The Punk-Rock Underground of Wine & Why Vegas Is Best

When Jaime Smith picks up my call, he is poolside, or in a restaurant, or at another event space... probably at one of the sky-high casinos taking up residence along the infamous Vegas Strip. He says as much, but as an explanation as to why I hear women's laughter and men's chatter in the background. However, I'm not paying attention to wherever it is he happens to be. That doesn't matter to me at the time, nor does it seem to matter to him. His focus is with me a few hundred miles away in Los Angeles. The tasting that is about to begin will wait.

His voice carries the sort of hushed weight that is at once confident yet exhausted — likely from days, months, years, and decades of carrying on in such an outsized and outspoken capacity — brought to life by a raw, almost guttural enthusiasm that grabs hold of you through the phone. I really shouldn't be surprised. This is the way he has carried himself since he first stepped out on his own so many years ago. Innovative and forward-thinking while embracing the deep, old-world roots of his passions, Jaime is bold and relentless in his travails to further his tracks. He is a workhorse who loves what he does, and has been rewarded in kind.

In his vibrant pursuit of a career in wine (a career he is simply baffled to see exist), Jaime has engaged with the likes of the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Guild of the Masters of Wine, been both an adjunct and distance professor at two respected institutions within the industry, as well as received a number of accolades including Best Sommelier in America. He has even been labeled the synesthetic sommelier for his heightened sensory abilities. But aside from a respect for the people who made and continue to make this world what it is today, he doesn't dwell on his past, let alone rest on his laurels. Jaime lives in the now. And the now is where I find him.

Michael Woodsmall: Obviously you've been a sommelier for a while now, and have worked on a lot of projects, but what are your major focuses right now in the immediate tense, and where are you putting most of your energies? 

Jaime Smith: You know what, man, all my energy goes into raising my boy. My son is the most important fucking piece of the whole puzzle here. I know that's not a good answer.

That's a great answer. 

You know what I do more than anything else? I just spread the word about the grape. I love to meet sommeliers, I love to share information. I have a little... I don't even know what you would call it — I call it the Sommelier Collective. It's just an email blast on everything that happens in the wine world and catches my attention. I share with probably the top 400 people on the planet that have to do with wine and food. It's also a job service, I love to get my friends jobs. I'm not here to make any money on it, you know what I mean? Just to meet and greet and to introduce people. I'm a really good middle man.

You touched on a couple interesting things right there that I want to explore. First of all, with regard to the Sommelier Collective, how did that come about for you? Obviously you have this passion for wine which is the underlying passion,but what made you want to engage with the other top sommeliers or wine people in the world and offer this information? What, ultimately, is your end game there if it isn't money? 

I was doing my MS and MW, I realized that I'm a super nerd. I love information. I taught at two different universities, fourteen years. I find a lot of things interesting. I'm a voracious reader and I love to share what I'm doing. This list came about because I was the Director of Communication and Education for Southern Wine out here in Nevada and they gave me an opportunity to go around the world and meet people who write the laws and I just realize I've had such a unique opportunity for so many things other people haven't. I just want to share all that with them. 

Once I got to the top levels, I was looking around and all the information is so extremely generic and micro-focused. I used to call the exams Infinite Minutiaetrivia. I couldn't call myself a master of the things because I didn't think what they were teaching me at that time was a mastery of the subject. It was just a very narrow focus. So that list was created for me to be like a punk-rock underground of information and crazy things that really made sense to sommeliers. 

I knew all the top guys they are my friends and generally most of them still are but you have to subjugate yourself beyond personal recognition to survive In that world.  When I first realized that I was no longer the most important part of the equation, they would be, it went contrary to my personal belief system and I grew up that day.

I never monetized the list and I never will; I feel like I'd be pimping my friends out, if I did something like that.

I have no problem giving everybody their dues — I'm very happy to. But if I'm going to do something and I'm going to put my word on it and I'm going to put my time on it and my brain on it and my effort on it, I would like a little recognition for myself instead of an arbitrary group of overseers getting credit for things that I do. To be part of that proletariat movement is really where things get done.

You mention being part of the proletariat movement. It's interesting because that brings me to want to talk a little about Vegas and your role there.

I can make this easy. In cities where there are large educated masses, people go and they get wine because they want to learn and they want to know about wine — New York, Chicago, places like that. You don't need a group of people at the highest educated end in order to tell them what they are going to drink. Las Vegas has more people come through here than just about any other place on Earth. And this is big dollar, big business, big money. A small restaurant here will do $300,000 to $400,000, even $500,000, a year in wine. Just wine sales. You extrapolate that to any other city and that's more than a medium sized restaurant will do total sales.

You just don't entrust business accounts to people that don't have business acumen. I've seen some of the best sommeliers from San Francisco, Chicago, New York come out here and get crushed because they have these high ideas of wine and the poetry of wine. Believe me, I get all that as much as anybody else, but those people won't survive in Vegas. It might not be the most cutting edge as far as wine lists are concerned, but these are run like businesses. If you're running a $2 million to $3 million program, there's no way you can just sell Ribolla Gialla — you have to sell everything. You have to know how to move things, the psychology of sales. It's an amazing education, especially if you can get in a good place and get in with a good mentor.

For me personally, I have been very lucky. It's always about the people that you meet. I have met the best people of the highest caliber in the world of wine in Las Vegas. I've watched people grow from just humble beginnings to top of the food chain sommeliers. Go get their Masters, go run some of the most diverse wine programs on the planet just from being here. It's great to be in one place for so long, to watch all these people grow up. It's like teaching too. I taught so long now all my kids are out all around the country, all around the world and achieving these great things. It's nice to be in a place long enough to watch that second generation take off and watch all the people that you were with, with the people with talent go to the top. 

What does Vegas to better than every other city? What does Vegas do better than New York? You talked about the business acumen and what's required to make it there but what does Vegas do better than New York? 

Better? "Better" is funny. Up until probably five years ago, you know the way that you judged cities was by how many Masters were in there. How many people at top levels were around places. Like I told you before,  being a sommelier is a relatively new job. Probably 15, 20 years. Only in the past few years you have this next generation of people that were just watching the first generation of people. In New York, it was always strange to me that there were a ton of people that loved wine and were passionate but never had a need or a want to go and get formal education. 

You work in a restaurant that serves Pulgiese food, so boom you know everything about Puglia. You come to Vegas and you're like "Hey, I know all about Pugliese food and Pugliese wine." And I'm going to be like "That's cool. Next." What else do you know about?

You need to be fully rounded out here. You can't step up here because of so much talent. You don't just walk in and say, "Hey, I'm a superstar. I got a little bit of press here, a little bit of press there and people love me." That's fine for local scenes but I really think that the talent bar is set so high. So high I n Vegas. If you don't know the best people in the world and you're not surrounded by the best people, you'll never be the best. 

Looking back on these adventures of traveling and whatnot, is there one particular or a couple particular experiences that really stand out to you as monumental in either increasing your passion for exploring wine in this capacity and engaging in the community, or perhaps solidifying/cementing your passion for it?

Again, I'm really lucky. I have been everywhere and every place that has or does make great wine and I always search out places to see where the next place is going to be . I think sometimes when you just stand in a place, it might not have the best wine but if you're standing above Lake Geneva in Chasellas vineyards and you're overlooking a Buddhist monastery, it's one of the most beautiful picturesque places in the world. Sometimes, even if the product isn't as magical as you would like it to be, the experience that brings you there, the way your breath is taken away the first time you leave Orange and come down towards Monaco. 

The way that the world just explodes when you go into the Basque Country of hills and verdant beautiful farmland. It's idyllic. You don't always get the best winebut the scenery is friggin nutz!. Sitting in Chateau Margaux and having dinner with all the big boys during an expo or something like that, those things are great.

The people that I have met, the people ... I'm just a lucky farm kid. I'm from upstate New York and to be friends with certain people that I've idolized or when we were at Aureole the people that, your idols come to meet you to see what you're doing, it flips your lid back, man. It flips your lid back. This is a very ego driven job. It's very difficult to come through that wall and just realize that the experience that you've had, you get to share with other people. I call myself a knowledge sherpa. I just want to be a mentor to people and just be around people that feel it. 

Kind of in that vein, you're the synesthetic sommelier, so to speak. It seems like a lot of your experiences with wine have been visceral in the sense that they extend and they transcend nearly the taste of something. You mentioned that you've been able to work with a lot of your idols and people like that you've looked up to. Can you identify a couple of the people currently in the space that you really are proud of to be working with that you think are doing it right? 

Even though I was a sommelier for years before, I met a gentlemen in '93 named Steven Geddes. He was the most important person for me to have ever met in my life because for the next 10 years he got me every single job that I was looking at or put me in a place to meet and be in the right place to work so I owe him the largest debt of gratitude. What I'm doing now for Charlie Palmer Steak is because of Steve again. He came back to the company and a week later was like, hey man, it's going to be funny but you're going to come back to work for us again. I couldn't believe it because we didn't have a good break at Aureole, but I came back and its working out.

Guys like Alois Kracher. Alois passed on my birthday which is just cosmically nutty. I got to know Alois around 2000 and I've been to Austria several times. I've been around the country with him. I actually introduced him to Jorge Ordonez because he wanted to buy some land in Malaga so he makes Muscat in Malaga with Jorge. I mean, that's a crazy thing that I was just lucky enough to be part of. 

I'm Lebanese by my mother's father and I always had a thing for Chateau Musar and I collected the largest vertical of Chateau Musar in the US while I was at Aureole. Serge Hochar decided to come see why the hell anyone is drinking his wine in the desert. Subsequently, Serge was one of my best friends for the past 15 years. The day after, well, he drowned in Mexico this past December. He was coming to Las Vegas to stay with me for a week, the next day. Every year he came and stayed with me for a week. It was surreal to be around this guy, and him and I just have this crazy 14 year old boy vibe. I did events with him. I went to Lebanon. I was in Belgium and Holland with him. He was my family. How does that happen, you know?

Seems like there's a lot of positive synergy, and you refer to as cosmic situations through the years. Furthering on your experience over the years in what you've seen in wine, when you're looking at the wine landscape both in the United States as well as internationally, what do you think are the most significant evolutions?

There's a couple things. We can start with people. People have really taken a hold and embraced more wine as a culture since the eighties. I've come in where wine was kind of like this fancy thing to now where wine is in everything — not everything, but an integral part of dining

A sommelier is actually a job term now. That one's kind of neat. Then there is the opening up of other countries through good science. Good science has really made wine accessible to everyone. This is the most exciting time since tchelicheff  in the fifties for American wine, particular California wine. The wines are such great level everywhere.

New World influence on wines, there are some detriments to that too. People don't make wines to age anymore. People are drinking wines instantly. I like old wines. I like wines that have the ability to age. It could be a generational jump, but I definitely don't think that young sommeliers will ever have the opportunity, whether it's economically or just chance that the wines are now drank, to have the wines that the prior generation of sommeliers got to have. They're not going to be drinking old Burgundys, old Bordeauxs because the prices are just so out of whack.

Continuing on that point of what you're saying about the new world wines and not necessarily seeing the same amount of focus on these aged wines, what one or two things do you see as really missing from the current wine experience?

I think that people are really understanding that the enjoyment of wine is just the enjoyment of anything. You know what I mean? You buy it. You like it. You spend your money on it. You should get something you're looking for.

I think there are so many flavors, so many things that as a consumer it's like a mad bounty. Downside of that, there's a ton of same-same driven by four or five large companies globally that don't give people the choices that they should have. I think that sometimes the economy of precious keeps getting hidden from people that should be exposed a little bit more. All sommeliers are flavor junkies. We're always looking for that next flavor. We're always looking for the next country, that next grape. 

I'd like to say that I can read the future, but the things that I read in the past that I thought were going to be in the future, things like Reisling, or other things are really just self driven prophecies. People either get it or they don't. Unfortunately a large part of people just don't get a lot of things that sommeliers love. Do they have to? Who cares? There's enough people on the undercurrent. I used to be the champion. I used to be out there bashing people in the head, you've got to do this, you've got to do this, you've got to do this. People can talk to me all they want about Marc Chagall but I just don't get it. You know?

What is the best trend right now, in wine with regard to both from a consumer side and from your side? What do you think is the most, not interesting thing necessarily, but maybe positive, maybe beneficial, movement, trend happening right now?

Oh, man. That you can still get great wine for 10-15 bucks. That you can buy some of the best wine out there for under $15. I just think that the choices for consumers these days is mind-boggling. It's probably too overwhelming because there are so many great choices, there's so much wine coming in, there's so much wine being produced domestically. Particularly out of California. Of high quality, high interest wine. I think that's amazing. As far as, the same thing for sommeliers. I think we're just so excited to get away and the freedom I think is out there right now for writing lists and the ability to put wines on there that 10-15 years ago people are like, "What is this? Where is your Bordeaux section?" I think that a lot of the rules of the old staunch-y wine world and the way that things are presented are really being broken down because of this new push. Quite frankly, economics of buying Burgundy and Bordeaux are out of reach for most people. 

Left: Other passions and pursuits — born to ride a bike.

How has, if in any way, has having a son, or having children in that shift in your pace of life, affected how you approach wine, or you approach your professional life?

Interesting. I'm trying to think if there's really an answer that I have for that. The boy has always been exposed to wine. He's been in the best restaurants I've ever been in. He's been in 17 countries. Multiple times. He's only 14. He's a good world traveler, so the thing would be I've shown him the world on a macro-scale just by being close to me. The people that he meets... he's a lucky little kid to walk in a restaurant and have a famous chef cook for him, and it's just because they're my people more than they are a famous chef. So, he's not spoiled, or anything, by it, but I don't know if I have been a good enough parent to have separated enough. It's a very silly lifestyle to drink for a living. You know what I mean? It can be a traveling party forever.

But, as you get older, sometimes the traveling party stops, but sometimes it doesn't. I don't know if I'm the best parent. I try to do what I do and keep him safe and expose him to things that I think are necessary but isn't that every parent's thing, man? How do you know what's good for your kid?

What's one thing that's tied to your travels in your wine life that you see is maybe slipping away that you want to fight to protect or preserve for him to be able to experience, when he's an adult in his own right, when he's more or less on his own, traveling the world or doing whatever he's doing?

It all comes down to water. You know, we love to surf. We love to go in the oceans. There's a lot of things happening to our water sources globally, and not just the droughts in different places. The Earth is going through a drier time. I hope that his opportunities to play in the ocean and to go see different things that I got to see, are at least available.

There are even things now that we can no longer do just because of, I don't know, I hate to say it but "crazy fanaticism" — there is some wackiness in the world, you know what I mean? So he can't always go and experience those things. I can't always go and experience those things that I've seen before and would like to do.

What are you the most excited about, looking forward, with regard to your personal experience in wine?

I'm always challenging myself to try to break away from even my own habits. Particularly, my good habits. I'm always trying to look at things in a different way. I am so happy about working with Chef Palmer , being back with the Charlie Palmer group that I think, for the past year, I've just been getting back into the groove there and thinking about how to progress what we're doing there more on a macro scale that I've fallen back in love with being on the floor. I've been having such a great time that I haven't really thought much, beyond that. I know that I don't want to go and run another casino. I know that isn't going back to work at another giant wholesaler, being attached to sales, that isn't what I want to do again. Would I love to go and make wine? I think so but it would have to be very specific for me to go somewhere to make wine. I would need to be part of the whole experience instead of just blending or making juice like we've done before. 

I think there's a lot of things that are open to me, and I'm old enough to realize that 20 years ago I had no idea that this would be a job and where its taken me. It's been so amazing that sometimes I just sit back and like be part of the ride. Right now, at this point, this ride is so good, so strong that I'm really just watching to see what can happen and hopefully, like all the other times, I can be at the right place, at the right time, with the right people around me and make the right decisions again. I don't know if I always have that grand plan. My life has been a bit random and it's worked out so well. I'm trying not to ruin that whole thing now. 

It seems like every time I plan something, it gets fucked up.

It's all about the people, I'm telling you. It's really all about the people. It's just meeting the right people at the right time and again, this goes back to one of my big things in life, is just meeting people and keep having other people meet other people.

Keep up with Jaime Smith by following him on Twitter.