More than a decade ago, Vilma Mazaite lucked into a front-row seat to the high-stakes culinary blowout that was Las Vegas.
“We were making lots of cash, learning a ton, selling amazing wine,” said Mazaite, co-owner of LaV, the French eatery opening March 6 on East Seventh Street. “I was always lucky, being at the right place at the right time to bump into mentors. They gave me great advice.”
The Lithuanian-born wine expert, 34, absorbed one particular tip from that era of colonizing celebrity chefs in Vegas.
“Never rush to get to the final point,” she was told. “Never skip a step. I think a lot of young, ambitious people want it right away. But you learn so much if you take it one step at a time. When I was ready, I was ready.”
Mazaite is convinced she is prepared to steer LaV, where chef Allison Jenkins will present rustic, Mediterranean-influenced cuisine from the south of France, alongside Mazaite’s deep wine list.
“I wanted to create a place where you can dine every day,” she says. “No tablecloths. Simple menu and prices. You can order roast chicken — simple country food — and have a 1961 Haut-Brion. That’s unexpected. I want it to be a neighborhood place, too, with an ever-changing, seasonally inspired menu.”
Destined for the USA
Born in Mazeikiai, Lithuania, Mazaite comes from a multi-national family. Her father, Valerij Mazo, a Jewish export-import trader from Belarus, married Ausra Maziene, an office worker, then homemaker, who converted from Catholicism to Judaism.
(A note on suffixes of family names: Mazaite’s name indicates she’s unmarried, while her mother’s makes it clear she is married.)
“My father had to learn Lithuanian,” she says of the complex, ancient Baltic language. “That’s a true test of love!”
Her parents now live in warmer Israel. Her sister, Viktorija, who remains very close to Mazaite, works in the insurance business in Zurich.
“I was always curious,” Mazaite says. “My parents, for the life of them, could not hide a gift from me.”
At age 11, she witnessed the end of the Soviet Union, which had roughly dominated small Lithuania for decades.
“I had never seen a tank before,” she recalls. “Independence seemed the best thing that ever happened.”
Mazaite’s personal sense of independence served her well, too. By the time she left for Vilnius University to study journalism and public relations, she insisted on having her own job so she could live on her own money.
She decided to move to the U.S. alone in 2001.
“I knew I had to spend at least a year here,” she says. “The plan was to come back.”
Yet she stayed. Mazaite, always inquisitive about food and wine, worked in restaurants.
“I started as a busser, then a hostess,” she says. “If you want to be a server, however, you’ve got to know wine. That’s why I got into it. Never really liked beer or vodka, which is what everyone drinks in Lithuania.”
First in Lake Tahoe and then Reno, Nev., she showed ambition, quickly landing a job as assistant food and beverage manager at Siena Hotel Spa Casino and Restaurant in Reno. There, the first of several mentors took her under his wing.
“Reno was way too small,” says Mazaite, who projects the curly-topped charisma of a 1930s movie star specializing in screwball comedies. “My boss introduced me to folks in Vegas.”
In that city, at a time when fine dining was all the rage, she was engaged to manage the buffet at the MGM Grand.
“I didn’t even know what a buffet was before moving to the U.S.,” she says with a laugh. Yet her hard-won wine knowledge landed her a position as sommelier when, in 2002, Michael Mina opened Seablue Mediterranean Restaurant in the Grand.
Mazaite concludes: “I was very, very lucky.”
The road to LaV
Mazaite had plenty of mentoring options in Vegas, then New York City and Aspen, Colo. Master chef Paul Bartolotta, for instance, introduced her to Italian food and wine, which led to a three-week gustatory escapade in Italy.
“I came back 20 pounds heavier,” she jokes. “But it was worth it.”
Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich drafted her to serve as sommelier and service director at New York’s Babbo.
“It’s an institution,” she says. “Male-driven, very old school. They test you every day in mental ways. You have to have a tough skin.”
In fact, the round-the-clock work at Babbo stretched her paper-thin. So she headed back west to Aspen’s Little Nell hotel, where she ran Ajax Tavern, the inn’s casual restaurant, which shared a fabulous wine list with the fine-dining outlet that bears the same name at the hotel.
“I didn’t realize how wonderful Aspen would be,” she admits. “It’s unbelievably beautiful. And the quality of life is unmatched.”
There she met Ralph Eads, a regular at Little Nell, along with his wife and five kids from Houston. The investor repeatedly asked Mazaite: If you had your own eatery in Texas, what would you do?
“In my mind, there’s no way I’m moving to Texas,” she says. “I didn’t have the facts. It was an opportunity of a lifetime.”
As managing partner at LaV, Mazaite has selected the wine list — mostly French, with some Italian and American — but has hired on-the-floor sommeliers and plans to hire, eventually, a general manager who can function without her.
“The goal is to grow and to build a brand,” she says. “But not in a rush. That’s why we are not cutting corners. Not to show off, but to build that brand, to be solid from the start.”
With high ceilings, huge windows and spacious rooms, La V looks like no other venue in town. To handle the kitchen, Mazaite brought in Jenkins from Ajax Tavern in Aspen, who fits into her no-drama culture.
“In this business, there is so much ego,” Mazaite says. “I don’t know why. We are not saving lives. We are not Wall Street making the economy run. That’s why I enjoy Allison. She doesn’t have a big head. She’s a soulful cook. And we work well together pairing food and wine.”
CORRECTION: A photo caption in this story has been updated to correct the spelling of Vilma Mazaite's name.
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.
The passion behind the wine list
Although Austinites have had tastes of what’s to come with soon-to-open French restaurant LaV over the past year and a half, most specifically through the now-closed Say LaV food trailer, they haven’t yet had a taste of its core element.
But with a wine list that’ll carry more than 1,200 labels – “miles longer” than any other Austin restaurant’s wine menu – Vilma Mazaite, LaV’s managing partner and advanced sommelier, hopes that will change as she shares her passion for the drink that she has been able to explore in her travels around the world.
The Provencal-inspired restaurant plans to keep France as a main focus on the wine menu, with most of the top Bourdeaux, Burgundy and Rhone wine producers represented. The list on opening day (scheduled for March 6) probably won’t be the same as it will be a couple months later, but wine lovers might see ’45 Latour, ’61 Haut Brion and the 1996 Musigny from Roumier.
There also will be wines from Italy, the U.S. and elsewhere. Carefully curated by Mazaite and two other experienced sommeliers, Darren Scott and Rania Zayyat, the wine list is intentionally diverse.
“Having so many wines will appeal to so many people,” Mazaite said. “Some at $300, some that are $3,000. But go high and you have high expectations. Stay under $100 and the wine can really surprise you. I get really excited about that.”
That’s a bit of a specialty of hers: finding wines priced under $100 that might taste like they are far more expensive. These comprise LaV’s Tour de France and Tour de Monde lists, where you’ll spot wines not usually on restaurant menus but which are nonetheless not too hard to find and very tasty.
If you want to go for a more top-dollar bottle, those are available, too. With LaV, Mazaite, Scott and Zayyat all want to educate visitors to the restaurant about all the types of wine out there. Once the East Seventh Street spot is up and running, they’ll start planning wine tastings, wine classes, wine pairings — anything they can do to share their passion.
“The goal is to be a wine destination spot,” Mazaite said. “A good dinner, a good bottle of wine — it’s a pleasure of life.”
— Arianna Auber
Opening scheduled for March 6.
Where: 1501 E. Seventh St.