For all the glamorous escapism and memorable experiences Las Vegas affords, there still seem to be some glaring holes. Where’s your favorite place to go for an intimate glass of wine to start the night or to unwind with a relaxing nightcap just before heading home? You know, that one place … the cool bar without video poker, domineering formality or pretense?
Raise your hand if you’re a local, you’ve read that passage and declared such a place doesn’t exist in Las Vegas. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
The truth: Our city may be short on a few things that make a place home, but we’re getting there. That perfect spot for an unpretentious drink does exist. Matter of fact, it’s been around since 1998, hiding, perhaps, in plain sight.
When I discovered it, I assumed the Rio’s Wine Cellar & Tasting Room, located down a winding staircase from the eastern end of the casino, was born as an extension of chef Jean-Louis Palladin’s former restaurant Napa. Not the case.
Tony Marnell, who built the Rio and operated it before it was acquired by what is now Caesars Entertainment, is a very passionate wine collector. “He was probably the single-largest wine buyer in the world for a period of two or three years,” says Jeff Solomon, vice president and assistant general manager at the Rio. Marnell created the cellar, now home to one of the largest and most impressive public wine collections in the world.
This place is a drinkable museum. Wandering the cellar—home to just under 10,000 bottles—feels like visiting an ancient castle, minus the dust. It’s a place to taste, first and foremost, and to peek into the cabinets and displays to find some truly amazing, priceless specimens. There’s the oldest bottle, Thomas Jefferson’s 1800 Madeira. There’s a mind-boggling vertical collection of the rare Chateau d’Yquem, a universe of wine stretching from 1855 to 1990 that you can hardly find anywhere. There’s another vertical, Joseph Phelps Insignia California cabernet (1990-2005) worth around $9,000, and an Opus One library collection from roughly the same period worth about $15,000.
The keeper of the treasure is Hung Nguyen, who came to Vegas 10 years ago from San Francisco to maitre’d at bygone restaurants Crustacean and Prana. Now he’s the cellar’s wine manager, the perfect job for someone with his boundless energy. He loves these bottles, takes great care of them and runs all over the property to make sure Rio customers get the one they desire.
“He’s incredibly passionate. I’ve seen him come in on many days off because he had a customer coming in who wants to try something crazy,” Solomon says. The cellar is an eclectic venue on its own, but it also serves as the property’s wine hub, and Nguyen is the resort’s house sommelier. “Many times I’ve been on an elevator on my way up to the 50th floor with a bottle for Voodoo, and I’ll get a call that they want something special at Buzio’s back downstairs,” he says, smiling. “I’m running nonstop some nights.”
Nguyen’s passion for tasting is infectious, and it sets the tone for the cellar’s friendly staff. Despite the regal setting and expensive stuff lining many shelves—“If you have money and want to spend it, this is the place,” Nguyen says—you can really create your own experience. You don’t have to spend a lot for a simple wine flight. You can add cheese and charcuterie to the experience, or enjoy tastings of cognac, scotch, whiskey and vintage port, among other options. Private dinners occur in the cellar every so often.
“We love to answer any questions any visitors have, not just intense wine questions,” Nguyen says. “There’s no attitude here. We love our regulars, and we love our locals. We are really just focused on being a place where you can sit, relax, enjoy the experience, talk about it and maybe learn, and it’s not formal.”
Sounds too good to be true, huh? “As a customer, that’s where I would hang out,” Solomon says. “You know, a lot of people come to Vegas to be crazy, but this is not a crazy venue. It’s one of those interesting alternative experiences, and I believe sometimes the best things are the ones you find out about through word of mouth, not some advertisement.”
A couple of the craziest finds in the Rio Wine Cellar
Jefferson’s 1800 Madeira
It’s sweet and it’s Portuguese, but most importantly, it’s super-old, and it’s the stuff that was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence, allegedly. Philip Evan Thomas, the “Father of American Railways,” acquired this bottle at the sale of Thomas Jefferson’s effects in 1843, and the Rio paid an unknown record price for it at a Sotheby’s auction, so now you can look at it. No, you can’t have a drink.
Chateau d’Yquem vertical collection
Valued at around $2 million, this rare collection of Bordeaux from the Sauternes region includes one bottle from each year from 1855 to 1990 (except 1988). Ultra-rare due to its longevity and delicate production, this nectar is known for its complexity and sweetness. But we’ll never know, because we can’t afford it. The Rio purchased most of the collection for a million bucks in 1995.
“The money you spend to go out and find something like this, a normal person can’t do,” wine manager Hung Nguyen says. “There are other collections, one in Canada and one in London, but they are missing more bottles.”