Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
“Aspen is a great wine town.” That’s the mantra I preach as I travel to wine regions around the world. I explain that Aspen is home to the Food & Wine Classic, America’s most prestigious culinary and vino event. I discuss the number of collectors who live here and how money brings wines of significance to a town. But most of all I speak about the passionate, young wine people who call Aspen home. About how five of the 106 Master Sommeliers (M.S.) in America achieved that status while living and working in Aspen. How we have a dedicated cadre of young people who work the floors of fine restaurants by night and study and taste wines by day to become better wine professionals.Sadly, but with a sense of pride, we are about lose a pair of Aspen’s young wine pros who are taking the next step in their careers. Dustin Wilson, a talented young sommelier at The Little Nell and his wife Rachel, the ever-so-smooth manager at Matsuhisa Upstairs, are moving to San Francisco, where Dustin will take a sommelier position at the acclaimed Michael Mina restaurant RN74. And in a stroke of fate, Dustin’s friend and “tasting buddy” Brian McClintic has also accepted a San Francisco job representing Foster’s Wine Estates. He’ll work for Fred Dame, a legendary wine guy and the founder of the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers.These are both plum jobs that anyone with a career in wine would kill for. For both of these guys to get these offers is a testament to both their skills and the dedication they have displayed in working their way up the wine ladder. Dustin’s journey began in Philadelphia, where he took a couple of wine courses with the International Sommelier Guild. He decided he wanted to live in Colorado so, jobless, he left for Boulder. A chance conversation steered him to Frasca Food and Wine, where he met MS Bobby Stuckey, a former Aspen resident. Stuckey gave him a job as a table runner and within a couple of years he was the head sommelier and wine buyer. Two years ago an opportunity came up at The Little Nell to work for Jonathan Pullis, and Dustin came to Aspen. The Nell is like the Harvard Law School for sommeliers. The last three guys to have the top job (Stuckey, Richard Betts and Pullis) have all become Masters. Dustin and Rachel love living in Aspen, but when Dustin got a call from Rajat Parr, the wine director for the Michael Mina Restaurant Group, inviting him to join the team at the wine-centric RN74 (named for the road that runs through Burgundy’s Cote d’Or), he couldn’t pass it up. Although he actually did.Not wanting to leave the Nell, Dustin initially turned the job down. It took an evening of wining and dining at RN74 while he was in San Francisco for the Top Sommelier Competition to convince him that it was the right fit. By that time he had to re-ask for the gig. Fortunately the offer stood.Brian moved to Aspen just nine months ago with plans to work at The Nell and taste with Dustin as both worked toward their M.S. exams. “If you’re chasing an M.S. you’ve got to go to Mecca,” he said this week, referring to Aspen’s reputation as a place with a supportive wine community. While circumstances short-circuited his stay at Montagna, he nonetheless received a solid education working weekly with local wine guru Jay Fletcher, who is also chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers American Chapter. “When Jay calls you for a tasting, you don’t say no,” Brian said. “He doesn’t mince words and he is tough, which makes you better.”In fact, Dustin and Brian both noted Jay’s influence as a mentor and both conferred with him before taking their new positions. They also mentioned Jonathan Pullis and Sabato Sagaria, the director of Food and Wine at The Little Nell, as significant influences during their time here and in their quests to pass the MS exams.By the end of this month, Dustin and Brian and their wives Rachel and Kristin (a fine artist who specializes in recreating murals and frescos) will move cats, dogs, furniture and wine to an as-yet-undiscovered apartment in San Francisco. There, the four of them will live the life. Young, gainfully employed and surrounded by great wine in a great city. Feeling envious? I certainly am.Cheers to Dustin, Rachel, Brian and Kristin.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.