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Recently, Corey Warren talked with Ignacio “Nacho” Monclús of Brooklyn’s Camperdown Elm, about his ascent in the wine trade in Spain and journey to New York.
Monclús has had an independent streak since his teens, when, growing up in Huesca, Spain, he studied the little-spoken Pyrenean language Aragonés instead of English.
Later, at university, Monclús was studying advertising and PR in Segovia, just north of Madrid, when he stumbled into a wine job at Restaurante Divino: “I go to this interview, and this guy is unloading his wine on a narrow street. Everybody’s honking behind him, so I asked, ‘You need help?’”
It turned out Monclús was helping the owner, a fact he didn’t learn until the same man turned up at his interview. With no experience, Monclús kept quiet for the first six months when the team would taste wines together. Once he gained a little confidence, he went on to win the under-25 category of the regional section of the “Nariz de Oro” award when he was 19 years old.
He still laughs at the image of his hippie college friends coming to suit-and-tie sommelier competitions to cheer him on. “I remember when I won, I was looking for my friends, and they were already at a table, drinking kind-of-warm Cava [that he had poured as part of the competition].” As he fell deeper and deeper into the Spanish wine scene, his parents continued to nag him to “finish the f*cking college and forget about wine. At that time, it was not like now. Now, being a sommelier is kind of a thing, but then people would ask, ‘You’re gonna study to drink?’”
NEW YORK, NEW CORK
Eventually, he started expanding his horizons. “In Spain, if you’re in this region, you drink wine from this region. Finding wines from France or Italy wasn’t very easy.” He began to look for opportunities abroad, and headed to New York. After a few weeks on his friend’s couch in Bushwick, he says, “I was very close to going back to Spain because I couldn’t find a job. I didn’t really know the right people…I was coming from these fancy restaurants in Spain, and suddenly I’m in this Mexican/Spanish place in the West Village that serves paella and guacamole. I could just see my dad’s face, like ‘We told you…’”
Monclús began to rue his decision to study Aragonés instead of English; he didn’t need it to live in Bushwick, but he was hamstrung when it came to interviews. “I remember walking into Boqueria; I thought I said I was looking for a job. Suddenly, I was sitting at the bar with a menu. ‘Uh, can I get a glass of wine and one tapa because I’m broke…’”
Eventually, he landed at a 280-seat restaurant in the financial district, though it wasn’t a great fit. “I needed something with more soul,” he says. “On Wall Street, people are spending money without knowing the wine. People would order Viña Tondonia Reserva all the time, and I knew they were looking for something bigger. I’d never sell a second bottle of it. They’d ask, ‘Do you have something…fuller than this?’ Yeah, if you had asked me, instead of just pointing at the price and going to Rioja….”
A PARTNER IN PARK SLOPE
Eventually, he found his way to Brooklyn, where “people are more open-minded.” Now, as a partner at Camperdown Elm, he wears many hats—“I’m everything—I’m the plumber, manager, wine buyer, sommelier…” He has befriended guests by tailoring three-course wine pairings to their personal tastes. “I ask them, ‘What do you like? Sparkling, white, reds? More obscure? Classic? Sometimes I end up doing three reds. I always adapt to them.” He’s not afraid to use the full arsenal of his list: “If I sell half the bottle, I can use the other to train the staff. Or just take it home that night. To revisit.”
For Monclús, it’s the thrill of discovery that keeps his passion for wine strong. “I don’t want to have my bedroom wrapped in maps of Burgundy. It helps to know where the wine is from, but I want to describe the sensations, the aromas.” He’s not gunning for a Master Sommelier certification, preferring to spend time raising his daughter, reading novels or hiking, instead of letting wine theory take over his life.
In wine, Monclús loves “aromas that bring you to a memory that you didn’t know you remembered.” He loves perfumes and colognes for much the same reason, and laments that his line of work precludes exercising that passion except on his days off. “I have a lot of perfumes that I cannot wear because of this job, and I keep buying them. So on Sunday morning, I wear them to the park with my daughter.” In fact, he’s tried to instill that enthusiasm in his daughter, sharing perfumes with her and letting her taste wines at restaurants.
Still or Sparkling?
Language he says he speaks:
Languages he speaks:
Spanish and English
Hypothetical Competing Publication:
Wine & Spirits & Perfume
#1 Reason for Dropping Bottles in the Dining Room:
Daughter’s first drink:
Champagne in the delivery room
Summers spent as a plumber:
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