Gretchen Thomas of Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurants
"It's not easy to sell Bobal from Manchuela," said Gretchen Thomas, the Wine and Spirits Director at the Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurants, "but if you bring the staff to meet Juan Antonio Ponce, you can't not sell Bobal for the man." At Barcelona since 2005, Gretchen began as the assistant manager and six months later was given the opportunity to develop the wine program for Barcelona's five restaurants. Currently with nine locations, and another on the horizon, Gretchen revamped a wine program that was initially 80% Cabernet from California. "Staff training is the number one most important part of my job," she added, as she spoke about the sommelier training classes that she conducts every Saturday. "I'll teach the same wine class until I get through to every restaurant. It helps me put a face to the staff. When you read reviews about our staff, people are impressed with what they know about the wines."
The Barcelona team visiting with Ricard Sebastia of Josep Foraster
With six locations in Connecticut, one in Boston, one in Atlanta and another in D.C., Barcelona initially began with 150 wines and no restaurant then carried the same list. When Gretchen opened the group's fifth restaurant, a year and a half after she started, she said, "There weren't a lot of people buying Spanish wines in Connecticut, but the owners wanted to have the Spanish wine list in the country. Now," she added, "we can bring in a lot of wines from Spain and South America."
In the vineyards at Ameztoi in Getariako Txakolina
Leading trips to Spain three or four times a year, she said, "I've lots of inspiration from the source. With Jorge [Perez, our Iberian/South American Portfolio Director] excited about biodynamic and low-intervention winemaking, I'm also on board with it." Running with groups of no more than eight, Gretchen brings managers, sommeliers, and chefs. "We eat our faces off," she said and laughed. "There's a guaranteed five pound weight gain. Some of the best meals are with the wineries. Paella cooked fireside by the beach is more special than anything you could have in a restaurant." Caring most about what her staff learns in terms of hospitality, she said, "The aha moments for a lot of people on these trips are based on these connections and experiences. It's what we're supposed to deliver to our guests to thank them for coming. It's the main message of the trip. We'll revisit wineries that we've visited with Jorge because it hits every point. A wine we can do well with, but there's also a special person behind it."
Following the aforementioned trip to visit Bodegas Ponce in Manchuela, she said, "For the whole week, everyone was talking about him. Every visit that week was compared to him. There's no way we can make food better than every restaurant, but we can create the best experience."
Juan Antonio Ponce of Bodegas Ponce
Inspired by the traditions of Spain, "We are not traditionalists," said Gretchen. "We don't have the exact ingredients, so we can't be truly authentic. We do it our own way. We're chef driven. The food is not married to being traditional. The chefs can draw inspiration from anywhere. The Middle-East, Spain, America." And just as the menus aren't "traditional" neither are the wine lists. "We're inspired by Spain, but I love wines from France. We're international but 60% Spain, which also speaks to the food. If you go to the best restaurants in Madrid or Barcelona, you'll find Champagne or great wines from France."
In 2010, with the wine list alive and kicking, Gretchen tackled Barcelona's cocktail program. With a newborn at home, Gretchen and her husband decided that he would stay at home with the baby, and she would return to work. Given the opportunity to develop the restaurants' spirits program "with no Absolut flavors behind the bar, we started a craft cocktail program," she said. "My biggest undertaking was convincing the bartenders." At this point, everything was vodka based: apple martinis, espresso martinis. "It was gross," she added and laughed. Starting from scratch, she insisted that the bartenders use jiggers, squeeze fresh juice and have conversations with the guests. "I took off all the commercial stuff and replaced it with artisanal. I forced them to work really hard over night." And everyone who wasn't onboard with the changes left. Now, she said, "There are finally other restaurants in Connecticut that have craft cocktail programs."
And though Gretchen has finally abandoned the seven-day workweek, she's now also in charge of Barcelona's Gretchen Selections, bringing in wines from small Spanish and South American producers. "It's a small selection," said Gretchen. "I don't want it to compete too much with what I do. But they're mostly wineries that don't have a lot to share with the U.S.. We take a normal mark-up and pass the savings on to the guest. It's fun."