Jonathan Pullis: Aspen service elevator
Aspen Times Weekly
ASPEN ” The master sommelier exam, the hurdle for admission to the Court of Master Sommeliers, comprises three parts. From the outside, the most daunting section by far would be tasting: You’re given six wines ” usually three red and three white ” and the applicant must nail, in 25 minutes, the type of grape, the region and the vintage. Usually, five of the six must be identified accurately to pass; on occasion, four suffices.
By comparison, the service portion of the exam seems a cinch. Waiting on a small handful of tables (occupied by those who have already been certified as master sommeliers), the applicant must demonstrate an ability to decant bottles of wine and Champagne, interact with the clientele, converse about cost and consumption. It seems like a technique that could be polished up in a matter of weeks ” not the years it would take to develop a palate capable of distinguishing vintages and varietals.
Plenty of hopeful masters, however, pass the tasting ” as well as the third part, theory, a multiple choice exam about wine regions, laws and more ” but get tripped up by the service portion.
“Anybody can memorize anything,” said Richard Betts, the former wine director at The Little Nell in Aspen, and a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers who passed the exam on his first try ” a rare feat. “But very few people can walk on the floor where there’s a ton of pressure ” people may have had a bad day, maybe the chef just yelled at the whole staff, two people at a table are fighting with each other ” and nail the wine service. These are demanding folks, and it’s really hard. We can all shoot free throws ” but when everybody’s yelling, waving their hands? That’s hard.”
Not to Jonathan Pullis. The lead sommelier at The Little Nell, Pullis has passed the service portion of the exam three times, including on his first try. But over four attempts at the overall test, Pullis would fall short on either theory or tasting. Two weeks ago in Healdsburg, in California’s Sonoma County, he finally cleared the bar on all three parts, becoming one of four new members of the Court of Master Sommeliers.
To those who have seen the calm, personable 37-year-old in action, it is no surprise that he has never failed the service portion of the test. “He’s super-smooth,” said Betts, who worked with Pullis for seven years at The Little Nell. “He’s one of the nicest, most caring people you’ll encounter in your restaurant. He may understand where you want to be with your wine better than you understand it.”
“Service is just what I do. That was easy for me,” said Pullis. “The only way you can not pass is if you have fear in your heart. I didn’t have any of that fear.
“If you can’t make people happy bringing them wine, there’s something terribly wrong.”
Pullis, who grew up in various town and cities in the Northeast, didn’t come from a family of foodies, exactly. But the family always ate dinner together, and his father made a habit of buying good red wine, setting the bottles aside for several years, “And drinking it when it was delicious,” said Pullis.
The association between food, family and fun was a lasting one. At the University of Vermont, while majoring in economics, he worked in restaurants for spending money. “I realized I loved food and wine,” said Pullis. He also developed a taste for the restaurant lifestyle, especially having days free to play. Instead of graduate school, he moved to the Caribbean to wait tables and learn to sail and scuba dive. Back on the continent, he and his future wife Rebecca took jobs at the Rancho de San Juan in New Mexico. The two were offered the assistant manager position but, finding the pace too slow in Espanola, they moved to Aspen and The Little Nell.
At that time, in 1999, the Nell had a policy: All waitstaff started on breakfast, then lunch, before moving to dinner. Pullis was no exception, but he was exceptional: He put in one week serving breakfast and two weeks on the lunch shift. There was the effortless way he served, and also the desire to ski. “We didn’t come to Aspen to work during the day,” said Pullis, a father of two boys who often ends his post-work day with a reggae or hip-hop concert at Belly Up Aspen.
The even bigger goal was to move into the wine department. He was inspired by Bobby Stuckey, the Nell’s lead sommelier at the time (and a master sommelier as of 2004), and later, Richard Betts. “I got to work with two of the best people in the business,” said Pullis, who not only moved into wine service at the Nell, but spent his nights off at Syzygy, so he could work with another master sommelier, Jay Fletcher.
The other draw was the wine itself. “Wine is like beauty captured in a bottle. It makes the meal complete; it makes you smile,” he said. Beyond the simple pleasure factor, there was a deeper attraction: “The great wines take you to a place. There are a lot of mass-produced wines that taste all right ” but they have no soul. Wine remembers the acts of the hand and heart that made it. Great wines, made by someone who loves it ” it reflects that.”
At the Nell, Pullis oversees a program that was already established among the great places to drink wine. With 1,500 selections and 20,000 bottles, it is among the three biggest cellars in Colorado; the Nell has earned the Grand Award from Wine Spectator magazine every year since 1997.
The collection is deep in the classics: Rhone, Burgundy, Bordeaux, California. Pullis’ innovation has been to broaden the offerings, and make wine more accessible. The 50 Wines Under $100 portion of the menu, added in December (and planned before the current economic worries), actually features a few hundred selections that are modestly priced and carefully selected.
It’s all a part of the service mentality: Offer a big array of wines that are relatively inexpensive, and you’re catering to a bigger slice of the wine-drinking public, letting more people in on the pleasures of the vine. Which is just part of Pullis’ make-up.
“You can’t teach service. The first night you meet someone, you can see if they have the ability,” he said. “Or, you can be taught. But why bother? Some people just love to serve. It’s a good feeling, nourishing people, bringing them healthy food and serving them great wine.”
Passing the exam opens the door for Pullis to share his expertise. Next month, he’ll teach an entry-level sommelier course at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and in May, he’ll be part of a team of Colorado master sommeliers leading a training at the Nell. But he didn’t need an exam to prove he has the service touch, nor is the certification the crowning achievement of his life.
“I wanted to persevere and finish it,” he said. “But it’s not a defining title for me. I have a great family, a great job, a great life. So there wasn’t a void to be filled. It was something I wanted, not a need.”
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