Falling in love with the beauty of fine wines can lead to a life-long passion. That is the case for the Afro-Latina woman that Esquire named Beverage Director of the Year. The magazine placed New York City’s da Toscano among the top ten on its 2020 list of Best New Restaurants in America. Madeline Maldonado delivered an outstanding wine service when Esquire’s food and drinks editor Jeff Gordinier dined at da Toscano with his daughter. This is what Esquire says about Maldonado:
“It’s never just about the wine list. It’s about the good fortune of falling into a conversation with a sommelier, like Madeline Maldonado, who can describe a beverage in ways that make you crave it in that exact moment and deepen your experience of tasting it as you drink. Maldonado has a gift for using wine to open your mind.”
“It was very unexpected. It is an honor. It was emotional too,” Maldonado says. The national recognition could not have come at a better time for the wine expert and her colleagues at da Toscano. “It’s been a tough year, so I think this honor is more of a reminder that hospitality never goes out of style. People come to you for that experience; to be taken care of, to learn something, to have a good time.”
Developing a Perceptive Palate
Maldonado’s selection reminded her of something else: that the path she took to become a sommelier put her at the right place, at the right time. The New Jersey native credits her Dominican parents for her open-minded approach to food and drink experiences. She was exposed to many different flavors growing up in Hoboken. Her introduction to vino began when a catering assignment sent her to the home of a private collector and his wife. “I remember going to their house. They were doing a dinner. I was super nervous because these were big-deal clients,” Maldonado says.
The clients were so pleased with the then-21-year-old’s work, she became the go-to catering person at the couple’s dinner parties. The opportunity gave Maldonado a chance to explore the taste of different wines from a 1,000-bottle cellar. “I’m there twice a month, if not weekly, and we start to become friends. The husband is pouring wine and saying, ‘This is pinot noir from California. This is pinot noir from France. What do you think?”’ says Maldonado. “At that point, I started buying books, buying more wine, going to wine stores and reading more.”
The beverage director, who co-workers and friends call Maddy, was smitten enough to earn her sommelier certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. She then expanded her education, working in restaurants, wine bars and wine shops. Becoming a manager and sommelier at chef Jonathan Waxman’s Jams in 2015 and beverage director at Eataly’s prepared her to join da Toscano when it opened in February 2020.
“I’ve always said that a lot of the learning happens on the floor when you are working events, tastings and service every day,” Maldonado adds. She has tremendous respect for wine professionals who devote the time, money and resources to become master sommeliers. But she treasures the education she received from being involved in hospitality day after day.
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Mastering the Art of Wine Pairing
“There’s something about wine that when you taste it and in that space, all of your senses are really kind of focused.” Maldonado describes the focus she gets as a meditative space that has the power to transcend place and time. Everything that goes into producing and delivering a wine gets her attention. “I taste 2014 wines from Tuscany, and you can put yourself there. Then there is the profile, and if you pair it with food, it’s this incredible experience. There is so much heart and soul to it.”
For the beverage director, it begins with the food. Maldonado goes into the chef’s kitchen and samples as much as she can. It is the layering of flavors in the regional cooking that inspires her wine selections at the modern Italian restaurant owned by Michael Toscano and his wife, Caitlin.
“His food is incredible. When those flavors meet in the middle with the wine, it’s kind of like this marriage. This beautiful energy happens between both of those things,” says Maldonado. That energy combines with intuition during the pairing process. “And then as I taste the food, what starts to happen is I get it in flashes, what wines with what flavors.”
While the food usually draws people to a restaurant, a sommelier can make the dining experience memorable. Maldonado estimates that she has about five minutes to play detective, psychologist and psychic before suggesting a wine choice. “I think it’s a matter of listening, of being present. I’ve always said that one of the best tools a sommelier can have is to listen. Winning the diner’s trust is the goal. Once you nail the wine or that experience, and they see you are as involved or care just as much as they do, that is what this is all about.”
One advantage of being a wine expert on a restaurant floor is the instant gratification from seeing a patron is pleased with a pairing. It also happened in retail when customers trusted Maldonado to select wines for them. She enjoys the interaction with restaurant patrons most of all. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Maddy can describe what I like better than I can,’ which is always a huge compliment.”
Changing Career Directions and Demands
Maldonado appreciates the time she spent in retail at the high-end boutique Vestry Wines, where she built relationships as an assistant wine buyer. She hosted tastings and private events for customers before Hurricane Sandy closed Vestry. Her decision to return to the restaurant arena also came with an unforeseen disruption. “We opened February 6, and six weeks later, the world changed,” says the New York City beverage director.
The coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants around the world to figure out how to survive. The razor-thin margins most restaurateurs operate on meant shelving some plans and finding ways to save money. “You have to try to be more resourceful. You can still pair wines and create those experiences, but now you have to look at it through a different lens,” Maldonado says.
The indoor and outdoor dining restrictions at da Toscano in Greenwich Village shifted the restaurant to a mostly take-out operation. Cocktails and wine are sold to-go with food orders, but the volume is not the same. “You have to kind of dial things back. You start to get more creative. We cut down and pared back our wines by the glass,” Maldonado explains.
The beverage director’s job entails more than selecting wines. Maldonado plans cocktail offerings with da Toscano’s two mixologists, Michelle DeSantis and Sabrina Lanier. “They are incredible with flavors and putting things together. They take the lead in creating cocktails, but there is always a discussion of planning of either the spirits we want to use or the profiles we want to hit.”
The less glamorous aspects of the position involve lifting wine cases, organizing the wine room and looking over spreadsheets. Maldonado had already witnessed changes in her profession after the 2008 economic crisis hit. The pandemic affects restaurant staffing even more, with far fewer positions for a sommelier who only works the floor. She handles the responsibilities of a beverage director, sommelier and assistant general manager. She doesn’t see it changing soon, if at all. “I have a feeling that a lot of these roles or these lines will start to come together. You may start to do more things with fewer people on the floor. Some sommeliers and beverage directors are now bartending and serving tables because restaurants have leaned out on hourly staff and payroll altogether.”
Promoting Adaptability and Diversity
Some experts predict that it could take three years or more for restaurants to return to pre-pandemic occupancy, if ever. For Maldonado, that translates into working hard, being resourceful and taking on as many roles as possible. “I’m using the time to work on a few projects at home. I also have a friend who has opened up a restaurant in New Jersey and another friend who has opened a wine store in Brooklyn. I’m helping them with certain beverage selections and ideas.”
One of her interests is promoting more diversity in the wine industry. At da Toscano, Maldonado applies her expertise to introducing wines and liquors connected to people of color. She introduced the restaurant to wines from the Italian vineyard owned by Richard Parsons.
“I was working with Il Palazzone, the first Black-owned winery in Italy,” Maldonado says. “We try to focus more on wineries that are at minimum sustainable, organic and biodynamic, or a mixture of both. A lot of female winemakers are represented.”
The beverage director recently had the opportunity to taste wines from Early Mountain Vineyards. The Virginia winery is where Lee Campbell continues to foster the development of natural wines. Maldonado also admires Brenae Royal, another Black woman building a trailblazing reputation as the vineyard manager for Monte Rosso in Sonoma, often described as one of the world’s most beautiful vineyards. “There are a lot of great things happening in this country and the states with wine.”
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Maldonado plans to keep her finger on the pulse of what is happening in the wine industry. That includes using her years of training to educate and mentor more people of color. She recognizes the pandemic and economic forces will impact her career now and in the future. Yet, she still cherishes the work that inspired the Esquire food editor to say every pour of wine and every dish at da Toscano felt like a gift. “There is a reverence that I have for it because I think two of the most pleasurable things we can do while we are alive are eating and drinking. To be able to guide people on that experience, it’s an honor to do that every night.”