An interview with Master Sommelier Will Costello

Written by Chris Cutler

I was lucky to recently have the opportunity to take a wine tasting class with Will Costello, master sommelier and wine director of Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas. I learned more from him in 60 minutes than I did in the many years I’ve been drinking wine, so I asked him to share a bit of his wisdom with BLVDS readers.

How did you get into wine?
I was a bus boy (of legal drinking age) working with a waiter who might have dabbled in wine while on the job. He offered me a taste of New Zealand sauvignon blanc out of a coffee cup he had hidden in the side station. It was an awakening for me and literally changed my life. I woke up to wine that day.

Did you have much exposure to wine as you were growing up?
We never drank wine. When I was a child, someone always had some boxed wine during special holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. But, in general wine we never had wine around when I was growing up.

How does one become a master sommelier?
To become a master sommelier, one must pass each of the four exams presented through the court of master sommeliers. This is an international organization, of which I am a member of the American chapter.

What skills and/or traits must a successful sommelier possess?
The most important skill to become a successful sommelier is a passion for adult learning…meaning that you are willing to spend time outside of a classroom learning on your own. The second most important skill is that you genuinely are interested in wine and all of the beverages which surround the adult beverage industry.

How many wines does MO offer?
Across all of our outlets, we offer around 2100 different wines, and this is constantly changing based upon the season, the guests, and recent trends seen worldwide. We truly tailor our wines to every flavor and passion. We want to provide wines that are the most important for every guest—not just the fine dining crowd.

Are there any wines that a visitor to the MO should try?
The first most important fact is that we have people from all over the world, so I would recommend American wines You never want to offer a French wine to a French guest assuming that they want to drink French wine. You make much more of an impact by offering local wines to help showcase the region.

How does Las Vegas stand in the world of wine?
Las Vegas is one of the most-visited cities in the world, and we have to recognize that we can be trendsetters. We also have to make every guest who joins us from which ever corner of the globe feel comfortable.

What are your thoughts on pairing wines with food?
For me, food and wine pairing is one of the hallmarks of fine dining. I have worked on maximizing my understanding of this over the last 10 years. I think that when you have the perfect pairing, it can only make your experience even better. But, this certainly doesn’t mean that you cannot have a glass of white zinfandel with your steak and still not have a wonderful time.

What are the most popular wines you serve right now?
Pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay are all still very much in vogue. That said, we have a special wine-pairing menu at Twist, and none of those are on that menu. Instead, we offer more unique and obscure wines from around the world. It is an opportunity for someone to step outside of his/her comfort zone and experience a new path in wine.

What are the most under-rated wines (or regions)?
I think Mendocino County in California is under-rated. Also I feel like the wines of Australia need more representation.

What is your favorite wine right now?
I enjoy drinking old, off-dry Riesling from Germany. It isn’t hard to find old Riesling at a great price.

What are your goals in your career as a sommelier?  
I want to see some of my junior sommeliers succeed in their academic approaches and also see them rise to wine director or lead sommelier positions. My mentor, Jesse Rodriguez, was very important in helping me succeed, and my number one goal now is helping others reach their career goals. It’s all about pushing others forward.

Will’s Wines for Winter Holidays

A rich, powerful, and oaky California chardonnay is wonderful with the whole winter palette because the wine is full of vanilla and butter popcorn flavors that work well with the whole holiday table. Russian River Valley Chardonnay
Hartford Family Wines

Will likes to serve white burgundy (a chardonnay from Burgundy, France) or Châteauneuf-du-Pape at his own family gatherings. Burgundy, he says, is crisp and fresh but has the depth and complexity for rich dishes. On the other hand, Châteauneuf-du-Pape can generally be savory and fits well with turkey leg confit, lamb, or goose.

White wines, Will says, are truly versatile because they have more fresh flavors, have a lower alcohol percentage, and can work with a broad spectrum of foods. On the other hand, he loves Beaujolais Crus, a red from France, because  it is an easy-drinking wine and also goes with everything.

When pairing wines with traditional holiday dishes, Will suggests a Domaine Serene Pinot Noir with ham since its savory flavor matches well with the salty meat.  With turkey, he prefers a white with a touch of oak, such as Kongsgaard Chardonnay from Napa Valley. And, he’s looking forward to drinking a 2005 red burgundy this season because, as he states, “It’s at the perfect spot between savory with meat and salami flavors and tart, red, ripe fruit.”