Becoming a sought-after sommelier takes years of training and experience in the wine world. So, you’d expect becoming one would start at a young age. But Carlos Solorzano-Smith, founder of Aspen Cellar Consulting and the Wine & Beverage Director of Matsuhisa Colorado, never sipped wine until he turned 28. In fact, he never spoke a word of English until immigrating to the United States from Guatemala at 22. Since then, he’s trained at world-renowned restaurants Eleven Madison Park, Marta, The Modern, Maialino, RN74, Blackberry Farm, and more. Plus, he is not only a sought-after wine sommelier but also an experienced beer and sake sommelier as well.
Solorzano-Smith’s journey to becoming a sommelier is unlike any other. He started as a back server at The Little Nell in Aspen and worked his way up to now building cellars for some of the world’s biggest CEOs and working prestigious events such as the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival and La Pulée. I was able to chat with him about his unique path and get his top tips on what wines should consumers invest in.
Q: What was your journey to becoming a sommelier?
A: My path was quite different than my peers. In April 2004, I arrived in Boston from Guatemala. I was 22 years old and spoke no English. I had about $100 (which I’d borrowed) in my pocket. I’d never tasted a drop of wine in my life — never had any alcohol period.
Before my life as a sommelier, I worked in many different jobs in the US and Guatemala: landscaping, housekeeping, washing cars, and painting. I was also a butcher; you name it, I did it. I always had a strong work ethic, and growing up with very little, I knew I had to be humble and accept all kinds of jobs to just keep food on the table. The variety of work also gave me a variety of experiences in working with all sorts of people.
When I was eventually hired at Marriott Hospitality, I felt at home. Working in restaurants and hotels, especially when you start at the bottom as a back server or valet, is not glamorous. However, I realized very quickly that hospitality is part of who I am. It is at the core of my personality. So many memories are made around the table with people we love. I enjoyed facilitating those experiences and discovered that I had a talent that customers valued. When I learned about wine and all that becoming a sommelier entails, it seemed like the peak of hospitality. It’s the top. I wanted to pursue it.
Q: What were the challenges you faced?
A: Early on, learning English and all the colloquialisms was tough. Every day, I would spend my commute studying newspapers I found on the train. I would translate articles with a Spanish-to-English dictionary. I’d watch sitcoms like Seinfeld to try to learn American culture and pick up on the flow of conversation. That’s just part of the immigrant experience. Whether one is serving, cooking, or selecting wine, I understood that communication and interaction are integral to the hospitality industry.
Q: What inspired you to be a sommelier, especially having never sipped wine before?
A: What truly inspired me to become a sommelier was the aspect of storytelling. Every bottle, every label has a tale. They have characters wrapped up in the winemakers and terroir, and it’s the sommelier’s job to help their clients connect with the wine in this way.
Q: What was a pivotal moment for you in your career?
A: Without question, my time at The Little Nell was fundamental and formative. I started there as a back server on November 6, 2009 (another important part of being a sommelier is remembering dates). The mentorship I received was invaluable. Master sommeliers Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, and Jonathan Pullis stoked my interest, fostered my skills, and graciously welcomed me into their world. They took me under their wings. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the cellar, categorizing bottles, learning about the different labels, and exploring wine.
Another big moment was my first taste of wine Dustin Wilson held out a glass and said, “Taste this.” I didn’t know what White Burgundy was. The only wine I’d heard of was what I saw in the supermarket (Yellow Tail). But I smelled it first, and I knew it was something special. It was like fresh rainfall. And less than a year later, I was studying for my Level 2 Sommelier.
Q: What made you want to become a sake expert too?
A: It’s part of the pursuit of offering the very best in hospitality. I’ve always loved Asian cuisine, and at Matsuhisa, where I’m the Wine and Beverage Director, we’re serving the best. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa makes his own sake (Nobu TK40). As customers come asking for different types of sake. I wanted to learn — needed to learn — what it was all about. Like wine, sake has been part of history for thousands of years. Part of what I admire about Japanese culture is the tradition of learning multiple art forms but only mastering one. It takes years to become a toji or master brewer of sake. Again, it’s a lifestyle; it’s part of who you are, and every bottle has a story. That appealed to me tremendously.
Q: What’s your favorite wine?
A: Without question, Domaine Francois Raveneau. Much of my world right now is centered around the amazing food served at Matsuhisa. It ends up that Chablis is a perfect accompaniment to many sushi dishes. Raveneau is the undisputed king of Chablis. It has this perfect acidity and distinct, yet subtle kind of saltiness. If you visit Chablis, the soil is almost white and even contains seashells because it was underwater 60 million years ago. The roots of the vine must work very hard to reach down to the water table. As they do, they stir up and pull out all of this flavor from the soil. It becomes part of the grape and part of the wine. Raveneau is a wine I can drink every day. It’s a mild obsession for me. The 2014 Magnum of Raveneau Montee de Tonnerre was an especially memorable recent bottle.
Q: What wines should consumers invest in?
A: Burgundy is your best bet. It has been and will continue to be a solid investment that will accrue over time. In some ways, you’re investing in real estate. Burgundy is widely considered the greatest region for wine lovers. From a purely economic point of view, it’s also simply a matter of supply and demand. The most prestigious Bordeaux producers make at least ten times the amount of wine than their Burgundy counterparts. I always point my clients to Red Burgundy like Domaine De La Romanée Conti, Domaine Armand Rousseau, Domaine Georges Roumier, Domaine Dujac, Domaine Leroy, Domaine Jean-Marie Fourrier, and Domaine Jean-Frédéric Mugnier. For White Burgundy, look at Domaine Lafon, Domaine Roulot, François Raveneau, Coche Dury, Domaine Leflaive & Domaine d’Auvenay. These are stable, recession-proof investments.
Blue-chip California wines should also prove to be a safe investment. Winery release prices increase every year and continue to have no problem selling out. I advise clients that the best producers, like the best stocks, will overcome the obstacles that vintage, region, and recessions may present.
I also expect Barolo to continue to attract foreign investment and capture the interest of collectors, especially those who can’t get everything they would like from Burgundy.
Q: How has wine tasting shifted amid the pandemic?
A: Quarantining during the pandemic saw many people faced with no other option but to celebrate special events at home. This has led people to realize just how much fun it can be to open prized bottles in a more intimate setting with family and close friends. Too often, people sit on the gems of their wine collections waiting for the “perfect” occasion to open these bottles. The enjoyment of wine is amplified by the company you are with, and a great bottle rarely reaches its potential unless shared with people you care about.
For this reason, during quarantine, we saw many collectors stocking up on inventory. We also saw such a great boom in business with the advent of Zoom-based tastings. We have a diversity of great, advanced sommeliers who do direct wine tastings at home. Cooking at home, hiring caterers, and even ordering your favorite take out are excellent accompaniments to your prized bottles. Zoom and other virtual mediums have made it even easier to get your own on-call sommelier when a pandemic doesn’t permit them to serve at your dinner.