire to ski, climb and ride in the mountains. “The first two months here I lived in the Difficult Campground,” he recalled. But what he lacked in money he made up for in skills. “I could play pool pretty well,” he said confidently, “and I made some money gambling.”
He fondly recalls a pool showdown at the old Galena Street East bar as a seminal moment in his early days as an Aspenite. “I played Larry Lisciotti (a Hall of Fame player and noted hustler) for two straight days. The place was packed,” he recalled, a glint in his eye. “There must have been 150 people and money was flying everywhere. It was crazy.”
As his gambling days came to end (“my luck changed”) he began to work in the restaurants that marked the early ’80s here. “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.”
Fletcher’s real education came while working at Krabloonik, the legendary Snowmass wild game restaurant that was once a major dining destination. “We took a list of 15 wines and built it to 300 selections. Every night we would open something great and learn about it,” he recalled.
In 1993, a chance reading of an article about a fledging organization called the Court of Master Sommeliers caught his attention. An introductory course (the same one he was leading this month in Aspen and has now taught annually for 22 straight years) in Vail had an opening. It changed his life.
“I was immediately hooked and began studying places and wines and service to become a Master,” he said.
The road would be tougher than he considered. “I took the Masters for the first time in the summer of 1994 and I got destroyed,” he said in a voice that still shows the 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.
For years, Fletcher worked the floor at Aspen restaurants, including Szygy and Conundrum, making friends, influencing people and pouring the world’s best wines. But eventually the lifestyle took its toll.
“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.”
Fletcher matriculated to a role with distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, where he is currently the executive director of fine wines, a position that sees him manage the Bordeaux portfolio for the company. He also is cellar master for the SommFoundation’s collection of fine wines, which provides educational opportunities — including travel to international wine destinations — for young sommeliers.
LIFE ON JUAN STREET
“Every day I spend in Aspen I get stronger. Every day I am gone I get weaker,” Fletcher said about his love affair with the community. A monster on the hill, whether he is biking, skiing or climbing the mountain behind his house on Juan Street, he lives the Aspen lifestyle with abandon.
“I try and stay fit at my age, and I plan on living my life,” the 62-year-old said.
Today Fletcher lives with his wife, Lynn, in the house where he raised his two daughters, both of whom have graduated from the University of Colorado. “I got an employee housing unit in 1995 and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I was able to raise my kids, and it might never have happened that way if not for the house.”
“But I like to think I have given back. I have paid taxes, helped others get better jobs and they have paid taxes, as well. I kind of feel like a poster child for how the employee-housing system should work,” he said with a chuckle.
While he is well aware of his impact on the Aspen wine community’s ascendance in the world of wine, his focus is still local.
“If I had a small part (in) it, that’s great,” he said. “But if I have shown some others that they too could come up from being a busboy or a waiter and actually have a life in wine, that’s a pretty good thing. That makes me feel pretty good, watching others change their lives.”
Yes, as he’s proven, you can actually make lives better. #
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