LAS VEGAS – When he started at the Culinary Institute of America in 2004, Douglas Kim had every intention of becoming a chef.
That was before he discovered how fascinating the study of wine could be thanks to a compulsory three-week course that put his career on a new trajectory.
MGM Resorts International recently announced the promotion of Kim, a master sommelier, to director of wine for its Las Vegas resorts.
Kim, a South Korean native who grew up in Chicago, now oversees nearly 50 sommeliers and around 350,000 bottles of wine at MGM bars and restaurants along the Strip.
“At first I thought cooking would be really fun,” Kim said. “After taking this [wine] of course, however, I started to think that wine would be more fun than cooking, so that’s the route I took. There is so much to wine – history, geography, so many great stories.
Born in Korea, Kim’s family immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. They moved to Chicago and settled on the North Side. By the time he entered second grade, the family had moved to suburban Lincolnwood, where Kim would graduate from Lincoln Hall Middle School and later Niles West High School. He had an interest in the culinary world from an early age. For a time, Douglas also worked as a runner at the iconic Charlie Trotter’s in Lincoln Park.
“My grandmother was a great cook and, growing up in the 90s, [my two sisters and I] were kids trying to create after school snacks. Nothing gourmet, just things learned in home economics classes. We were making breadsticks and it was like, wow! ,” Kim told the Chicago Sun-Times in a separate interview.
Douglas would go to the CIA in New York, where his interest in wine, in particular, took hold.
“Wine is not a big part of my Korean background,” he said. “We have drunk [Korean] soju and beer, but not wine. But at the CIA, you must take a mandatory three-week wine-tasting course. I had the second [place] in the classroom.”
Top of the class was fellow Chicago sommelier Robert Mosher, currently managing partner of Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio in the West Loop. The two would also work for a time at Chicago’s iconic Spiaggia restaurant.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York, Kim wanted to get her bachelor’s degree and decided to move to Las Vegas to attend UNLV.
“For any food and beverage professional, Las Vegas is one of the best places to learn about food and wine very quickly,” Kim told the Las Vegas Sun. “We see crazy bottles being opened every night and cheap bottles being opened every night.”
Kim began her professional culinary career in Las Vegas at Charlie’s Restaurant (the namesake of legendary Chicago chef Charlie Trotter) before becoming wine director at Picasso’s restaurant at the Bellagio and sommelier at Mandalay Bay.
It was the late Chief Trotter who, at Kim’s mother’s request, helped open a door or two for her son in Vegas, he told the Sun-Times. “My parents had a dry cleaners a block and a half from Charlie Trotter. [restaurant] and so they cleaned the [chefs’] coats all the time. So my mom had a chat with Chief Trotter and she called him asking for help getting me a job in Vegas,” Kim said with a laugh.
The most expensive bottle of wine a guest can order at an MGM property on the Strip is a top-notch French pinot noir that costs around $70,000, Kim said.
“The prices can get pretty crazy,” Kim said. “You kind of think, ‘OK, how much is that per sip?’ A good bottle of wine, you can fit into the descriptors, but it’s really more about the overall experience.”
It’s not every day that a customer will pay that much for a bottle of wine, but bottles that cost between $10,000 and $20,000 are sold on the Strip “pretty regularly,” he said.
Kim is one of less than 200 master sommeliers in North and South America designated by an organization called the Court of Master Sommeliers. He earned the title in 2018 after going through a process that took about a decade and included multiple exams.
“It’s a pretty intense process,” Kim said. “It’s a full-time job when you get through it. There are a lot of top sums that don’t have this certification, so it’s not an end in itself. It’s a way to show a guest that you’re an expert in the field.
Dominique Bertolone, senior vice president of food and beverage strategy for MGM Resorts, said the company was lucky to have Kim.
“Douglas has been a top notch hospitality professional throughout his career,” Bertolone said. “His customer-centric approach and willingness to always go above and beyond to create memorable moments is key to his success.”
A typical day for Kim includes coordinating with wine suppliers and vendors as he works to create and maintain wine programs for properties at 13 MGM resorts and hotels on the Strip.
“There’s a lot of administrative stuff to do, so it’s not always glamorous,” Kim said. “I send a lot of emails every day. At the end of the day, I like to go to the different restaurants themselves and talk to the sommeliers to see what they need and how I can best help them. My work is different every day.
He said his favorite part of the job is putting a new wine on a restaurant’s list. “I like to say I don’t have a personal wine cellar, I have MGM as my wine cellar,” he said.
Kim said he liked a good glass of wine but didn’t have a favorite. In fact, if he has a drink at home, it’s often a bourbon on the rocks or a Japanese beer, he says.
And it’s perfectly fine to store an unfinished bottle of wine for a few days, if done correctly, Kim told the Sun-Times.
“If you plan to drink it in the next few days, just cap the bottle and put it in the fridge,” he said. “Or pour it into half a bottle; the less air, the better. And if you’re never gonna finish it, use it on ice [trays]. Next time you’re making a sauce, you can just drop in a cube or two, or use them in your next glass of wine.
Contributor: Chicago Sun-Times reporter Miriam Di Nunzio