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Jewels of a Coveted Cellar

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Diners who missed out on elBulli still have a chance to sample wines from the famed restaurant’s exclusive collection.
By Kristine Hansen May 2014 Wine

It was the greatest coup in Lucas Paya’s career thus far: The remains of elBulli’s cellar had come into his possession.

Now the wine director at José Andrés’ Think Food Group, which has restaurant concepts in Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, and Puerto Rico, Paya had worked at elBulli from 2002–2007 as its sommelier, and was intimately familiar with the 9,000 bottles of wine that recently came up for auction.

After closing in 2011, the famed elBulli restaurant near Roses, Catalonia, Spain, needed financial support so it could reopen as the elBulli Foundation, dedicated to fostering creative and innovative cooking processes. Hence, the restaurant’s renowned 9,000-bottle cellar was put up for auction. “Rob Wilder, CEO of Think Food Group, and I got on a train and headed to New York City,” says Paya. The two were bound for the Sotheby’s auction held in April of last year. (Another auction was held in Hong Kong.)

“These are wines that are rare because they are in limited quantity or are older vintages that are no longer available,” explains Paya. “Some are signed by Juli Soler [co-owner of elBulli] and Ferran Adrià [elBulli’s famed chef].”

Many are also in large-format magnums or may be the last remaining bottle known in the world. At the auction, Paya purchased 100 bottles for Jaleo, Think Food Group’s Spanish-focused flagship in Washington. By March of this year, 25 of the bottles had sold, leaving just 75, ranging in price from $125–$2,000—each of which is prominently featured on the last page of Jaleo’s wine list.

The storied acquisition was the perfect pairing with the restaurant group’s already-strong wine selection. Wine lists are not the same across the board. “It’s not about one wine list. I manage 12 different wine lists,” says Paya. “It’s all about complementing the cuisine. We have very focused restaurants. Whether the focus is Spain, Mexico, the Mediterranean, or avant-garde, I try to complement the cuisine, the space, the design, and the clientele.”

For example, at Jaleo—with units in Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; Bethesda, Maryland; and Crystal City, Virginia—only Spanish wines are poured to complement the tapas-centric menu. “You won’t find anything that isn’t a representation of what you would find in Spain,” says Paya.

An astounding number of labels are featured—around 250, he estimates—representing 60 appellations throughout Spain. This includes around 80 varietals, with the bottles ranging in cost from $20–$560, not including the elite bottles remaining from the elBulli collection.

Paya does not believe in “crazy mark-ups,” striving instead to keep the cost for the diner only slightly above retail. Thirty-seven wines are poured by the glass, including six sherries and two sparkling Cavas. Sherries, in particular, are a popular match with the rich, heavy tapas on Jaleo’s menu.

With so many wines to entice customers, the process of organizing them is a large task. What has helped Paya is to separate them out by profile, not necessarily by varietal or country of origin.

“When [the wines] are dry, we like to have those separated from the sweet wines,” he says, referring specifically to sherry selections, which is a varietal that can be “super dry” or “super sweet.”

One danger of a lengthy wine list is that it can overwhelm customers. Jaleo’s waitstaff are trained to coax diners along and coached “to come up with questions like, ‘Are you going to start with something fresher or something crisp, such as olives or sea urchins?’” says Paya.

Precise Sipping

Nearby in Washington’s Penn Quarter, at minibar by José Andrés—where a prix fixe menu is paired with wines—the wine list spans the globe, although there are fewer wines on the list than at Jaleo. “It’s very straight forward. We have around 50 wines that represent the most prominent, classic regions in the world,” says Paya. This includes Riesling from Mosel, Germany; Chardonnay from California’s Sonoma Coast; and Muscadet from France’s Loire Valley. About 30 of the wines make it into the nightly pairing dinners, priced at $250 per person, plus an additional $75–$200 for wine pairings. Other wines can be ordered at the adjacent barmini, open since Valentine’s Day of 2013. “Every single dinner ends in barmini somehow,” says Paya, often with coffee and petit-fours for a sweet parting note.

At both minibar and barmini, Paya implemented a serving system in April of 2013 in which wines are poured by the milliliter and are priced as such on the wine list. Pours range from 30–750 milliliters (essentially a bottle), and staff measure them on a scale using grams, ensuring the pours are precise.

“The idea is you can order as much as you want. We give you the whole spectrum,” says Paya. “Neither the restaurant nor the customer will ever be ripped off by the size of the pour.”

Indeed, a common problem at restaurants serving wine is that the bottom line is compromised when a customer gets a large pour, yet the customer may not return if the pour is too shallow. The Think Food Group locations are among only a few eateries test-driving the Coravin device, from a Boston-area company, which allows for opening a bottle of wine without removing the cork. A needle is inserted into the cork to extract the wine while adding pressurized argon into the bottle, and the cork naturally reseals itself, allowing the wine to continue to age and not spoil.

This unique serving method is particularly effective for sharing world-class wines that would be cost-prohibitive by the bottle, or even by the glass. For instance, guests might sample a tasting from the 2000 vintage Château Ausone, Saint Émilion, priced $2,400 per bottle, but just $96 for a 30-milliliter pour.

“Customers love it so much we incorporated it into our $200 pairing experience, where the last wine poured is out of Coravin’s system,” says Paya. Another classy touch is to serve the wines in Zalto crystal glasses, which are mouth-blown in Austria.

Getting the word out about the unique wine offerings is a challenge, given that the cities in which Think Food Group restaurants are located are already very food- and wine-centric. Paya ensures all menus are on the restaurants’ websites as an enticing tool, and also sends email blasts to the thousands of guests who provided email addresses.

Capturing return visits is also key, and to help motivate diners to come back, the restaurants’ in-store promotions are refreshed quarterly. At both barmini and minibar the demand to snag a table is so great that there is always a waiting list. In that case, word-of-mouth has been the most powerful marketing tool.