This article and the Making of a Legend series is brought to you by Légende, the taste of elegance.
On a recent December afternoon, the dapperly dressed AJ Ojeda-Pons is thoughtfully nosing a glass of wine. He’s currently battling a touch of the flu, but you’d never know it. His sartorial swagger is no surprise; in 2014 he was named Best Dressed Sommelier by GQ Magazine.
Unruffled despite a low-grade fever, Ojeda-Pons, wine director at New York City’s The Lambs Club since 2011, uses a horror movie analogy to explain how he believes the traditional perception of the sommelier is outdated. “The image of the sommelier is, you look like Dracula when you come to a table: ‘You’re here to suck my blood,’” he laughs. “I think that’s so old-fashioned. I try to be very open with people. I’m here to help you, I know a lot about every single wine on this list, and I want the conversation to be open.”
Ojeda-Pons grew up in Venezuela with parents who appreciated wine and exposed him to different regions and varietals at an early age. He has fond memories of going out to eat and his father ordering French wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Pouilly-Fuissé, and being struck by the explosion of bouquet and flavors. But Ojeda-Pons didn’t become professionally involved with wine until later in life when he moved to New York City. Initially, he was studying to be a musician. “I ended up working at a music post-production studio as a sound engineer,” he says. “I would record and mix and do commercials and things like that.” But after 9/11, the studio lost work and shut down, and Ojeda-Pons soon found himself working at Tribeca Grill as a reservationist.
It was there that he met renowned wine director David Gordon and began to truly immerse himself in the world of wine, tasting and learning and experiencing bottles from around the world. “I always asked for [Gordon’s] advice,” says Ojeda-Pons, “so I would learn a little bit about different wines, how to pour and decant, the size of glasses.” He recalls a story about the first wine tasting he attended with Gordon, a Polaner event in New York City. He dressed in his finest attire for the occasion. After being handed his first glass to taste, someone accidentally bumped into him and drenched him in wine. “I guess I got anointed,” he laughs. “I had to run out of the tasting, go buy a new shirt and tie, and come back. Then I got introduced to a lot of wine makers, so it was a really great experience.”
Before his stint at The Lambs Club, Ojeda-Pons worked at a variety of fine dining establishments in New York City, learning from some of the best sommeliers and wine directors in the industry. He got to know Patrick Cappiello back when he was a server (he’s now the wine director at several restaurants and very highly regarded in the industry). Ruben Sanz Ramiro was another important influence on Ojeda-Pons after the two met while working at Public. Another important figure in these formative years was Fred Dexheimer, the master sommelier whom Ojeda-Pons met while working at BLT Fish. Every step in his career seemed to bring another valuable mentor and resource into his circle.
Ojeda-Pons currently holds the title of Advanced Sommelier from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and is now in the second chapter of his diploma studies with the goal of becoming a Master Sommelier. “A sommelier never stops learning,” he says. “You have to read all the time, you have to learn about the vintages, the new viticulture practices,” in addition to things like the effects of climate change and fluctuating economies on the wine industry.
After all these years, Ojeda-Pons is unafraid to take risks in his work. At The Lambs Club, he makes a point of constantly tinkering with the wine list, always looking for something fresh and new that will also appeal to repeat customers. “I could place grape varieties that sell the most and then just reorder them as the vintage changed,” he says, noting how easy that would make his life. But the easy way out would bore both him and his customers. “I decided to order less of the wines, and change them more often. Not just with the season, but with menu items and things like that.” That means that sometimes a wine will be on the menu for a few weeks, and sometimes a few months. There is constant turnover, keeping his wine lists novel and invigorating. “I don’t want a museum wine list, something that you kind of read… but nobody buys anything.”
Ojeda-Pons enjoys showcasing wine from regions he feels are under-recognized or up and coming. At the moment, he’s very interested in the northwest of Spain, such as wines from Ribeira Sacra or El Bierzo. He also feels that Bordeaux is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. And he adores Champagne and wants to change its perception from a special occasion drink to something that should be frequently enjoyed and paired with food. “I drink Champagne every day,” he chuckles. “At least one glass. I want to do that till the day that I die, if I can.”
Ojeda-Pons is ever curious and always pushing boundaries instead of relying on conventions when curating his wine lists. The world of wine might not have been where he thought he’d end up when he first came to America. But he’s flourished over the years because he brings the same passion to it he once did with music. “I may not have become an orchestra conductor,” he says, “but I feel like one running a wine cellar every day of my life. You have to fine-tune things in the list, you have to select the right instruments so the orchestra sounds right. I like to add a lot of exotic things and make it a little more complex.”