Wine on Starchefs
Ken Collura
De La Tierra
Anaconda Bar
El Monte Sagrado™

317 Kit Carson Road
Taos, New Mexico 87571
505.737.2985 (fax)
Ken Collura, Wine Director / Sommelier, El Monte Sagrado, Taos, NM
Interview by Jim Clarke

Wine has played a vivid role in Collura’s life since his childhood in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where his grandfather made wine from a wooden press in the basement.  As he tells it, “Californian grapes –Zinfandel, actually – arrived each September at our house in the Village and were sent down the delivery door directly into the basement.  We never had a meal without wine at the table.”  However, the wine bug didn’t really hit him until he spent some time in France.  “At 21, my then-girlfriend said, ‘Let’s move to France.’  So we lived in Nice for a year, and I turned from Twinkies and milk to grilled fish and rosé.  We would drink whites and rosés in the morning and reds the rest of the day.”

In the early ‘80s Ken began working as a graphic artist for Time magazine; strangely enough, a job that gave him the opportunity to visit many of the world’s great wine regions.  “I was very lucky to get in on the ground floor of the computer era.  I was valuable to them because I knew a bit more about computers than other people did.  We worked a three-day week, but 12 hours-a-day, and it all had to be perfect.  To keep us happy we got six weeks of vacation, so I went to Europe three or four times each year.  Since my French and Spanish were quite strong, those were my favorite countries to visit.  I drove out into the vineyards and knocked on doors.  That’s how I developed my understanding of wine: talking to winemakers, tasting wine together with the local foods.”  Back home Ken also cut his teeth as a member of Stephen Tanzer’s weekly tasting group.

On Service

Eventually he decided to become a wine professional: “In 1990 I chucked Time magazine and moved to Florida.”  After struggling a bit he found work writing restaurant reviews and Maitre D’ing at Chez Yannick in Vero Beach, where he later began to sommelier as well.  He was interested in wine service rather than making wine.  “ I love good service, and like to be entertained by good servers. I was never much for the technical side of wine; I prefer to talk about the basics: cost, taste, and matching wine with food.” 

Ken’s father had been a jazz musician, and some of the great names of jazz – Zoot Sims, Donald Byrd – were often around the house when he was growing up; this exposure to music opened up an appreciation of the arts and entertainment.  “I went to New York’s Performing Arts High School – the ‘Fame” school – and I came to think of service as great theater.”  When he began teaching some wine classes he brought this sense for performance with him, and Florida’s ABC Fine Wine and Spirits took notice and hired him on as a wine consultant.  His next step up would be a big one.

The Biggest Winelist in the World

“Then Bern’s called.  I was thrilled; I had caught a really good break.”  Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa has the longest winelist in the world; it takes more than three warehouses just to store it.  It was not a job for creativity: “Bern’s does things one way: their way.  You live and die for Bern’s; it’s a machine, and short of a bomb it’ll rock on forever.  It was an astonishing way to really learn about being a wine professional.  I’d love to see some of those fancy-nancy guys with four sommeliers serving 26 guests cope with our ten dining rooms and 500 to 1,000 covers a night.”

On Certifications

When work is that demanding and educational, outside qualifications seem less important: “You learn more about war when they’re shooting at you than by reading about it.  I’ve seen good friends struggling to attain those two initials after their name at the cost of friends, marital strife, and so on.  I didn’t see the point; it’s not a necessity.  Not to dis the MS’s out there – they deserve the accolades – but is knowing all those obscurities ever going to improve my guests’ experiences?  At Bern’s I had the opportunity to taste the great wines of the world.  Once you gain the power over great wines, you gain the ability to evaluate lesser wines as well.”

Off to New Mexico

After eight-and-a-half years, Ken was ready for a change when the El Monte Sagrado resort came calling.  “I was the keeper of the flame; I wasn’t creating anything.  I liked the wines I got to work with, but I wanted to create my own program.  I was also getting physically beaten up a bit – a little numb and tired.  When I visited Taos I fell in love with the magical terrain.  The resort is a 50-million dollar property; each room is a work of art.”  And the best part?  His own wine program.  Although it also helped that they met his salary request without batting an eyelash.

Ken’s wine program includes the winelist at the resort’s restaurant De La Tierra, as well as the Anaconda Bar and a variety of classes and events.  Classes take place in a beautiful salon overlooking the mountains and attract a mix of visitors, locals, and even trade people.  Every six weeks Ken works together with chef Kevin Kapalka to present a Wine Dinner; most recently, Master Sommelier Larry O’Brien joined him to present a dinner themed around some top Italian wines in the Paterno Wines International Portfolio such as Gaja, Lungarotti, and Il Poggione.

With the Chef

Ken and chef Kapalka both joined the resort at the same time and have developed a strong working relationship.  After the more obvious demands of a steakhouse, Ken is enjoying a new-found freedom.  “Kevin’s style is very classically-oriented; he’s a subtle, thought-provoking chef.  He likes local, indigenous ingredients and free-range, organic meats; he puts outrageous things together like habañeros and mangos, but remains subtle.  His dishes give me a much broader boulevard to drive through.”

In the Bar

In the Anaconda Bar, Ken prefers to emphasize the classical cocktails instead of a range of nouveau-tinis and exotica.  “We aim to mix the very best classics.  We give the bartenders a great well to work with so the drinks are the best they can make.  Mojitos are big sellers, and people rarely ask for off-the-wall drinks.”  The bar has a lot to offer, with African drums for tables and a ceiling inspired by the anaconda theme.  There’s live music every night, with no cover charge; with so many other things to look at and listen to, not needing to read through an extensive list of unfamiliar cocktails seems like a good decision.

While he is clearly in love with his new home and position, Ken still finds time for other things.  He serves on both the Tasting Panel and Editorial Advisory Board for Cheers Magazine and hasn’t lost his Florida connections, serving on the Board and Judging Panel for the Miami Wine Fair.  This year he is even presenting a seminar at the Fair on building a wine program.  He also writes a syndicated bi-weekly wine column for Media General newspapers out of Tampa and finds an outlet for his love for jazz by DJing a weekly jazz program on the radio.

On Wine Travel

Ken hasn’t forgotten how he first learned about wine, and continues to visit winemakers to see what they’re doing with the latest vintage.  France remains his favorite destination: “France is my main beat; I love France.  I attend the Salon des Vignerons Independants in Paris the last week of November each year; it’s a five-day show with no negociants.  After five days I walk out with a complete understanding of the latest vintages for all of the country’s wine regions.  Then I visit the vineyards.  Spain is my second love; it’s a learning field every time I go, as the whole country is changing and new regions are coming up on the radar all the time.  In Italy I get distracted and end up eating a lot and going to galleries.”

“I’m starting to enjoy Californian wines more and more, especially the ‘indigenous’ varietals like Zinfandel and Petit Syrah.  The Rhone varietals are also on the rise.  I like California for bold, prodigious wines, and Europe for subtlety.  I’m not much of an Aussie fan; too often they’re full of thick fruit and heavy alcohol, and aren’t food-friendly.”  Ken cites Seghesio, Guenoc, and Concannon as stand-outs from his most recent visit to California.  After his travels, he brings it all home to El Monte Sagrado, enthusiastically and theatrically sharing his love for wine as a self-styled “Dispenser of Hedonism.”


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 Published: September 2004