Photography by Billy Rood | November 21, 2014 | Food & Drink
Aspen boasts more master sommeliers per capita than any other city in the US. Journalist Douglas Brown sits down at The Little Nell with legendary sommelier emeritus Jay Fletcher and his haute-shot protégé Carlton McCoy to discuss how a little hotel far from wine country became “terroir-zero” for wine lovers worldwide.
The connoisseur club: With its rotating stable of master sommeliers, The Little Nell has shone a bright light on Aspen when it comes to wine. Now, the world can’t help but take notice.
Here in the private world of sommeliers, beneath The Little Nell hotel, bottles line the walls and pack shelves, graffiti covers the ceiling, a leg of Spanish ham sits on a stand, and a $43,000 bottle of 1967 Burgundy lurks among younger Burgundies held for aging in the makeshift “attic” within the dim cellar.
“This is like heaven,” says Nick Barb, one of The Nell’s two sommeliers, cradling the $43,000 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (the most expensive bottle at The Nell). “We are up and down the steps, and in this room, constantly.” Sometimes, too, are patrons and wine maniacs, who find themselves in the no-frills cellar after hours, sipping, nibbling, and talking Pinot Noir and Riesling with The Nell’s sommeliers, surrounded by their cache of 20,000 bottles.
This heaven is no granite-arched, oak-paneled, bar-flanked, chandelier-lit, cozy grotto, the kind of atmospheric wine temple that commandeers the basements of houses up and down the Roaring Fork Valley. It is, however, one of the finest wine cellars in the United States. Few contain as many exquisite bottles, and none reflect the wine savvy of a pantheon of master sommeliers. For about 20 years, different master sommeliers have lorded over The Nell’s cellar.
“I have to fight to get anything here because the majority of the great Burgundy [in Colorado] goes to The Nell,” says Brett Zimmerman, a master sommelier and owner of Boulder Wine Merchants, a fine wine shop in Boulder. “The Nell makes a difference. So many restaurants aren’t willing to take that plunge. It’s an international wine list. They aren’t just stumbling along.”
Carlton McCoy and celebrated wine coach Jay Fletcher discuss Aspen’s explosive wine scene over a tasting at Element 47.
When it opened in 1989, The Nell wasn’t gunning for wine stardom. Good luck growing wine grapes (and hatching a fertile wine culture) at 8,000 feet. But just four years after guests began booking rooms at the base of Aspen Mountain and dining in The Nell’s restaurant—now called Element 47—things began to change. And those changes are largely to do with a man named Jay Fletcher.
Fletcher’s mountain story dates back to 1978, when he hitchhiked from Wisconsin to Aspen and for three weeks lived in a tent in a place called Difficult Campground. More than a decade later, he took a class in something sold as an introductory-level course in the Court of Master Sommeliers.
“I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded cool,” says Fletcher, 57, while sitting on the patio at Element 47 during a fall afternoon. Now, Fletcher is an executive in charge of fine wines at Southern Wine & Spirits, the nation’s largest liquor distributor. But long before he became a top wine expert, he was, as he describes it, a “glorified busboy” in Aspen restaurants. And it was while he was plugging along in Aspen restaurants that he took that wine class. It grabbed him. Months later, he and another Aspen restaurant guy, who took the intro class with Fletcher, tossed back a much bigger swig of wine education. They enrolled in a now-defunct operation called the Sterling Vineyards School of Service and Hospitality, in Napa Valley, which held advanced wine courses. The following summer, Fletcher took the advanced sommelier exam and passed on his first try.
“That was the first time I had the thought of becoming a master sommelier,” says Fletcher, a tall, fit man who is at once laid-back and tough—a fitting demeanor for someone who may be North America’s most successful wine coach. If wine has a Vince Lombardi, Fletcher is it.
The region’s best selection of prime Burgundies.
In 1996 he flew to London, where the Court of Master Sommeliers was based (it has since become an international examining body, with testing all over). He took the master sommelier exam in the Dorchester Hotel, passed it on his third attempt, and became America’s 30th person to hold that title.
Since then, Fletcher has toiled to help others achieve the same status. He never even worked at The Nell—when he was taking his sommelier exams and studying wine, he worked at different restaurants (some of them gone) around town—but he has taken on multiple Nell sommeliers as wine-education projects. At least 12 Nell employees have worked with Fletcher and subsequently become master sommeliers. Another 11 from Colorado and around the country have trained intensely with Fletcher (people fly to Aspen from all over to study with him) and many more working toward the master sommelier designation visit now and again for training. Currently, Fletcher is working closely with three master sommelier candidates. (In addition, he teaches people who are shooting for lower rungs in the sommelier hierarchy.) In all, thousands of ambitious wine professionals have invested their time with him.
“He took me under his wing the second week I got there, and my career was forever changed—period,” says Bobby Stuckey, a former Nell sommelier who now co-owns Frasca Food and Wine, a Boulder restaurant that won the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Wine Service in the United States. When Stuckey got married, Fletcher’s daughters were the flower girls. “I had a lot of growing up to do; I needed a lot of polishing and vision. Jay just scooped me up.”
The annual master sommelier exam, which has taken place at The Nell since 2013, is famously grueling, with only an 8 percent success rate; it took Stuckey, recognized as one of the country’s finest sommeliers, seven attempts to pass. Becoming a master sommelier requires monklike commitment to wine theory, service, and, of course, tasting. It can take years of study—every minute of free time is invested in the grapes of Sicily or how to divide a bottle of wine into glasses for 11 guests or understanding the acids in a Napa Valley Cabernet versus a Coonawarra variety.
“At some point, people began asking, ‘What is going on in Colorado?’” says Fletcher. “All of these people are passing. Here’s what it is—we are family. We work together. We are athletic. Our brains work well together. It’s a small town. We are used to covering one another when we hike and ski. You can’t leave the weakest guy behind—you will kill him.” Every week, for example, Fletcher hosts tastings for sommeliers-in-training at his home. With practice and guidance—lots of it—they get better. Maybe one day, they will not only sip a wine and say, correctly, “Syrah,” but they will also be able to identify exactly where it came from—the precise region, the right estate, and the proper vintage. Fletcher, who lives down the road from The Nell, won’t take credit, but good coaches never spend much time hogging the glory.
Zimmerman says that in addition to Fletcher’s legacy, The Nell’s wine success hinges on its ownership and management. Over the years, the hotel and restaurant has invested millions of dollars in wine. It’s a big gamble. Selling that wine to customers demands extremely savvy sommeliers. When the stars align, the pricey cellar becomes a profit center for the hotel. When things don’t quite click, the cases of Petrus and Domaine Leflaive Montrachet Grand Cru handicap the restaurant’s stab at marching out of the red and into the black.
“There is no question The Nell is one of the top wine destinations in the country,” said Stuckey. “It takes smart stewardship, deep commitment, and trust on the part of owners and management, and tons of hard work—year after year. The Nell has stuck to it, and the place continues to thrive.”
Another of Fletcher’s charges, Carlton McCoy, 30, is now one of the youngest master sommelier in the United States and the second African-American with the designation. He also is in charge of wine service at The Nell, where he has worked since November 2011.
McCoy is a classic Nell sommelier, cast in the Fletcher mold. He grew up in a tough Washington, DC, neighborhood, got to wine through restaurant work, and dedicated his life to the world of grapes, cellars, and service. Like Fletcher, Stuckey, and other Nell sommeliers, McCoy scrapped for success—nothing got handed to him.
McCoy was working at the DC restaurant CityZen when a Little Nell pal told him of a fresh sommelier vacancy at The Nell—the door at The Nell revolves, but not quickly. McCoy had no desire to leave his hometown, where he was flourishing in the city’s exuberant restaurant culture, but The Nell was tough to ignore.
“If you are an ambitious young kid [in this industry], you have to know what The Nell is. It was always on the radar,” says McCoy, seated across from his mentor on Element 47’s patio. “But I wasn’t sold on it. I wasn’t used to a program this big. The wine list is a phone book. At CityZen we probably had 600 selections. Here we have about 20,000 bottles of wine! When you move to a place like this, you want to be prepared. I felt like I was jumping into the pool with floaties on.”
McCoy says when he started at the hotel, he was so overwhelmed that for weeks, when he wasn’t working, all he did was study The Nell’s wine list. “After a year, you finally start to get settled, you breathe,” he says. “And you begin to understand you are part of something great.” The Little Nell, 675 E. Durant Ave., 970-920-4600