Tadd Chapman always seems to be a little ahead of the culinary curve.
When Baja Mediterranean cuisine was suddenly the rage around the peninsula, the celebrated chef and restaurateur was already serving up his own creative seafood-focused fusion dishes at San José del Cabo fine dining fixtures like Don Sanchez and Habanero’s.
As “farm-to-table” and “organic’ increasingly became fine dining buzzwords, Chapman was sourcing fresh, organic produce from his own local farm, Sanchez Orgánico. And as the winemakers from Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe began attracting international attention, the chef was turning Don Sanchez into the local mecca for Mexican wine lovers.
Chapman isn’t the only local chef, of course, to feature Baja Med fusion cuisine made from fresh, local and organic ingredients, and to pair them with fine wines from Valle de Guadalupe. But few area cocineros can match him in terms of creativity and commitment, and certainly no local restaurant has made the same commitment to its wine program as Don Sanchez.
When Chapman renovated the signature downtown restaurant a couple of years ago, he upgraded his facilities and his services: not only installing a wine bar and exposed cellar area featuring hundreds of internationally representative bottles available for meals, tastings and carry-out sales, but also hiring a sommelier and renewing his dedication to wine-centric events and ever-changing tasting menus that paired predominantly Baja produced wines with the freshest local and seasonal ingredients available.
To find out more about Don Sanchez’s acclaimed wine program, we recently sent Los Cabos Magazine contributor and Court of Master Sommeliers certified sommelier Chris Sands to conduct a Q&A with the restaurant’s own resident expert, sommelier Nizuniro Altamirano.
The wine operation at Don Sanchez – from the wine bar and tableside sommelier service to the exposed cellar area and carry-out wine shop – is really quite remarkable, and unlike any other restaurant I’ve visited in Los Cabos. What was the inspiration for the current setup?
The current setup is a result of both our wine concept and a dual wine lounge/tapas experience that is still evolving. The first contact that our guests have with the restaurant is in the wine room. It’s a statement of how important wine is for our restaurant, and it’s also an indication of the role wine can play during a meal at Don Sanchez.
How many labels do you currently stock, and how do they break down geographically? Are the majority Mexican wines from Valle de Guadalupe or Valle de Parras?
We currently carry 287 labels, and our aim is to have between 290 and 300 labels available. Currently, 24% of this is Mexican wine, and although we would like our selection to be mostly Mexican, there is just not enough production and variety for our cava to be higher than that on a national scale. This is reflected in the fact that 32% of our wine is from the U.S. Beyond that, we have allocated 30% of our stock to Old World labels from seven different countries, and 14% of our selection is made up of wines from the Southern Hemisphere.
What’s the process for determining which wines to carry? Do you favor terroir-driven wines that pair well with food, or is more a question of representing benchmark producers from various regions around the world?
We have selected a few big names which are recognizable to any wine enthusiast around the globe, but our main concern with the wine selection is both to have a broad range of flavors, and savory, terroir-rich wines in order to represent the vast diversity found in the wine world today.
Do you have any favorite pairings with some of your signature menu items? If so, what to you makes these pairings so special?
Some of our dishes have been primarily designed to pair with specific varietals. A few of my favorites are the Mango Tulips, which go exquisitely with a fresh, mineral Sauvignon Blanc; The Baja Med Catch of the Day, which is an excellent pairing with rich, buttery Chardonnay; and the Lamb Shank Mixiote with Mexican Shiraz.
One of the things I love about Don Sanchez is the daily tasting menus. How much of a challenge is it to find proper pairings for five or six courses per day?
With the support of 287 wines at our disposal, we don’t find it overly difficult to find a pairing for each dish. But there are occasions when we need to make adjustments to the dish to fit the wine we would like to pair.
Do you have any general rules you follow when pairing food with wine?
I’m not sure if “rules” is the word we would use when designing our pairings. However, the current trend among some wine-enthusiasts and so-called experts is full of myths, which we definitely won’t follow. Some of our pairings are textbook, classic matches that just work amazingly, whereas some of them are off the charts, eccentric, molecular crazy pairs that just go together magically. Overall, we don’t follow general patterns though.
What kind of training do you provide your staff in terms of wine service?
We currently have an ongoing staff training program once a week that encourages our waiters to broaden their wine knowledge and service expertise, in order to have consistency with our Wine Program.
Do you host any regular wine events or tastings?
Right now our program includes wine tastings open to guests two or three times a month, and a special event called “Wine Wars”, in which wines compete glass-to-glass to impress guests… who are later surprised with a second round, only with food present on the table.
When it comes to pairing, there are some old standards – Port with Stilton, Chablis with oysters, etc. Are there any standard pairings for Baja cuisine? And is there a pairing that to you is representative, or sort of serves as a symbol, of your own approach to Baja Fusion cuisine?
Old standards like those were all established during the first half of the twentieth century – if not before – and that is one of the reasons they are recognized as classics around the world. Baja Fusion cuisine is relatively new and thus not part of the Old World traditions that shaped twentieth century gastronomy. However, we do find that certain wines pair perfectly with some of our main dishes. Regional Chenin Blanc is superb with ceviches and seafood in general, especially when paired with fruit-like ingredients and flavors. Another brilliant example that has become a classic is Tempranillo and clean beef cuts like vacio or fillet with a bold demi-glace or mole. But overall I wouldn’t say these aren’t yet close to becoming standards. We need a lot more time for that to happen.
Anything new, wine wise, on the horizon?
We have a lot of winemakers’ dinners planned from all over the world within the next two years. Eventually, we might introduce a Coravin machine, which would allow us to significantly broaden our selection of high quality wines by the glass.
Don Sanchez is located on Blvd. Mijares in downtown San José del Cabo, a block from City Hall and the town square. For reservations, call (624) 142-2444. For more information, visit www.donsanchezrestaurant.com.