No one would blame Madeline Maldonado for giving up on wine. She’s had to overcome hurricanes, racism and now a pandemic in order to become one of New York’s top sommeliers. And what may be the most amazing part of her story, is that she has never lost her sense of joy or empathy. Years working in the hospitality industry hardens many, but Maldonado experiences seem to have only made her more committed to creating a welcoming and supportive community for her customers and colleagues. Read on for my conversation with her about how she’s persevered and continues to fight for her place in the wine world.
James: “You were born and raised in Hoboken, New Jersey, to parents that loved entertaining. Can you talk about how that experience shaped you?”
Maldonado: “So mom and dad were born and raised in the Dominican Republic. English is actually my second language, which throws most people off, they’re like, I had no idea! My mom is the second oldest in her family. When my grandmother left to come to the U.S. to establish residency, my mom was now head of the household and her first memories are of cooking. She had to climb on a cinder block to get to the stove, she was so young. She’s one of the most amazing chefs I know. Growing up I remember she always was a purist. There was no jar food. She went to the supermarket, pureed seasonal vegetables and fruits—persimmon, jicama—and when I name these notes when smelling wine people look at me like I’m crazy, but I actually grew up eating these things!
We have a huge family on both sides. We were always entertaining. My mom was always known to put on the biggest show, she went all out setting the table and creating this ambiance. I remember always following her in the kitchen and helping her set up these parties. One day, I grabbed a bottle of rum, they were big rum drinkers, and she was like, ‘what are you doing? You’re a child!’ I was trying to set up the bar. I guess my path was always kind of clear.”
James: “Your dad also worked in different parts of the food industry, right?”
Maldonado: “Yes, he worked at a meat plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, called Shofar Kosher, even though he wasn’t Jewish he worked there as a butcher. He had a lot of friends who were Spanish or Portuguese, so he exposed me to a lot of these cultures and foods. Whereas my mother grew up on the coast of the Dominican Republic and fish is her wheelhouse. My dad grew up in the country on a rural farm with more animals. The last time we went to the DR, about ten years ago, he was on his way to visit his uncle who was walking through the village looking for someone who stole his cow!
When my dad was laid off, he was like what I am going to do? He wasn’t sure. There was this neighbor who was selling his bodega. My mom was like, absolutely not, this is crazy! But my dad is a guy that goes to the beat of his own drum. They had this store for about 20 years, it was a staple in the neighborhood. Kids would come in to visit my parents, we would receive packages and hold keys for people. My mom would cook meals for families and on Christmas the kitchen table was covered in gifts from the community. It wasn’t just a business, it was a place of community, Oscar’s Grocery Store.”
James: “When did you get your first hospitality job?”
Maldonado: “I was 16, a sophomore in high school, and was attending this all-girls catholic school in Jersey City. A couple of friends and I walked past this really cute catering place on Washington Street called the Secret Ingredient and they were hiring. I walked in and they said, sure, when can you start? Then next thing you know, here I am behind a counter making sandwiches. It was a whole new world. I enjoyed the entertaining. I’m personable but, oh my god, I was also a nervous wreck. There were sharp knives and I was brewing so much coffee, but soon I got into the rhythm. The owner came from the fashion world and I would go through the Tunnel first thing in the morning and deliver lunches for fashion week. We did so many private catering events where I would serve hors d’oeuvres or bartend. Then that place closed and a guy around the corner, Anthony David, who owned a wine bar called Bin 14, had his eye on me. We went to a private collector’s home in Hoboken, he and his wife had this huge house. Just two of them and a dog in this crazy place where everything was custom—I’m talking heated coils in the bathroom floor and a 1,000 bottle wine cellar! They were very particular and I realized that Secret Ingredient was small time and now here I am in this grand home. After the event, they called Anthony and said, ‘Maddie is great, we only want her, she is to come to all of our events.’ So twice a month I went to their home and at the end of their events the husband would pour me wine and would say, this is Pinot Noir from California and this is from France, what do you think? I was 19 or 20 at the time, and I was like, ‘I think the French one tastes better.’ Now I realize he was giving me Burgundy, and later once I started to learn about wine I was like, oh my god he poured me what? Holy crap. He had an insane collection.”
James: “They gave you an intro to wine, but how did you end up studying professionally with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)?”
Maldonado: “I started buying books, taking my wine very seriously and started serving at a place called City Bistro in Hoboken. Everyone knew I was into wine, so they would say, ‘I have a table, Maddie, they want something that pairs with their chicken, what do you think?’ Managers would call me in as their wine person, and I thought, I need more. I don’t know where to go. So I asked around and initially I was leaning towards the Court of Master Sommeliers, but then I was like, I feel like I have enough practical experience. I want more theory. Something more serious. I loved the WSET because it felt like a home, it was all walks of life, some industry people, some in finance. I made friends and we made up acronyms to memorize the sweetness levels in German wine (Kids Should Always Behave Every Time—Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauslese), before I would find myself in rooms with people who didn’t really understand what I wanted to do for a living. They were like, ‘you want to get paid to drink?’ Or ‘What does your job entail?’ But here I found a sense of belonging, we were all going in the same direction.”
James: “Then you landed your first real wine job, at Tinto Fino, a retail shop focusing on wines from Spain.”
Maldonado: “So I was digging Spanish wine, maybe because of my background, the language came naturally to me, lots of Priorat and Rioja, and someone in class was like, ‘you should go to Tinto Fino.’ So I went there to check it out, it was absolutely beautiful. I remember Stephanie Danler, who later wrote the book, Sweetbitter, was working there. Mani Dawes partnered with Kerin Auth, the authority on Spanish wine, to open the store and she really taught me the ropes. Funny story, I remember Kerin took me to a wine tasting with her, it was my first serious trade tasting, I got all dressed up and in my stupidity I naturally put on perfume. At the end of it Kerin was like, ‘okay, you do not wear fragrance,’ I needed someone to tell me these things!
Tinto Fino was super cool, there were always books and tastings. Stephanie would say to me, pick any bottle on the shelf under $50 and then we would taste Montsant and Sherry. It was more wine bar-esque, we tasted twice a week.”
James: “You then went back-and-forth between retail and restaurants. I feel like few sommeliers have both experiences under their belt.”
Maldonado: “Tinto Fino was only part time, so I also worked at Lelabar to fill in the gaps. I’m not one to sit around! I was nervous when Lelabar approached me, they wanted me to run the place. I was the wine director but also a manager of all sorts. It was my first real lesson in management, the day-to-day things, fixing the bathroom door, the dishwasher and the air conditioning when it wasn’t working. Most people don’t know, so much goes into keeping a restaurant running.
Then Cynthia Sexton, who was running Vestry Wines, needed help. My friend said go talk to her, she’s probably one of the best people to learn from and it’s a phenomenal store. Meryl Streep and Gwyneth Paltrow lived in the building, it was a space just filled with wonderful people. It had a beautiful walk-in cellar and custom-made shelving with a lovely tasting bar. On Mondays, we featured a wine or region or grapes, four different ones and people came to taste. That’s where my restaurant and retail experience came together. Sometimes when you have all these jobs they’re like scattered stars, but then you realize later that the stars create this constellation. I had combined everything I’d learned, and maybe it seemed random at the time, but then all of a sudden it clicked together.
The shop was really a community. I remember once this couple of regulars, who were both doctors, and their son’s bus driver came to us and said, the parents aren’t home but they said you can watch him. We gave him tasks, he drew on boxes and now that I’m thinking about that, it’s like—wow—people trusted us with their kids! It was kind of like my dad’s bodega, and it makes me wonder, is that what we create? These places seem to become what we are.”
James: “Vestry then closed because of Hurricane Sandy. This must have been devastating, can you talk about what this was like at the time?”
Maldonado: “I remember it started on a Sunday, we were closed and the shop was just a few blocks from the river. Not the best spot. We were also connected to the building. There was this parking garage with an incline so all of the water shot into the building and our cellar was right there. It was ravaged. Like wooden wine cases were thrown up in between pipes, bottles were all over the place. A disaster. One of the parking attendants sadly passed away, he was trying to park or move one of the cars.
The store lost power and heat. The owners were out of the country. It was just myself and a manager. So weird to try and come back from a natural disaster. We were like, what do we do? How do we do this? We had flashlights, we were freezing cold. Thankfully our amazing neighbors came to the rescue. One came and brought me her snowsuit for warmth! So endearing. All you need sometimes are good people rallying around you in moments like this.
We spent a good amount of time in the basement trying to assess the damage. We were storing wine for people, too…can you imagine? At night, I would go home and there was this tightness in my chest, coughing up all that crap air. Eventually the residents moved out, the building did repairs.
Then Anthony David called, the same chef and owner I worked with at Bin 14. He wanted me to work for him, help him out a few days a week, when they opened up a wine bar. It was close to home and I love Jersey, that reprieve. I wasn’t running the show, but rather working behind the bar and was a somm. It was supposed to be temporary, but I ended up staying there for three years. I’ve never worked with a more close knit group of people, they were true friendships and we all still keep in touch.”
James: “Next was a legendary career step for you. You became the manager and sommelier of Jonathan Waxman’s Jams. I remember when this place was expected to open, there was so much buzz. His original Jams in the 1980s redefined restaurants, with its open kitchen and its blend of California cool energy and haute-cuisine. I think Andy Warhol was a twice-a-week regular. Full disclosure, I also interviewed for this job in 2015—it seemed like an enormous amount of pressure to re-open such an iconic spot. Walk me through that whole experience.”
Maldonado: “It was time to get back in the game, so I put out feelers. Then a friend landed this opportunity at Jams…and I was like…it’s Jonathan Waxman! I love him! So I met with the GM and we hit it off, she invited me to come into dinner. It was super cool. I had never been a part of that process before of vetting someone. Then before my trail, Jonathan wanted to talk to me and he was so cool. I mean that voice! He sensed my nervousness and said don’t be nervous, it’s okay and asked me who I liked for Chablis, and what do you like about this and that. The guy is awesome. And Michael Kelley, his right hand beverage person is also so great. So that was it.
One thing I loved about the experience was all the women. The GM, executive chef, sous chef and pastry, also at Barbuto the GM was Jen Davidson, us women ran the show. I was like, this guy is pro-women and this is awesome!
It was also constant love and attention. It was my first foray into a hotel restaurant and no one ever sleeps. You’re on for breakfast, lunch, dinner, events, concierge help and room service. One time when I was walking out the door the concierge was like, a guest is not pleased with their chicken in their room, can you talk to her? And it was two in the morning, but I loved it.
It was also my first foray into being exposed to this crazy world of celebrity chefs. Everyone who had ever been on the Food Network hung out there. AarónSánchez, Geoffrey Zakarian, Alex Guarnaschelli, Amanda Freitag—that these people were all friends of Jonathan really showed the impact he had on the culinary world. Bobby Flay told me that he used to work as his line cook and that exhausted ‘all I made, all day, was pancakes for the caviar.’
Jams also opened a door for me, with more traditional wines. We did more work with Rosenthal and Kermit Lynch. Because Jonathan had such great relationships with these companies he did something I’ve never seen before, we listed the importer of the wines on our list. These relationships went back to Jams in the ’80s and it was super cool to see.”
James: “You’ve talked about how people have not always accepted who you are, as a Black woman working in wine. It’s unfair and it couldn’t have been easy for you to have to deal with this.”
Maldonado: “If you can believe this, especially when I worked in management, in certain rooms I was literally the only woman at the table, and definitely the only woman of color. I stuck out like a sore thumb some days. I’ve dealt with this most of my life. You build an immunity in a way, I guess. It’s not always overt, it’s something that can become apparent in subtle ways. One day when I was working this wine and cheese tasting, there was a group of three friends and they had this super weird energy. I was like, okay, maybe they’re nervous because it’s wine. It’s fascinating the energy people give out. But my colleague who was white said, I hate to say this but I think there was a racist energy coming from them. I didn’t even notice, I sometimes have this shield where I just power through.
It’s still a thing. Like I told Eric Asimov for the New York Times, there was a moment where I commented on a beautiful bottle of wine at the restaurant and the couple was like, oh what do you know about this wine? I said, well I know every wine here, it’s my list, they’re my children. I could watch them piece it all together. With my white male colleagues people automatically tell them that they’re looking for Burgundy and they have to be like—hold on let me get the wine person [laughs]—and it’s me! The surprise on people’s faces. I hate to say it.
It’s about visibility. I don’t think there have been many of us. It’s a white, male-dominated industry. It can feel really lonely.”
James: “So after Jams you continue to crush it, landing a powerful job at another staple of New York: Eataly.”
Maldonado: “So Eataly was opening in the World Trade Center-area and they were looking for a beverage manager. So I met with Emily Molinari and we hit it off right away. Whereas Tinto Fino was a deep dive into Spanish wines, this was a deep dive into Italy. When studying with the WSET, Italy was a challenging country for me, learning about all these obscure grapes—and I think I said to myself, it’s okay, I’m never really going to work with Italian wines. That’s why you should never say never!
So here I am at Eataly and the managers start to take notice of me. Lo and behold, I land the beverage director position, it was intense and awesome, but I knew I had to take it. I was overseeing beverages for a mammoth store. There was the pizza and pasta place with 125 seats, the wine bar, satellite bars, holiday parties, educational seminars and the whole store.”
James: “And this was exactly the time the news broke that Mario Batali was being accused of sexual misconduct. What was it like to work for Eataly, which at that time was partly-owned by Batali?”
Maldonado: “Yes, it was exactly during that time. I never really knew Batali, but I had a friend who worked for him many moons ago at Otto, and I remember hearing the stories. At the end of the day, he did build some iconic restaurants, he left his mark on Italian food and wine, but there was another unfortunate side to that. When the news was coming out it seemed like an earthquake. That morning there was an email in my inbox from the company saying, ‘if you haven’t heard, the news is X, this does not represent who we are as a company,’ since mainly it was owned by Oscar Farinetti. Suddenly all of Batali’s stuff was off the shelves—his books, his products. A team came in during the night and cleaned it all out.”
James: “Then you land what was supposed to be your dream job at Da Toscano, which had a highly anticipated 2020 opening.”
Maldonado: “The story is awesome, the comeback chef. Michael Toscano was the chef/partner at Perla and now he’s come back to open up his own restaurant in the same space. We clicked right away, the whole team. This was my first official opening and I learned what it was like building a beverage program from scratch. It was super daunting, but I loved the experience. Just when you think you’ve mastered everything, an opening gets thrown in your lap! And I was like, maybe I don’t know as much about restaurants as I thought I did. Oh, and the delays of opening! Trying to get a liquor license. Finally, the gas was turned on and we opened February 6, 2020. Suddenly, we had 60 people on the waitlist for a Wednesday night. People lined up before we even opened. Michael and his food had really left a mark on the city at Perla and people still talked about those dishes. Couples came back who were celebrating their anniversaries, and Perla had been their first date and now they have a baby. It felt really good. It felt like where I was supposed to be.
Then, just five weeks later, the world changed. Our last service was Sunday, March 15.”
James: “The pandemic is still so devastating for so many restaurants. What did this look like at Da Toscano?”
Maldonado: “We had to lay off all of the employees. Cancel all of the reservations. It was insane. We stood together and brainstormed. We quickly got wine on retail, cocktails to go. There was no choice, we had to pivot right away. It was just a few of us holding it down. All of my family and friends were freaking out for me, ‘oh my god you’re still working!’ I had no other option. We built this together, we are going to fight this war together.
I would ride the PATH train by myself, it was eerie with no one else on the streets. Minetta Lane was dead. It was a grim sense of the ’80s again. There were days where I was legitimately concerned for my safety. I had to find the right streets to walk on.
Then, again, it comes back to our regulars. We had one regular that came in and said ‘I am going to pledge to come in every week and spend X amount, until you reopen.’ So I would bartend, we would wear masks, we would talk. They said, ‘you know, coming here every week to chat with you, it’s the most normal thing I do.’
The neighbors would check in on us. One couple came to visit the night before they moved out of NYC, and I was like, let’s play restaurant! So I brought them real wine glasses, candles and linen napkins. I made this real experience on the streets of the city like props on a stage. To me, that’s hospitality. It’s one thing if you have a fancy restaurant in normal times and all these nice tools are always at your disposal, but to me it’s about when you don’t have those things. Right now, creating hospitality with so little is more important than ever before. Maybe that’s the silver lining, the connections we’ve established. What is the future of restaurants? I don’t know, but what I do know though is that making a ‘restaurant’ for those guests on the street put wind in my sails. You see, you start to lose hope in the midst of the wilderness, but we have to find a way to continue, it’s who we are.”
James: “What do you think about the continued closure of indoor dining in New York? Do you have hope that restaurants will return?”
Maldonado: “I feel like NYC restaurants are being punished right now. The data doesn’t back up the decision. In NJ, 25 percent capacity indoor dining with a curfew is allowed, and the Governor just announced here that unless there was real data that would show this is a problem, he wouldn’t close restaurants. It’s just a really weird space right now. I don’t think that people understand how tough it is to run a restaurant. Even in non-pandemic times. The razor-thin margins, the codes and requirements. And now, the amount of money spent on heaters, propane, certifications, new systems and where is that coming from? We are all fatigued at this point.
What about the little guys? Not just the big name chefs and franchise chains, those will survive. It’s so important guests support small businesses and local places, to be conscious of the power that comes with their money.
Restaurants, to me, represent hope and community. We are not just a place where people eat, but it’s what a restaurant’s original purpose was, to restore. It’s what people need. I’ve seen the difference this makes when you extend hospitality. What people gain at the end of an exhausting day just by being in our presence. Restaurants and hospitality workers are huge beacons of light, we are there for our people. Now, we’re just asking people to be there for us.”
James: “Lastly, do you want to give a shout-out to someone who mentored or supported you in your career?”
Maldonado: “Kerin Auth, of course. She’s done so much for me. And Lee Campbell. Definitely. She is the OG. Anytime I’ve gotten an accolade, I sent her a thank you. Because she was just the face for me, she was the one I had to look at, the only one. Now we have more than just Lee, but she’s somebody I’ve always looked up to, she’s a great human.
During the election, something someone said stuck with me, she said it’s important for us, BIPOC and women of color, for us to leave the ladder down wherever we go. It’s how we improve. Some people need a longer ladder than others, but it’s important to bring people with us, upwards.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.