James Cook of Santa Fe’s La Casa Sena on New Mexican wines and malbec - Wine & Spirits Magazine

James Cook of Santa Fe’s La Casa Sena on New Mexican wines and malbec

I notice you’re doing a custom cuvée from New Mexico. How much are your guests tuned in to New Mexican wine?

We’re helped in New Mexico because everyone has a very positive view of Gruet, so they come expecting positive things from New Mexican wines.

Casa Rondeña produces that custom wine for us. Their winemaker John Calvin made it, and then I went down and prepared the blend. It’s merlot, tempranillo and syrah, with some cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. It sees very little oak; we put it on the list to be a partner with the dishes we serve on our evening menu. It’s been great. It first hit our list in March 2010—we made 143 cases.

We also carry Sutcliffe Vineyards wines from Cortez, Colorado. And those wines sell very well. Those vineyards are actually closer to us than some of the vineyards in southern New Mexico.

Your two top-selling wines are chardonnays: Parducci and Ferrari-Carano. Has chardonnay always been that popular, or are you seeing a resurgence?
For us it’s always been popular because in the summer we have a huge open patio, and we do a really big lunch trade. So with chardonnay, it’s familiarity, especially with Ferrari-Carano. It’s a name people know, and it’s a quality product.

Guests are definitely going toward crisper styles with less butter, less malolactic. We had big success the Henri Purrusset Mâcon Villages from Kermit Lynch. That sold really well this past summer—that’s about as neutral a chardonnay as you can get.

Two pinot grigios also made your top-ten list, and your most successful new wine was a Venica & Venica Pinot Grigio from Friuli. What do you think guests are looking for in pinot grigio?
I think they want it to be crisp and clean, and pretty much unadulterated. Also, in the case of the Liana, it’s our most inexpensive wine by the glass—that has some impact as well.

The Venica & Venica Jesera from Collio, that actually was a surprise. I really like the wine—it spends a long time at low temperature on the lees and skins, and has a really pale copper color to it. So there’s a lot of flavor expression in the skins that you don’t normally find in pinot grigio. People appreciate that it’s a small production wine, that it’s unique. We offer people a taste and they love it. They’ll have it in the restaurant, and then come buy it at our shop.

One of your top wines was a malbec, and an Altos las Hormigas malbec is the least expensive wine on your list. Do guests recognize Argentinean malbec as a good value right now?
I don’t think there’s any question. That’s what drives the sales of the malbecs. But also, because the entry-level wines are so well-priced, guests are stepping up a level to wines like the Fabre Montmayou. We frequently try to guide people to the Colomé, because it’s from Salta, a different expression of the grape. It’s biodynamic, and it’s from one of the highest altitude vineyards in the world, so there’s a story with it. Plus it’s a blend: there’s some cabernet, tannat and syrah in there. All of that adds to the interest.

An Aussie shiraz rounded out your top-ten list. We haven’t seen a lot of Australian wines make the cut this year. Tell me about that wine—what’s its selling point?
It’s Hope Estate’s The Ripper Shiraz from Western Australia, a little south and east of Margaret River. Instead of that Barossa style, it’s a bit more understated, with a eucalyptus edge to it, which works really well with New Mexican cuisine. It’s been a surprise. We put it up six months ago and it’s still up and still selling well. It’s a good winter wine, too. The alcohol is in check, and it’s not in that super-ripe style. It’s ripe and balanced.

Did you notice any other significant trends or shifts this year? 
The one thing that has surprised me is the staying power of some of the crisper white wines. In the past we have done Spanish whites, and they were really big summer wines for us. Now we have an albariño on the list at all times, and an Oregon pinot gris at all times. The sales are holding up all year. People like that crispness.

And rosé is selling, not just over the summer, but over the holidays: rosé or rosé Champagne.

This year was a great year for grower Champagne. People are finally starting to understand it. As a restaurant that’s focused on farm-to-table, it’s a natural fit. We’ve done especially well with Pehu-Simonet and Pierre Peters Cuvée de Réserve. People come in and say, “Were interested in a grower Champagne,” rather us having to explain it to them.

In general, people are more willing to step out of the comfort zone of cabernet, merlot, pinot noir. That started about a year ago, and we’re seeing more of it as we go along. Like with that Venica & Venica Pinot Gris. We’re seeing people willing to try southern France, and we’re even pouring a blaufränkish by the glass.

Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.