In this interview, Esquire's Beverage Director of the Year, talks about her favorite regions and grapes and how she creates a true Spanish experience for NYC dwellers, tourists and professionals.
One of NYC’s most recent and prominent places for Spanish cuisine and culture is José Andrés’ Mercado Little Spain in Hudson Yards. A veritable love letter to its namesake region, ‘Little Spain’ features a delicious diversity of foods and drinks from all corners of one of the richest culinary countries in the world, and it is home to the annual “Spain’s Great Match.”
With the help of Beverage Director Madeline Maldonado, ‘Little Spain,’ is finding new ways to connect with NYC dwellers, tourists and professionals alike.
Maldonado manages three different bars and restaurants in ‘Little Spain,’ and also hosts cocktail making & pairing classes among many other things. Her love for Spanish wine and culture is inevitable, but how did she become one of the most famous faces of New York’s new generation of sommeliers and Esquire’s “Beverage Director of the Year?”
“In this industry, you cannot ever stop educating yourself,” says Maldonado. “It’s important to know as many facets of the restaurant and service industry as possible. The more things one can do outside of just wine and beverage, the more valuable you will be to any team.”
Growing up in Hoboken, NJ and raised by Dominican parents, Maldonado was exposed to many different cuisines and experiences. Her curiosity and willingness to try new things led her to catering a private event at a wine collector’s home at the ripe age of 21 years old. One event turned to several, which turned to learning more about wine through the client, and eventually Maldonado found herself seeking more opportunities to learn about the industry. Whether she was reading books about wine and going to tastings, or working at retail stores, restaurants and wine bars, Maldonado put herself in spaces that supported her knowledge and growth within the industry.
By 2015, Maldonado had already earned her sommelier certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and became a manager and sommelier at Chef Jonathan Waxman’s ‘Jams.’ She also spent time at Eataly and Toscana prior to joining Mercado Little Spain. Since joining the ‘Little Spain’ team, Maldonado has reconnected with her love for Spanish wines.
“Priorat was the region that made me fall in love with Spanish wines, initially. I had dinner with my family and I was just starting to dive more into Spanish wines, and our server recommended a bottle from Priorat that was fabulous! There were layers to it; it was earthy, spicy, with this warmth to it that felt comforting. That is exactly what I try to get people to feel when coming to Little Spain.”
Selecting wines for a menu is no simple task, but Maldonado does it with ease, by mentally transporting herself to where the wine was made. By understanding the terroir and history of the Spanish wine regions, she is better able to connect with the wine and find its culinary match. Wines that are food-friendly, less ubiquitous, high in quality and value, and not as attached to the aesthetic of the brand/winery are her go-to selections.
“You have to keep wine as approachable as possible. Read the room; know your guests. Understand your consumers and how much or little they know about wine, then make pairings that make sense for all. Keep it fun and, most importantly, try not to “sell” them on anything. Wine can be daunting and make guests trepidatious, if you overdo it.”
Maldonado is in tune with the trends of the wine industry and has noticed some changes in the restaurant scene. Although the audience has become younger, these guests are more conscious and curious about what they are consuming. Younger consumers are invested in knowing more about the origin, winemaking practice, history and family behind the wine, its sustainability and more. When choosing wines from Spain, Maldonado makes a conscious effort to take all of this into consideration, while also focusing on Spain’s under-the-radar selections that may serve as a “new” or “fun” experience for guests.
“Xarel-lo, Mencía, Bobal and Palomino Fino are some unsung grapes from Spain I love. These varieties make wines that are so age worthy, but they are still under the radar somehow. They all have this chameleon-like energy to them that–depending on how they are vinified, or where they are grown–help the wine express very differently. The consumer gets a new experience each time they step into Little Spain.”
At the end of the day, Maldonado is all about creating an authentic, Spanish experience – whether it’s supporting Spain’s Great Match or Cava Discovery Week, curating new wine lists, hosting cocktail-making classes, or simply doing personal research to continue growing within the wine world.