The Making of a Great Sommelier

“Wine feeds my passion all the time”

If you hear me talk about Kristi Snyder, who last summer became one of my favorite all-time sommeliers, you might wonder if anyone can really be that wonderful with wine drinkers and wine. Yes, she is. I am a huge fan, and so are many other people. She has lifted wine-by-the-bottle sales at the Hyatt Regency Incline Village to the level that it is the top grossing Hyatt in the entire world for wines-sold-by-the-bottle. Now THAT’s a remarkable achievement!

Kristi has been at the Hyatt Regency for 16 years, and she learned about wines from the ground up, inspired by her two best friends, who were sommeliers. But Kristi is humble: “Wow, people say, you are a sommelier, how impressive! I tell them not to be too impressed, that I served boxed white zin at my wedding.”

This is her key to success: she wants everyone to simply have fun with wine, to de-mystify it, simplify the experience of wine, and make it approachable. “Only 20% of Americans drink wine, and I think that is because the industry and the so-called experts have made it a scary experience for many consumers,” Kristi says.

A dining experience with Kristi in the hotel’s fabulous Lone Eagle Grille is a memorable experience. Kristi tries to touch every customer who walks in the door somehow, either with the fascinating wine list she has developed, the magnificent way that dishes are paired perfectly with suggested wines, or by actually greeting customers personally on the many nights that she is present in the dining room.

“A customer might say, I’d like to have salmon for lunch … do you recommend a white wine or a red? My response is always to ask them what they normally prefer in a wine, and to match our offerings with the style of wine that they like,” she says. “And I believe that a fine wine does not have to be the most expensive one on the menu.”

To assure an optimal experience, Kristi personally tastes all wines before they go on the wine list. Tuesday is her day to “hold court” with wine sales reps, and if you walk into the lounge of the Grille that day, you’ll see her surrounded with dozens of glasses and many wines. The result is a wine list that is extensive and well-thought out, without being daunting.
I laughed when I saw her “A.B.C.” list of white wines – that stands for Anything But Chardonnay. And the “Very International” list features wines from varietals and countries that you might find unfamiliar– Chenin Blanc from South Africa, Moscato from Italy, Albarino from the Rias Baixas region of Spain, a Chardonnay from Casablanca, Chile, and more.

There’s an A.B.C. list of red wines too – Anything But Cabernet, and a Very International list including Cabernet Franc from Chinon, France; Tempranillo from Spain, Super Tuscans, etc. And, oh my heart! The Rare and Extraordinary Wine list is a wine-dreaming delight.

A few more tidbits about Kristi: She doesn’t believe that formal sommelier training is required in order to introduce people to fine wines. She is a fan of beautiful stemware, because she says, “It just screams, drink great wine!” She teaches classes for both the Hyatt staff and to groups who come to the Hyatt for meetings; in classes, she uses wine-flavored Jelly Bellys to introduce the different flavors in wines. She works with the hotel’s chefs to help design dishes that go well with wines, and to pick wines that go well with their dishes.

The lucky guest who strikes her fancy might be invited to the patio to learn how to saber a wine -- a really wonderful experience!

Last but not least, Kristi always guarantees the wine personally: “If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it myself, and you won’t be charged.” With flair, passion, personality, knowledge … Kristi is one sommelier you should meet.

You’ll find her most evenings at the Lone Eagle Grille, Hyatt Regency, Incline Village. Throw her a challenge, such as “what pairs well with oreo cookies” … I now know the answer to that. Email me and I’ll tell you, or ask Kristi yourself. Enjoy!
© 2009 Barbara Keck
For more information on dining and the wide range of activities around Lake Tahoe, see the online version of The Tahoe Weekly. This article appeared in my column "It's Grape" in January 2010.

Watch for my forthcoming book, scheduled for publication in 2011, "Mountain Wineries of the Sierras and Its Foothills."

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