Las Vegas’s Newest Master Sommelier Will Costello
Major congrats are in order to Will Costello, Wine Director of Mandarin Oriental, who is Las Vegas’s newest Master Sommelier. One of only seven this year to have passed the highest level of the Court of Master Sommeliers, it is a distinction that only 234 in the world currently have earned. We sat down with Will to learn more about him and what led him to his passion for wine and how he went about attaining this extremely notable honor.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Denver, but lived in San Diego from 1988-2012, so I call San Diego home, and it was there that I had the opportunity to be introduced to wine.
When and how did you first get into nurturing your love for wine?
I was a busser at a restaurant in Carlsbad, California, the Bluefire Grill, and one night, one of my servers gave me a coffee cup and said, “Here, taste this.” It was a Kim Crawford Savignon Blanc. I was 24 years old and had been a beer drinker till then and didn’t know too much about wine at the time. It opened my eyes, and from that point forward I wanted to taste as many examples of wine as I could. Later, in 2006, I worked as floor captain at Addison Restaurant at the Grand Del Mar hotel, a five-star fine dining restaurant in San Diego, where I met my mentor Jesse Rodriguez, the wine director. Seeing his passion inspired me to follow the same sort of dream he told me about, to become a Master Sommelier.
What brought you to Las Vegas?
I was running the restaurant at the time, and had passed the third Sommelier level, so took the Master Sommelier test for the first time, and didn’t pass. My feedback was, “Why are you not running a wine program? We can tell you are not.” I was terribly underprepared, and was also told, “You should make the decision if you want to do this as a profession, not as a hobby.” I wanted to move to a community with a large amount of Master Sommeliers and Las Vegas has one of the largest amount of Masters in the US. I also wanted to move to a property as high achieving as Grand Del Mar, which was five-star everything and wanted something similar to it in Las Vegas.
As wine director for the Mandarin Oriental, you oversee the wine program for all five of its outlets including Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, the French chef’s only restaurant in the US. What are your responsibilities in your position and how do you use your expertise in that capacity?
Primarily I spend time at Twist, where I am at Tuesday through Saturday, but also spend time at my desk running our wine program as a whole for Twist, MOzen Bistro, Mandarin Bar, Tea Lounge, Pool Café, and banquet and inner room dining room service.
The unique part of using my understanding of the Master Sommelier diploma is understanding how to run a profitable beverage program and the wine spectrum for the guests we have come to Las Vegas, but also wines which every one of our clientele should be familiar with; learning about each one is of the upmost importance. Since I can’t physically answer every phone call, it’s more of being a shepherd to help wineries showcase their product and help our outlets make a profit. We have a very eclectic group of clientele and our focus is on “local” wines, and by local I mean wines from California, Oregon and Washington.
And how did your experience at Mandarin Oriental help you prepare for your master sommelier certification?
Specifically, I have learned more things from my guests than I ever would have thought in the first place. I would have guests ask me in passing if we have different wines, and I would then go home and research that product and region, and learn everything about it, and who brings it in. I would then potentially try to get a bottle and learn the style and see if it would work in our wine program. It spider webbed out into learning everything about that wine and region.
What is involved in achieving a Master Sommelier certification? What did you do to prepare and how long was your journey?
I started in 2006, when I passed the first level, and finished the fourth Master Sommelier level in 2015. To prepare, because no man is an island in this quest, I attended weekly tasting groups and sometimes three times a week and skype sessions with friends all over the country about theory which is one of the portions of the exam. I also worked at other restaurants on my days off, for the experience, no pay, and learned how their programs are run. Two of my mentors were Paolo Barbieri, who I worked with when he was at Alex at the Wynn, and Bobby Stuckey at FRASKA in Boulder, Colorado. I learned from many friends who are now Masters as well, and learned their style of service.
What makes a good sommelier? Are there personality traits that make one type of person better suited to this profession?
First is hospitality; you have to have a desire to make your guests happy. Second, you have to have a severe desire for personal learning. Third, you must have a sense of being comfortable with defeat. I took the Master Sommelier exam four times, so it’s not something many accomplish right off the bat. And lastly, camaraderie, for you can not accomplish this goal without giving and receiving from friends, mentors and colleagues.
What is your advice to consumers of wine on making their selections or on deciding which wines are best suited to their tastes?
I try to speak in plain English. There is a lot of jargon in this industry and I do my best to speak at a level that is at that of the average consumer. If I can educate them through that process, perhaps he can tell the next sommelier, “I want wine with residual sugar,” instead of saying, “I want a sweet wine,” when really they mean a New World wine with great fruit. Or vice versa.
Do you have go-to wines or varietals you prefer?
I tend to like lower alcohol, thinner skinned grapes, like Pinot Noir, Grenache and Gamay.
How do you advise people on pairing food with wine? Any hard set rules to follow on that?
I tend to focus on texture, and matching the food’s texture or weight with the wine is sometimes more important than actual ingredients in a dish. No matter what, you would not pair a dense heavy wine with a mushroom Consomme. Mushrooms can clearly be found in Bordeaux and Italian wines, but a Consomme is quite delicate. So, the general idea is if you can find a wine to match the texture of a dish, they will work much better. Personally I have no hard set rules. I try to experiment as much as possible. You can never know too much about the wine industry.
What’s it like working with the legendary Pierre Gagnaire? Does he have a good working knowledge about wine?
Pierre loves the wines of the Northern Rhone Valley in France, and his cuisine is driven more towards light, fresh wines. He works with a lot of fish on his menus, and usually only one heavy meat course. These are the wine styles I prefer: lighter, fresher styles with lower alcohol, which generally work extremely well with his food. I’ve been working with him for three years now and working with his food inspires my own palate.
Can you tell us about your Lucky 7 and Discovery wine options at Twist?
Lucky 7 is driven by expensive well-known wines of the world, geared toward our most knowledgeable guests. The Discovery features wines and grapes that are clearly on the fringes, such as wines from Hungary and Croatia, and unique styles like orange wine—a wine from white grapes made in the same style you make red, left with their skins on—or wines made from grapes which are unique to only one region of the world.
What are some things you like to do in your free time?
I love to cook. I also love to work on my backyard. I don’t have a gardener or a pool guy, so it takes a lot of time, but I enjoy it a lot. I also like going out to eat, exploring new restaurants. Up until recently the words free time wasn’t in my vocabulary and didn’t exist before I passed Master Sommelier exam.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I have climbed three of the most iconic peaks in the world: Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina the largest in South America and Mount Denali in Alaska. Now that I have some free time I might work on Everest.