Uncorked: The Man Behind Vail’s Biggest Wine List

Jarrett Quint, Sommelier at Sonnenalp Hotel, Vail

Jarrett Quint, Sommelier at Sonnenalp Hotel, Vail

Jarrett Quint fell in love with wine while traveling and working in Italy after graduating from college. Years later, he is a Certified Sommelier at the Sonnenalp, a hotel consistently rated one of the finest in the world – located in Vail, Colorado.

I recently chatted with Jarrett about the process to become certified, his favorite wines, his least favorite trends and what is involved in managing a wine program and creating wine dinners – for one of the best hotels on earth.

Here is a bit of what he had to say:

What does it mean to be a Certified Sommelier?

There are four levels – Intro, Certified, Advanced and Master. The Intro level is a pre-requisite to becoming a Certified Sommelier.

To become certified you have to complete rigorous testing, theory exams and service exams in front of Master Sommeliers. Right now, there are only 211 Master Sommeliers in the world. To get to that fourth level you are basically an encyclopedia of wine, spirits and beverages.

What does the testing process look like to become a Certified Sommelier?

To get to the certified level it involves a day of being observed. There is a 60 question quiz. You have to know your regions, your vintages, grape varietals, producers and things like that. You have a blind tasting where you have 15 minutes to deduct what a red and white wine are, the varietal and the region they are from.

At the end of the day, you go in front of a Master Sommelier. They will quiz you verbally; they ask you about food pairings, spirits and cocktails. Maybe they have you decant wine or open a bottle of sparkling wine, as if it was a service setting. You have to make sure you are on point with all of your service standards.

Sounds intimidating.

You do this every day but when the best of the best are watching you, the nerves are definitely a little high.

Do you have any idea how many Certified Sommeliers are in Vail?

A winemaker told me that Vail has the highest concentration of sommeliers per capita in the world. I do not know if that is true. It sounds like it could be right. There are a lot of people here into wine for such a small town.

What is unique about the Sonnenalp’s wine list?

The breadth of program is the largest in the valley. We have 1040 wines on our list – that alone sets us apart. It is a very international list – even though we do have a lot of concentrations in certain areas – such as Europe and regions like New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. We are also the first and only, to my knowledge, that have introduced iPads as a wine menu instead of just the paper list. It gives a lot more opportunities to provide depth and background stories. You can search by varietal. You can search by price. It has a lot of features.

Tell me about your Wine Dinners.

This year we decided to do four Wine Dinners. We started with a Dom Pérignon champagne dinner. It was a blast. It was an intimate 13 person dinner. We chose Dom Pérignon because it is the best of the best. It is a symbol of luxury, and we are a luxury hotel. It fit well with the time of year and the clientele in town.

On January 17th we are doing an exposé on boutique Chilean wines. We have three winemakers coming in, and we will be showcasing four wineries – J. Bouchon, Merino, Amayna and Mayu. Each course will have two wines presented from two different winemakers. There will be a four course dinner and eight different wines from four different wineries in total.  It will be fun to highlight an area of the world that people traditionally think produces low value wine and present wines that are off the charts.

On February 20th, we have a winery coming from Germany: Koehler-Ruprecht. They are a member of the VDP. It is an organization that holds wine quality in very high standards as far as German winemakers and producers go. I think there are only 200 members in the organization, and I believe Germany has 4000 producers – so it says a lot to be a member. They are owned by Americans, but the property has 200 years of history, and they are very traditional.  Nothing has really changed over the centuries. We will be focusing on Riesling. Riesling is very hot in the wine market these days – and for good reason. The wine goes exceptionally well with food.

On March 21st, we are having an Oregon pinot noir producer – Witness Tree. It is a very small, boutique winery. They are really focused on quality and making superb pinot noirs. They make some of the best pinot noirs out of Oregon and only about 5000 cases.

Which comes first the menu or the wine?

With the Wine Dinners it is always the wine that comes first, and then we put a menu around it. Normally it is the other way around, where the chef creates the menu, and then I find the wine to pair with it.

What are price ranges of wine at the Sonnenalp?

At the base level, we start at $28 dollars per bottle, and right now I think our highest priced wine is over $6000. It is a very rare bottle of burgundy. We have everything in between. I try to find value in everything, whether it is a $2000 bottle or a $50 bottle. I feel like there is always value to be found in wine. If I can get wines on the list that taste like they should be twice the amount – that is what I am looking for. I am always looking for wines that over deliver. That is my goal with every wine on the list.

I know Ludwig’s menu has changed pretty significantly recently from heavier fare to lighter options with an emphasis on fish. Has the wine list had to change as well?

Working with Jamie [the former sommelier], he had a real knack for a broad pallet of wine with food. We have a broad pallet of wine. When we change our menus we did not have to really think about how we are going to change wine. There is a wine for everyone in our program and a wine for every meal. With 1000 wines, there is always going to be something for every dish.

What trends, good and bad, are you seeing in wine these days?

There is a trend towards natural wine making. Some people do this exceptionally well, but there is also a flood in the market of bland, tasteless wines. With every trend comes a wave of really poor wine making, I think. It is just about finding the stars – if we see a winery changing their style just to keep with the trends – we try to stay away from them.

What are some of your favorite, less expensive, say $10 or $15 bottles of wines?

Dr. Loosen, Riesling Kabinett, “Bernkasteler Lay”, (Mosel,Germany)

Domäne Wachau, Grüner Veltliner Federspiel, “Terrassen” (Wachau, Austria) and

Domaine Pierre Savoye, “Vieilles Vignes” Morgon, (Beaujolais, France)

There are great values in Rieslings from Austria and Germany. With these countries you constantly get great value and great wine for your money. It is highway robbery – you get superb wine for such little money.

What wines do you like to splurge on?

99% of the time it is burgundy. I like:

Paul Pernot, “La Pièce sous le Bois” 1er Cru, (Meursault,Burgundy, France) and

Domaine Fourrier, “Les Petits Vougeot” 1er Cru, (Vougeot, Burgundy, France).

My husband is Catalan. Often, we can find Catalan wine cheaper than Colorado wine. What your thoughts are on wine from that region?

Like I said about the value of German and Austrian wine, when it comes to red wines and some white wines, Spain is a great option. I think Spain has more vineyards than any other country in the world, but they make the third amount as far as volume. It shows you the value you are getting and the quality. Even though they have all this acreage under vine, they are not making as much wine as France and Italy. They are really looking at quality over quantity. It is ridiculous how good Spanish wines can be. I think the average age of a vine is around 30 years of age. That is their average and with these vines you gain a lot of concentration and complexity.

How do you see the Colorado wine industry evolving?

I think it is in its infancy. It will be fun to see what happens. We have a lot to learn. We will slowly, or quickly, hopefully, find out what the right varietals are for our region, elevation, climate and soils. Palisade is fun to watch. The Grand Valley and Grand Junction region has a lot of potential I think. It will be fun to see what happens with time.

Anything else you would like to add?

We have a new chef this year. His food is outstanding. He loves doing the Wine Dinners. To prepare, we will spend an hour or two with the staff talking about the wines we are selecting for the dinner. We will go around the room and talk about the flavors and tastes and what is good to pair with it. It is a very organic way to see the menus evolve. Our chef is so into it. There is a lot of creativity. It will be a lot of fun.

Learn more about the Sonnenalp and their upcoming wine dinners.

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