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July 24, 2014

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WEEKLY Q&A:

Drinking it all in with Aria’s Director of Beverage

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Courtesy MGM Resorts International

In a few short years, Michael Shetler has moved from Sage sommelier to general manager to director of the beverage program at Aria.

Michael Shetler and his wife, artist Wendy Kveck, moved to Las Vegas in 1999. Michael and Wendy are good friends with another Michael and Wendy: the Jordans, who operated the beloved Rosemary’s Restaurant for more than a decade. It was the opening of Rosemary’s that first drew Shetler, an expert in beer, wine and cocktails, to Vegas, and he took another huge step 10 years later when CityCenter opened. Shetler made the move from the neighborhood to the Strip, first as lead sommelier at Sage, then as the restaurant’s general manager and now as the director of beverage at Aria. Few have such an inside-outside view of the Vegas food and beverage industry.

Did it seem crazy for Michael Jordan to be opening a fine-dining restaurant in the neighborhood? That was the middle of nowhere in 1999. I had some reservations for sure, but Michael had a riveting personality as far as instilling confidence in his entire team. We were breaking new ground, and there was a need for that type of cuisine and service on the west side. Things were filling in around us.

Rosemary’s has closed, of course. What did you take away from it? I think the proudest point I took away from it was that people looked at it as more than a restaurant, a place you knew you would find friends, or always someone to have a conversation with at the bar. It’s one of those iconic things you don’t often find, even in larger cities. We accomplished something that hadn’t been done before.

Why did you want to jump to the Strip? I wanted to focus on just wine for a while and pursue my advanced certification through the court of master sommeliers. ... It was a difficult decision with a lot of conflicting feelings, but in the long run, the right move.

Were you assigned to the restaurant Sage, or did you get to choose? We had discussions with the director of wine for the property and asked where I might be a good fit. I thought Sage from the beginning. It is the closest style of food that I was used to working with, and I thought chef Shawn McClain’s background and chef Richard Camarota’s background meshed well with my Midwestern upbringing.

And now you’ve moved on to being director of beverage for the entire property. It has been eye-opening. I literally learn something new every day.

Sounds like a tough job. It’s extremely challenging. There are over 350 employees in the beverage department, and we work very hard with employee relations, making sure the staff are as happy as they can be, making sure we are working together on common goals.

What’s the fun part? My favorite part is drink development, mixology, working to move Aria’s program forward focusing on natural and fresh ingredients as much as possible. America is very serious about its mixology, so we have to raise the bar.

How do you do that? You can’t run a program of this size like it’s a neighborhood bar in Chicago, San Francisco or New York. But you can pull some of the elements that work there and fit them to a program of this scope, and that helps people get excited. It keeps things fresh. We change our drink menus frequently, do things seasonally and bring people in from outside for seminars and instruction. We offer as much education as we can so employees stay interested. We rolled out our new Aria Signature Sips in November, which will change three times per year based on the seasons. Those are available at all five lounges.

How’s it going with those certifications? I did take my advanced sommelier course in Aspen in October 2010, right after I took the general manager position at Sage. I got two out of three, but you need all three. So, reset. Things on the wine front are on hold with my current position, but now I’m looking to get my bar certification in New York in September. It’s a comprehensive spirits exam conducted by leading professionals in the industry, a five-day lecture and testing seminar.

Sheesh. Yeah. End of September. And I’m sitting for my cicerone certified level here in Vegas in August, a written testing and tasting that covers everything about beer from draft service and technology to off flavors and how to recognize if a beer is flawed.

Do you think you’ll ever focus on just one type of beverage? My goal is to excel in all three major areas— beer, spirits and wine—although beer has always been my passion. Wine is the most complicated because it changes constantly. The sommeliers here at Aria are so dedicated, if I put myself up against them, I don’t stand a chance. But that’s what’s great about the community in Vegas—there are so many great people to push you to the next level, and so many people willing to help you out.

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