I was introduced to Demian Fuentes, owner and operator of Cava Veinte33, or “La Cava,” for short, by a friend of mine a while back. We shared a bottle of wine over lunch and he and I got to talking about wine, Mexico, and food. The immediate impression I got from him was his passion for what he does. He’s about my age, and to see someone passionate about something so ethereal is awesome. It makes you feel lighter. Anyone can get passionate about sports or cars, but to get passionate about something as esoteric as wine is really amazing.
As we’ve mentioned many times here, we know very little about wines. Sitting with a person like Demian, I was tempted to hit my Professor button: to go on, at great length, about the qualities of this particular wine, where it must have come from, it’s characteristics … But, having just met him, I thought better of it. (What is it about some people that use bullshit to impress even when face-to-face with a bona fide expert? I don’t know, but I’m one of them.)
I got it into my head that I might like to interview Demian for TSB. Not, mind you, that he would like to be interviewed. I was gratefully surprised when he agreed. (I think he thinks we’re a real website or something.)
We arranged a date, a time, and Megan and I show up, trying not to giggle like kids about to meet Santa. We grab a seat – Demian is going to be a couple of minutes – and we order a glass of wine. I mean, we are in a wine bar after all. What are we supposed to drink? Water?
Wine: Emeve, Chardonnay, 2010, Baja California, Mexico, (Retail) $175 MXN
Rating: Two Bottles
All-Spice – like apple pie cake with brown sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top! This is a really interesting wine. We breathe it in for a long time. It is so interesting … Cloves; Cinnamon; Brown Sugar; Apples … it’s all there.
Demian shows up and takes care of some business. He has one table that has just been sat on the patio and he goes out to greet them and to find out what they are looking for. They agree to a suggestion he makes and the waiter brings out the wine. Watching from the safety of the air conditioned restaurant, we watch as Demian pours some into a glass for them. We sneak outside and stand off to the side, listening. He tips the glass on its side, letting the wine sparkle in the sunlight. “You see the layer that sits on the top of the wine? Those are the oils in the wine. It’s oil.” The couple, from Michigan, smile apologetically, not sure what to make of being told their wine had oil in it. They taste it, however, and immediately you can see their apprehension wash away when the taste greets them on the mouth like a worthy host. “It’s nice,” the woman
says. “M-hm,” agrees the husband. I know how they feel. In their heads they are saying “I’m not saying anything, lest my ignorance betray my poor upbringing.” But their fears are unfounded. Demian laughs, disarmingly. “But it’s good, right?” They laugh as well. Yes. It is.
We go inside.
What follows is a series of questions I came up with for Demian while Megan takes photos of us and the surrounds. This is intermittently broken up by Demian tending to his guests as they come and go, betraying his philosophy of service.
Where are you from?
Queretaro, Mexico – about 120km north of Mexico City.
How long have you had an affinity for wine and viticulture?
I’ve always had a thing for fruit, for food and beverage. I have always loved cooking. My grandfather is from Spain. He loved wine … had a big wine cellar. He was the one who got me into it and taught me about the different wine regions.(At this point, I’m thinking A Good Year – Demian playing tennis with an Albert Finney type, throwing a tantrum because he lost; going inside and his grandfather – uncle, whatever – schooling him on wines and their properties. This is funny because I just found out Monday, two days after the interview, that Demian is really good at
tennis in real life.)
In first year college, I really started learning about wines – the syllabus of wines, where wine originates, what it is made of, so on. But it was my grandfather who introduced me to it.
What turned you on to wine?
After college, I started working in the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, a very nice hotel – very classical, architecture and food. I started working in L’Escalier, the restaurant there. Very nice, very authentic restaurant. The sommeliers started teaching me about wines, while I was on break, when they were pairing during service, so on. That was where I started my education. After that I went to Australia. I worked in the Four Seasons in Sydney and learned about Australian wines. There, it was a much smaller team and I got a lot more hands-on experience.
(Demian goes outside to greet some new guests, to correct a server’s presentation of the wine, to adjust a napkin around the neck of a bottle, sticking out from a bucket of ice. He does this like an older brother more than an over-bearing boss. He is careful to instruct the young server and not to chide him. He patiently shows him how it ought to be done, then takes a moment to explain why. All the while, the guests are looking on with as much fascination as the waiter. He returns and orders us a bottle of Rose.
Now, Megan and I, as I imagine most people, have a diminished opinion of what a Rose is all about. You tell me “Rose” and I immediately think “White Zinfandel” or “Blush,” something sweet consumed at keg parties by girls who don’t like beer. We were wrong.)
Wine: Fratelli Pasini, Nuda, Grenache-Tempranillo, Baja Cal, Mexico, 2009, (Retail) $200 MXN
Rating: Two Bottles
(Demian rolls the wine around in his glass and holds it up to the light as Megan and I exchange shocked looks of WTF.)
This wine is fermented in steel kegs so that it has temperature control for more extraction of the fruit in the wine.
(Demian knows a lot about wine. Don’t let his humble demeanour fool you. This wine has a freshness to it without any sweetness. This is a very dry Rose. Good acidity. Very interesting. Neither Megan nor I have had a Rose that tasted like that. I have mentioned before, and I will mention it here again: we know very little about wine. And it’s Mexican! When most people think about Mexican drink, they tend to think about tequila and mescal. Maybe cerveza. We tend not to give credit for it’s rich wine heritage and the dedication Mexico has for making truly remarkable, affordable, wines. This wine goes to the top of our list, since it is something we could definitely see buying just as a drinking
wine. Something that could go with dinner, but wouldn’t need to.
Cranberries. It looks like movie-wine – watch the scenes from Interview With A Vampire if you are unsure of what I mean.)
What’s Cava Veinte33 all about?
I decided a couple years ago that I wanted to do something with wine. I wanted to bring some of that wine culture here. I am still very passionate about wine. There is always something to learn. And, as people who drink and enjoy wine, it’s important for us to understand a bit more about where wine comes from; how much work goes into each bottle. It’s like Art – it’s not only what goes into the painting, but what the artist was going through when he created the work itself. A lot of people look at a painting and say “I don’t like that, or I do like that,” but they never go deeper. What was the motivation behind making this work of art? Where did the ideas come from? What was going on in the world around the
artist that made this painting look this way? And it’s the same with wine. What is going on in the world around that wine that made it taste that way?
Who is La Cava and who are your Sommeliers?
La Cava was a project that began with a shared passion for wine. From there I got investor interest. We put everything together but I am the
Myself and Iran Cervantes are the Sommeliers, but I don’t like the term “Sommelier.” Nowadays there are all the courses that teach you about the craft, etc. But it’s like being called a Chef. You can’t just be called a chef because you went to school. It has to be something that you earn; something you learn in the field. You have to work in the industry to get that title. It’s not just about the characteristics of the wine. It’s about who is going to like the wine. It’s as much about pairing the people with the wine as it is about pairing the food with the wine.
The Sommelier has to be in charge of the selling the wine. As much as about the knowledge of the wines. It’s about being able to adapt the wine list to your clients’ tastes.
There is a certain ugly side to the sommelier business, since the Sommelier is in a position of power here in resort areas. Resorts order a lot of wine and the Sommelier is in charge of those decisions. What wines get chosen for the resorts and what wines don’t. That position can be open to influence from the companies that sell the wine that is not always in the best interest of the customers.
What does La Cava do better than anybody else?
Service. Our food is great. We have beautiful food. We are always changing our menu with the goal of giving the best to our clients. If we can’t do something great, then we simply won’t do it. If you are not going to blow people away, then why are you doing it? We always try to make things the best we can, otherwise we don’t bother trying. I grew up in the service industry. I’ve worked all the positions there are in service. I really worry about somebody having a good experience.
Here in Mexico, service is something that many people don’t take as a profession. They see it as something that gets them by; just something to make money. In other places in the world, a waiter is a noble profession. People go to school to be the best. Just as the Chef is to food, and the Sommelier is to wine, the Maitre d’ is to service. In Mexico, however, the server profession is not well-respected. People tend to treat the servers here very badly. They whistle at them, call out to them, in rude ways to get their attention. They order them, instead of ask them for things. And it’s a vicious circle: waiters are treated badly, so they give bad service. Because people get bad service, they don’t respect the servers, and on and on …
At La Cava, Iran and I want to make sure that every aspect of our service is excellent. People should have an amazing experience and have great value for that experience. It has to be a compliment of things.
Tell us a little bit about your retail philosophy.
Well, what we do … when we first started, our vision was that we were going to see it as a restaurant-slash-wine store. That means that if you are going to buy your wine and drink it here, you are going to have a corkage fee. But it isn’t possible to have everyone happy all of the time. Some people couldn’t understand that if you drink your wine here, you are using my glasses, my waiters are serving you, my guys are cleaning everything for you … that all costs money. But, some people didn’t see it that way, and it isn’t a concept that is very known here, so right now we don’t charge any corkage anymore. Our retail prices are the same as our restaurant prices. But, in most restaurants, they charge a huge mark-up for the wines that they serve. And that’s not fair. Our philosophy is to give people the better wines for the more realistic prices. That way, people are more likely to drink better quality wine and more likely to try different wines. And ultimately, that’s our goal. We don’t want people coming back and buying the same wine because it is the most affordable one on the menu, but not the worst, like at most restaurants.
And we want to encourage that, because we want people to see the quality. Because, at the end of the day, there really is a difference between a 200 peso bottle of wine and a 400 peso bottle of wine. Because, that way, people may start to see that there is a benefit to drinking slightly better wines than they are used to drinking.
Tell us about your menu; where does the inspiration for your food come from?
When we first opened, things were very simple – some tapas, some cheeses, like that. But what we found is that more people started wanting something bigger. So we went with that. One of the items we have, for example, is the hamburger. And we decided to go with more comfortable – comfort food – things that are easier to understand. So that is our focus now. The same focus we give to our service, we want to give to our food. Quality ingredients with a focus on organic. Not everything is going to be healthy, necessarily. Like, a burger isn’t necessarily good for you, but the quality of the beef is very high. The ingredients are very high quality. Grass-fed, certified organic, beef; arugula; high-quality cheese … these
things make a difference.
It happens a lot that people think that wine is supposed to go with certain things and only those things. A lot of times we get caught up in the idea that, if I like something a certain way, then everybody should also like those things that way. But in a restaurant you cannot afford to be like that. You have to be open to other people’s likes and dislikes. You have to take a step back and see what other people are asking for as opposed to what you would like to serve them.
(Side note: we really like the idea of burgers with wine. See Megan’s TSB On The Road from London, England. I mean, who made those rules? You can only eat fish with white wine. You can only have a full-bodied red with a 72oz porterhouse. We really like Demian’s vision of a convention-free dining. “I would like a Pinot Grigio with poutine, please.” “Right away, sir!” Damn straight.
Demian has to excuse himself again to tend to some clients. I like his use of the word “clients.” Like he doesn’t view the patrons of his restaurant as customers, but rather as guest who are paying him for a service who could go someplace else if they didn’t get what they wanted from him. It puts the duty to care on him: to give his guests what they are looking for, what they are expecting, which is nothing less than a fantastic dining experience. It is a view that I find myself respecting. And it’s sincere; it’s not an affectation.
Megan takes some photos of the wine cellar, which is upstairs (what?), and I look through the menu. There are some really interesting things there. They do specialize in burgers, but they are burgers like you’ve not often seen. They also have a deli component to the restaurant. A client could very well come in and order prosciutto and fine cheeses to go.
The restaurant itself has a very modern feel – clean design with a floor-to-ceiling glass frontage; a servers’ station outside that looks more like a neo-euro-style wine kiosk; the well-appointed restrooms upstairs that clients must pass through the wine cellar to get to; the over-sized magnums of wine sitting in partially open crates, on the ground, meant to look willy-nilly, but without being untidy or out of place. All of this is meant to remind you of where you are and what you are here for.
Demian returns and we open our second bottle of the interview. My kind of interview.)
Wine: Bella Terra, Merlot, Baja California, Mexico, 2009, (Retail) $350 MXN
Rating: Three Bottles
(This is a wine that makes you talk about the future. You want to be a better person when you drink this wine. Lots of red fruit – a very satisfying wine.
Demian has some cheese and prosciutto brought to the table. With it comes two marmalades that defied reason. The dish is available on their
restaurant menu, and if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. It is so choice.)
I lived here. I worked for a resort here before and I wanted to open my own business here. I like Playa. When you are in a smaller town, you have more opportunity to grow and everything because, for example, in a city like Mexico City or Monterrey, you need a much larger investment. Here, you can have a greater impact and you can make that impact quicker.
What challenges face a restaurant like La Cava?
Like every restaurant, the challenge that faces you is the consistency. From the food that your serve, to the service that you get – it has to be consistent. For instance, I can give you the best meal that you’ve ever had, but if the next time you come and it’s not very good, you are less likely to come back. That is the biggest challenge that faces any restaurant: consistency.
It’s a tough business. It’s like magicians. Nobody sees the tricks that go into a great service. Nobody sees what happens before the doors open, before the show starts that makes it a great night. People seem to think that it’s easy; that it all comes together by itself. But it doesn’t. It’s not as glamorous as people think. It’s a lot of work. Wine, as a product is very complicated.
What changes do you see happening to the wine culture here in Mexico?
Well, for example, in Mexico, the consumption averages about 250ml, or about one-third of a bottle, per capita, per year. So, in this one bottle that we’ve shared, you’ve reached your quota for the year. The wine consumption in Mexico is increasing, but we still don’t drink very much as compared to say, Europe, or France, who consumes, on average, 30 litres of wine per capita, per year. But, what is happening in Europe, is that there is a decline in wine consumption in those countries and they are seeing a surplus. So the prices are starting to come down a bit. That makes it easier not only for good wines from other countries to come to Mexico, but for Mexican wines to begin to get appreciated. If you see a very good wine from France beside a very good wine from Mexico, it helps to give credibility to the Mexican wine.
What’s going to happen in Mexico, is that there is a growing culture of seeing wine as a business, so that wineries are starting to see that if they don’t take themselves seriously, the rest of the world won’t either. This puts the onus on the wineries to produce better quality wines in order to compete with what’s coming into the country from abroad. It’s not like tequila or spirits. Or vodka! You can make one bottle of vodka taste exactly like the other very easily and the cost of the production is all in the bottle. You make the spirit, cut it with water, pour it into a bottle, and that’s it. With wine, it’s not so easy. And if you are trying to get recognized as a credible vintner, you cannot treat it as a hobby, because one bad pull and you risk losing your client base.
Mexico is starting to see that wine, as a culture, is worth working for, and the wineries here that are making it are dedicated to the craft. And it shows.
What is your favourite bottle right now? What is Demian’s pick of the month? Or picks?
Bella Terra, Nebbiolo, Baja California, Mexico, 2009. Retails for about $375 MXN. Very hearty grape and reaches a good maturity point. Has very bubbly tannins. Dark fruit and chocolate and tobacco (smoky).
Emeve, Tempranillo, Baja California, Mexico, 2009. Retails $340 MXN. Tempranillo usually has more of a leathery quality, smokiness, muskiness, but the Emeve is more Rioja; lots of red fruit to the finish. I like it because it is unexpected.
What do you look for in a wine?
You have to consider certain things. If it’s for me I try different wines; I am always experimenting. Wines that I have heard are good, but I haven’t tried them. But here for my guests, I take into consideration what are they looking for. Price point, quality … what are you looking for? Also, though, the qualities of what that wine should have, not just because it’s what the client wants. The varietal, what characteristics it should have; if it exceeds it, if it meets it. Also: value. Some of the wines we get come from distributors, but sometimes you can find really good wines at Costco. Especially for what you know the wine should cost versus what Costco is selling it for. I mean, you sell what you want to sell, you push what you want to push. And you have to take into consideration your menu. What do I need to have on hand to make a recommendation? What is the client going to expect a wine bar to carry. I can’t just serve wines that I think are great just because I like them if nobody has ever heard of them before.
In your opinion, what should an amateur wine lover, a non-connoisseur, look for in a wine?
I don’t like to impose my feelings about a wine onto other people. But, regardless of your likes and dislikes, especially when you judge it from a professional side, the colour is very important. The older it gets, the more orange, the browner it gets. Whether you decide to drink it now or not, it’s a risk. Not all wine is meant to be aged. Most red wine that is produced is meant to be consumed between one or two years. Whites: six months to a year.
What happened with wine is … There is a notion that “the older the wine, the better the wine.” But that is not necessarily true. Back in the day, there wasn’t the same technology that we have today. The wineries didn’t have the space to keep all of the wine as it aged to maturity so the wine you bought years ago was meant to sit on your shelf to be consumed in maybe five years. You knew that the wine you bought today, you would drink five years from now – the wine you drink today, you bought five years ago. They sold wine a little green on purpose.
But nowadays, the tannins can be pulled more appropriately, so that today, we do not need to wait so long to drink our wines.
The smell gives you a lot from the wine. For example, when you open a wine, you have to look for the wine. If it doesn’t give you a lot, you have to try harder to pull the flavours from the wine. Most of us associate our sense of smell with our sense of sight. We see red and we expect certain flavours. We see white, and we expect others. Wine is very chemical. There is no chocolate in wine, but we can smell chocolate in some wines. We can smell strawberries in some wines. But we don’t put those things in wine so that it smells that way. It’s not a fruit punch. It has to do with the extraction of flavours. When you smell certain things in a wine it is because similar chemicals from the things that you smell – the chocolate, the strawberries – are also present in the wine. Not all of them; only a hint of them. You must look for the wine when you smell it. In reality, we don’t actually taste anything in the wine the way we think we do. We don’t taste chocolate; we smelled it, and so we associate the bitter and the sweet with the chocolate we smelled before.
The flavour of the wine that you are looking for is not what it “tastes” like, but the types of flavours you are experiencing. For instance, salty, sweet, acidic, bitter. That is why it is important to roll the wine around your entire mouth, so that all your taste buds get a chance to absorb all of flavours. Then you can identify what characteristics the wine has and if they match what you were smelling.
Wines that don’t smell like much, we call that a closed wine. You can let those wines breathe, let them sit for a while … But if they still don’t smell like anything, it may not be a very good wine.
If there was one thing that you could teach every person about wine, what would it be?
One of the things I love about wine is that every wine is different from all of the others. Like, for instance, this Rose can be different from another. This vintage can be very different from another. Because it comes from nature. And that is what I love about wine. It is different from other forms of alcohol. It is always unique. It is, I think … I would like people to know, the uniqueness of wine, because people have to understand how nature can create something like that. At the end of the day, the product comes from the ground. And only from certain parts of the world. You can have one bad day, one frost, one day out of a beautiful year, and it can be done. So there is a little luck involved, too. And it’s good for you! And that is the beauty of it.
Cava Veinte33 can be found on 38thStreet, East of 5th Avenue, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
For reservations, call 52 (984)803 3918, or email Demian, firstname.lastname@example.org.