Rachael Madori is the sommelier and service director of Llama San, an upscale Nikkei restaurant in Manhattan that serves a combination of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. At Llama San, Madori has cultivated a wine program focused on coastal regions, showcasing coastal flavors of Japan and Peru through mineral and saline wines.
As a sommelier, Madori aims to create a wine experience that is both unpretentious and impressive. In her eyes, the wine choices at Llama San are intended to dance alongside each dish, unleashing an adventurous window into history, art, and exploration.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Madori misses bringing the stories and excitement of wine to guests. From the chateaux wines grown in reverent tradition, to the funky rollercoaster wines that take one’s palate on twists and turns, Madori loves delighting guests. Below, Madori delves into her passion for wine, sharing thoughts on what she describes as poetry in a bottle.
1. What is your current favorite wine?
There is a wine named Un Garçon au Pays du Soleil (“The Boy Who Plays in the Sun”) by the producer La Cave des Nomades (“The Cave of the Nomads”). I will never get it off my mind, and I pour it every day. Technically speaking it’s a rosé, but I promise it hits you like a wild orange wine just blushing in disguise. A blend of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Merlot, this wine dances across all the sweet spots! It’s my favorite because it’s got finesse, but it’s feral. It has a sour cherry nose that you would expect to follow through to the palate, but it’s surprisingly nutty and effervescent. Hazelnuts, strawberries and a delicate mushroom make me feel like I’m sipping a glass on a warm autumn afternoon with a pie in the oven. That’s what wine is to me: a portal to a time and place in your own imagination.
2. What is the most memorable bottle you’ve opened?
The most memorable bottle I’ve ever opened was a blanc de noir on Jan. 1, 2019. Story time! This was André Clouet Champagne Brut Grand Cru Cuvée 1911. The name sounds fancy, but it’s not a break-the-bank bottle. It’ll make perfect sense why it is one of the most memorable ones I’ve opened. I’ve enjoyed wine in a lot of different places including California, Washington, Bolivia, Peru, Thailand, and others. They were all delicious. Some were more memorable than the next. However, this Cuvée 1911 was a bottle I got from a local wine shop in Brooklyn. The shop, Bed-Vyne Wine & Spirits, is truly doing my community in Bed-Stuy a great justice. This begins explaining why the wine is special, even before the bottle opens.
Obviously, it was midnight on New Year’s when I popped this baby open. Not a lot of people know what a struggle the lifestyle of a hospitality industry worker is. If you have a partner, you rarely see them. If your friends have day jobs, you rarely see them, either. Your days are nights, and your nights are days. Holidays are not just to celebrate, they’re to help others celebrate. But we do it because we love it, and there’s something I cherish inside those of us who choose to serve.
It was the first New Year’s Eve that I had to celebrate in 10 years. I got this beautiful bottle of Champagne, and I waited for my partner to get home. We popped it open “properly” (not properly at all) on our unofficial Brooklyn rooftop that we snuck onto. The notes of baked peaches and toasted brioche were delicious and the bubbles were divine. But what was even more memorable was that that bottle was being enjoyed in my city, on our rooftop, while the fireworks exploded around us. We cheered to our neighbors, to the tiny people walking below, and poured a splash out for what we lost that past year. I will never forget that bottle. Wine is an experience, not a drink.
3. How do you make guests feel comfortable if they seem intimidated by you (in a restaurant)?
I believe it’s a natural feeling to feel intimidated by anyone that studies a field you’re about to question. I still feel that myself when I dine out and speak to a fellow sommelier! I remember that anxiety from before I began in the wine industry. It’s not a feeling I ever want my guest to experience.
Of course, I approach the situation the way any hospitality worker would, with a bright smile and the attitude that it’s time to make your guest’s day. But, it’s all about your intention. If you go in wanting to sell the “best” bottle or the most expensive bottle, you’re going to validate their intimidation for no good reason. I always immediately ask the guests what they love, to tell me about a wine they’ve had before that stood out to them, or to let me know what kinds of flavors they enjoy that aren’t wine-related. I get them excited about what we can do together — making the conversation about them (which it is!) right off the bat lets them know that I’m there for them.
I work with intent to remind myself the definition of a sommelier: a wine steward. When I’m tableside with you, I’m there to make you and your guests’ night amazing. Any other reason is fueled by ego.
4. What’s the best wine you can get at the grocery or discount store?
I haven’t bought wine from the grocery store in a while, but I think it’s truly important to touch on because that’s where most people get their vino! In my opinion, if you’re getting wine from a general store, I would go with something that is delicious no matter what. For my palate that means Gewürztraminer or Champagne. Champagne is my favorite color, food, wine, drink, place and probably will be my next dog’s name — you get the point. So even if I’m in the grocery store, I’m going to pick up a bottle of sparkling wine. Most likely, it isn’t real Champagne, but there’s Cava, which is equal if not better; or just a good old-fashioned grocery sparkling. (Like I said, pick something you think is yummy no matter what). When you’re steeped in mass producers and you’re not sure what to pull off the shelf, go for a classic that you just love. It’s that simple.
5. What regions and styles of wines are you most interested in?
The two wine-growing regions I’m most excited about right now are the Canary Islands and Mexico! The Canary Islands will be my next travel destination once the world is safe again. This area fascinates me. Simply looking at a photo of the moon-like surface and volcanic black soil gives me goosebumps. I want to walk around the vineyards for hours. (When I visit vineyards, I enjoy walking through the rows chatting with the grapes!) To be honest, I didn’t know much at all about Canary Island wines until our team opened Llama San. Once I tasted my first saline-driven, fresh-but-smoky glass, I was hooked.
Mexico doesn’t jump to a lot of peoples’ minds, but they’re producing so many different varieties down there! It’s always cool to see a region in which you would think the climate doesn’t work for wine, but turns out Mother Nature has other plans. Producers are mixing varieties that aren’t commonly seen together and I am a sucker for anything that “breaks rules.”
6. What’s the best way to ask for a budget-friendly bottle at a restaurant?
The best way to ask for a budget friendly bottle at a restaurant can go two ways, and it all depends on your evening and comfort level. There are some nights I go out, and I’m OK with letting my friends know we aren’t getting a bottle over $60 because I had to pay rent that day. However, sometimes I want things to be more organic and not bother my guests with budgets and numbers. But, how do I get the sommelier to know? How do I let this complete stranger know that I want to love a wine, but I also want to love my bank account in the morning?
I always tell my friends it’s a sly idea when you ask for the sommelier to simply pick out two or three wines from the list that are within your budget and just ask about them. Then proceed to tell the sommelier what styles you really like and what you’re eating as well. As a sommelier, we will immediately recognize you’ve formed a budget, and we’ll guide you towards your best value and best experience. Like I have mentioned many times, it’s not about money, prestige, or showing off. Wine is about enjoying yourself.
7. Which regions offer the best value?
Personally, I find it impossible to decide on a region that has the “best value” due to the fact that every area of the world that is producing wine will have something for everyone. I think it’s really important for people to experiment with every region, find out what they love, find out what they don’t like, and find out what they’re not sure about. Then, focus their selections on those experiences. It’s difficult to place true value on wine when not everyone likes the same thing.
I like to step away from the idea that there’s a perfect wine or the best wine. It’s less about the region you’re choosing and more about the producer. Get more intimate with your selection! If you want to know about true value, look at who (yes, the person!) makes that wine you’re about to drink. It’s like anything else I buy: I didn’t buy it because of its name, I bought the wine because it was made by a creative.
8. Where do you like to buy wine online (or which clubs do you recommend)?
Buying wine online is great, especially when you can’t find what you’re looking for in a wine shop. There’s something I truly enjoy about going into a shop I’m unfamiliar with and picking the brain of the associates on what they like or recommend for my preferred style. However, I’m desperate to try monthly wine boxes, specifically Vinebox. I love the idea because with this company you get nine different wines by the glass in vials. Not only do you get to try nine different wines, you get to buy the bottle of whichever you like at a discount. It’s such an approachable and fun way to explore your palate.
Ed note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published: May 18, 2020