He didn’t know it at the time, but a lesson Michael Schwab learned at the Culinary Institute of America would change his whole career. “They drill it into your head that you don’t have to be in the back of the house [of a restaurant],” says the New York native who was studying to be a chef. “There is plenty of opportunity in the front as well. It’s not until you get into the real world that you decide what’s right for you.”
In 1989, after graduating from the prestigious school that’s produced so many great back-of-the-house products (i.e., chefs), Schwab used that advice and took the only position he could find: a front-of-the-house waiter at a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The job was temporary, but the experience would last forever. “When you get into the front of the house, you inevitably start talking about wine,” Schwab says. “Guests love to talk wine, to share their knowledge and the contents of their wine cellar. I was amazed at how vast and complicated the wine world was.”
He was also amazed at the business dynamic: “Wine can add a whole lot to the amount of the check.”
No wonder that, in the spring of 2000, Schwab moved to Las Vegas to further his blossoming sommelier career. “The opportunities in the restaurant business here are, in my opinion, the best in the country,” says the 42-year-old, who started at Ferraro’s, an off-Strip Italian restaurant. “Vegas has the strongest wine personnel per square feet than anywhere on Earth.”
Of the 105 master sommeliers in North America, 17 are in Las Vegas. Schwab’s goal is to make it 18.
The Court of Master Sommeliers, the official governing body of the restaurant wine industry, offer four titles: Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. Schwab became certified in 2009 and is awaiting his chance to boost his ranking.
“For the Advanced and the Masters tests, you have to be invited,” he says. “They have to determine that you aren’t wasting their or your time and money. You have to have the education, the experience, the theory down, and you have to have the service skills down. You have to be able to taste effectively. You have to be excellent in wine and food pairings, geography, soil types, maps—you name it. And it’s all timed. It’s intense.”
One more qualification: “You have to have a lot of real time in a very good restaurant.”
His post as sommelier at Picasso in Bellagio will greatly help his quest. To land the job at the AAA Five-Diamond restaurant required a five-month interview process in which he had to beat out 34 other candidates from across the world. It also looks good that the resort in which he works already has four master sommeliers.
One of them, Robert Smith, whom Schwab calls “the commander-in-chief of wine,” is mentoring him during his pursuit of the master’s pin.
But Schwab seems to be in no hurry. He’s enjoying “the opportunity to enjoy some of the rarest, most expensive, oldest and best wines on the planet … to be surrounded by $150 million in artwork. That opportunity is something that I’ll never take for granted. The grass doesn’t get any greener than this.”
Sommelier Says …
What are the trends right now?
There is a definite and long overdue trend to shy away from high-alcohol and over-oaked wines. Call it global warming or Parkerization [the catering to American wine critic Robert Parker], but for the last 15 years or so, many in the wine industry were intent on cranking out over-oaked rocket fuel. The immediate results were high scores from critics and high prices. Thankfully this trend is reversing to a degree. As a general rule, if your selected wine makes you forget how your meal tastes, it’s probably too strong. I was taught the wine should be a condiment on the table to enhance the meal, as salt and pepper or bread and olive oil. Out of respect for the chef, the food is always first. Read the wine labels carefully.
What’s your favorite $10-$15 bottle?
Alsace riesling and pinot gris. Albariño from Spain. Junmai-shu sake. Kabinett-level German rieslings. Cremant de’Alsace. Sancerre from the Loire. Condrieu from the Rhône. Arneis from Piemonte. Viura from Spain. Crianza-level rioja tinto. Priorat reds. Côte du Rhône reds. Willamette pinots. Amontillado or Manzanilla sherry from Jerez.
Where do you like to shop?
I shop at Khoury’s Fine Wines [on Eastern Avenue and St. Rose Parkway]. Issa and Nura are great people with an impressive selection.
What’s a good tip for the casual wine shopper?
Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you drink nothing but California, go into the French or Spanish section of the store and throw a dart. You’ll be glad you did.
What is the most important part of enjoying wine?
The most important part about enjoying wine is to listen to your senses. A wine is not good or bad because of the price or the language the label is written in. What makes wine delicious is the balance of fruit, earth, minerality, alcohol, acidity and, if applicable, oak. Of course the company in which one enjoys a bottle cannot be overstated. Some of the best bottles I’ve ever had have been with the woman I love.