Meet Jason Smith, MS
To Kalon Vineyard Company General Manager
Attaining the title of Master Sommelier is an arduous journey that requires years of intense study, focus, dedication and passion. It is no small feat; Jason has spent his career studying and traversing the world’s most renowned vineyards and has had the privilege of tasting the world’s most coveted and esteemed wines. We cannot think of anyone better suited to lead To Kalon Vineyard Company as Jason, who shares in winemaker Andy Erickson’s vision to make wines for To Kalon Vineyard Company that honor the history and plumb the depths of the magnificent To Kalon Vineyard.
After passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam at just 27 years old, Jason became one of only 172 professionals in the world to hold the title of Master Sommelier at the time. Jason started his journey as a Sommelier at the famed 21 Club in New York City and has led the wine programs at such prestigious establishments as The Little Nell in Aspen and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.
Jason served as Director of Wine at the Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and, immediately prior to joining our team, held the position of Executive Director of Wine at MGM Resorts International, where he oversaw award-winning wine programs for 20 resorts nationwide. Jason currently lives in Las Vegas with this two children, but he spends time in Napa every few weeks to walk the rows and taste with Andy Erickson in the cellar.
In an effort to better introduce you to Jason through his own words, we invite you to read our interview with him where he delves into his background, his passion for wine, and his vision for To Kalon Vineyard Company.
Where are you from, Jason?
Upstate New York, near Wappingers Falls. About an hour and a half north of NYC.
You attended the Culinary Institute in Hyde Falls, NY. Was that close to home?
Correct, it’s about 20 minutes north of where we lived. I was always aware of the CIA because my parents would go there for a fancy dinner on birthdays or holidays. It really stood out, when you drive by it there’s a massive parking lot attached to a beautiful building that sits right on the Hudson River. Whenever I’d pass by it I always told myself that great food and great chefs came from there.
What sparked your passion in Culinary?
I always had an interest in the kitchen. My great grandmother was an incredible chef. Both my mom and dad would cook to “varying degrees of success”, but it was always something I enjoyed doing, trying out different recipes...and I wanted to take on a career that was a little bit different than an office job. I wanted something with more energy and more excitement than going to an office every day and I thought that the kitchen offered that possibility. There’s an excitement that comes with working in a restaurant. Knowing every night you go in for service was going to be different, where you get to meet incredible people and be involved in really unforgettable events. That has always been really enjoyable for me.
Did your parents work in the wine industry?
At the end of her career, my mother was an executive for IBM. Her story was incredibly inspiring to me. She wasn’t a college graduate and worked her way up from starting as a secretary at IBM and retired as a Senior Vice President. What she was able to accomplish in her career as a woman working her way up in the 70’s & 80’s was nothing short of astonishing. Seeing her drive, determination and success really taught me what you’re able to achieve when you devote yourself 100% to a job or a task. My father was a 5th and 6th grade teacher, which was awesome because his schedule allowed him to be a big part of my life, coaching mine and my brother’s baseball teams and being a part of many of my extracurricular activities. Having those parallel views was really important and has definitely impacted who I am as a leader and father.
Outside of wine, do you have a family yourself?
I have 2 kids. My daughter is turning 16 shortly and my son is 13.
Are they Sommeliers in the making?
Haha. They know what I do, they know that being a Master Sommelier is a very unique position with an immense background, but they haven’t necessarily shown any specific interest in it. For me, I just want them to follow a passion that makes them as happy as I am in my career, whatever that may be.
How would you say your career in wine has helped to enhance their lives?
I think it’s offered more opportunities and unique experiences than a typical career would. We’ve been able to take some really cool wine related trips that have allowed them to see some of the most beautiful places in the world.
How did your passion end up shifting from culinary to wine?
When you’re enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, in order to graduate with a Culinary Arts Degree, you have to partake in a 6-week wine course. I didn’t have much experience in the realm of wine, especially fine wine. My parents would have wine with dinner, but they would have $5 or less bottles with a rare occasion of splurging on a $10-$12 bottle. It was definitely more about quantity than quality at that point. But wine was always served with dinner, so it was definitely a more “old world” style of culinary upbringing. When I went to CIA, having very minimal experience with wine outside of seeing it from time to time, I was absolutely amazed at what you could taste and experience from a single glass of wine. To give you an example of my “wine knowledge” at the time, when the teacher said we should taste black cherry, toast and smoke in the wines I actually thought that meant they put cherries, toast and smoke in the wine. I had literally no knowledge of wine. That spark was incredible, finding out that you could get all these flavors, textures and tastes from fermented grape juice.
What was your first “ah ha!” wine?
I tasted some amazing wines at school, but when I graduated and got a job at the 21 club I was able to taste an amazing wine that some would argue wasn’t even from a memorable vintage. It was a 1994 Domaine Dujac Clos Saint Denis. 1994 was probably one of the worst vintages of Burgundy from the 90’s, but just the way all the amazing flavors and complexities came together in a great bottle of red burgundy was so special and will always stand out in my mind.
Do you have any current passions outside of wine?
I’d say my passions mostly revolve around culinary experiences, whether they be in a dining atmosphere or at my own dinner table. Cooking, having friends around, enjoying great food and beverage together while sharing stories and laughter…Those moments fulfill and rejuvenate my passion daily.
What would you say has been your most memorable culinary based experience?
I’d say I have 2. When you think of an amazing culinary experience, you should be able to picture the textures and flavors in your mind like it was yesterday. Many years ago I enjoyed a dish at Daniel in NYC. It was Foie Gras with chestnut soup and a spiced apple. The texture of the chestnut soup, the level of spice on the apple and the perfectly seared and cooked piece of Foie Gras, when you tasted all three together it was a revelation. The second experience was at Charlie Trotter’s before I began working there. It was a crispy pigs tail with oysters and it was absolutely stunning.
When did you first taste To Kalon Vineyard Company?
While considering the role with ASPIRA Icon Wines, Andy Erickson had mentioned that he was working on a project that involved spotlighting To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville. I tasted the 2016 Vintage of Highest Beauty, the inaugural vintage, and Andy did an outstanding job with a beautiful vintage that has been received incredibly by myself and all who’ve been lucky enough to enjoy it.
What does To Kalon Vineyard Company mean to you?
I think it’s an amazing combination of quality and history, multiple layers of history. You have the history going all the way back to 1868 with
H.W. Crabb where he really laid the foundation of what we’re doing, then Robert Mondavi in the 1960’s purchasing the land and building his winery right next door leading to the reinvigoration of Napa Valley. The quality level it is producing on a consistent basis has now lead to its immense notoriety as one of the top “Grand Cru” level vineyard sites in Napa Valley.
With your amazing background and immense experience, you could’ve pursued any opportunity you wanted. What made you choose To Kalon Vineyard Company?
It was the opportunity to work with one of the best winemakers in the world. To be involved with such a top level winemaker and have the opportunity to see him grow and strive to constantly redefine the pursuit of perfection in winemaking truly was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
What advice would you give to someone who aspires for more in life?
Pursue what you’re passionate about. If you truly love what you do, then it will always be easier to take on because you will look forward to accomplishing your goals no matter how hard they are.