When a restaurant announces a wine dinner, there’s an air of expectancy that food, wine and presentation will exceed business as usual, that exemplary skills and talents of a troupe of chefs, sommeliers, wineries, their representatives and dining room staffs will harmoniously assemble for one dazzling evening. Otherwise, why bother? Local Flavor chronicled the who-what-when-where-why-how of organizing one such wine dinner at Eloisa.
It began on a commonly beautiful late September day during the 2015 Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta. Cole Donald Sisson was in town as the US brand ambassador for Bodega Ontañón in Rioja, Spain. The winery is run by the 5th generation—four siblings—who come from a long line of farmers and only began exporting to the US four years ago. Even more recently, their product is to be distributed by Southern Wine and Spirits (“SWS”) in New Mexico. Before working for the winery, Cole ran the wine program for Michael Mina at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. That’s young sommelier heaven. At 34, Cole’s now part of a small import team based in Seattle, Wash.
Damon Lobato had just started as general manager and wine director for Eloisa, a stylish restaurant and bar opened by Chef John Sedlar earlier that year in a ground floor space of the Drury Plaza Hotel in downtown Santa Fe. The hotel had only begun receiving guests the previous summer after massive renovations to the historic St. Vincent Hospital. Damon, who keeps his black hair parted and wears a suit with old-world panache befitting one who once rode the rails of the Orient Express as a wine captain, was looking for a winery to do the first wine dinner in the new restaurant, when he met Cole at Wine and Chile. It was an ideal convergence of fresh starts.
Wine Dinner at EloisaJohn Sedlar, a veteran chef, left behind the acclaim he’d won in Los Angeles, closing the doors of his Latin-themed Rivera at the end of 2014 after a successful seven-year run. He was coming home to the New Mexico of his youth to bring a circumference of experience, inspired by memory, fostered by his ógrandmother, Eloisa. “Santa Fe is a crossroads of commerce, history and cultures,” says Chef John, a gentleman of calm confidence. “Coming home was like putting on a well-worn glove.” Make no mistake; Eloisa is an urban emporium where the foods, filtered through Sedlar’s sophisticated modern creativity and regard for culinary archaeology, are not replicas or repetitions of classic New Mexican dishes. “My influences are Spanish, Latin, North African, Portuguese. I’m continually fascinated by the migration of foods, vegetables and spices brought on galleons and seeded throughout the New World.” John, whose father was in the service, also lived in Spain as a young boy. “Spain is a violent culture,” the chef says. “We’d go to bullfights; I really loved those. Flamenco is violent, the landscape. Flavors like saffron, preserved lemon, pimentón, very, very intense garlic are rustic and vibrant,” John says. “For me, it’s important to create natural pairings.” Asked to explain, he replies, “I believe in using Spanish wines with Spanish foods; Latin nwith Latin; Portuguese; and so forth. Wines native to their kitchens.” His directive for Damon was to select wines for their list from Spanish speaking countries. Since taking over at Eloisa, Damon has made it his mission to eliminate the common denominators that populated the cellar he inherited, and has gone a long way in a short time to source wines from small farmer/producers and progressive winemakers in both Europe and South America. Ontañón was one of them.
Cole was scheduled to come to New Mexico to participate in the Taos Winter Wine Festival for Ontañón at the end of January, and it was easy to arrange an early arrival in order to host the dinner at Eloisa on the 27th. “There were problems,” Damon admits. “What does everyone in Spain drink at the beginning of the evening? Cava! I wanted a sparkling wine to greet guests, and Ontañón doesn’t have one.” As not many wineries make both still and sparkling, it was agreed to use one from a neighboring producer in Rioja, who bottles cava in the Penedès, a classic wine region in Catalonia. There was another hitch. What to pair with the dessert course? Ontañón’s distributor, Southern Wine & Spirits, carried its classic still wines, but not the dessert wine. Cole said they would arrange to provide the late harvest Moscato. But, a week before the dinner, Damon got bad news. The dessert wine would not be available from SWS in time. An 11th-hour compromise had to be made. “In this country,” says Damon says, “we don’t drink enough Sherry. The perception is Sherry is [a] sickly sweet wine sipped by great aunts. In reality, it’s a vastly complex, fortified wine from Southern Spain, and primarily, a dry, food-friendly wine. We chose an aged Amontillado that has a nutty rich finish.”
A week before the dinner, the reservations were scant. Damon considered canceling. In Seattle, Cole had to confirm travel plans and hotel reservations. If the dinner was a go, then the kitchen would need to secure and prepare product and Damon had wine to order. By the weekend, reservations began climbing significantly. In fact, the opposite problem now existed. Would they have to limit the number of participants? Concurrently, Eloisa had just booked a private party of 40 into the dining room on the same night. You can’t turn away business like that in January. However, the logistics of handling two large groups necessitated moving up the start of the wine dinner by an hour to avoid jamming the kitchen. As it was, the front-of-the-house staff and servers would be stretched.
The night of the dinner was clear and brittle. Eloisa is stunning at any time, but lit for the evening, its white walls and burnished silvery grays of galvanized metal surfaces and the warm bark brown of the bar conveyed the atmosphere of a winter gala. Arriving guests were shown to their places, which were set with assorted glassware waiting to be filled. With the clack of spoon to crystal, Damon rang for silence and gave welcome to the first Eloisa wine dinner. He spoke intensely of his preference to “blind taste” wines, that is, without prior knowledge of what they may be, in order to judge them only on merit and not be prejudiced by labels or price. Then Cole Sisson was introduced, who briefly told the history of the family winery and spoke to the specifics of the wines. His agenda is clear: these are wines he believes in enough to stake a career, and his hope is that we enjoy them.
Chef John Sedlar’s dishes were enhanced with orphic sounding ingredients: ras el hanout (Moroccan spice mix), huacatay (Peruvian herb), cola de toro (tail of the bull), nixtamal (Aztec corn preparation). The plates, artfully garnished with stenciled sprinklings of ground condiments like paprika, dried peppers or cocoa, brought diners to ooh and aah as each course, perfectly timed, was set before them. Discussions were sparked about the wine pairings. Philip de Give (a contributor to this magazine), representing SWS as a wine specialist, provided an unexpected treat by bringing an older vintage of 2010 Ontañón Vetiver Blanco, made from the Viura grape, by way of comparison to the younger 2013 vintage, which was paired with a course of poached egg and endive with Xerez (Sherry) vinagreta. Indubitably, the 2010 shows how well the white wine ages. The “Primero” and “Secundo” courses (pork belly and bulls’ tail, respectively) were matched with Tempranillo, a 2012 Crianza and a 2005 Reserva. Cole had his own surprise decanted on a side table, a few bottles of Ontañón 1995 Reserva, which he packed with him from Seattle and poured for each guest. While all the wines were first-rate, the 1995 was the belle of the evening.
There are pragmatic reasons for doing wine dinners. They’re presented during the doldrums of a season when regulars and tourists stay home, or a weeknight when the real estate in the dining room would otherwise be unoccupied. Perhaps a winemaker is visiting and their distributor can create ancillary business and press. Most fully, wine dinners showcase a winery and a restaurant, allowing the imagination to create a sensual memory we can all carry with us.
Eloisa Restaurant is situated within the Drury Plaza Hotel at 228 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe. 505.982.0883, eloisasantafe.com. Call for information about upcoming wine dinners.
Story by James Selby