Yamil Melendez, General Manager of acclaimed New York City Spanish restaurants Casa Mono and Bar Jamón, talks about how he got his start in food and wine, how the industry is evolving in challenging times, and a few of his favorite Spanish regions to watch (not to mention his expertly-selected “desert island” wine list).
Yamil, you’re the General Manager and sommelier of Casa Mono and Bar Jamón, two of Manhattan’s most iconic Spanish restaurants. What inspired you to work in hospitality, and what drew you to Spanish wine and food specifically?
I started in hospitality like most, to make money in high school and college, and it became my career of choice once I moved to New York City. It was a way to make a living in an industry that is vibrant, challenging, and ever evolving. The combination of having a daily challenge (service) and long term projects (wine lists, special event menus, pairings, budgets) was something that spoke to me.
Kind of like sports or theater, you have your good days or bad days but if you are fortunate enough to work with talented people who care about the guests and the quality of food and drinks, it can be a very rewarding experience.
I grew up loving Spanish bakeries in Puerto Rico, which led to an appreciation of all Spanish flavors—lots of heavily flavored dishes with a lot of olive oil. I was then able to visit Barcelona and Madrid and fell in love with the simplicity and mastery of modern Spanish cuisine. I arrived at the wine from the food. I loved the history and complexity of classic Spanish wines and it didn’t hurt that Spanish wine is much more affordable than its counterparts. What really hooked me about Spanish wine was its diversity and vibrant, forward-thinking winemakers.
What were some educational resources that helped you in your journey to learn everything you could about Spanish wines, and how did you incorporate your knowledge and discoveries into your wine lists? How was your knowledge grown as you’ve guided the program at both establishments?
A good wine team is almost always the best way to learn. When I first started at Casa Mono as service manager, we had very strong management that was passionate about wine and a somm team that was young, hungry, and generous with their time and knowledge. For me the best way to learn is through tastings and conversations. People who are passionate about wine love to talk about it, so as long as you come from a genuine place of curiosity and listen, they will share almost everything. I also studied at the International Wine Center, which helped me to attain a more rounded background of knowledge. Currently I try to read books about specific wine regions and winemaking. I tend to geek out with the Sherry books.
We run the same wine list at both Casa Mono and Bar Jamon, but before the current state of the industry, we had very different clientele at each location. The trick for our team was having wines that would work specifically for each space but were versatile enough for both. The advantage of having a knowledgeable staff and an enormous wine list is that we are able to take risks with certain selections. The trust is put on the staff to guide the customer to the correct wine for their palate and food selection.
Running separate locations pushed me to have a more flexible palate, making sure to concentrate not only on what we like but also what people want. Eventually the goal is to have both those things meet in the middle or be the same.
Stating the obvious: at the moment, a lot is changing in the world of wine and hospitality. How are Casa Mono and Bar Jamón adapting to these new challenges? What does the future hold for dining in New York City, and how can wine professionals get ahead in this evolving landscape?
We have made major adjustments due to the current situation. We are currently running Casa Mono and Bar Jamón as one entity. We miss the separation but it was necessary to make the new reality work. We also went from being two very small intimate spaces to a sprawling patio that took over a full corner on Gramercy, basically tripling our square footage. Single use menus have had the advantage that now we are able to rotate our by-the-glass offerings almost on a daily basis. It's allowed for more experimentation and to put some fun wines that we might not have tried when we were doing seasonal wine lists.
As far as the dining scene in NYC, it has been tough and I do believe we still have a long way to go, but this industry and this city has proven itself resilient. I have been pleasantly surprised at how quick most customers and staff have adapted to an always-changing new normal. Also, there are many creative minds in hospitality and if any industry can turn lemons into lemonade it’s the one that can actually make good lemonade.
As far as the future of wine industry professionals, I’ve seen a lot more wine professionals sharing their knowledge and not waiting in line to showcase their talents, whether it’s through social media or zoom tastings, and it seems to have been a good thing to come out of these tough times. Hopefully it will lead to more sharing of ideas and different voices being encouraged in our industry. I believe the key is making wine more approachable and not intimidating.
Spanish wine is a vast universe of unique flavors, aromas, textures, and pairing possibilities. While guests may be familiar with classic categories like Rioja and Ribera del Duero, have you seen any interesting trends for consumer adoption in other areas? Any specific grape varieties or styles stand out?
The four R’s (Ribera, Rioja, Rias Baixas and Rueda) have maintained their dominance and Priorat has always been a darling (as it should be) of wine drinkers, but many wine drinkers, even casual drinkers, are getting more and more familiar with reds from Bierzo and the varietal Mencía. It’s the first region that has become a constant in most wine drinkers vocabulary. Island wines from Islas Canarias are still having their moment (deservedly so) with both red and white wine drinkers. For whites, Txakoli is always the star of the summer and we have found that Xarel-lo, typically a variety used in sparkling wines, has been able to break the stranglehold that Albariño, Godello, and Verdejo have had over Spanish white wine drinkers.
What regions or DOs in Spain have you feeling most inspired at the moment? What are some of your go-to Spanish wind and food pairings, both for your guests, and for yourself and friends at home?
The past year or so I’ve been really into the red wines from the Sierra de Gredos, mostly old vine garnacha, around the Madrid DO and Castilla y León. Some of my favorite winemakers are making beautiful, lightly-colored, floral, and complex garnachas. Very excited for these wines to become more popular, but will be sad that they won’t be as affordable once the secret is out (it kind of already is).
I also love the Penedès DO and the DOs around Catalunya that are producing aromatic terrroir-driven whites from Xarel-lo, reds that are fresh and light from Sumoll and Trepat, and sparkling wines that are complex and rewarding. Spanish sparklers are still to this day not as highly appreciated as they should be; these wines are some of the best value wines available in the market.
Sherry has always been my favorite for food pairing. A Fino en Rama with Jamon Iberico or Sardinas Fritas showcases the versatility of the wine to handle salt and fat. I use that pairing as an introduction of what Jerez can do. An oloroso with piquillo peppers is equally complementary to both the peppers and the wine, and to finish a meal a crema Catalana with cream sherry.
Spain’s culinary and winemaking traditions are some of the oldest and most distinctive in the world, but aren’t as well represented in the United States as, say, the food and wine of France of Italy. What do you think it is exactly, about foods and wines from Spain that make them so unique and distinctive?
The main obstacle has been availability and the way the cuisine is meant to be enjoyed. Not until recently have diners in the United States started to embrace the concept of sharing dishes, either family style or tapas. Spanish cuisine’s most famous dishes are either tapas, small dishes with intense flavors that need to be balanced by other dishes with intense flavors, or paellas, large rice dishes that also need to be shared. So the more we learn to share our food, the more popularity the cuisine will attain.
At the fine dining level, we just need more restaurants that are doing what modern fine dining restaurants are doing in Spain: small portions, and innovative techniques from the culinary heart of San Sebastian, Costa Brava, Barcelona, and Madrid. Not easy to accomplish, but that’s what makes them great.
As far as the wine, you drink what you eat. So the lack of Spanish restaurants has led to consumers not being exposed to the wonders of Spanish wines. One of the most rewarding parts of our jobs in Casa Mono is showcasing and educating our clientele about Spanish wine. It’s always great to open someone’s palate to the vast and affordable world of Spanish wines.
And now, the classic closer question: You’re stranded on a desert island with only one case of Spanish wine to hold you over until you are rescued. . . what’s in your case, and why?
Lopez de Heredia Blanco Gran Reserva Tondonia 1981
My birth year wine, and a great representation of what a vintage white classic Rioja is. Unique with lots of tertiary flavors.
La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva 2001
Traditional Rioja at its best. Earth, spice, and fruit. Complex yet approachable. Great Rioja Vintage.
Nanclares Dandelion Magnum 2019
Cheating with a magnum, but for this wine it makes a difference. Fresh, herbal, citrus and a bit of salinity. Great representation of Albariño.
Envinate Taganan Blanco 2017
White field blend from the Islas Canarias. Expressive, savory, toasted.
Bernabeleva Arroyo de Tórtolas 2017
A garnacha from the Madrid DO that showcases beautiful floral and fruit characteristics. Complex, yet fun drinking.
Mas d’en Gil Clos Fonta 2012
Old vine carignan and garnacha. Full body, complex.
Ultreia La Claudina 2016
Godello from sandy soils. Ripe, herbal and structured.
Luis A. Rodriguez Vasquez Os Pasas 2017
Fresh, mineral field blend of mostly Treixadura. Love this wine.
Sabaté i Coca Castellroig Terroja 2015
Xarel-lo at its best. Citric, floral and oily.
Vina Callejuela Almacenista Manzanilla Anina 2017
Vintage Manzanilla. Deep fruit flavors with all the classic floral and herbal qualities of a traditional Manzanilla
Bermejos Listan Negro Rosado 2019
Dry, high acid rosé with character and a touch of salinity. Great with food or on its own.
Raventós Mas del Serral 2007
Magical single varietal vintage sparkling. 100 months on lees.