Seattle native Darius Allyn fell for wine while working on a luxurious train line in Eastern Europe. He carried that passion back to the States, started at the Salish Lodge Inn and eventually transitioned to Las Vegas, where he worked for places like Charlie Palmer’s Aureole Restaurant and the Bellagio Resort while becoming the 60th American to earn the title of Master Sommelier. Allyn recently grabbed the keys to the wine lists, cellar, service and education programs at Montage Beverly Hills overseeing the hotel-wide program and lists for four outlets within the hotel’s walls: the Conservatory, the lobby lounge, Scarpetta restaurant and the deluxe Ten Pound bar upstairs. That’s where we met him on July 19, and Allyn shared insights about his background and approach.
Josh Lurie: At what point did you know you’d end up working with wine for a living?
Darius Allyn: Back in 1990, I started working for a European luxury train company…doing special trips between Berlin, Germany, and different parts of Europe…At the time, I was still studying at the University of Washington for journalism, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to travel, so what I would do is go over there and work for them for these particular expeditions, and go for the particular length of time and come back to the States and continue my studies…They needed someone to start buying wines, because they had these high-end guests, American guests, and it would normally be like Museum of Natural History or Stanford Alumni. These guests would expect to have great food and wine experiences while they were traveling on the train from one destination to the next, so to get to the point, they wanted somebody to be like a liaison purchasing agent for wine. I happened to fill that position because I supposedly knew the most about wine. I knew very little at the time. I would read about it as we traveled to each city. I would work with another representative we knew to go out and help me purchase products we knew, or to go out and assist me. It started, and then in between, I had a chance to backpack and pick grapes in a few places. I got the wine bug. I guess that would be about ’93.
JL: What was the name of the train line?
DA: It was called TCS Expeditions Incorporated. A gentleman named T.C. Schwartz, who used to work with Orient Express, started his own company back in ’89.
JL: What cities would you stop in?
DA: Berlin, Dresden, Krakow, Prague, Budapest, a number of those places on the Eastern Bloc. We’d go down through Bucharest even, which was pretty crazy and interesting at the time, in the early ’90s. This was a time when Communism switched over, so it was some good experiences. Sometimes we’d go over to Italy, sometimes we’d go to Paris and back, but for the most part, we stayed in the Eastern Bloc.
JL: How would you say those travels had a lasting impact on your love and specific focus on wine?
DA: Meeting people, seeing those environments, getting a general sense for the overall feel of the differences between American culture and some of these other cultures in Europe, I think that just really started – in many ways – to give me a sense of some of the differences, and appreciation for some of the differences in terms of beverage and wine in particular. As I was given the responsibility at such a young age in buying these wines, and pairing them up with different meals we were serving on the train, and also serving as a manager with staff to make sure we served people appropriately on the train, that was a lot, but it was great because I was very interested. I would say that would be the thing, appreciating each culture and style of wine was an eye-opening process, really opened the door.
JL: Would you say that you have any wine mentors?
DA: Yes, absolutely. A couple of the main ones would be Dan McCarthy, this gentleman who owns and operates a shop called McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants in Seattle. Just a wonderful person, very, very knowledgeable, and I think he’s been in the business for now 40 years. Anyway, he was the one who originally helped me a lot. I only originally worked with him for a short period of time, but it was very eye-opening to see his experience and the way that he dealt with his customers, how he took special care of them and gave them the right value at the right price, the right particular wine for each circumstance.
Steven Geddes, a fellow Master Sommelier that hired me at Aureole restaurant in Las Vegas when we opened in 1999. At the time, I didn’t know much about the Master Sommelier program, and he kind of opened the door for me, and it was a big program, so that was a big process. Those two gentlemen in particular.
JL: Why was it important for you to become a Master Sommelier?
DA: For me it’s a personal journey. To go through the process with the organization, just the pursuit of knowledge and to be able to give that knowledge back, that was a really important thing for me. You’ll never ever be able to scratch the surface for everything that’s out there in terms of wine, or many subjects in fact, but especially wine. It’s very, very deep in terms of comprehension, but for me, to be able to give that back at some point is very important, so I’m actively involved in a lot of our examination processes and acting as a mentor for other young individuals in the business. To me that’s part of it, that’s a real big thing, but in terms of personal achievement, that’s what I was looking for, the hunger and passion to get knowledge.
JL: In terms of mentoring, what is it that you look for when hiring someone?
DA: Passion, excitement, energy, those are really, really important, because the rest of it, if there’s that, it’s a lot easier to shape. If there’s someone who has a certain amount of experience, a certain understanding, a certain way of doing things, sometimes I’ve found in the past that it take a little longer to retrain those individuals in terms of approaching the information in a way that is most beneficial for clients. I think passion, hunger, energy, excitement, those are all important, because in my time – at least when I was going through this – you work in a cellar. You’re like a cellar rat, you’re receiving products and putting them away, and understanding the system. It’s not so romantic, but when you get the opportunity to go into a dining room and see a professional sommelier work, and provide service to a guest and you get an opportunity to even taste those wines, you go back and read and research, it starts to get the creative side of it going a little bit.
JL: What was your first restaurant job?
DA: My first restaurant job was at a place called Pizza Place Restaurant in North Bend, Washington. That was ’86.
JL: What about the first restaurant where you were working with wine?
DA: That would have been the Salish Lodge Inn, so when I was still a server – I was still in high school at the time – we had an opportunity – Sundays at brunch was my first exposure, when we had the opportunity to sell some of the wines by the glass, and champagnes in particular. That was my first exposure. That would have been ’88.
JL: How did this opportunity come about?
DA: The Montage? Through a couple things. The Montage experience for me has a little bit of history in that when I was at Aureole restaurant, going back to 1999, there was a gentleman named Chris Coon who came to work with me at Aureole. He was hired on as one of our additional sommeliers. Mr. Coon had worked at the Phoenician resort…When they decided to do the Montage buildout in Laguna Beach, Chris was offered a position as one of the sommeliers, or as the Director of the wine program. So I was very supportive in saying that he should take it, that it was a great opportunity, a great company, a great concept. Anyway, over the years I kept in touch with Mr. Coon. He’s no longer with Laguna Beach now, but when they mention – there was a gentleman named Mark Hefter that I know and worked with in Las Vegas – that told me that they were in need of some assistance, so my wife and I wanted to come in Los Angeles for some time. We’d been in Las Vegas for awhile, bouncing around doing some things out of the market as well, but it was a great opportunity and great timing.
JL: How many different lists do you oversee on this property?
DA: We have a master list that we’ll have for the whole hotel, all of our guests, and then we’ll have supplementary lists for each department. So we’ll have a list specifically for our guests at the Conservatory. It’s a little bit more refined and specific to that environment for people who are looking for certain styles of wine that make sense up there. We’ll have a list for the lobby lounge, we’ll have a list for Scarpetta restaurant. So there’s three main lists, essentially, and one master list.
JL: What’s the criteria for a wine that goes on each of those lists?
DA: That’s a good question. My philosophy is something for everyone. It’s not about me. It’s not about using this project with directing wine or spirits or non-alcoholic, whatever it might be. Something for everyone means simply we have different clients, we have different tastes, so we should have at least within each general category, what we think are the best values, all the way up to some of the most sought after, exclusive wines, and everything in between, because in this day and age, especially right now, everyone for the most part likes to have a great value, something for a great price. That’s really important, so that drives it, and of course working very closely with our relationships with our suppliers is very important. In terms of specific styles – it depends on demand – we have to listen closely to our clients and what they’re looking for, and make sure we have – if not that specific product – something very similar in stock at the right price.
JL: What are a few important things to keep in mind when pairing wine with food?