She graduated as valedictorian of her class, travels the world to stay current in her subject which she teaches with passion every Saturday and her personal mantra is a three-word Latin sentence: Vinum est vita (wine is life).
She is Gretchen Thomas, wine director-wunderfraulein of the popular Barcelona Restaurant and Wine Bar, which is now a chain of four in in Connecticut (, New Haven, Greenwich, Stamford and Fairfield and West Hartford).
Thomas’ expertise and devotion to wines has just won Barcelona a designation as one of the nation’s 100 best wine restaurants in 2011 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. The honors were bestowed particularly on Barcelona’s Greenwich outpost on East Putnam Avenue, but company management considers the accolades to apply equally to all the Barcelonas.
(In fairness, the award also singled out Barcelona for its “unique gastronomy,” overseen by Adam Halberg, and the award is one of many captured by the Barcelonas since the first one opened in 1996 in SoNo by Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer.)
Since 2006, Thomas has assembled a wine list of over 350 selections, more than 40 of them by the glass, which she discovers and imports from small vineyards in Spain and South America, then puts on the menus of all the Barcelonas.
“In nearly four years I have visited Spain four times and South America six times, always in search of small producers with incredible wines, just waiting to be discovered,” she said.
“Many wines on this list are exclusive to Barcelona restaurants, some may not even be found anywhere else in the nation because of their limited quantities.”
The wine list fills 11 pages (spirits, aperitifs, cocktails and sangrias another four).
Prices for a bottle range from $21 for a white wine from Argentina to a staggering $639 for a 1996 Spanish Cabernet Sauvignon.
So what does Thomas look for in a wine priced in the lower range on the menu (up to $40)?
“In the case of all price ranges, I am looking for quality-to-price ratio. The wine must over-deliver for the price, no matter the range,” Thomas told Patch. “Also, it must taste like where it came from and truly represent the terroir of its region.”
(For the uninitiated, the terroir is the combination of environmental conditions—the soil, climate and other factors—that give a wine its characteristics.)
In addition to choice wines and an appealing tapas menu, Barcelona offers a convivial, warm and friendly atmosphere.
The wine-sampling menu certainly contributes to the vibe.
“Wine Flights” offers three tastes (pick Rioja, South America or Cataluna) of different wines selected from those regions (priced $14 and $16).
Thomas graduated as valedictorian of her class at the Culinary Institute of America. As gifted a wine connoisseur as she is, she’s also a talented writer, posting monthly columns (“Gretchen’s Buzz”) in the drinks menu introducing new finds.
Her July notice trumpets the 1995 Faustino de Autor Resderva Especial, at $52 the bottle.
“It has aromas of tobacco, wet earth, black tea, dried cherries and mushrooms, with a medium body, bright fruit attack, and the longest finish a wine could possibly have,” she writes. “It should be experienced by anyone with an interest in fine and rare aged wines.”
As for a “new to me” cocktail, Thomas writes that the white port cocktail, introduced to her in Portugal as “Caipo-Porto,” is “one of the most refreshing and addictive summer cocktails I’ve had in a while. With fresh muddled limes and a little bit of sugar, can’t go wrong.”
Thomas is so dedicated to her work that she devotes Saturdays to ongoing staff training in wine tasting and selection, rotating from Barcelona to Barcelona. A typical class lasts two hour. (The public can sign up for $20 per session. Barcelona also offers cooking classes.)
With such an extensive wine list, how is a waiter instructed to make recommendations to diners?
“Generally people are eating tapas here, and the array of ingredients and flavors can really hit all spectrums, so the idea is to find wines that the customers enjoy drinking and don’t overpower the food,” Thomas replies. “That’s why heavily oaked whites and sugary reds are not present on the wine list. The wines are meant to compliment the food, not dominate.”
Speaking of food, there is some variation among Barcelonas depending on the styles and preferences of the chefs, although it’s fair to say that bland is banned (understatement).
On a recent evening at the SoNo restaurant, Executive Chef Jodi Bernhard prepared Nunavut Char, a rare and hard-to-come-by Canadian fish, serving it with charred corn, Piquillo peppers and lime. (On a rotating schedule, Barcelona’s chefs head to the Hunts Point fish market in the Bronx on a weekly basis to place fish orders for the entire group.)
And what would go with the $639 bottle of Unico from the Vego-Sicilia vineyard in Spain?
Thomas describes it as a “beautiful, elegant, cerebral type of red wine.”
Perhaps wine for the brain requires no accompaniment at all.
Barcelona Restaurant and Wine Bar (called "Barcelona Sono" on their website) is located at 155 Temple Street, New Haven.
Open for dinner seven days a week. Thomas' weekly class is offered at the Stamford location each Sunday. More information can be found here.