Interview with AJ Ojeda Pons, Beverage Director of Mercado Little Spain
AJ Ojeda Pons, the newly-named Beverage Director of Mercado Little Spain—the Spanish gastronomic destination in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards—recently sat down with Wines From Spain to discuss hot trends in Spanish wine, mouthwatering pairings (iconic and original), and how he shares his passion for vinous and culinary exploration with all of his guests.
Congratulations on your exciting new role at Mercado Little Spain! How did you get your start in working in wine?
How did I start? Well, if I must mention my age! I always mention coming from a family that enjoyed good wines at the table anddining out, so that may be the starting point. Even as a kid, I remember what wines my parents liked to order in restaurants, and depending on the selection, we’d know if we were celebrating something. That instilled a passion for great wines in me from the beginning.
Fast-forward to the last eighteen years or so, I’ve been working in fine dining restaurants in New York City, and gradually went from a reservationist to a sommelier, to a wine director, to getting the WSET Diploma, and now Beverage Director of Mercado Little Spain. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ve learned from some of the best sommeliers and wine directors along the way.
The Little Spain opening on March 15 was one of the most exciting things for Spanish food and wine in the U.S. in quite some time. Can you tell us a little about your role at Little Spain and the philosophy and ideals that guide the incredibly diverse beverage program of the various parts of the project?
It is an incredibly exciting role and a huge undertaking! I am now a (beverage) ambassador for Spain (unofficial, but how cool does that sound?). At Little Spain, we are offering NYC something that they didn’t know they had been craving on a large scale and in different ways. It is not just about curating a list of good wines, cocktails and beverages that are truly Spanish, but also really infusing the program with a heavy dose of Spanish culture and really showing New Yorkers how Spaniards drink. From restaurant to bars, there is something truly unique about the beverages we are offering, and trust me, you will want to come back for more.
For those who haven’t been, Little Spain is incredibly impressive in its selection of Spanish food and wines. From coca and paella stands to jamón and queso purveyors to three restaurants, the space offers a diverse array of Spain has to offer. Among that, Little Spain also has a wine bar and a cocktail bar. Can you talk about how this diverse beverage program works together and what the initial reaction has been to such a diverse array of Spanish beverages?
We have a very diverse and Spanish-focused program. Every restaurant and bar within Little Spain has different selections. At Mar, the wine list will focus on wines that pair well with seafood; at Leña, the selections will be better suited for meat dishes.
Bar Celona is our outstanding cocktail bar where you can get Sherry, Sidra, Sangria, wine, and Spanish beers. Vinos, our wine bar, will offer the most comprehensive list of Spanish wines by the glass from every wine producing region in Spain. Currently, we are starting with 20 whites and 20 reds by the glass, and eventually we will have 400 labels to offer by the bottle. Besides the wines, we have a large list of Vermuts, Sangrias, classic Spanish Gin Tonics and a terrific selection of cocktails that are Spain-inspired, with a lot of Spanish spirits. Guests at the bars and restaurants are excited to find beverages they thought they could only get in Spain, the reaction has been monumental, and everyone is ready to explore the myriad of offerings we have.
Talking about Spanish wine in general, do you have a favorite region or indigenous grape variety?
My heart always remains in Catalunya so I tend to swing to the wines of the region, from Cava to Priorat to the Costers del Segre, but in all honesty, I love everything España has to offer, and I love to drink through all of Spain! I don’t have a favorite variety, but if I were to choose what I drink the most, I would say Carinyena, Godello, Trepat, Palomino Fino, and Xarel-lo. I always tell everyone, explore, explore, explore and not just stick to what ‘you always drink.’
Little Spain is all about the marriage of Spanish food and Spanish wine! Guide us through a few of your favorite tapas and wine pairings.
Always drink Cava with tapas! I like Banderillas (olives with white anchovies and roasted pepper) with a glass of Manzanilla or Fino sherry, Calamares a la Romana with a glass of Rías Baixas Albariño, Gambas al Ajillo with a glass of Galician Treixadura or fresh Rueda Verdejo, a plate of Paella de Verduras with a glass of earthy Garnacha from Catalunya or a good rosé Cava. The greatest pairing of them all is any great piece of fire-roasted meat (a Chuleton or Rib Eye) with an Oloroso sherry: it will change your life. And don’t forget Croquetas de Jamón with a terrific Mencía!
What do you see as far as trends go in Spanish wine, both from a production standpoint and how your customers are enjoying these wines?
I see guests are experimenting more, not just drinking the classic regions (Rioja, Ribera del Duero) but exploring the smaller wine producing regions of Galicia (Ribeiro, Valdeorras) and the revival of Sherry as a whole. It’s amazing to see so many people stop at our bars that are not necessarily of Spanish origin knowing so much about sherry! The don’t see it as this sweet thing from the past, but a wine that can be versatile with so many different foods.
You haven’t always worked in Spanish restaurants, for example, previously you were the Wine Director at The Lambs Club. In a setting like that where guests might have less familiarity with Spanish wines and cuisine, how did you get them to try a Spanish wine on your list?
In my experience, I always thought best to have a good selection of characteristic, traditional Spanish wines on my wine lists. For example, I always kept a healthy selection of Spanish wines at The Lambs Club, they were my go-to when I wanted to introduce our guests to wines that perhaps were ‘outside of the box’ and to show them how there is a world outside of the typical Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon comfort zone. Being able to offer many wines by the glass previously allowed me to let guest experience what Spain has to offer, quite successfully.
As far as travel goes, do you have a favorite Spanish region to visit?
Catalunya. I always want to come back and see my dear friends in Priorat, in Porrera and Poboleda as well as new friends in the Riu Anoia. I haven’t been to all the areas, but definitely want to hear return to explore the remainder of the region.
What is your all-time favorite Spanish wine?
I’m too democratic to have only one favorite wine, I drink everything! Someone in my position has to be able to drink the good and not so good to determine what is characteristic and what will work with the program. I’m always exploring and discovering new producers, growers, and native grape varieties.
Any tips for those planning a trip to Hudson Yards on navigating Little Spain, not to miss drinks or must have dishes?
Mercado Little Spain is a huge open market, not unlike La Boqueria in Barcelona or San Miguel in Madrid, but much more modern. There are several kiosks where you can get classic Spanish food, grab-and-go. You can order drinks/wine/sangria/vermut/sherry at the bar and carry them with you throughout the space. There is some open seating and a lot of standing tables to hang out with friends.
I would love for everyone that visits us to experience how Spaniards drink, where you don’t stay still in one place, but you grab a gin tonic and a bite here, a vermut and a bite there, then a glass of Cava or wine over there, and so on. Imagine an amazing tapas bar crawl where everything is under one roof! Everyone is so excited that we are opening, so the space is always bustling with energy — soak it up, eat and drink lots! ¡Salud!
Visit the Mercado Little Spain website to explore its myriad wine and culinary offerings.