Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Barbieri Wines: One of the most successful Master Sommeliers in the U.S. leaves Vegas for Santa Barbara County
BY WENDY THIES SELL
Considered one of America’s greatest Master Sommeliers, Paolo Barbieri has served wine to the biggest stars and wealthiest wine connoisseurs in the world.
For more than two decades, he’s hand-picked millions of dollars in wines for Las Vegas restaurants. But he recently traded in that lifestyle for one with less flash by opening a tasting room in Los Olivos, where he serves wines he and his fiancé have hand-crafted from Santa Barbara County grapes.
While working for casino mogul Steve Wynn at the extraordinary Alex restaurant in Wynn Resort in Las Vegas, Barbieri created one of the greatest wine lists on earth, with his eyes on the ultimate prize—Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, which he achieved in 2010.
“Money was no object,” recalled Barbieri who had full control of the wine program at Alex. Barbieri approached private wine collectors and bought entire cellars, bringing the value of the restaurant’s wine collection to $2.6 million.
The 102-page leather-bound wine list represented the world’s finest wines, including a five-litre 1959 Mouton Rothschild for $60,000, a 1900 Chateau Margaux, 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc, $100,000 bottles of Petrus, and 83 vintages of Romanee Conti, “probably the best and the most sought after wine in the world,” Barbieri said while paging through the book he wrote.
“I tasted them all,” he said. “I’ve been doing this 30 years.”
Barbieri was considered one of the best—if not the best-—Master Sommeliers in Las Vegas, making his mark at Bellagio for six years as wine director at Le Cirque and Circo where he worked for legendary restaurateur Sirio Maccioni.
In 1998 and 1999, “I was doing $4.7 million in wine sales in two restaurants,” Barbieri disclosed. “Food and beverage in Vegas grew with Bellagio. We started the biggest wine program ever made in Vegas. Every other hotel came later.”
While at Bellagio, he was the first Las Vegas sommelier to dedicate a full page on a wine list to 30 Santa Barbara County wines.
“I thought the quality was very good, and they were as good as any other wines made in California,” he said.
Barbieri, who grew up in Rome, Italy, and studied in England before moving to San Francisco, passed the incredibly difficult Master Sommelier exam in 2003.
“They used to call me the Rhone Master because I will nail every Rhone wine blind every time,” the handsome Barbieri said with his captivating Italian accent. “I get it.”
Soon after achieving Master Somm status, Barbieri began pursuing another dream: to make his own wine.
Impressed with Santa Barbara County wines, especially syrah, he bought his first grapes from Larner Vineyard in Ballard Canyon, crushed the fruit at Foxen, and made the wine in his garage.
“I rented a van, got the grapes, I drove it to Vegas, I had the fermenters that I got from Andrew Murray, and I got all this equipment and I started making wine,” Barbieri recalled.
In 2005, he started buying syrah grapes from Colson Canyon Vineyard in the eastern Santa Maria Valley and sold all the wine in Las Vegas restaurants, under the label Barbieri Wine Company.
“From there, I was hooked,” Barbieri said.
So each September or October, he left the glitz of his glamorous career in Las Vegas to get dirty and breathe in the fresh country air in Santa Barbara County during harvest.
“I couldn’t have done this if I had no friends here; Blair Fox, Joey Tensley, David Hardee, everybody helped me. Everybody is super nice. They support you. They’re the best.”
Barbieri’s finely honed palate certainly sets him apart from others in the wine industry, but understandably, there was a learning curve in the cellar.
“I know how to taste wine. I have an advantage on tasting wine because I know what quality is, but I had to learn winemaking,” Barbieri said. “And I’m learning from these guys. You never finish learning.”
Today, Barbieri handcrafts his wines at a Buellton winery.
Three months ago, he moved from Las Vegas to Los Alamos after quitting his wine manager job at celebrity chef Scott Conant’s two restaurants at The Cosmopolitan hotel and casino.
“I still loved my job. I still loved Las Vegas. I’ve seen it all,” Barbieri said. “I’ve done the biggest parties, the biggest events in Vegas that most people never get to do. I met tons of great, interesting people, drank some of the best wine in the world, which most people never get to taste.”
It was difficult to leave, but he followed his heart to Santa Barbara County to make wine full time.
“This is what I love to do,” he said.
In September, Barbieri and fiancée Erin Kempe opened the Barbieri wine tasting room at 2369 Alamo Pintado Ave. in downtown Los Olivos. The spacious room is classy and comfortable, full of colorful vintage furniture that the couple selected from Central Coast antique shops.
The sleek space beautifully showcases their sophisticated wines: a rosé, a white, two syrahs, syrah blends, and a pinot noir.
“We’re really excited! We’re living the dream,” said Kempe, who runs the tasting room and assists in the winery. “This is the plan.”
Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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