Puerto Rican-born, Miami-bred Juan Carlos Santana started life as a music event production while cultivating a side passion for craft beers and spirits. After experiencing all the highs and lows of life on the road, he went back to school to study hospitality, with the idea of eventually opening a bar. After graduating, he applied to jobs in a brewery and a wine restaurant, leaving it to destiny to choose his path. The wine restaurant made the first offer, which set him on an illustrious and fast-paced career journey. A year and a half later, he would obtain his certification as a Sommelier along with a job at Juvia. This led to an offer from the Zuma Group for the position of Head Sommelier at Coya. After Coya closed, he continued to grow with the parent company Dream as the US Beverage Director, spending two years opening new restaurant concepts nationally, creating beverage programs and educating incoming staff. With such an exemplary resume, it’s no wonder Santana was tapped for the Miami Design District concepts: L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Le Jardinier.
What are your current and long-term goals when putting together a wine list?
I’m glad to say that the present wine lists contain a lot of things that are a priority for me, while still offering viability for the business as a whole. My focus is to work with producers who are taking care of the earth, growing sustainably at the very least, if not organic or biodynamic. I look for small producers and people who farm responsibly, that’s the most important thing for me. The other part is making sure there’s gender parity so that we’re working 50-50 with male and female winemakers.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I love to do it all. For the wines, I was able to personally curate them and put them on the list, which is always a great professional challenge that builds your knowledge and discernment. On the bar side, I get to flex my creativity, play with flavors and make something out of infinitely different possibilities. To have an outlet where I can create is the reason I love my job. But I also enjoy the education side—training people and teaching.
How do you work with the chefs to prepare the beverage program?
I’m very lucky that my chefs love when I’m there and give me stuffs to taste all the time. I focus more on the ingredients they’re working with and I try to include those in the cocktail program or I taste the sauces and think “this needs such-and-such wine.” I’m happy to say that I have a good relationship with them and we all earnestly want to offer the very best to our guests.
What was the inspiration behind the cocktail menu for Le Jardinier?
It’s largely influenced by the season. In the summer, I make it lighter and fresher. For our so-called “winter,” we offer a few more stirred drinks. When I design a recipe for a drink, I try to be mindful of classic cocktails that I know people love. For example, El Chile Vasco is a spicy take on the margarita. Margaritas are the number one drink sold in the country. We infuse our tequila/mezcal with Espelette peppers and through a little mamey in for good measure. The sweetness helps balance out the spice. We also have a drink called Le Pistolette that’s essentially a Revolver, but we do it with cognac. We paid a little homage to the French roots of the restaurant there.
Any ideal beverage and food pairings?
I like traditional food-wine pairings. There’s an acidity you get out of wine that is hard to find in cocktails or beer. I enjoy pairing beer and cocktails with food but I think food and wine are really made for each other, while beer is best experienced on its own and, generally speaking, cocktails are more for having a good time or two.
Can you describe the greatest wine experience you’ve ever had?
I had many, but there are two memorable ones. One was a very personal experience I had in Slovenia while visiting a small, family-owned restaurant, headed by a winemaker who produced the most incredible wine—truly unbelievable, packed with flavors, freshness, and acidity while respectful of the traditional process. To be there was very special because he also embodied true hospitality, offering a generous tour with sampling out of barrels, even showing us the room where he curated his pig legs! The smell of the place…it’s a difficult thing to fully express what that experience was like.
The other was on the educational side. It’s those times when maybe you’ve spent a week or two relaying difficult concepts to someone and they start to embark on it, following all the steps, even if they don’t fully understand yet. Then suddenly there’s that moment when a little light bulb clicks on in their eyes and they are like “Oh! This is what you’ve been talking about all this time!” Seeing that smile and epiphany happen is truly awesome. I would say those little moments are addictive to me.
What are your thoughts on wine education in Miami?
I think there’s a lot of potential for growth in this arena. In my mind, Miami has always been a spirits and cocktails town first and wine has always been second to that. It’s nice to see that there are more options now and more people pursuing careers in the wine industry. As far as building a clientele, that would require more information and education, I suppose. In the restaurant scene, what I’ve noticed is that a lot of people tend to stick to what they know or have been told is good. Big brands sell here like crazy so it can be somewhat frustrating when trying to present a new product that could really be a game-changer. But that points to an opportunity, too.
What do you do outside of your work scene?
I was very big into mountain biking for a long time. I took a 10-day trip to actual mountains and, once you do that, it sort of spoils the fun of doing it here, unfortunately. Going down the mountain is that exhilarating! But going to the beach is also a lot of fun. In my perfect living space, I’d have both mountains and beaches.
If you were a wine, what kind of wine would you be?
I guess I’d feel differently about this at different times…I’m a Gemini after all! But if I had to pick a wine, probably it would be a northern Rhone Syrah, with the purity of fruits but still with a lot of funky stuff going on in there and many layers of it. I have good intentions but, at the same time, I’m a little rough around the edges. I’m not super-polished by any means.
Which drink would you highly recommend we try when visiting Le Jardinier?
We have a new drink coming out on the menu called the Blood Moon, which has wine in it. It’s has Charbay blood orange vodka, blood orange juice, lemon, homemade spice syrup (clove, allspice, anise, etc), topped off with Lambrusco. That would be my first suggestion.
What’s next in store for you?
I need to submit our new wine list to the spectator by the end of the month. So my priority right now is to make sure that’s perfect. On the personal side of things, my goal is to eventually open my own place here in Miami, maybe a wine bar, we’ll see!