Sommelier and Wine Director Kevin Lewis of Kai
Kevin Lewis (affectionately known as Pima Bear) relishes his role as Sommelier and Wine Director at Kai at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa in Chandler, Arizona. Make a reservation to enjoy the wonderful Native American-inspired cuisine at this award-winning restaurant, and allow yourself to be expertly guided by Kevin's thoughtful wine selections guaranteed to complement your special evening.
Kevin brings with him a variety of experience in his role at Kai, having worked at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort for 11 years. He accumulated his vast range of knowledge by starting first in Ko’sin, the resort's casual restaurant, before moving on to positions in in-room dining and the lobby bar as a bartender, and finally joining the Kai family 8 years ago, becoming Kai supervisor, passing his sommelier exam in 2008, and now acting as Sommelier and Wine Director. Get to know this affable and engaging expert, and learn more about his inspirations, use of social media to source vineyards, and support for Arizona wines.
How did you move into your current role? Since I’ve been here at the resort, I've always been around wine. When I was younger and in the other outlets, I didn't really hone in on it, but when I got to Kai, things were completely different. Food was a big impetus at that time because it was so different from the Lobby Bar food. Things like having to learn new terms and dishes and ingredients. At the same time, we did wine classes on Saturdays. Those are really fun. They always end with Wine Jeopardy games which are super-competitive. Frank, who was the manager at the time, asked if I would like the position. It was definitely something that I was interested in because of the growth aspects of it and getting that knowledge.
What are some of your responsibilities? Bringing all the wines into the restaurant, maintaining the list and building the list, vintage changes, bar levels, making sure all of those are good, creating special menus for New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, things like that. Also collaborating with Chef Swanson to come up with pairings for each course for guests who want to take that option.
How are you inspired in choosing pairings? Leading into these new menus I'll walk in the back and one of the cooks will say, for example, "here, taste this, it’s going to go on this dish for New Year's Eve." Over time, I will probably taste every single part of a dish, which is great because it helps me to build an idea of what I’m going to pair. It helps me narrow in on what I want to pour for that dish, what effect the wine is going to have with that component, and how it's going to play well.
Tell me about your pairing for Chef Swanson's rabbit and goose duo. It's the 2012 Lioco Laguna Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. All of the Lioco wines are fantastic. I've been fortunate to taste through their line a few times; they’re really well made. With this particular dish, there’s a little bit of smokiness and a lot of earthy components. We do a smoking of sage and tea where we light them on fire to give it a smoky essence. With the wine, I really like the mouthfeel; I’m all about texture. I think it’s light enough to complement the dish, but still has enough balance. Partial stem inclusion gives a little bit of green aspect on the finish, but still having some really fantastic brighter fruit like cherries. That balance in the wine with the flavors, the earthiness, and the fruit is what I like about this particular pairing because it's not going to wash it out too much.
How about the steelhead trout? I paired it with the 2013 Rune Wines Sierra Madre Vineyard chardonnay, Rune being one of the Arizona up-and-comers. I have a pretty good relationship with James Callahan. I had seen a bunch of postings on his Instagram and reached out to him through there. It’s really cool how a lot of things get exposure through social media; things that I probably would never have come across otherwise. With this chardonnay, it has a really fantastic mouthfeel. It’s gorgeous. It has a little bit of minerality and a really nice balance to it and that’s what I love about that particular wine. It goes through partial ML [malolactic fermentation] so you definitely get a little bit of creaminess which is fantastic with the dish.
You're a big proponent of Arizona wine. I’m always sourcing out new Arizona producers. I think showcasing what we have here in our own state is very important. I try to build that part of the list up as much as I can. We had gone to Rune this past July or August during our break. We set up a visit with James and also with Rob Hammelman from Sand Reckoner to see what they have going on, something that we try to do every year during our closure. We got to see James’ operation out there. He is currently headquartered out of Pillsbury Wine Company. We got to taste out of the barrel everything that he’s producing, which was really cool. He had taken a sample of a few different barrels that he uses to build one of his wines, I think it was the syrah. We'd taste one component, which gives it a certain characteristic, and then taste another one that brings something else, so tasting everything and having it all come together was amazing.
What do you enjoy most about your position? The tasting is fun, but the pairing is my favorite part. I think that's probably the biggest part for me and is something that really drew me to wine. Trying to create that perfect pairing is a lot of fun and I love the challenge of it.
Favorite thing about working at Kai? It’s like a big family. There are some of us that have been here for a really long time, and then there are newer people that come in. Part of what helps the newer people feel so comfortable and feel welcome is that family quality. Everybody genuinely cares for everybody else. The family aspect of it is really key.
What's in store for the future? I worked for about three years under some really awesome somms here, but I’ve only been head of the wine program for two years, so I still feel like I’m relatively new. I’m definitely learning more and more every day, but eventually I would really love to work under a Master Sommelier to boost my knowledge. There is always something new to learn, to take in, and that is something that I am constantly chasing - the knowledge. That’s where I want to head.