Devin Zendel is an Advanced Sommelier and Head Sommelier at db Brasserie in Las Vegas. For the past fifteen years, he has served at acclaimed Vegas restaurants including Wolfgang Puck, Carnevino, and Eiffel Tower Restaurant. Before a recent dinner, he shared some of his experiences with wine, and insightful comments about the demanding lifestyle required to succeed as a top wine professional in an extremely competitive city.
What drew you to wine and led to wine as a career?
"My mother and aunt drank wine daily while I was growing up. I was young, drinking terrible beer, then I had a Napa Sauv Blanc that was an eye-opening experience for me. I was working at Puck as a server, and became fascinated with the world of wine. You learn how big wine is, and that it is never ending."
"I get to drink wine all the time, and business travel became a pleasure. I can design a floor plan, or I can taste five Burgundies."
What is it like working for Daniel Boulud in Las Vegas?
"Previously I had been a floor Somm. db Brasserie is a chance for the total package. There is an old school mentality here. The most important thing is still food service and the total guest experience. The staff is inspired, impassioned. It stands out among the mostly union restaurants on the Strip."
"Coaching the staff on by the glass knowledge is critical. We make sure they taste any new wines, give them technical sheets so that they know all the wines, and role play with wine presentation. Food as well. We are big on their continuing education, and I plan for full, around the world training as the restaurant and staff grow."
"Vegas is very competitive, with lots of movement among somms. A friend of mine said one year in Vegas is like three years in (another large city). But it's nice, too. There are lots of events and people to meet. You don't want to leave the events, even though it's late and you're going to pay for it early in the morning, because there are so many more people to meet."
"It's a tough profession to get started in. You kind of have to be the guy in the corner with the "Will Work for Wine" sign. It's different now. The day of the old stuffy sommelier in a tuxedo, with only a couple of guys doing it, is over. Even before the documentary, it was changing, with the somms being the coolest people in the restaurant. Since the documentary, the Court says applications are up forty-percent in the last two years. Now, if you're not established, you have even more competition. No one will pay you at the start, and it's hard to break into. Without Certified or Advanced credentials, some jobs won't even interview you. It's a necessity."
How is the quest for Master Sommelier going?
"I've passed theory, which is good, because that is all textbooks and studying, and no life. They said I was close on service last time. Service isn't really about service. It's about thoughtlessly, flawlessly, executing perfect service. There's cutting the foil perfectly, pouring the wine perfectly, but it's not about that. All of that just happens. In my last service exam, they asked me about (a particular) Barbaresco. But it's not a Barbaresco, it's a Barolo from Serralunga d'Alba. Then they asked if (winery) makes any other wines. All of this conversation was going on while I was doing the other things. And I was on the clock. It's about theory. MS is a way of life, and you don't pass unless you live it. We're the weirdoes sneaking champagne in a plastic bottle into a movie. It's always about the wine you're drinking."
"It's taxing. You are always on when you're on the floor. I love working in the restaurant, interacting with tables, but I can see as you get older wanting to get off the floor. It's hard labor. I've had to ice my back, or wonder why my elbow is sore. There are financial considerations, perks and other opportunities once you become a Master. You can be an author, a speaker, a teacher. I think about when I was just getting started, in a big room full of people working on Certified. Once you're a Master you still have to earn teaching privileges in the Court. But to be the one teaching the room full of candidates, that sounds pretty amazing."
Read about my excellent wine and service experience with Devin and db Brasserie here.