He was working as a bartender when a chef-friend told him about a new degree program in Buenos Aires. At the time, sommellerie seemed like a strategic supplement to cocktails, nothing more. But once he started working with wine, Santi never looked back.
After graduating (among Argentina's first certified sommeliers), he took his new skills on the road, eventually landing in Granada, Nicaragua, where he opened a wine-forward restaurant in his home. The project took off, but two years in the tropics left Santi longing for the austral seasons. So he brought the concept back to Buenos Aires, hosting weekly paired tastings in his Palermo apartment. Before he knew it, the fledgling wine club had become one of the city's most buzzed-about restaurants a puertas cerradas.
While Santi's disarmingly personal approach to wine has been a constant in his work, he is a tireless innovator. His newest venture has all the trappings of a typical café del barrio, the kind of easygoing all-day eatery that's dear to the daily routines of every Porteño. But few such establishments uphold a quiet commitment to organic produce—or eschew farmed salmon in favor of local trout. Or have a wine cellar in the basement, for that matter. Here, the cava is fundamental, allowing Santi to offer his intimate guided tastings to serious oenophiles while cultivating the palates of his neighborhood regulars. It also doubles as a sort of informal in-house wine shop. In other words, when you fall head over heels for an elusive single-vineyard Malbec, you simply add a few bottles to your check. Genius.
We caught up with our favorite enólogo over a good Torrontés—and scored some of the latest juice on trending Argentine blends and breakout labels.
You've lived in New York, Barcelona. What sets your hometown apart?
What Buenos Aires has is a very interesting combination. On one hand, there are lots of restaurants, plenty of cultural things to do, the energy of the people in general is very friendly. But then there's this touch of melancholy—not sadness, but melancholy. You can find it in tango. I don't know why, but when you're living in a different country, that is something you miss... People say our city is complicated, noisy, dirty. Maybe it's because I'm Argentine, but when I'm in a place where everything is exactly as it should be, where everything looks perfect, I feel a need to cross the street in the middle of the block, you know? Just to do something dangerous.
Do you have a favorite spot in the city to sit back and take it all in?
My favorite place is not exactly in the city. I love—really love—Tigre. When I'm tired or stressed, I rent a house in the delta for three days. You take the train an hour, then a boat maybe another half-hour. And you are in the middle of the jungle. You have no cell phone. If you want to buy something, you have to use the rowboat or wait for the grocery launch that comes twice a week. You practice yoga on the dock. You spend your time reading and making asados. You listen to the birds—and the silence. It's another world.
Has wine culture changed much in Buenos Aires since your sommelier school days?
A lot! In the '70s, Argentines consumed 90 liters of wine per person per year. Now it's 30 liters. We drink less, but the quality of the wine is much higher. Even ten years ago, you distinguished between red wine and white wine and that was it. Now Argentine consumers are better informed, more sophisticated. When I got my degree, there were 30 sommeliers in the country. Now there are more than 1,000.
Is there a pairing you return to again and again? Something first-time visitors should be sure to seek out?
Wherever you're traveling, if you get stuck, always order local wines with dishes that are characteristic of the region. In Galicia, that might mean Albariño with percebes (goose barnacles), or in the Loire, a minerally Sauvignon Blanc with goat's cheese. Of course, Malbec and our beef are just perfect, but another combination that really works is Torrontés, our white grape from Salta, with humita, a pre-Hispanic savory corn pudding, also from the north of Argentina.
What are you drinking these days? Any new habits?
Cabernet Franc is a new grape for Argentina, and it's a grape that I love, especially in a blend with Malbec. In my opinion, the best expression of Malbec is in a blend with something else. By itself, it's fruity, easy to drink, has soft tannins. But a blend gives it a little something extra, and luckily winemakers are experimenting more and more with blends. Right now, for me, Malbec with Cabernet Franc and a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon is as good as it gets.
Any up-and-coming winemakers we should keep our eyes on?
Juan Ubaldini. He's the right hand man of Marcelo Pelleriti of Monteviejo in the Uco Valley, the number one winemaker in Argentina. He's doing incredible small production things, playing with different Malbec blends. He has a special touch. His personal label is called El Equilibrista ("The Juggler"). Another one is Giuseppe Franceschini, an Italian winemaker who lives here. He harvests before the grapes are ripe, which results in more acidity than you typically see in Argentina. Of course it's very personal, but I love acidity.