Beyond Sniffing and Swirling: UNLV Sommelier Academy Instills Respect for the Farmer and a Grasp of the Business

A half dozen people have arrived midday at UNLV’s Paradise campus, curious about its Sommelier Academy. They include a beverage industry employee, an event promoter, and food servers who want to understand more about wine. One attendee says she’s just interested in fun. The class will be serious, and the test will be hard, says the instructor in a one-hour preview. If they enroll, they could be ready by September to work their way toward a coveted place among wine professionals in Las Vegas.

Heath Hiudt offers a Sommelier Academy preview at UNLV’s Paradise campus on May 9, 2018. Photo: @GrapeBasinNews

“You look around the United States, how many cities have more of a professional sommelier presence than this city?” Heath Hiudt asks his prospective students. “You’re entering into one of the top five competitive wine industry cities in the United States.”

Hiudt takes a  practical approach to teaching wine, aimed at producing professionals who can discuss wines and wine regions, and “use your own head, use your own thoughts,” he says, rather than spouting memorized wine facts.

“The goal is that I can spin you around a liquor store and walk you over to a shelf, and you can pick up a bottle of Brunello, and you go, ‘Okay I can tell you about this.'”

“Although you’ve never had this wine before, you can tell me about it, to a certain degree.”

The once-a-week course starts with a study of the world’s most common grapes —  6 whites and 9 reds. “I teach you how to study a grape, and then you can study any obscure grape,” Hiudt says.

Next, the curriculum turns to regions, where an appreciation for the farmer is instilled.

“There’s not enough focus on farming in other programs.” Hiudt disdains the snotty sommelier who criticizes wine without empathy for the people who wrestle with climate, pests, and other natural phenomena to produce the fruit. “They disrespect the process when they call (the wine) crap. It’s such a shame.”

Seven-hour class days include discussion and tasting, with some food pairings as the course progresses. The tasting instruction goes beyond sniffing and swirling.

“The way I teach tasting wine is … not so much, ‘I smell grapefruit,'” Hiudt explains. “The way I teach people to taste is based on what I call structure. What does the wine do in your mouth, from a structural standpoint? Does it make you salivate? Where’s the weight, where’s the tannin sensation? How high is the acidity?”

Students will also glimpse the business of selling wine in a Las Vegas club and restaurant environment, as Hiudt shares his real-world experience. His title is Sommelier at STK, the Cosmopolitan’s busy steak house, but his responsibilities extend to all beverage sales — millions of dollars annually, with nearly half of the volume coming from wine.

The next 13-week Sommelier Academy begins on May 30, meeting each Wednesday at the Total Wine & More store at Town Square in Las Vegas. The cost is $1,599. More information here.