From age 14, Gretchen Thomas was on track to become a chef. She worked her way up the ranks in the back of the house at local restaurants in her native Kentucky, and in her early 20s she eschewed the traditional college path to pursue a cooking career, enrolling at the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in New York. There, amid all the chopping, cooking and kitchen duties, she discovered her place wasn't in the kitchen, after all. Thanks to a stellar grade in the CIA's rigorous wine course ("the famously most-failed class at the school," she affectionately calls it), the aspiring chef earned an all-expenses-paid trip to some of the most famous wineries in the world, including Louis Jadot, Château Margaux, Pétrus and Tenuta San Guido—a heady experience for a 22-year-old. Thomas returned from the trip with a newfound love for wine and an insatiable wanderlust, and set her sights on a new path toward success in the restaurant world.
A year after graduating from the CIA, Thomas took a job as manager at the first Barcelona Wine Bar location in South Norwalk, Conn., in 2006, and it wasn't long before her skills in the cellar earned her a promotion to wine director for the then-four Barcelona Wine Bars. Now, Thomas oversees the wine and spirits programs for all of Barteca Restaurant Group, which has rapidly expanded across the eastern U.S. in the past decade. It now encompasses South America–inspired concept Bartaco, plus 13 Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning Barcelona Wine Bars. Though her home is near Barteca's headquarters in Norwalk, Conn., Thomas spends half the year visiting the restaurant group's 27 locations, jetting off to explore wine regions across the globe, and dabbling in winemaking in Spain and South America. Editorial assistant Lexi Williams spoke with Thomas about the evolution of her own lists and the Spanish wines drinkers should be paying more attention to.
Wine Spectator: How has Barcelona Wine Bar's wine list changed since you joined the team back in 2006?
Gretchen Thomas: [When I first started,] the wine list was completely not relevant for how good the restaurant was—we had a fun Spanish tapas thing going on, and the list was just full of mass-market California wine and a bunch of French wines; there were maybe five Spanish wines. It was almost like being handed a blank slate. I spent a lot of time with my sales reps and had them bring me every Spanish wine that existed in Connecticut at the time, and I tasted and took notes.
[At the time,] Connecticut didn't have a lot of Spanish wine available in the state. So I'd go to New York and taste there at restaurants like Casa Mono and Boqueria, and kind of pick through their menus and see what was cool and interesting to get registered in Connecticut. Now, it's a completely different atmosphere in Connecticut. There's way more Spanish wine in the state than I could even possibly put on the menu. But interestingly enough, as we move into new markets—we're opening in Philadelphia right now, we opened in Nashville not too long ago—it's sort of starting fresh again, because without a Spanish restaurant to really push the agenda and be the ambassador for these wineries, they're not there. So once we get in there, then those wines will get introduced, and then they'll have an outlet to sell their wines.
WS: What is the focus for Barcelona's wine lists now?
GT: The focus of the list is wines that are just awesome, affordable, killer food wines. Regionally, Spain is our wheelhouse, and South America is also up there. It's about 60 percent Spain, 20 percent South America—between Argentina, Chile and Uruguay—and then everything else falls within that remaining 20 percent. So it's sort of like any restaurant wine list that features wines from all over the world, but instead of only having four Spanish wines, we've got several hundred. We love to have wines that are organic, biodynamic, natural. And wines that are off the radar—not because we want to be wine snobs, but because those wines tend to be way more value-oriented.
WS: What lesser-known styles or regions are you excited to help your guests discover?
GT: Funnily enough, I think I can still say that Spain in general is mostly still under the radar, with the exception of a few places like Rioja. Rioja is to us what Chianti is to any Italian restaurant—it's our No. 1 selling red wine category.
My favorite areas are the Vinos de Madrid area for these biodynamic, high-altitude, granite-soil Garnachas that are rich in body but actually have a really delicate quality to them. They're great for people who like California Pinot Noir. Then, all of the Galician regions—they're making some of the most exciting wines in Spain right now, such as Bierzo and Valdeorras. Most of those [red] wines are made with Mencía, but there are more grapes from that area than just Mencía, and they're great for people who like cru Beaujolais or Northern Rhône–style wines—sort of herbal, ripe fruit, floral, a little bit spicy, but light-bodied wines. It's so different from what Spain is known for, because Spain is so known for these oaky, more full-bodied wines. But Galician red wines are really delicate and awesome.
Beyond that, Catalunya is another area in Spain that's got extreme growth and really cool wines that are coming over to the U.S. And then Penedès—outside of making Cava—is sort of the most organic-heavy wine region in all of Spain. I mean, there is some bomb wine coming from there—white wines, red wines, rosé, all flavor spectrums, anything from crazy funky to actually very approachable.
As far as funky regions, Chile is also off the radar, particularly in the south of Chile. There's a region called the Itata Valley, which is where all the cool kids are making wine right now. They're making wines from Sémillon and Moscatel and these local grapes. Real serious wine drinkers should be looking at this area.