SOMMELIER Darren Lutz could have moved anywhere in the world for his next job after Bastide temporarily closed its doors in January, but he headed for Las Vegas. Opportunities for sommeliers are everywhere in this neon-lighted, restaurant-rich corner of the Nevada desert.
But there’s a catch, Lutz discovered, as have dozens of sommeliers before him. Vegas is a tough place to make a name for yourself. Sure, sommeliers make double the money they can elsewhere, but they may never be heard of again.
Why? Because as they strive to develop wine lists that measure up to the world-class food now being served in the city, sommeliers face serious obstacles unique to Vegas’ wine culture. They are discovering that they must challenge the distribution system and an old-boy business culture even as the laws of Nevada add to the difficulty of doing their jobs.
Multi-million-dollar wine shipments being turned away at the door, rumors of reprisals against those who dare to go around a behemoth distributor, sommeliers denied access to the wines they want -- these are signs of the difficulties Las Vegas sommeliers face.
Lutz landed a job with Joel Robuchon at MGM Grand, one of the town’s most exclusive dining rooms. He’s thrilled with the Vegas wine community and has found serious tasting groups, study sessions with veteran sommeliers and the help he needs to make his next big step: passing the master sommelier exam.
“The master sommeliers in this community are mentoring the young soms,” Lutz says. “They give back. They teach.”
The sommelier community in Las Vegas is big and rich. The demand for wine pros soared as the city evolved into the world’s most extraordinary culinary tourist attraction, with more than 30 restaurants boasting connections to celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse opening in the last decade. A sommelier is the wine conscience of a serious restaurant. He or she knows the chef’s cuisine and develops a wine cellar to complement it. Sommeliers buy the wine, tracking down difficult-to-obtain bottles at auction or from collectors. Part of the daily routine is to sample dozens of wines, searching for new stars.
In Las Vegas, sommeliers can take home $100,000 a year, twice the paycheck they would receive in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Wine directors managing the cellars for well-known restaurants or hotels earn as much as $150,000.
The master class
STILL, it’s a young person’s career, with days that start mid-morning and last until the final guest is served. And, as a new generation of sommeliers looks to get ahead, more are drawn to the Court of Master Sommeliers, a rigorous certification program that originated in Britain 37 years ago.
There are 16 master sommeliers working the Strip, the highest concentration of these wine professionals anywhere in the world. In addition, perhaps 30 of Vegas’ hundreds of sommeliers have earned advanced certificates, the step preceding master sommelier.
“You can get your MS faster here than anywhere else,” says Rob Bigelow, a master sommelier and wine director of Bellagio supervising 32 wine outlets. In Vegas, training for the exam is organized and thorough.
But although hundreds of millions of dollars worth of wine flows through the Strip’s restaurants and casinos each year, much of it expensive, the Vegas wine scene is stuck back in the days of the $3.99 buffet. Sommeliers say it can be impossible to get exciting wines -- those obscure, small production labels that make a wine list sparkle.
The unusual wines they do get may take months to arrive, while the same wine would be delivered in a few days to a Los Angeles restaurant. And the prices? Wholesale prices for wine are often 30% higher in Las Vegas than in Los Angeles or New York.
“Sommeliers are extremely frustrated with the difficulty of building a great wine list in Las Vegas,” says William Sherer, a master sommelier and wine director at Aureole, New York chef Charlie Palmer’s restaurant at the Mandalay Bay Resort. “Wine has dramatically lagged behind food here. It’s a real disservice to consumers.”
For sommeliers, that can lead to a career dead end. Las Vegas slaps on the “golden handcuffs,” Sherer says. Since the mass influx of sommeliers started with the opening of Bellagio in 1998, few have left Las Vegas. Many resign themselves to being part of the system instead of fighting it.
A single wine distributor, Miami-based Southern Wine & Spirits, dominates the Strip. And that, says Paul Roberts, a master sommelier and wine director for Thomas Keller’s restaurants, including Bouchon at the Venetian Resort, is the root of the problem. Without competition, Southern has little incentive to improve service or to control prices.
“You can’t get the wine you want in Vegas. A lot of what we have [at Bouchon] we bring in from California. Prices are much higher in Las Vegas,” he says.
How big is Southern Wine & Spirits? It’s the nation’s largest liquor and wine distribution company, selling to restaurants and retailers through independently operated divisions in soon to be 27 states.
The California division of Southern is one of more than 300 wine distributors serving the state. In Nevada, there is only one other significant wine distributor, DeLuca Liquor & Wine.
“For Vegas to evolve, other distributors will have to exist, to bring in new wines and new ideas,” Roberts says. “And they will. You can’t be stuck in the middle of the road with this kind of sommelier talent in one place. The soms are driving the wine culture, expanding it.”
At least two master sommeliers are confronting Las Vegas’ entrenched wine culture head-on by starting distribution companies that offer eclectic collections of hard-to-find wines. Ambitious sommeliers are rejecting the status quo to patronize them.
Getting the goods
THAT seemingly small step is not taken lightly, says Joe Sauerwein, wine director of the Palms Hotel and soon to be a sommelier at Michael Mina’s new Strip Steak at Mandalay Bay. He says there are consequences.
“If you aren’t in Southern’s good graces, they make it difficult for you to get their better wines,” he says. That means bowing to pressure from Southern’s sales representatives to buy wine only from Southern. The small distributors have the “cool” wines Sauerwein wants, but they are “little mice,” he says, compared with Southern.
“Southern would never do that,” says Jay James, Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada’s general sales manager. “There are lots of wines in our portfolio that we don’t have enough of to satisfy everyone who wants them. But reprisals? That’s not part of our makeup or our process.”
Rajat Parr, the wine director for Mina’s restaurant group headquartered in San Francisco, had a radical idea for the wine list at Mina’s Sea Blue restaurant before it opened in October 2003 at MGM Grand: The casual seafood cafe should offer inexpensive wines from all around the world.
“There were only 350 selections,” Parr says. But they included wines from Lebanon, Greece, even India. When he looked through the handful of catalogs available from Las Vegas distributors, he found much of what he wanted at Nevada Wine Agents, a new outfit run by Ken Fredrickson, a master sommelier who had worked in several Las Vegas restaurants.
Could Southern have delivered the same wines? Hard to tell, Parr says. At the time, Southern didn’t publish a catalog or a price list. When you ordered a wine, Southern rarely made it clear if it was in the local warehouse or might take months to get -- or if it was available at all. “I didn’t care who the distributor was. I just looked for the wines I wanted,” Parr says. “These were very obscure wines.”
To frustrated sommeliers, it was the shot heard up and down the Strip. No Las Vegas restaurant had ever stocked such a high percentage of its cellar with wines bought outside of the Southern distribution system.
Since Sea Blue opened, Las Vegas has begun to change. Nevada Wine Agents “now has a following among the sommeliers. The smaller distributors will survive,” Parr says. “There are two options for sommeliers in Las Vegas. The easy route is to get on the Southern bandwagon. The hard route is to put together a good list on your own.”
That’s not how Larry Ruvo, senior managing director for Southern’s Nevada office, sees things. “If we don’t have a wine [in our warehouse], we can get it. Nothing we can’t get,” says Ruvo, who, when asked about competing wine distributors, says Southern can be one-stop shopping for everyone.
Over lunch at Southern’s offices, a modern building fronting a 340,000-square-foot wine and liquor warehouse, Ruvo wants to talk about relationships. Everyone knows everyone in Las Vegas, he says. It’s a very small town. The casino owners and the big-name chefs like Wolfgang Puck are more than clients, he says, they are friends.
The good chefs, he says, know Las Vegas visitors don’t want “some razzle-dazzle list of wines no one has ever heard of.” Those 4,000-item wine lists are intimidating to customers. “I’d be hard-pressed, if I owned a restaurant, to have more than 750 items, tops.” And Ruvo’s list would focus on the brand-name wines, the labels that producers have spent money marketing. “People want what they know,” Ruvo says. “These sommeliers who say they are ‘trying a little bit harder,’ they don’t know their customers.”
At Nevada Wine Agents, Fredrickson, who started with 100 wines when he opened in 2002, now has a catalog of 1,200 mostly small-production wines. In January 2005, he formed an alliance with DeLuca to operate his company as a division of the liquor wholesaler. “There are three or four new distributors who have opened since I started,” Fredrickson says. “Southern doesn’t have a stranglehold any longer.”
Perhaps. But Southern does have the law on its side. Nevada law makes it nearly impossible for a significant wine producer to leave Southern for another distributor. According to Nevada Revised Statute 597.160, if a wine distributor sells at least 2,000 cases of a producer’s wines in any year, that producer usually must continue using that distributor.
“That’s a hurdle for a new distributor,” says Steve Morey, a master sommelier who opened wine distributor Vin Sauvage in Las Vegas in 2004. He was able to take Burgundy Grand Cru producer Domaine Leroy away from Southern because the larger distributor only sold 18 cases a year of the storied wine. Within one year, Morey was selling 400 cases a year and would have sold more if Domaine Leroy had made the wines available, he says.
Morey moved here from San Francisco, where he imported French wine. “I could see the explosion in wine coming in Las Vegas,” he says. “You can gamble everywhere now. Vegas is competing on hospitality, and that means wine.”
What had always been the loss leader in Vegas is now the resort city’s main revenue source. Pressured to fatten profits, the corporations behind Las Vegas restaurants gain economies of scale by centralizing management of multimillion-dollar wine budgets. “Technically I just run Bellagio,” says Bigelow. “But, unofficially, I help with all 11 of the MGM Grand-Mirage casino/hotel properties. If I know there is something we are all buying, I can use my bully pulpit to drive the price down.”
According to Sauerwein, the centralized system helps sommeliers. The massive orders keep mainstream wines flowing, and yet sommeliers are free to customize their lists through purchases from the small distributors.
Some are more free than others. Stuart Roy, a master sommelier who recently left a job at Southern Wine & Spirits to become the wine director for Caesars Palace, says restaurants can have too much latitude.
When the first shipment of wine -- $2.2 million worth of Bordeaux -- ordered by chef Guy Savoy for his new Caesars Palace dining room arrived, “I refused to accept it,” Roy says, and he reduced the order to half a million dollars. When the restaurant opened, the wine inventory totaled $1.8 million, he says.
In the end, Vegas is all about dollars and cents. As fresh-faced sommeliers prepare for the next master sommelier exam in six months with tastings and study sessions, their most serious challenge may be using their wine smarts to make both their casino owners and their customers happy.