Feeling intimidated by wine is a common phenomenon for anyone who has explored the subject. But when it seems like there are simply too many grapes, regions and regulations to ever master the subject, turn to Carlos Solorzano-Smith for inspiration.
In 2004, at age 22, he immigrated to Boston from Guatemala by himself with about $100 and zero knowledge of the English language. He had never tasted an alcoholic beverage before. After running the wine, beer and sake programs at high-end Japanese destination Matsuhisa in Aspen, Colo., he is now the founder of his own consulting business, Aspen Cellar Consulting. Most recently, Solorzano-Smith fulfilled a longtime dream of becoming a restaurant owner through his just-launched Aspen Hospitality Group, which kicked off its portfolio with acquisitions of local spots Duemani and Acquolina. The key to his impressive progression? Consistent and continuous hard work, initially driven by pure necessity.
“I never wanted it to be an underdog story,” he says. “For me it was survival.”
While alternating between Guatemala and the U.S. under a worker visa, Solorzano-Smith spent years doing any jobs he could find, from landscaping and painting to housekeeping and car washing, just to make ends meet. “I never wanted to work in a car wash, but I needed to work in a car wash to survive. And working in a car wash, I became in love with the job that was in front of me, because I learned to love whatever it was that I had to do, so I could do it as the best version of myself.”
He soon started taking on restaurant jobs like back server and prep cook, unknowingly preparing himself for his next chapter. “Every position, every job I had done, it taught me more and more about customer service and hospitality.”
After working in Boston, New Orleans and then Utah’s Park City, Solorzano-Smith made his way to Aspen, Colo., in 2009, where he was hired at the Little Nell, a Grand Award–winning resort with a 2,900-label wine list. Though he was brought on as a back server, he was struck by the level of beverage expertise that was present in the restaurant. “The first day I walked in I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is the biggest mistake of my life,’” he recalls. “Everybody knew about cocktails and about wine and they said French terms, and I'm like, ‘What is all this?’”
A couple of months in, he was struggling to make enough money for rent. So Dustin Wilson, then a sommelier at the Little Nell, helped Solorzano-Smith get a second job at the nearby Matsuhisa. He began working there on his two days off at the Little Nell, with shifts that often started at 5 a.m. and ran through dinner. “My life was just work, and everybody saw me as somebody who works really hard.”
That unwavering drive sparked a steady rise up the ranks at Matsuhisa, eventually to floor manager. Meanwhile, Solorzano-Smith had developed an interest in wine, observing and learning from the Little Nell’s elite team of somms. Each year during his six-week break for Aspen’s off season, he spent time working for free at different fine-dining restaurants around the country, including stints in prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning destinations like the Modern, Blackberry Farm and Eleven Madison Park.
“My only goal was to go and learn from the best,” he recalls. “Figure out what they know better than you and how good they are, so that I can improve every year.”
All this eventually led to an offer to become Matsuhisa’s wine director in 2012. The restaurant gave Solorzano-Smith an inspirational figure to look up to, in addition to the numerous somms who mentored him along the way. "Working for chef Nobu [Matsuhisa], who came as an immigrant to this country, who had a hard time speaking English as well—it was so amazing when he came into the restaurant,” Solorzano-Smith says. “I heard that successful man speak and I'm like, ‘I can relate to you, this is possible.’”
Solorzano-Smith spoke with Wine Spectator associate editor Julie Harans about overcoming obstacles, the pivotal moments in his career, the mentors who helped support him, and the key to providing top-notch hospitality.
Wine Spectator: What was your first wine-service experience?
Carlos Solorzano-Smith: I worked in Park City, Utah, for Marriott. I remember when I was working there, they told me to open a bottle of wine for a table. So I went and I learned how to open it, and then I poured a whole glassful. And the lady's like, "Hold on, hold on, I want to taste it first." I had no idea that you needed to taste it. I thought, well, you ordered this so you should know how it tastes!
At that time, I didn't know anything about wine. I started drinking when I was 28 years old. I never drank a beer, a shot of tequila, whisky, anything, not even a drop of wine. So for me it was a completely new world.
WS: If you feel comfortable sharing, why were you hesitant to try alcohol before age 28?
CS: As an immigrant, you see the other side of loneliness, and people drink a lot. I always was very afraid of drinking just to be drunk. I never understood the culture of drinking just to enjoy, to celebrate friendship, family or just to enjoy that you're alive another day. So I was afraid of the unknown. But slowly, I learned to enjoy wine for what it is: It's a story told inside of a bottle that is going to be opened by you and is going to be shared with your friends and family.
WS: How did you start getting exposed to wine?
CS: [Master Sommeliers] Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, Jonathan Pullis, all of them were sommeliers in town. Eventually I started seeing there were days when people needed help in the wine cellar. So I’d come [to the Little Nell] early and I worked for free in the morning, opening the wines and putting them in the cellar. I started learning about labels by helping them.
Then, at the end of the service when everybody’s gone, the sommeliers would get a table outside and taste the wine that they had [opened] during the day. So I started serving them with the water, plates and making sure they are taken care of, and I listened to the sommeliers talk about wine. It was fascinating for me, the storytelling of the wine world; how they talk about it, how they can describe the grape and where the wine came from, it was super exciting. I wanted to study more and more. Eventually Dustin gave me a glass of white wine. I smelled it, I tasted it—I didn’t drink it, I spit it—and I was like “Oooh, this is nice.” It was a Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Riesling from Germany.
I kept learning with them, spending more time with them and seeing how much they take care of guests. Then [Dustin] came back a couple months later with another glass. I tasted it, and that's what really got me hooked. It was a Bruno Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru 2008. I just loved the acidity, that elegance. It reminded me of home, of refreshing lemonade during a sunny day. So that was when I really said, “I'm going to learn this and I'm going to figure it out.”
I passed my Level One [Court of Master Sommeliers exam] on May 25, 2010. When you pass, they give you a glass of Champagne as a congratulations with your diploma, and I drank the whole glass of Champagne. I told myself, “Let the journey begin.”
WS: What did you learn from experiencing all those different restaurant positions as you worked your way up the ranks?
CS: It helps you understand the restaurant as a whole, No. 1. It helps you understand it as an out-of-body experience where you can see the whole table, and you can understand what is missing and exactly how every position should work. The other part it taught me is that the most important part is listening to the customer. It's so important to everybody in the wine, beverage and food world.
WS: How does that philosophy inform your approach to wine service today?
CS: Everybody's trying to find a perfect pairing of eat this and drink this, and this is magic. The only problem is, not everyone has the same palate and not everybody will enjoy the same things. So [my approach is] tonight is about you, I'm going to listen to you. That is one of the keys about building rapport with guests.
I might open a bottle of wine that might not go well, like a Cabernet Sauvignon might not go well with fish, but it goes well with him, with her, with them, and that guest is so happy. You can see that energy goes around the table, and everybody's like, “Oh my god, this is amazing.” They're going to drink the wine that they like, they're gonna eat the food that they like, in the place that they like. All of those components come together so that tomorrow morning you're going to get up and say, “I had a great time. It was a really good meal.”
WS: What drew you to a career in hospitality?
CS: I'm a hospitality person because I was raised in a Spanish family, and we just take care of each other, we take care of neighbors. I'm a hospitality person not because I like fine dining and that's how I grew up—the best meals I ever had were black beans and rice made over a candle because friends didn’t have electricity, and we're laughing at the table. I think hospitality is all about being among family and friends.
WS: What’s the wine culture like in Aspen right now?
CS: The wine culture has changed a little bit in the Aspen community. It's slowly coming back to normal, but through the whole quarantine, people were drinking at home. So from the restaurant standpoint, we had a hard time selling wine, because we could not compete with the liquor store prices. But then we saw that all the consumers are more educated, because they had enough time to understand wine at home and open it with friends and family, and there are now a lot of Zoom calls where they can do wine tastings from anywhere.
They were opening bottles of wine that were supposed to be only for special occasions, but they just opened it because it was the quarantine. And I noticed that a lot of younger people come in and say, “Let's get this one, but let's open this as well, we want to taste it side by side.” This didn't happen before. So that just challenged us as beverage people to try to bring that kind of experience that they had at home by themselves in an even bigger way.
WS: What do you like to drink at home?
CS: Personally, I don't drink at home. I enjoy wine every day with friends, we go for lunch, I love aprés [ski] and going out with my [cellar-consulting] clients. But at home, I don't ever open a bottle of wine and drink it; this is not me. Drinking a bottle of wine by myself doesn't taste as good as drinking among friends.
WS: As someone who started their wine journey in America with no wine or English knowledge, you must have some good advice for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the subject.
CS: I didn't know English, so I was going to a place and trying to order a cup of coffee or a meal, and people couldn't understand me. There's a line behind me, and I feel so embarrassed. I couldn't say a word, I didn't know how to express myself. I just took that shame away from myself and said, “You know what, that doesn't mean you're stupid, it's just that you don't know.” So I decided to put myself out there and learn it.
On the wine side, I focused on learning one skill at a time. I focused on what I liked and then took it from there, and every time I have an opportunity with friends to open something different, I go for it. Step by step, I took the wine world on the learning curve.
People think [wine] is so complicated when it actually is not. Drink what you like, what makes you happy, and stick to it, and then slowly move away, tasting things that are really similar to what you like. Every time, you turn the knob a little bit more. I feel like people are still intimidated by the sommelier, but they're there to help you. Just tell them “I like this wine, I want to taste something similar from a different area, or from a different country,” and they will open something like that. Like from Chardonnay from Napa Valley, maybe go to a nice Oregon Chardonnay to a Burgundy Chardonnay. That allows you to make changes slowly.
The wine experience is one bottle at a time. But always do it with friends or loved ones, people that you can enjoy with and take an adventure. It's a ride, so don't worry too much, just enjoy the ride.