Jewels of a Coveted Cellar

Greg Powers

Diners who missed out on elBulli still have a chance to sample wines from the famed restaurant’s exclusive collection.

Diners who missed out on elBulli still have a chance to sample wines from the famed restaurant’s exclusive collection.

It was the greatest coup in Lucas Paya’s career thus far: The remains of elBulli’s cellar had come into his possession.

Now the wine director at José Andrés’ Think Food Group, which has restaurant concepts in Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, and Puerto Rico, Paya had worked at elBulli from 2002–2007 as its sommelier, and was intimately familiar with the 9,000 bottles of wine that recently came up for auction.

After closing in 2011, the famed elBulli restaurant near Roses, Catalonia, Spain, needed financial support so it could reopen as the elBulli Foundation, dedicated to fostering creative and innovative cooking processes. Hence, the restaurant’s renowned 9,000-bottle cellar was put up for auction. “Rob Wilder, CEO of Think Food Group, and I got on a train and headed to New York City,” says Paya. The two were bound for the Sotheby’s auction held in April of last year. (Another auction was held in Hong Kong.)

“These are wines that are rare because they are in limited quantity or are older vintages that are no longer available,” explains Paya. “Some are signed by Juli Soler [co-owner of elBulli] and Ferran Adrià [elBulli’s famed chef].”

Many are also in large-format magnums or may be the last remaining bottle known in the world. At the auction, Paya purchased 100 bottles for Jaleo, Think Food Group’s Spanish-focused flagship in Washington. By March of this year, 25 of the bottles had sold, leaving just 75, ranging in price from $125–$2,000—each of which is prominently featured on the last page of Jaleo’s wine list.

The storied acquisition was the perfect pairing with the restaurant group’s already-strong wine selection. Wine lists are not the same across the board. “It’s not about one wine list. I manage 12 different wine lists,” says Paya. “It’s all about complementing the cuisine. We have very focused restaurants. Whether the focus is Spain, Mexico, the Mediterranean, or avant-garde, I try to complement the cuisine, the space, the design, and the clientele.”

For example, at Jaleo—with units in Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; Bethesda, Maryland; and Crystal City, Virginia—only Spanish wines are poured to complement the tapas-centric menu. “You won’t find anything that isn’t a representation of what you would find in Spain,” says Paya.

An astounding number of labels are featured—around 250, he estimates—representing 60 appellations throughout Spain. This includes around 80 varietals, with the bottles ranging in cost from $20–$560, not including the elite bottles remaining from the elBulli collection.

Paya does not believe in “crazy mark-ups,” striving instead to keep the cost for the diner only slightly above retail. Thirty-seven wines are poured by the glass, including six sherries and two sparkling Cavas. Sherries, in particular, are a popular match with the rich, heavy tapas on Jaleo’s menu.


Add new comment