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The Wine Guru by Lift 1A
Kelly J. Hayes | Photo: Rebecca Stumpf | May 30, 2014
Tastings with Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher are a rite of passage for many of the world’s most professional palates.
Imagine the following turn of events: On a snowy January morning, a young sommelier, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, knocks nervously at the door of a small home tucked in a compact neighborhood below the slopes of Aspen Mountain, near Lift 1A. As he waits on the porch of the tidy townhome, he notices a bib from a local bike race hanging by the door; the number is 111, same as the address. But he’s not here to talk about biking. He has come to taste wine.
The owner of the house, Jay Fletcher, a man who has been variously described as the Obi- Wan Kenobi of sommeliers or the Coach K of wine-tasting coaches, greets the young somm. He offers him a seat at the small kitchen table. Above it is a large print of Mount Everest, overlaid with the outlines of climbing routes. The young man sees the symbolism. He knows that the mountain he has to climb is high, but he is confident that Fletcher will be able to show him the path to the summit.
On the table are six glasses of wine. After brief small talk, Fletcher says to the young man, “OK, let’s see what kind of game you have.” With a mixture of trepidation, anticipation and excitement, the young man picks up the first glass, stares into it, puts it to his nose, then sips. Over the next hour and a half, his life will be changed. It is a scenaro that has played itself out countless times over the past few years.
In the world of wine, Fletcher is a legend. His uncanny ability to taste a wine and identify, with stunning consistency, the grape, place of origin, vintage and, frequently, even the name of the individual winemaker is rare. He is nothing short of a savant. But it is his passion for and generosity in sharing that knowledge with a new generation that has made him the go-to guy for young sommeliers. Fletcher gained admittance to the Court of Master Sommeliers, the international examining organization, in 1996 and later chaired it for two years. More recently, with the growth of a plethora of professional wine societies and the release of the film Somm, in which Fletcher appeared, his mentorship has become even more coveted and revered. In fact, because of Fletcher, Aspen has earned the reputation as ground zero for people who aspire to become the best tasters in the wine game.
“Clearly, Jay is the most significant person in the development of Aspen as a destination wine community,” says Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, a partner and wine director of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, which was honored in 2013 by the James Beard Foundation for the nation’s Outstanding Wine Program. “But I’d go beyond that to say that Jay Fletcher is one of the most influential people in American wine.”
Thirty years ago, Aspen restaurants were populated with ski bums/waiters who poured the wines of the times next to steaks and chops. Today, the town boasts world-renowned wine lists, hosts the most talented winemakers for special events and dinners, and is home to many of America’s most significant private collectors and collections.
It is also a cradle of master sommeliers. Of the 135 current American master somms who have passed the rigorous exams that test wine knowledge, proper serving ability and tasting skill, at least 10 have worked in Aspen restaurants while preparing for their exams. And all have tasted with Fletcher. As Palo Alto is to MBAs, so is Aspen to sommeliers.
“People come in from all over to taste with him, pick his brain and learn his secrets,” adds Stuckey, who, back in the early ’00s was the sommelier at The Little Nell and one of Fletcher’s tasting partners. “It’s no exaggeration to say that Jay has had a hand in helping maybe 25 to 30 of the masters pass.” By his own reckoning, Fletcher has also led seminars or given classes to more than 6,000 people who want to learn
Still, it is the “homeboys” that bring him the greatest satisfaction. “I’ve been to wine regions around the world,” he says. “But this place is totally unique. I mean, the execution at The Nell is absolutely worldclass. Cache Cache, Ellina, Piñons, Jimmy’s—they all have outstanding lists and wine programs.” He pauses. “But you want to know the real difference? It’s the community. Everyone here wants to help each other. You go to New York or San Francisco, and everyone is so competitive. But in Aspen, we are comrades in arms. It goes back to mountaineering. We all have each other’s backs.”
It was his thumb, not his palate, that first brought Fletcher to Aspen in 1978. After a hardscrabble upbringing in Madison, Wis., he arrived here with not much more than a pool cue and a nose for adventure. He played hard, skied hard and worked a series of jobs, including trolling a trawl as a concrete man. After work, he would use his pool cue to hustle, supplementing his income in an age when nightlife in Aspen was more about coke than cabernet.
Fletcher’s metamorphosis from pool player to master sommelier began humbly, with a job in the restaurant at Krabloonik. “An amazing time and place,” he remembers, shaking his head nostalgically. “We took a list that had maybe 15 selections to over 300. Every night after work we would taste. It was the beginning of my education.”
In 1993, Fletcher read about a wine seminar in Vail presented by the Court of Master Sommeliers. With friend and co-worker Damon Ornowski (who became a master sommelier in 1996), he drove to Vail for the introductory course. It was a revelation.
For the next three years, Fletcher dedicated his life to what, at the time, was an obscure course of study for an even more obscure designation, master sommelier. He was not a natural. In fact, he failed his first tests miserably. “I got my ass kicked,” he laughs now. But eventually things began to click and, in 1996, at The Dorchester hotel in London, he passed the exam required to become a master.
As it turned out, Fletcher wasn’t one to rest on his laurels. “Fred Dame [founder of the U.S. chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers] told me that you’re not really a master until you give back, until you help someone else pass the exam,” he recalls. The lesson clearly took.
In the ensuing years, he has helped what has become a who’s who of the American wine world in their quests. Stuckey and winemaker/author Richard Betts, both of whom once worked at The Little Nell, were his first “made men.” But the list of master sommeliers who have come by the kitchen also includes Jason Smith, who runs the wine program at the Bellagio in Las Vegas; Sabato Sagaria, chief restaurant officer at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group; and Eleven Madison Park’s Dustin Wilson (and one of the stars of Somm).
For many of Fletcher’s mentees, the relationships began in fear, yet ended in friendship. “When I first met Jay, I found him really intimidating,” remembers Wilson, who worked at The Little Nell before passing his master sommelier exam. “I mean, he’s this tall, older guy who can be firm and blunt. He has a reputation as the best in the business, and he can be superintense. But as we tasted and then skied together, he became like a friend, almost like a father figure.”
“Jay’s the first guy you go to when you’re thinking about changing jobs or making a major move,” says Sagaria. “I did it, and I’m sure anyone who has ever tasted with him has too. He’s just a wise guy. And the thing is, you learn more about life and balance and discipline than you do about tasting.”
Following a number of restaurant positions in Aspen, including stints at Syzygy and Conundrum, Fletcher is now the executive director of fine wine for Southern Wine & Spirits, a job that allows him to travel the world, tasting, teaching and lecturing about wine. His palate, reputation and résumé could allow him to move to any of the wine capitals of the world. But he stays in Aspen, where he lives in the shadow of Aspen Mountain with his wife, Lynn, whom he first met when she attended one of his seminars.
“When I am here, I get stronger,” he says without irony. “When I leave, I get weaker. This is the house that was my godsend. I love to ride [Independence] Pass and ski Aspen Mountain. This is where my kids were raised. Why would I ever want to leave? I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world.”
As do those who make the pilgrimage to the house by Lift 1A.
Some of the country’s top sommeliers have benefited from Jay Fletcher’s tutelage. Here’s what they have to say about him.
Bobby Stuckey, Master Sommelier 2004
Partner and wine director, Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder
“People don’t understand that not every place is like Aspen. You have such a high level of professionalism in the wine community there. That’s because of Jay. You move out of Aspen and there are a lot of young arrogant wine people who think they know a lot, but who really don’t get it. Aspen is full of amazing pros.”
Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier 2011
Wine director, Eleven Madison Park, New York
“Everybody, and I mean everybody, in the Aspen wine community leans on Jay. And it’s about more than just that he can help with a tasting. You see how he lives, the life he has created for himself. I would watch the way he is with his family and his daughters, and it is so inspiring. And he stills rips on the mountain.”
Dennis Kelly, Master Sommelier 2012
Wine director, The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.
“When I first met Jay, he went on a two-minute rant about the theory of tasting. I learned an enormous amount in just those two minutes. So I flew to Colorado in the middle of January. And he was so kind. He’s a busy guy, but he spent a whole day with me. We started in his kitchen and tasted three flights of six wines. I was so revitalized. I knew what I had to do. I felt like I had a clear direction.”
Carlton McCoy, Master Sommelier 2013
Wine director, The Little Nell
“The first time I tasted with Jay, I walked in, tasted four wines and guessed all four correctly. But he looked at me and said, ‘That’s great. But you still didn’t pass. Because you’re not playing by the rules.’ The point is that it’s not just guessing, it’s going through a process. Tasting is just one part of what he teaches you, and it may be the least important part. He is all about doing things the right way. It’s not about just passing, it’s about earning it, doing it right.”
Sabato Sagaria, Master Sommelier 2012
Chief restaurant officer, Union Square Hospitality Group, New York
“The first time I tasted with Jay, I was scared shitless. He is so confident and to the point that it can be intimidating. Just look at how he got to Aspen. He came from tough circumstances, so he has this bit of grit that says ‘I can hold my own in any bar or restaurant wherever I am.’ It says ‘I got this.’ It’s street confidence. Anyway, I decided that if I can block Jay Fletcher from my mind when I am tasting, I can block out anybody. So that became my goal. When it was time to take the final [master sommelier] exam, I got there, shook hands with my examiners and blocked ’em out. It was me and the wines. I picked up the glasses, went through the six and nailed them. Tim Gaiser [an examiner] said, ‘You have 90 seconds; you want to go back and change any of your calls?’ I said ‘Nope,’ and I knocked back the $900 of wine that they had poured me. It was that attitude, that confidence, that Jay helped me with.”