When Gretchen Thomas was hired to run the beverage program at Barcelona Wine Bar in 2005, it was a single concept with four locations in Connecticut. The operator is now the largest Spanish restaurant group in the U.S., with 12 locations, and has expanded to Atlanta, Boston, and the Washington, D.C. area. It also includes 10 locations of Bartaco, a Brazilian tacqueria-like concept launched in 2011.
So Thomas’s job these days has become a bit more complicated—and much more of a balancing act. As wine and spirits director for the Norwalk, CT-based parent company Barteca, Thomas creates beverage programs that capture the cuisine, spirit and vibe of both brands.
One thing they have in common is a focus on fresh, premium drinks. And while both franchises maintain the same wine lists at all locations, the available beer and spirits change up to reflect local flavors.
Launched in 1996 by co-owners Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer, the upscale Barcelona is all about classic Spanish tapas, cheeses and charcuterie and Mediterranean-influenced entrees. In addition to an extensive selection of wines from Spain and South America, Barcelona offers cocktails with a “vintage European” feel. The concept also lends itself to a variety spirits, aperitifs and vermouths.
Given how popular gin is in Spain, the spirit is featured prominently at Barcelona. It is in the brand’s signature cocktail: the Barcelona Gintonic ($12), which Thomas points out is the cocktail’s spelling in Spain.
Added to the menu about four or five years ago, the Barcelona Gintonic is made of Hayman’s London Dry gin, Fevertree tonic, orange, lemon and rosemary. “It’s super easy to make, and great when working in high volumes,” Thomas says. “And you can mix it up with different garnishes depending on the season, which is how they do it with gintonics in Spain.”
Thanks to the consumer interest in all things brown spirits, cocktails with rye or bourbon are popular now at both Barcelona and Bartaco. A top-selling cocktail at Barcelona is the Bourbon Spice Rack ($11).
This bitters-driven drink features Four Roses bourbon, pure maple syrup, lemon juice, Scrappy’s Cardamom & Lavender bitters, served with a large ice cube. It’s similar to a Manhattan or whiskey sour, but heavier on the spiced aromatics. “It reminds me of opening my mother’s spice rack and the strong smells that would come wafting out,” Thomas says.
Eclectic, Accessible Wine List
The wine menu at Barcelona is special to Thomas. It’s her baby, something she has built and refined during her decade with Barteca. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, where she was valedictorian of her class, Thomas is also a recipient of the Kopf Achievement Award, and a resident wine tutor.
Barcelona’s list includes about 500 wine bottles, plus 50 entries by the glass. Thomas changes up the menu as much as possible, switching in at least three to four new wines each month.
In keeping with the Barcelona theme, about 15% of bottles—and 80% of wines by the glass—come from Spain. The rest cover the full gamut of wine, from Old World to New and everything in between.
Bottles are priced from $30 to $650, though “about 75% of our bottle list is under $70,” Thomas says. “The vast majority is between $30 and $40.”
It’s not that customers have necessarily asked for less-expensive wines, she adds. “It’s just something we want to do” so that ordering wine in Barcelona doesn’t have to be a costly or overly formal experience. Although some customers are looking to splurge on a special evening, many parties just want to order a few tapas items and share an affordable bottle of wine.
Thomas keeps prices down on some wines by direct importing about 25 bottles from their producers. For instance, Barcelona imports bottles of Albariño de Fefiñanes 2010 directly from the Palacio de Fefiñanes winery in Pontevedra, Spain.
Thomas had been buying the wine through traditional distribution channels, but the original importer stopped bringing in the wine in 2007 after the recession squeezed the industry. Undeterred, Thomas contacted the winery, which agreed to ship to Barteca.
Thomas saves money via a strategic partnership with a company that is both an importer and distributor. “I make the effort and assume responsibility to source and price negotiate FOB costs on wines,” she notes.
Her costs are lower because there are no sales rep commissions built into the prices of the wines, plus the partner takes a lower gross profit margin on the wines. And those savings are passed on to the Barcelona customers.
The direct importing “allows me to sell cellar-quality wines at really affordable prices.” What had been a $65 bottle on the Barcelona menu is now priced at just $44—and $11 per glass. “It’s our top-selling white wine,” Thomas says.
As for the beer program, Barcelona offers some imports and a good number of craft offerings. Spanish brews, however, are not on the menu.
“We don’t put Spanish beers on draft, because we’re about quality and price to the customer, not just sourcing Spanish beer for the sake of having one on the menu,” Thomas explains.
“The beer program is not intended to be flashy,” she adds. “We like reliable, tasty, classic brands.”
Thomas switches up the beverage menus twice per year, for fall/winter and spring/summer, and crafts offerings to the season. Barcelona affords Thomas plenty of leeway with seasonal changes, but it’s more challenging with Bartaco.
The brand’s beach-inspired concept is easy to reflect with spring and summer drinks. But how do you create a beachside feel during colder months?
Thompson relies on ingredients such as fresh pomegranate, peperina and ginger. “These are flavors of fall that still fit our cocktail profiles, and work well with rum and cachaça.”
For instance, the menu this year included the Winter Caipirinha ($7.50), made with Leblon cachaça, limes and fresh pomegranate. Bartaco also sells a cocktail called Granada ($8.50), made with Maestro Dobel Diamante tequila, fresh pomegranate, ginger agave syrup and lime juice.
While gin drinks aren’t as popular at Bartaco as they are at Barcelona, a gin cocktail called The Port Chester Reviver ($9.50) has been a staple of Bartaco menu since the concept launched four years ago. Made with Martin Miller’s gin, cucumber, mint, mango nectar and lime juice, “It’s too popular to ever go away,” Thomas says.
In fact, many Bartaco customers who do not normally drink gin will order and enjoy The Port Chester Reviver. Thomas credits this to the cocktail’s other ingredients, which when spelled out on the menu will convince guests to experiment. “The drink is sweet and acidic, with mint and cucumber; it’s not meant to be a food-pairing cocktail, it’s just meant to be fun,” Thomas explains.
The drink is named for the brand’s first location, which opened in Port Chester, NY. Bartaco today also includes three locations in Connecticut, three in Atlanta, and one each Nashville, Tampa, FL, and Reston, VA. The restaurants have a relaxed vibe, with woven-basket light fixtures and beach-inspired lifestyle photography.