In a seemingly ordinary brick building nestled between the South Norwalk seaside and the Lililan August Warehouse store, an entire secret world is at work. Winding staircases and labyrinth-like halls lead to the headquarters of Barcelona, acclaimed wine and tapas bar. The space is an eclectic a mix between a mad scientist’s lab and a gourmet kitchen. Plates, beakers, and ingredients are piled on counters and tabletops while photographs of enticing dishes hang on the walls. Tucked amidst wine glasses and bottles, Gretchen Thomas is hard at work.
Thomas oversees the wine and spirits program at Barcelona Restaurant Group. She has a slight punk rock edge, from her red hair to the studs on her boots. And it’s fitting; she has the savvy to run an entire operation. She manages the selection of wines, beers, and spirits, coordinates mixology training, and organizes related events. At the same time, she has the heart of a flower child, embracing relationships and prioritizing the interpersonal. She brings that philosophy to her business.
“We build relationships with the producers,” she explains. “We create working friendships with our distributors.”
These bonds have given her multiple opportunities to visit the producers and vineyards themselves. In September, she and a group of chefs and managers went to Spain to get a better understanding of the general culture. While there, she searched meticulously for wines to bring back to the restaurants.
“A wine must have something behind it. A unique quality, a story,” she muses.
Thomas found one such wine at the Cellar del Roure in Valencia. She plans to introduce the Les Alcusses within the next 2-3 weeks. The wine is a blend of Monastrell, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet, and Tempranillo. It ages in French oak for 4-6 months, 2 of which are spent on lies. It heralds from stone and clay soils and is farmed sustainably. Another one of the vineyard’s selections, a “higher end” Maduresa, also appears on Barcelona’s list. However, importing these wines proved a formidable task.
“They were very unavailable in the US,” Thomas says. “We had a road ahead to find a new importer.” Fortunately, her persistence paid off. Because of its “outstandingly good” price, Barcelona will be able to serve it by the glass in addition to the bottle.
This is not the first time that Thomas has found a way to help a keep a beautiful wine on the shelves. A few years ago, importing limitations threatened access to the Laurona, a blend of Garnacha and Carinena from Montsant. The smooth, medium-bodied wine is highly accessible and stunning in all regards. It starts out tasting of black fruit and earth, but suddenly gives way to a beautiful blueberry brightness. After numerous phone calls and negotiations, Barcelona now directly imports the wine.
“We saved the winery from shutting its doors,” Thomas recalls.
There are other exciting developments taking place at Barcelona. Wine enthusiasts with a flair for the atypical can get their fix from a relatively new offering known as Gretchen’s Buzz. Thomas has compiled a list of some of her favorite, yet unusual wines that customers can order by the glass. For example, the Buzz features the Tannat Vinedo, a sweeter red from Atlantida, Uruguay. After years of being overlooked, Uruguay is emerging as an up and coming wine region. “The Buzz is an esoteric good time!” Gretchen proclaims.
In addition, Barcelona began featuring sherry and tapas pairings. Thomas selects a sherry and asks the chefs to come up with small plates to pair with it. Right now it is the Pedro Romero Amontillado Medium. Admittedly, some pairings turns out better than others. “It’s still a work in progress,” explains Thomas. It is new for the restaurant, and the chefs have the freedom to experiment with regularly changing tapas. Thomas recommends the pairings by Chef Scott Quis from the Stamford location. His frequent travels and regional studies have given him a profound appreciation for authentic Spanish cuisine. On the night that I went, he served a delicious, delicate pintxo of bread pudding and foie gras with the sherry.
Adventurous eaters can still participate in Barcelona’s Sunday Pig Roasts. The weekly event has a benefit for vino fans too: half off bottles of wine. Thomas’ “go to pork wine” is the 2008 Cosme Palacio. This white from Rioja is barrel fermented and bottle-aged. It has notes reminiscent of lemon curd and almond that come from its age. One can also use the evening as a chance to try the Trepat from the Loire Vally. The light, peppery red wine is almost Rose-like.
“The challenge of my job is riding the line between pleasing the masses and pleasing the press,” reflects Thomas. Despite the obstacles, she rises to the occasion and incorporates wines that range from accessible to idiosyncratic. No matter what wine you drink, you can feel confident that it has carefully and lovingly selected. There is a story behind every glass.