Sommelier Kristina Hayden Bustamante Shares Her Wine Journey

Like the proverbial kid in a candy store. That was how Kristina Hayden Bustamante appeared, ensconced in the 300-plus bottle cellar of Santa Fe’s Rio Chama Prime Steakhouse. She pulled bottle after bottle, in a wonderfully innocent mix of exuberance and awe, talking taste profiles, age, producers, and pricing. 

Since 2018, on most evenings, loyal patrons of Santa Fe’s famed The Compound could find Kristina attentively tending to guests at the restaurant. Always dressed for the role in a sharp, tailored jacket, crisp white shirt, and wine opener in hand, for six years, she directed, or perhaps orchestrated is the more apt verb, the wine program at the restaurant. 

Now in her newest iteration as director of wine for Santa Fe Dining, Kristina is overseeing the wine programs at both Rio Chama and at La Casa Sena restaurants, as well as retail in the charming and well-curated La Casa Sena Wine Shop. Between the three locations, Kristina is certain that it is among the finest of wine collections in all of New Mexico. “It’s a treasure hunt,” she exclaims in recounting the weeks she has spent delving into the cellar inventories. 

Finding Her Niche

Born in California and raised on a ranch in West Texas, Kristina’s journey into wine and to Santa Fe was circuitous and included time in New York, Austin, and Los Angeles. In 2018, she found herself back in Santa Fe and back at The Compound. She’d lived in Santa Fe previously in the early 2000s, did a stint as a server at The Compound for a few years, and also tried her hand at real estate. 

As she shares the tale of her return, she casually references that she’d been working as the sommelier at a Michelin-star establishment in LA and had also just come off curating the wine program for the Emmy Awards. It was as if she’d just recounted the monotony of her daily morning routine as she shared these bona fides, seeming little interested in expanding upon them even after being invited to do so. 

How to Enjoy Wine

It’s that modest and unassuming nature that is a key part of Kristina’s success. Too many sommeliers can come across as imperiously confident. Kristina eschews this archetype. She relishes in listening and learning about a patron’s palate, asking relevant questions, and then, like the artist she is, choosing the exact right bottle from her list. Her personal joy comes from the patron’s own delight in declarations of “perfect” and “delicious” when the wine is tasted. 

A bottle of wine with an old label and red lettering lays carefully in a Kristina Hayden Bustamante's hands.

“Drink what you like,” is the phrase Kristina often invokes when it comes to wine. As a sommelier, her own artistry emerges in the matchmaking role she plays in not just adequately meeting what a patron knows they like, but perhaps also in encouraging them to explore. 

These approaches to her profession have served her well. Under her direction, the wine list at The Compound has received the coveted Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine three years running, from 2020 to 2023. 

Listening to the Customer

“Always listen to your guests and learn to read the room. I deeply respect the classics, but I also try to give my guests the opportunity to be surprised by new and sometimes unusual wines,” she shared. 

Kristina’s own choice to return to Santa Fe is one she fully embraces. “Santa Fe is my home now and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” She loves that people approach her at the grocery store, asking which wine they should purchase. “I want to be everybody’s somm whether at the grocery or on the floor at a restaurant.” 

As for why this career path was the one for her, Kristina pauses and then thoughtfully leans in, “Great food and great wine can each stand on their own, but when you put them together, it is transcendent.”

Story by William Smith / Photography by Gabriella Marks

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