Joel Arias of San Francisco’s La Mar on Peruvian Wine Culture - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Joel Arias of San Francisco’s La Mar
on Peruvian Wine Culture

La Mar is a Peruvian restaurant concept created by Gastón Acurio, of Lima’s celebrated Astrid & Gastón, which he opened with his wife, Astrid Gutsche, in 1994. Joel Arias runs La Mar’s wine program, after starting there during the tenure of Emmanuel Kemiji MS. Originally from the city of Arequipa in southern Peru, Arias moved to Lima to work at Astrid & Gastón and to learn about wine. In Peru, he finds there aren’t as many restaurants with extensive wine lists, or opportunities to taste a lot of wines, as there are in the United States. One issue is the taxes imposed on import wines. “The same bottle of Chilean sauvignon blanc is actually cheaper here in California than it is in Peru. And Peru is next to Chile,” he says. “I think that puts a block on learning both for sommeliers and customers.” Another problem is a lack of certification courses. Peruvians must travel to Chile or Argentina to take upper-level WSET and CMS courses, which was a major factor in Arias’ decision to move to the United States. —Alissa Bica

Joel Arias

What got you into the wine business?

I always liked hospitality in all aspects of taking care of the guests. My first job in hospitality was in a small ice cream shop in my city [of Arequipa]. I really enjoyed the environment, the music and that people always come happy. And then, I was getting more experience [working as a server] in this restaurant called Chicha, which is also part of Acurio’s restaurants group. We would have different sommelier tastings. One was with this sommelier from Argentina, Andrea Bruno, and I really started enjoying all the tastings because honestly, I didn’t know anything about wine. I was looking for something where I could expand my knowledge and grow as a person. She asked if I would be interested in taking a course with her [called Excella]. I said, “Of course!” And that’s where everything started.

At Astrid & Gastón, I had the opportunity to taste cabernet from South Africa, from Chile, from California. These wines smell and taste so different, but at the same time have the same profile. It was amazing.

When Arias took the CMS Certified exam in San Francisco, he earned the highest score and won the Mel Dick Scholarship. He plans to sit for the Advanced Exam in the coming months.

What wine regions do you find particularly interesting right now?

I really love Champagne. I think there’s something very magical in the bubbles, nobody can make wine quite like they can there. I think it’s the tradition, or the soil type, but there is some magic that happens. Then, I like some of the newer white wines that Argentina is producing—like Alejandro Vigil’s El Enemigo and Laura Catena’s White Bones. They’re really mineral driven and delicious.

Rieslings from Austria are very electric, very sharp, powerful. And they pair really well with food. But also, being here in California, it’s taught me to appreciate the California cabernets.

What kinds of wines do you focus on at La Mar?

Our program is based on wine from California, Spain and South America. But over the past couple years we’ve been expanding our program because a lot of our guests were asking for things like white Burgundy or riesling. We try to analyze what works with our food—high acid wines work really well with our ceviches or the seafood we have on the menu. So, we started implementing some Austrian rieslings— Nikolaihof, Emmerich Knoll and FX Pichler do well. And this year we started a small section of white Burgundy. I really like Domaine Faiveley and Olivier Leflaive. We have five or six producers [on the list this year] and then we’ll see how it’s selling.

In Spain, I’m a huge fan of Rioja and Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia. Those wines, they never get old. They can age. We are having a wine dinner in February with Lopez de Heredia and are going to present some of their whites, reds and Gran Reservas.

The albariño from Do Ferreiro is a wine that has been selling a lot in the restaurant. I think the profile of that producer, the fruitiness, the high acid, the salinity makes it perfect for seafood. People love it.

As a sommelier, I get excited about selling the iconic wines. But the iconic wines are also sometimes the most expensive. (laughs) This past year, I sold a Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial. I didn’t even have to try that hard to sell it! I had a guest that was trying to honor the guests at his table. He told me to bring what I considered the best wine on my wine list. I told him about the iconic producer, this iconic bottle that they don’t make every year—they choose the three best vintages to blend for this wine. He told me to bring it over and it didn’t disappoint. It was showing so well, like a song singing. That same table drank three bottles of that wine that day!

Are there any wines that you wish you could sell more but don’t tend to move?

I think the mencia grape has a lot of potential. It has a kind of delicate fruit, a touch of spice and a bit of herbaceous notes. I think it’s really good, but people haven’t quite accepted it yet because they don’t know about this grape. I am not the only person who sells the wines in the restaurant so, I think that servers also need to not be afraid of selling these kinds of wines and be more open with guests. Sometimes they recommend the same things over and over. This year, we’re gonna work on more staff training so they can have the tools to recommend these wines.

Are there other categories in your beverage program that impact wine sales?

We sell a lot of Pisco. I think as a Peruvian restaurant, we need to be Pisco ambassadors. We want to be the restaurant with the most Piscos on our list—our goal is to have at least 30 different producers by the end of the year. We want to start running a Pisco flight so you can taste different varieties and regions.

The Pisco sour is very popular, but people don’t always know that Pisco goes great with chocolate. It’s fabulous. There’s a kind of natural sweetness when you drink Pisco that other spirits don’t have. I always recommend Pisco to pair with our chocolate cake. It’s a nice digestif, too.

Based in Los Angeles, California, Alissa Bica is the Spirits Editor and Critic at Wine & Spirits. She is also a Certified Sommelier and co-runs the home wine tasting company, Côte Brune and Blonde. In any rare moments of free time, she writes about obscure grape varieties in the blog Off the Beaten Wine Path.

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