Associated Press
Friday, May 7, 2021

LAS VEGAS (AP) - The longtime sommelier at a venerable downstairs restaurant in downtown Las Vegas is restocking his wine list ahead of a full reopening with the planned lifting of statewide coronavirus restrictions June 1.

Hugo’s Cellar has had just two full-time sommeliers since 1980. Jon Simmons has been doing the job for 37 years.


The Las Vegas Sun reports that as Las Vegas’ current elder statesman of wine, Simmons is now pouring glasses for grandchildren of his original customers in the inconspicuous yet legendary dining spot at the Four Queens hotel-casino.

No active sommelier in Las Vegas is believed to have been at it longer.

Simmons refers to himself cheerfully and charmingly as an “old geezer.”

Wine and people have kept Simmons in his tastevin - the shallow cup often worn around the neck of sommeliers - all this time.

Customer service is at the heart of selling, not necessarily upselling, wine. Fifty dollars, $30, even $15 can be judiciously spent with expert guidance but always toward what the customer wants.

“People are intimidated when they see a really big wine list,” said Simmons, who oversees Hugo’s selection of about 350 wines and a stock of 1,000 bottles, a not-especially-large but well-curated reserve.

“A lot of the sommeliers in town over the years have been quite snooty, to me. It should be fun. You shouldn’t intimidate customers. It’s not serious. You like it, you don’t; how much is it; is it going to go with what I’m eating - and even that is overrated to me.”

Simmons knows half of the patrons on any given night in the clubby, cozy dining room where the wine list is in his head or printed on paper, not on a tablet.

He wants repeat customers, not big sales. He’s willing to send back a bottle that doesn’t fit standards. The tastevin lets him taste-test.

Simmons, 64, grew up in Leeds, West Yorkshire, north of London, and came to the United States in 1979 with $500 in his pocket and a desire to escape the dreary weather of his hometown and his workaday life as an accountant.

A friend had an uncle in Florida who got Simmons, 24 years old at the time, a job at a pool at a Hilton resort in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Simmons moved into serving fine dining on the other side of the country from his original landing spot because he was again looking for something new.

After a few weeks as an admitted “scab” at Caesars Palace during a strike in 1984, he became a waiter at Hugo’s.

He started relieving the full-time sommelier, then took over the small wine program himself, drawing on a lifetime of exposure to his grandfather’s wine business back in England.

Hugo’s had a 35-bottle list then. “Dom Perignon was $90 a bottle,” Simmons said. “Those were the days.”

At that time, Las Vegas had a population of less than 200,000.

Hugo’s Cellar was still young, but attracted high-end clientele - Rat Packers (Sammy Davis Jr. was top-notch and always “on,” Simmons said), casino moguls and wiseguys. In those days, the low ceilings held in a thick layer of cigar smoke.

The gentlemen wore tuxedos. The ladies wore gold lame. Vegas’ shift to business travelers hardly hurt Hugo’s, as corporate expense accounts pair well with fine wine.

At one point, he was one of only three sommeliers in town, the others at Caesars and Westgate, the former Las Vegas Hilton.

The number swelled to about 200 in the years before the Great Recession. As Las Vegas peeks out from the pandemic, Simmons doesn’t know how many remain. Maybe 25. He doesn’t know how the lost year will affect his profession, but he plans to stay put until he retires in a few years.

The smoke is gone. There aren’t as many tuxedos, although the servers at Hugo’s still wear them.

It is otherwise, Simmons said, largely the same: A nook of Old Vegas preserved one floor beneath the massive digital slot machines and sanitary clear plastic dividers of 2021 Las Vegas.


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