SOMM LIKE IT HOT featuring Miami Robuchon’s Juan Carlos Santana

We already know Miami is a hot zone for craft cocktails and beer. Know what else is happening? The wine scene! Follow along as I continue this blog (and now also PODCAST!) section featuring some of South Florida’s buzziest swirlers, sniffers, and tasters.

Meet Juan Carlos Santana, beverage director of The Bastion Collection’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the Miami Design District. We love a successful “raised in (Miami) Dade” story, and this one is it!  

**Blog interview transcript has been edited for clarity and condensed for brevity.

Listen to the FULL EPISODE on the link provided below or on all major podcast platforms***

Featuring Carlos Santana of The Bastion Collection. Welcome! Thank you for having me, Brenda.

My pleasure. I did a little digging about you. I am so excited to learn so much more about you and your journey. There’s deejaying, FIU, Juvia, Rioja, Coya, and, of course, our beautiful location today, Robuchon. Are you ready? I’m ready. Let’s do it!

For our readers, here’s how the segment goes. I start with some predetermined base questions for our somms, and then we just go with the flow from there. So, The Bastion Collection is the group? Initially, when I read it, I thought it was a wine store. How long have you been here at this job? Well, on Sunday it will be officially three years.

So you got that whole pandemic fun in there? Oh yeah, absolutely. We closed the restaurant. I was very fortunate that I was one of the three people in the building that was kept on board to sort of help with organizing and getting things ready for when we would reopen. I was lucky enough to still have worked throughout all that time. And then the pleasure of reopening, which is even harder than an opening. And then we did that seven times. We have two left to go in the next year. And then Robuchon in New York, which we hope to be reopening in June.

It was moving locations, right? That one we were about to open. Circumstances were what they were. Unfortunately, the company decided we would just move locations. So that should be opening in a new location, most likely ’23. Before my time here, I was with a group that’s based out of Istanbul. I actually got that job through Coya because they bought the brand as well as Zuma and, and a few others. At the time my current boss was picked to lead the expansion of their brands from Turkey into the U.S. so we opened Nusret in Miami, “Salt Bae” which was an experience. I’ll leave it at that.

Oh, I’m sorry about that. I’m not offended. I’m sorry too. Then we opened restaurants in Dallas and Boston. I really enjoyed being on the road. But that got to be a lot. You spend basically an entire year on the road and two weeks at home, you start to miss friends and family. So that’s where I stepped away from that. I took a little bit of a breather and then found myself here. At Coya, I started as the last somm in, and within a very short window of time, I became the only somm at the restaurant.

Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Miami kid? I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My family then moved here. I’ve been in Miami my whole life. I grew up here living in West Kendall. I went to school here. It hasn’t always been what it is today. It’s something else. And then FIU. I originally went for electrical engineering. At the end of my junior year, decided I would be not a very happy human if I went down that road. So took some time off, tried to figure out what I really wanted to do. I was working in nightlife and that led me to go back to school for hospitality. I want to open my own bar and restaurant someday. That is still very much a goal. But I figured I should probably work for a few people first and really learn the business. I mean, school can teach you a lot, but there’s a whole lot more that you just have to be in it and go through the motions, to really see all the fine details.

How did you get started in wine from that jump out of FIU? It actually started at FIU. At the time was very passionate about craft beer and spirits. I didn’t really know much about wine, but FIU has this wonderful program, and they make it a requirement that you take at least two summer credits. I was not thrilled about the idea of spending my summer here. After three weeks of the professor bringing in people to speak, it dawned on me. Wait a minute, you can make a career out of this? So I kept up with the classes. I went to Rioja for the study abroad with FIU. I absolutely loved that. I stayed behind after the trip ended, and I backpacked around Europe for another three months which was one of the best memories of my life. I thought, I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back. I have to make this count.

When I got back and graduated, I applied to a brewery and to a restaurant with a good wine program, Juvia. Juvia got to me a week before the brewery did. That was the start of my wine career, and I haven’t looked back since. I’m very happy to say that I have a very strong grasp of what’s happening in Rioja. I think because of that trip, I have a very emotional attachment to the place. I think the wines are fabulous. My palate has changed since. I seek other things out now, but it’s a very comforting wine to turn back to. I have been back once on a trip. I got to stay at the Frank Gehry hotel, which was sensational. It was really special. I got to taste my birth year wine. It was the first time I saw port tongs be used on really old bottles. Found a barrel with the king’s name on it, which just so happens to be my name. I got to explore the little town just outside the winery in a way I couldn’t do on the trip with FIU.

What is the most rewarding part of your job now? It’s the sharing of the knowledge—the training with the staff. Sometimes we’re going over topics that are fairly esoteric to somebody who’s not deep into wine or cocktails. Watching that little light bulb click on, you can see it in their eyes when they finally get it. And you’re like, that’s what I’m talking about. And they’re just so excited to me; that’s the best part. You know, the spreadsheets and the numbers and making sure that the business makes sense, it’s fun. Admittedly that’s the part I’m least passionate about. Spreading the knowledge. I think if I can get one person more interested in wine then we’re in a good place.

What are some industry pet peeves? I think that when you go to another person’s restaurant, especially if you work in the industry, just be humble, be understanding: sometimes things aren’t going to go perfect. Some industry people who have come in, and you know by the way they’re acting, you wouldn’t know that they were in the industry. They have a very high opinion of themselves. I had someone tell me they were a master somm once. I’m like, you’re not. I mean, I didn’t say it to their face, but in my head. There’s only a handful of these people. You can’t just go out there and say things like that. Just be cool. I’m not asking you to put up with anything that doesn’t make sense. But if a fork is out of place or if, your server made a mistake, things happen. We obviously strive for perfection, but if a mistake happens, be chill. At the end of the day, what we’re doing is extremely important. And I love it, but we’re serving food to people. It’s not brain surgery. We’re not saving the earth. We’re providing an experience. Hopefully, it’s a great one for you.

What does the team look like now? The last time I was in, it was mostly the New York team. Has it merged to Miami yet? I’d say, well, it’s a little bit of both. I’d say we have a lot of locals. But certainly, there have been a lot of people who’ve moved down from New York, so we have a good mix. I think what’s nice about the team from New York is that there are more restaurants at the caliber that we’re operating at up there. So they have a little bit more experience. The true Miami natives, they have a little bit more personality and charisma. It’s nice to see their personality rub off on some of our New Yorkers. I think each group is teaching the other; it’s really nice to see. At first, especially when we reopened, it was a lot of like, let’s focus on the technical stuff, and now we’re well beyond that. Now it’s just… how do we have fun at our job? Because the second we’re having fun, that’s infectious, and that spreads to our guests. Certainly, a year and a half ago, when we reopened, it was a little bit more, I don’t want to say stiff, but we were definitely more focused on like hitting technical marks. Now that’s more second nature.

Also, now with Miami, with the Michelin guide coming, the self-pressure I imagine of “being perfect.” That goes for wine service too. Everything has to be on point as I’m sure, you know, no pressure. It is a stage, and we have to hit our mark always. I won’t forget the day that first article announcing the Michelin guide coming. It took all of five minutes before everyone’s phones had messages coming. We heard rumors that it was possible. But we were all like, yeah, right, sure. It’ll come someday. We didn’t think it’d be this soon. It’s something we talk about at least once a day. We’re all very aware that it is a goal that we have. We feel good. I know we’ve put in the work to be the best restaurant we can be. The fact that we have other sister properties already with Michelin stars, helps us feel good about our chances, but also adds a little more pressure. We have to live up to that as well.

What certification education do you have as a somm? I am currently a level two certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. I sat for my advanced exam in 2019. It was a month after we opened this place. Admittedly, I didn’t really get to too much studying, which I think showed in my results. I passed the practical service exam. I passed the blind tasting, which was one I worried about. I passed the business of sommelier. It was the theory, the actual book smarts that I needed a little bit more work on. At that level, they ask a lot of minutiae, right? ‘What is the local dialect name for this soil in this region? How many acres are allowed to be in a single vineyard in South Africa?’ It’s stuff that I understand the importance of knowing. But sometimes it leaves me feeling, like, how is that going to help me sell another bottle of wine? It’s a little bit of a love, hate relationship.

Briefly walk us through your experience on what it took to learn to sniff, and taste wine properly. I know you’re going to say just drink, right? I mean, it’s the best way to do it. What I started doing, because I really struggled with being able to say, that smells like cherries, and that’s most like blackberries. I really struggled with that in the beginning. What I found helps is in the grocery store, at home, just pick things up and smell them. I think if you put the time in to make the connection in your brain between ‘this smell is specifically this fruit or this herb or this spice’, once you commit that to your memory, then picking it up in wine and spirits and beer it becomes a lot easier. So it’s less, oh my God, there’s some magic happening here. How does he know? It’s just practice. Anyone can be a good taster. It’s just repetition. Luckily, because I’m in restaurants and I open bottles every day, I get to smell and taste.

How do you feel about those tasting kits with like hundreds of different oils? They’re like $300! Like Le Nez du Vin? It’s expensive, very expensive. If you have one, it’s helpful. Certainly, in terms of just being able to smell a wide variety of things in a short amount of time. It’s geared towards the most common smells you would find in wine. That helps narrow things down. I personally don’t own one, but I have seen them a couple of times. I think it’s helpful. But it’s also a little synthetic. They’re putting molecules together to give you that smell. I think pick up some cloves, pick up some black pepper, pick up the fruit. That goes a long way.

What is a wine myth you would like dispelled? That the price of the wine has anything to do with the quality of it. I think oftentimes people will be like, oh, well that’s inexpensive, it can’t be good. And I’m like, I’d much rather drink that $10 bottle than the $50 bottle you just pulled up with. No disrespect, but sometimes you’re paying for a name and a brand.

Do you think there’s a little truth to that, in a bottle that’s maybe too inexpensive ? You buy two for $10, and it’s just crap in there just made chemically. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong. By no means, am I saying all inexpensive wine is good. There’s a vast ocean of mediocre, not very good wine. Bullshit. I think that is what makes the topic of wine, even more confusing and more frustrating because how do I even know what’s good? You walk down the grocery store, and maybe 6 out of 10 bottles are wine that’s made to hit a common denominator, and it’s just rich and flabby and old and one dimensional. I think what I really enjoy about wine is finding those exceptional bottles under $20. Those are wines I can drink every day and don’t feel guilty about. If I didn’t finish the bottle, it’s not a big deal. If I drank two bottles, also not a big deal. Whereas the more expensive stuff, that’s stuff that I want to put away, save it for a nice occasion. The other thing is that good wines are only under cork, that they can’t be in screw cap or something.

That’s actually my next question. So let’s go to it. Do you feel strongly about natural corks? Do synthetic and screw caps, merit the same respect? And do you believe they yield the same outcome? I’m a strict no can, no screw top girl. I think in the beginning, there was definitely some truth to that. Natural corks, the quality of them for a long time was very hit or miss. If you’ve ever had a corked bottle of wine, you know that it has ruined the bottle. It tastes sour; it smells like mold and wet cardboard. And that’s a shame, especially when you got that $400 bottle, and you’re super excited, and you pull the cork and it doesn’t taste the way it should. That never happens with a screw cap. Even now that the quality of corks has gotten a lot better because the cork industry is afraid of the screw caps coming on. It used to be closer to 10%. Now, I think under 3% of corks that are with TCA, the chemical that makes a corked wine. But even then at 3%, why take the chance this might be a bad bottle because of the cork, not anything wrong with the wine. The cork, to me, if we know we have technology that can stop that from ever happening, why not use it? There’s been a lot of experiments where they have aged the same wine under natural cork and under screw cap. And the quality has not suffered.

That would be a really great blind tasting. Are there any high-end wines that are starting to use them? I certainly haven’t bought any. I think it’s starting to happen. There are some wines in Oregon, some wines in New Zealand and Australia that are going under screw cap because they feel the same way I do. Why take a chance on a natural product? For the most part, because the general public hasn’t embraced it yet, the perception is that you’re devaluing the wine by putting on a screw cap. I think that is what’s stopping a lot of people from making the change. At one point, we felt the same way about glass bottles. We thought putting wine in a glass bottle was silly and that it didn’t make any sense. So it took probably about a hundred years for people to fully embrace the glass bottle. I think it’ll probably take a similar amount of time.

How do you feel about canned wine? For red? It irks me to no end. I’m more forgiving about white. The interesting thing about cans is that you don’t have to worry about oxygen getting in. You don’t have to worry about sunlight ruining the thing. The only thing you have to worry about is if it has been kept in a climate-controlled environment. That’s a big one, but it’s the same thing with glass. Believe it or not, and this is never going to catch on because nobody puts fine wine in a box. But the interesting thing about those boxes is that they’re in a bladder, right? So when you hit the top, and it pulls the line out, that will hold.

It’s like a box Coravin. Exactly. Because the bladder will just start shrinking in on itself. So no oxygen is going to get in. You could have a box of wine, and you’re going to have a fresh quality glass of wine today like you would three months from now. If people are having a tough time with screw caps, I think getting them into boxes is going to be even harder. I think all of those points, the lack of oxygen, the lack of sunlight, all of those things make it so that it’s actually a better technology for what we’re doing. But because the perception is that it can’t be good wine, we’re not going to see that anytime soon. As far as cans go, typically, what you find in canned wine is young, fresh, ready-to-drink wine. So when you’re going to the beach, I think it’s great.

So we aren’t going to come to Robuchon and get the cans. Probably not. I don’t think we’ll have a canned section, to be honest. I think the quality of the can that they’re using also makes a difference. Sometimes you get a metallic taste from the can. Whites typically are a little bit more fresh, crisp, whereas red wine, because of the tannins, they’re more affected by metal than whites. It’s a really blanket statement. I actually don’t have any proof for other than my own experience.

Where would you steer a person wanting to learn more about wine? Well, there’s a ton of great resources. I think the book that really helped me sort of get a broad perspective of wine was The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil. That’s an excellent place to start. Windows on the World is another great place to start. I have both of them. I have more books than a normal person probably should on the subject. I think those are great jump-off points. And then you can get into more like singular topics with other books. Also, online, I’m a big fan of Jancis Robinson. She co-authored The Oxford Companion to Wine, which is an almost encyclopedic. She’s like the Robert Parker of England, if you will. Her opinion is equally respected around the world. I think my palate personally is more in line with how she rates wines than, say the Robert Parkers of the world.

What is a good starter wine? I would probably start with Rioja. Excellent value. You can get a great bottle of wine without spending a lot of money. I think for people who like some oak, they like a richer style of wine. It’s very easy to find something like that. Those are flavors that I think tend to be easier to understand. There’s a reason most people start with California here. It’s what’s closest to us. I think it’s harder to find a good bottle of wine at a good price point from California. Especially Napa. It’s very difficult to find a quality cab from Napa for under 20 bucks. Not only does it have those flavor profiles that maybe somebody who’s into new world wine could appreciate, but it also opens the door to old world wine at the same time. That’s where you learn about acidity being a good thing and wine tannins being a good thing in wine. Naturally, your palate evolves over time. Once you learn to enjoy something, you get it, you have it too much sometimes. And then you start looking for other things that excite you. Eventually, you come back to it. That’s where I would start.

How do you feel about documentaries such as the SOMM series driving up the interest in certifications? What I love is that it gets people excited about wine. And it sheds a little bit of light into what it takes to do what we do. At the same time, I think maybe a little bit too much. I’m not sure I’ve seen the third one yet. After the second one, I was like, I think I’ve seen what I need to see. At some point, I’ll watch them. I haven’t made the time. Admittedly I don’t watch as much TV as maybe I should. It’s great that more people are interested in wine and learning about it. That part I really can get behind. It’s made things like getting certification tough. There are so many people signed up for it. Everybody has their own journey. So, by all means, if it’s something you want to do, you should definitely do it. It’s just a little frustrating when you’re waiting a year, two years, just to have the ability to sit down and take a test. Come on. Now you’re impeding my growth because of X, Y, and Z reasons that have nothing to do with whether I’m ready or not.

How do you feel about the current Miami wine scene? It is really fun. I think a few years ago, even when I was at Coya, it was a little bit harder. There were definitely people who were into wine, but now I think it is exploding, especially with the natural movement. We have more wine bars than we’ve ever had before. When I was at Coya, I could count maybe three or four. But now we have NIU, and Margot. It’s grown a lot which is really exciting. As tough as it’s been on the real estate market to have all these New Yorkers and Californians come in, it has added a lot to our wine community. We’re selling Burgundy and high-end Bordeauxs and Italians. We used to sell those wines, but now it’s every day; People are looking for those wines. They understand what they’re getting.

They should find it right next to the canned wines, right? Right! Grand Cru Burgundy, right next to the cans.

Speaking of guests coming in, what do you wish every diner knew when ordering at a restaurant? It’s not a wine-specific thing. I used to get a lot of pushback. Like, why is this so expensive? I understand, but we’re not just paying for the wine. This is also going to pay the chefs. It’s going to pay for the rent.

Well, my next question is about corkage fees, which I know I’ve gone back and forth with you on. Let’s blend both questions. I understand both sides. As a business person who has to protect the business and make sure that we’re able to be open next month and pay our staff on time and pay our vendors on time. It’s a necessary evil. If we sold wine for the price that we bought it at, then we’re not making business. It’s not so much profit as…let’s pay the bills. We’ll make a little profit, but it’s more getting the bills paid. Sometimes, I feel like that nuance is lost on guests. And they’re just like, I know this wine, it doesn’t cost as much. I can’t see myself paying that. And granted, I do as good a job as possible at keeping our prices reasonable. I’ve certainly walked into other places where it’s a full point higher in a markup. Wow, even that’s a lot for me. But by the same token, I’m also a consumer. I’ve been in their shoes, I know how much that costs. I’m not paying that. We’re also providing a service at a very high level. And that’s something that, unfortunately, if we want to be here and provide that for you, you need to support us in paying what we ask. I’ve been to places where you’re not getting any service, they’re literally pulling the cork for you, giving you a clunky glass and letting you go on your way. I’ve been to those places, and you’re paying almost the same, if not the same amount that you would pay in a restaurant like ours. That I find a little tough. I understand you have bills to pay, but you have significantly less overhead. There are four people working here. You are not spending a ton on glassware or not being looked after. I probably won’t go back to places like that. As far as corkage fees go, I believe if you have it, it should be reasonable.

Are you not doing any days now? I know last time we were asking if you had any special days. Sundays? What we do is in the summertime, starting around May to about September, we offer free corkage on Sundays. You’re not paying to bring the bottle in. You can enjoy your wines. That’s the day to do it. We put a lot of effort into putting a compelling wine program together. The wines that we choose are made for the food. If you want to experience the entire experience, it’s not just come in and have the food. I guess as far as corkage goes, if you’re going to bring a bottle in, bring something fun and interesting. Don’t bring in wine that you can get at the grocery store. Bring in something that we’re not going to have. It can be extremely expensive. It can be inexpensive. Even if it’s a bottle that you have a memory with.

Is there a wine trend that drives you crazy and you think it should go away? Oh, my natural friends are gonna take issue with me. Here’s what I’ll say about natural wine. Some of it is exceptional, beautiful, and delicious. For me, the wine should taste like the place it says it’s from. Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, DRC, one of the most expensive wines in the world is a natural wine. The category itself isn’t an issue for me. It’s more the, ‘Well, it’s natural, and it’s got a fun story, so we’re going to put it on the list, even though it doesn’t taste very good.’ And there’s a lot of those kinds of wines that are just making their way into restaurants. First of all, I don’t even know what ‘clean’ wine is. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Natural is a very broad term, which can encompass a lot of things.

The organic biodynamic, that is a separate conversation that I actually take more seriously. Those are people who are doing the right thing to take care of the earth. It inevitably makes a better wine because the vines are healthier. The vineyard is healthier. That’s something that I can get behind. There’s room for funky wine. I love orange wine when it’s good. But when it’s smelling like a shoe…And then there’s the, ‘You’re going to love this because it’s 15 days on the skins and the guy plays music to his farm. And the eggs.’ There are some cooky people out there. They believe it helps. If that’s what they think is going to help them by all means. One of the fathers of biodynamics, Nicolas Joly, plays music to his wine in the winery. I can’t tell you for certain that it does, but I can tell you he makes fantastic wine. I think there’s certain things that make sense, and other things seem like hocus-pocus. Like all wine, some of it is exceptional and there is a lot of it that is just…fine.

Any wine trend prediction for the rest of the year, that isn’t natural wine? Natural wine will have its moment. We’ll see how long it stays feverish the way it is right now. I don’t know that I can predict what’s going to happen. I know I would personally like to see more champagne being drank. A somm who likes champagne, who would have thought? Now that I’ve said the thing that every somm is going to say, the other thing, every somm will tell you is sherry. Sherry is a deeply misunderstood category of wine. It comes in so many styles, such umami to those wines. Even the sweeter stuff, the Pedro Ximénez, it’s absolutely sensational, and it works with food. The Finos work with seafood. Oh, it’s fantastic. It used to be one of the best-selling wines in the world. I think what I find is that, especially with sherry, the first time you try it, it is a very different wine. Because of the floor that it goes under, it has sort of this almond skin, oyster shell vibes to it, sometimes it’s toffee. But, initially, it’s like the first time you ever had a beer. You’re like, I don’t know if I’m going to like that. But then as you acquire the flavor and the taste starts to be something you’re like…oh wait. I think by doing it with a pairing and seeing how a wine like that could work with food, at least to anybody who is open-minded enough to try, I think it would very much shock a lot of people.

Where do you see yourself in five years? At the beginning of my own hospitality empire, I hope. I got into this because I wanted to open my own bar. I think over the time of working for different groups, what I noticed is that being stuck in one location or doing one thing, after a while, I get a little stir crazy. What else is there to do? What I love about my current position is that I go from concept to concept, so I can switch my thinking hat a little bit. Two French restaurants obviously different. Whereas in New York we had an Italian restaurant. I get to focus on Italy over there. I’m playing with different wines. I’m playing with different spirits, tasting things. For me, variety is the spice of life. Working here has been amazing because I’ve gotten to really focus on France, like I’d never done before. But before when I was at Coya doing a South American program, I really learned that there’s exceptional wine in South America. I think I like Chile more than Argentina, but let me not start any fights. I think it will start in Miami. That’s where I have my biggest network of friends in the industry, not just in restaurants, but in distributors, suppliers…I’m sure it would be a natural start. It would make sense to start here in my hometown, but I would love to take it to places like New York and maybe Denver. I’ve been looking at Denver a lot. I love mountains. The community out there is pretty cool as well. We’ll see where life takes me.

What would customers be surprised to learn about you? I am a very relaxed, carefree person. In the restaurant, when I’m on, you’re getting a side of me that’s very proper and maybe not cracking as many jokes. At home, I don’t care how fancy it is. Just make it good. I’m usually making jokes with my girlfriend or friends, just trying to get laughs out of people. And I’m actually an introvert, but as a Gemini, I have two sides, I guess. So in the restaurant, when I’m on, I seem very outgoing and charismatic. In my personal life, if I don’t see you, if I don’t say hi, it’s not that I think I’m better than you or don’t want to, it’s probably that I’m actually very shy and I don’t know this person. The person you get outside of the restaurant is pretty different from the person who you get inside.

Anything else you would like to add? This has been a lot of fun. If we would’ve just done this over email and I answered your questions, there’s a lot of the actual human side that would get missed because it would be a calculated response.

You know, I think the best thing I can say about our program is come in, see what we’re about. Anybody can put together a compelling list, but it’s really the people behind it. Again, how they make you feel when you’re in the restaurant. You could come in, you’ll forget what we said or what we talked about, but you’ll remember leaving feeling good. And that’s the most important thing. So come on in, see us, we hope to give you a great experience. That’s what we aim for every time.

Past Features

Cynthia Betancourt

Daniel Bishop

Alessandra Esteves

Amanda Fraga

Bianca Sanon

Jacqueline Coleman

Luis Martinez

Rachel B. Coddington

Daniel Toral

Natascha Patterer

Jacqueline Pirolo

Micah Winecoff