Master sommelier Smith drinks in the good life
December 8, 2005
Last month, Aspenite Jason Smith flew to London, drank three red wines and three whites, and returned to Aspen as the world’s youngest certified master sommelier, all of 27 years old.
“I just started drinking early,” explains Smith, the beverage director at The Little Nell. Smith isn’t exactly joking, nor is he bragging about his derelict youth. As a teenage student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Smith qualified for a program that allowed him to imbibe while his underage friends were still using fake IDs.All right, I started drinking early, too – and frequently, and without the benefit of any special privileges. And here I am, at 42, still unsure how it is that Sauvignon can be both a red and a white. Meanwhile, Smith, 15 years my junior, has been certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, one of only 140 people in the world so honored.Smith didn’t just start early, he took his drinking seriously. Growing up in upstate New York, he liked to cook and eat, and knew from the time he was a junior in high school that he wanted to attend the nearby Culinary Institute. But wine was still a foreign object, and Smith’s plan was to become a chef, which seemed a more attractive lifestyle than the 9-to-5 grind. Three-quarters of the way through school, Smith finally took the mandatory six-week wine course. Much of the eight years since has been consumed with consuming wine.”It opened my eyes to wine,” said Smith, who had passed the first two parts of his master sommelier exam – on service and wine theory – early this year, before taking the blind-tasting portion of the test in London. “It was incredible that you could get all these flavors from grapes. Before that, if someone said a wine had cherry, I thought they had put cherries in the bottle.”Unlike, say, myself, with my random, scattershot drinking, Smith had focus. “The whole thing that blew me away was that there was so much to learn,” he said, “that no matter how much you knew, there would always be more. Even now, I’m a master sommelier, technically a master, and I’ve only scratched the surface.”
Smith supplemented his formal education with a job at a local wine shop (as well as many more tastings, these unsanctioned by the state). When he left school, he headed for the top – the 21 Club, a New York institution that boasted 10 private dining rooms and a Grand Award from the Wine Spectator magazine. Just 21 at the time, Smith was the bottom guy on a big ladder.”I got the lofty title of cellar master. I got to put the wines away,” he said. “The most beneficial thing was tasting with the sommeliers; there were two sommeliers and a wine director. Hearing them talk about the wine was an incredible learning experience.”Within a year, Smith had learned enough that he was made a sommelier at the 21 Club. But he was young and restless and looking for an even better opportunity. At Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Smith continued learning about wine at the highest echelon, and at a restaurant that was considered one of the finest in the world. He wrote the wine notes for two of Trotter’s books. After four years at Trotter’s, a job that came with the fringe benefit of meeting his wife, Makiko, who was Trotter’s assistant, Smith was ready for a new challenge and a change of scenery. A longtime skier, Smith chose The Little Nell, where he could work with another master sommelier, Richard Betts, the wine program director at the Nell.Smith says the image of a sommelier as the person glamorously opening an expensive champagne, and describing a wine in glowing terms is only part of the story. And a small part.”The glory spot that makes people want to be a sommelier is when they see us opening a $1,000 bottle of wine at a table,” he said. “But that’s one-half of 1 percent of what the job is. Most of it is maintenance of the wine cellar, inventory control, staff training, trying to find new wines for the wine list. Making sure there are no typos on the wine menu. Most of the day is far more mundane than the pizzazz of opening up those special bottles.”
But the job is still, as it was in the beginning for Smith, about sampling a lot of wine. “It’s like a doctor,” he said. “It’s constantly changing and you have to stay on top of it or you’re completely left behind.”Fortunately, Smith has a project that keeps his nose in shape. Just as Betts and Jay Fletcher, another local master sommelier, assisted Smith in his training, Smith is helping to get Jonathan Pullis prepared for the master sommelier’s exam. Pullis, sommelier at The Little Nell, might take his test as early as February, and Smith has been “practicing” a lot with him.”The joke is that it’s just a lot of drinking,” he said of the practice sessions. “But you sit down with three wines and give yourself 12 minutes to identify them, and you challenge yourself by picking three very similar wines – that’s tough.”People say, ‘You must be talented or gifted in taste. But it’s more of a passion. It’s like a sport that you dedicate yourself to.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org