The recipe is simple. Take the resources and goodwill of a world-class brand, Bellagio Las Vegas, add talented staff and entrust them with the autonomy to deliver a world-class product. The result is a wine program that has defied the industry-wide decline in on-premise wine sales with a healthy gain last year, according to the company, and earned the hotel and casino, part of Las Vegas-based MGM MIRAGE, The 2009 Cheers Beverage Excellence Award for Best Chain Wine Program.
Just like the resort itself, the wine program at the nearly 4,000-room Bellagio is vast. It encompasses wine menus at 15 restaurants and lounges, including notable dining spots such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime, Michael Mina’s Michael Mina Bellagio and Philip Lo’s Jasmine, and it features 1,600 wines on its master list, ranging from $30 to $1,900 a bottle, 5,250 options property wide and roughly 250 by-the-glass pours. Ensuring that the wine experience is second to none is a team of 16 sommeliers, three with their Master Sommelier certification and another four one step away from it.
Each concept at the Bellagio features an individualized wine list that ranges in size from 400 to 2,000 selections and includes, on average, 20 by-the-glass offerings, ranging in price from $7 to $84 per glass. “How we overcome the challenge of so many lists is by relying on our great sommeliers,” says wine director and master sommelier Jason Smith. “It really is a partnership; we let them do what they’re excited about since they’re the ones who actually are selling.”
To give guests a memorable dining experience each visit, the beverage team changes the wine lists daily. “We try to keep it fresh,” says Smith. “We may not have that small wine you had last time, but we’ll have one [that’s] similar.” As much as 25 percent of the wine list at an individual restaurant may change over a six month period, he notes, with half or more of the by-the-glass wines also swapped out. Roughly five percent of Bellagio’s core wine list changes every six months.
Education is a key component of the wine program. Smith leads a 12-week “Excellence in Wine” course that walks managers and staff through viniculture, grape varietals and all the basics. The class, developed in-house and run year-round as of January, meets once a week and culminates with an exam to test retention. Bellagio also offers from one to two Master Sommelier courses each year—and the 50 slots per course fill early.
“If you don’t take care of staff, you’re just preaching,” says Ana Marie Mormando, vice president of food and beverage for the property. Offering frequent opportunities for growth sends the right message to staff entrusted with hospitality, she says. It turns a generic server into a memorable server that guests seek out next visit, adds Smith.
Leveraging the Bellagio brand, Smith also brings in a steady stream of guests from the wine industry, both for promotional events and to train staff. Oregon’s Domaine Drouhin recently schooled staff on Pacific Northwest wine, and this past November Bill Nancarrow, executive winemaker at Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Wine Company, both presided over a four-course, $150-per-person wine dinner and participated in an event where guests could even elect to play golf with him. Other recent events have included a battle between cabernet sauvignon and merlot and an iron chef competition where teams from Le Cirque and Michael Mina battled to see who could come up with the best wine and food pairings. Smith says he tries to hold at least one event a month.
“Jason’s really promoted connections and collaborations with winemakers,” says Mormando. “They existed before, but they weren’t as evident. The programs have been really well received both by guests and locals.”