As wine director of Montagna at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., Jonathan Pullis oversees a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine cellar of 20,000 bottles and serves a discerning clientele. Pullis, 37, first developed an interest in wine while waiting tables in college. In 1998, he joined the waitstaff of the Little Nell, where he worked with Bobby Stuckey, lead sommelier at the time, and then longtime wine director Richard Betts. Pullis worked his way into the wine department as a sommelier in 2001 and took over the title of wine director this past June.
Earlier this year, he earned his master sommelier diploma, a process that involves blind tasting and identifying six wines in less than 25 minutes. Service tests in decanting, serving Champagne and pairing wines with a selection of foods are also part of the intense exam. One of four certified master sommeliers to come from the Little Nell since it opened in 1989, Pullis discusses how he discovers unique, new wines for guests and finds perfect pairings for chef Ryan Hardy's cuisine.
Wine Spectator: Do you remember the first wine that made you say “wow”?
Jonathan Pullis: It was a 1978 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and I drank it with my father in the summer of 1988 with grilled flank steak and salad from our garden. I was 17 and totally captivated with how much better the steak and wine were together. I got into wine seriously after graduating from college. I was living on St. John [in the U.S. Virgin Islands] and working in a great restaurant, Château Bordeaux, which had a nice wine list. I began to look up the wines on the list from a book I got out of the library, and once a month I would discuss a particular wine with the owners and they would open one for us to taste.
WS: How did you begin your career as a sommelier?
JP: After working in restaurants, I realized that I loved sharing food and wine. It is incredibly rewarding to nurture people, and the best way to do that is with food-and-wine pairings that sing.
WS: How hard was it to earn the master sommelier certification?
JP: To pass the master sommelier exam, you need to study the wine law of the major regions of the world and blind taste extensively. Being comfortable working the floor of a fine dining restaurant is also a necessity. The hardest part of the exam for me was the theory, the oral question and answer. Between family distractions and outdoor activities, finding time to study was my biggest challenge.
WS: As wine director at the Little Nell, what are some of the challenges of maintaining a Grand Award-winning wine list?
JP: We have about 20,000 bottles, offer two dozen wines by the glass and have 1,500 selections. The challenges and the rewards are to find fun, new wines from around the world. One of the best aspects of my job is tasting with chef Ryan. We usually try three or four wines with the dishes to see which works the best.
WS: How do you discover new wines for the Little Nell's list?
JP: We blind taste here and feel that is the best way to gauge quality without being influenced by the packaging or name. Our blind taste is totally blind, meaning that we don’t know anything about the wine—no country, region or grape. We access the wine based on fruit, earth, wood, tannins, acid, alcohol and length. Through this process, we should be able to tell the grape, vintage, region and quality. So, if it tastes like high-quality Barbaresco but is from the co-op (called Produttori) and is half the price of the big-name producers, we have something that is great value for our customers and should be considered for the list.
WS: Has any wine surprised you recently?
JP: Recently I had a delicious Austrian red—a 2005 Muhr-van der Niepoort Blaufränkisch from Carnuntum.
WS: Name some foods that you’ve found difficult to pair with wine. And what’s your all-time favorite pairing?
JP: The usual suspects—asparagus, artichokes—are challenging but tend to work with a wine that has some vegetal characteristics, as well as well-balanced acidity, such as Grüner Veltliner, Sancerre or a high-quality Pinot Grigio. My favorite pairing is Colorado lamb and Chave Hermitage Rouge—preferably 10 to 20 years old.
WS: Do you have a favorite wine region? Favorite wine?
JP: My favorite wine region is Champagne. My favorite wine is Krug, and it is the wine that I hope to always have within reach.