James Dillman of NYC’s Casa Mono on Layers of Spanish Wine Culture - Wine & Spirits Magazine

James Dillman of NYC’s Casa Mono
on Layers of Spanish Wine Culture

After nine years in restaurants, having started when he was 19, James Dillman passed his Certified Sommelier exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers. That was 2018, when he heard about an opening at Casa Mono. “Spain has a special place in my heart,” he says, so even though he likes to drink Burgundy (“whenever I have the money”) and to explore the white wines of Alsace, the medium-bodied, high-acid reds of Spain keep him focused on the list at Casa Mono. —Joshua Greene

James Dillman

• Spotlight on Rioja

If people don’t know any other region in Spain, they know Rioja. So I focus heavily on Rioja, trying to secure some back vintages as well to keep our library of old López de Heredia going.

Last year, we sold a 1942 López de Heredia Tondonia. It was super exciting, just to see where it was at and how it was drinking. It was definitely time—it was on its last… I would say on its last toe, very Sherry-esque.

That was here when I started; we had that bottle since 2016. It’s hard to get any bottles from before World War II in Europe — the whole story was that Nazis were drinking them. So to have a bottle with such significant history and be able to actually taste it and sell it to somebody who’s also really excited about it was a great pleasure. It was these two businessmen that just really love old wine, and they were like, ‘What’s the oldest thing you have?’ And that was the oldest thing we had, and they said, ‘Bring it on.’ I was like, ‘I love that. Let’s do it.’

I would say the Hermanos de Peciña wines are our bestselling red Riojas. They’re a traditional-style winery in Rioja Alta. Both the reserva and the gran reserva move at a good pace. They have some good age on them and they’re really approachable price-wise, as well. We sell the 2016 Reserva for 75-dollars and the Señorio de Peciña 2011 Gran Reserva for 120-dollars on the list. I would say 75 to 120 is our sweet spot where we move the most bottles. So both of those wines fall in that sweet spot for us.

I had this really great rosé by a Rioja producer that’s not well known but I thought was outstanding. I was able to put it by the glass as well, and it was such a hit. It was Gil Berzal—he’s got vineyards in Alavesa, and he made this free-run rosé out of a hundred percent tempranillo. That was just so unique and so different. I was like, I need to have this and I need to sell it by the glass.

• Come Back, Sherry, Come Back

I find people drinking more Sherry these days—I think Sherry is making a big comeback, at least for us. We’re getting more people coming in and ordering bottles of Sherry—a table of four, even a table of two—which is really cool to see.

People will order a bottle of Oloroso, or Palo Cortado. We usually keep them in the 375 to 500 milliliter area. We do have some 750s, but those tend to not move as much. But we do sell quite a few 750s of Finos and Manzanillas, because they’re a little bit fresher and, obviously, a lot less alcohol, too.

Right now, I have somewhere around 30 Sherries and I’m getting more BTG pours available, having a cool introductory, very approachable style for all of them—from Fino and Manzanilla to Amontillado, Pala Cortado, Oloroso—one that’s not too expensive to be able to introduce people to Sherry if they don’t think they like it. I like to have a couple that are a little bit different, the kind of things that taste a little different to me when I think about Sherry’s Classic style.

• Volcanic Canaries

Getting to the Canary Islands was really eye-opening. I love history, so just the historical significance of the Canary Islands. And the trade winds, the high elevations, the unique soil and the impact that it has on the wines. There are only so many volcanic-soil places that you can get wine from, and Canaries being all volcanic, you can’t avoid it out there.

Every year, the Canary Islands get a little bit more traction in the United States. And that speaks to how wine drinkers are getting more adventurous as well, because Canary Islands do have a very distinct note when you first open them, from the volcanic soils. They can be pretty stinky, and people are aware of that now; and people are into that, too, which I think is really great. You can have some funky wine on the nose, but it is perfectly clean and beautiful and floral and light on the palate. Jonatan García at Suertes del Marqués told me it’s not reduction, it’s not a reductive trait. He says it’s the pH in the soil, that when the pH is at a certain level, you start to get that really intense funkiness from it. People ask for Canary Islands wines these days, which is kind of surprising because, for me at least, they were off-putting at first—I had never smelled anything like that when I first started here. And then they grew on me. The smell too, but people coming in and asking for them just shows how adventurous people are getting with the courage to try new and different things.

• Gredos on the Map

The categories gaining ground are Canary Islands and Jerez. And Gredos. I mean Comando G getting the hundred-point score really puts Gredos on the map, and there are tons of winemakers coming out of Gredos right now. People actually know that and come in asking for Gredos wine. All the big wine makers are going over there. Raul Perez is over there now as well. They’re recovering ancient vineyards, over a hundred years old. And the styles are different, depending on what side of the mountain you’re on—if you’re on the Castilla y Leon side or the Madrid side—it’s really cool to see how that affects the wine, too.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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