A native of Santa Fe, N.M., Graciela Gonzalez, 31, travelled to Andalucia in Spain when she was 16 and developed a passion for flamenco, which she pursued as a career until she returned to her home state six years later.
Restaurant jobs had already been a big part of Gonzalez's life, so she worked as a server at the Old House when Martín Rios was the executive chef, and later at trendy Tune-Up Café, where Rios' wife, Jennifer, was a regular. When the couple launched Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe in September 2008, Jennifer asked Gonzalez to be part of the opening team. She quickly rose to manager of the wine program, taking the Court of Master Sommeliers introductory course in the process.
Since 2012, Restaurant Martín's 150-selection wine list has held an Award of Excellence. The focus is on value, with most wines priced under $100. Along with staples from California and Oregon, Gonzalez has peppered her list with under-the-radar regions, offbeat wines such as Txakolina and Encruzado, and selections from northern Italy, the Loire Valley and southern France.
During a sabbatical from the restaurant this year, Gonzalez returned to Spain and fell back into flamenco. Returning to Santa Fe, Gonzalez danced the summer season with the Entre Flamenco Company before resumes her work at Restaurant Martín in October. She sat down with assistant tasting coordinator Emma Balter to discuss her vision for the wine list, the vibrant culinary scene in Santa Fe and the parallels between wine and dance.
Wine Spectator: What eventually brought you back to Santa Fe after your travels, and into the service industry?
Graciela Gonzalez: Life changed. I was considering whether I was going to be dancing at that point. Am I going to be a dancer for the rest of my life? I decided to stay in Santa Fe and really just focus on being here. What I thought was only going to be a year turned out to be 10 years of me not dancing.
I've always worked in restaurants. I got my first restaurant job as a busser when I was 13. It was illegal, under the table, and I made $40 a weekend at 13 and was like: “I'm rich! I'm rich!” I always really loved restaurants; they're flexible with time and reasonable in my experience as far as compensation.
WS: How did you go from a server to managing the wine program at Restaurant Martín?
GG: Just being thrown into it: Okay, you need to start talking to people about wine. The people we work with, the people that we serve, some of them know a great deal about wine. In being nothing more than connoisseurs, sometimes their knowledge surpasses even the distributors I've worked with. And that's phenomenal and great and also intimidating for some people.
It was definitely intimidating for me at the beginning, but I knew that I couldn't give anything less than what my ideal standard of service was. And that's when I really started to delve deeply into wine.
WS: What do you drink on your own time?
GG: I have such an affinity for Spain and Spanish reds, but my taste for them has definitely matured. I really enjoy Tempranillos from Toro, as opposed to Rioja. I really love all of the Montsant area. People have always asked me to describe what I like about Spanish reds, and I say: “They're a delightful punch in the face!”
WS: What has been your focus with the list since you started?
GG: One of the ideas behind Restaurant Martín that always stood out to me was the idea of accessibility. That was a big word for me. I always thought of Restaurant Martín as a fine dining experience that was accessible to people who might not necessarily want to spend $300 every single time they go out to a nice restaurant. If Restaurant Martín can provide fine dining service and fine dining quality at an accessible price point, then why wouldn't our wine list match that? I want people to feel fancy drinking a $30 bottle of wine, because it's a good $30 bottle of wine.
WS: What has been your guests' reaction to the list you curated?
GG: I see these really hip, young wine bars, where all these people under 35 are talking about all these new exciting wines. That's not quite our demographic. I was lucky I was working on the floor a lot. Because of that, I felt that I built a really great relationship with everyone who was coming into the restaurant on a regular basis. Because of that trust I built, I got to talk to them about different things. Maybe they never tasted Marco Felluga's white blend. Maybe they didn't know where Friuli was, but I got to talk to them about it and introduce them to it. They really came along with me on the wine list.
WS: What's the culinary scene in Santa Fe like?
GG: Santa Fe is definitely a tourist destination and has always been leading New Mexico as far as cuisine. Geronimo and Coyote Café have long been staples. Recently, over the last 10 years, Santa Fe cuisine has exploded. Now there's handfuls of restaurants that have really standout food. Radish & Rye is a new restaurant that's up-and-coming; they're fantastic. There are a lot of people doing their best to make eating in Santa Fe an experience, so that people come here to dine, not just to see the great sights and buy Native American jewelry.
WS: How would you characterize New Mexican cuisine?
GG: New Mexican culture is kind of a hodgepodge. It's a combination of traditional Mexican culture, traditional Spanish culture, traditional Native American culture that's all been mixed together over generations and generations. We've been here so long that we've developed our own way of being, which includes food. I'd say it definitely includes beans, red and green chile, and sopaipillas. I think it's its own entity: something smothered in chile!
WS: Do you see parallels between wine and dance?
GG: I think there's romance in both. They're both excruciating work; you have to love them to do them. There's no way you couldn't love winemaking to be a winemaker. You're spending more time with your craft than you are possibly with the people you love, and that's something dance parallels in so many ways. You can't have anything lower than a level of passion to really produce something fantastic. Your product will be at the level at which you're in love with your work. They're both art!