It’s rare that a sixth-grade science fair project predicts one’s career, but that was the case for Jacqueline Malenda, proprietor of Madiran the Wine Bar in East Setauket. While her classmates were growing sugar crystals and measuring electrical currents, Malenda made wine with grapes from the supermarket.
With her parents’ help, she made that single bottle of 8 percent alcohol-by-volume wine using household items like a potato masher, cheesecloth, pitchers and a funnel.
“After making a presentation at the science fair, I came home with the blue ribbon. And the faculty drank my bottle!”
Malenda’s career progression from 12-year-old winemaker to sommelier and wine bar owner wasn’t direct. A lot can — and did — change between sixth grade and adulthood.
The Old Field native graduated from St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington before earning a law degree from Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Conn. She worked for local firms and in the Suffolk County Attorney’s office, but didn’t enjoy her law career.
All the while, she read every wine book she could get her hands on. She bought and tasted as much wine as she could, too.
“Honestly, I didn’t realize early on that a real career in wine could be in my future. It had never occurred to me,” she said.
After deciding to change careers, she studied for and passed a Court of Master Sommeliers exam.
With the goal of eventually opening her own wine bar, she later took a job at Molto Vino in Babylon. The job provided her first restaurant experience but, more important, it’s where she met Michael Armetta, who would later become the chef at Madiran.
In early April, Malenda and Madiran celebrated their first anniversary as one of Suffolk County’s premier places for a glass (or bottle) of delicious or interesting wine.
Q: There aren’t many wine bars on Long Island — and even fewer great ones. What made you open Madiran in a small strip mall in East Setauket?
A: The city is a bit far when all I want to do is go out for a few glasses or a bottle of esoteric wine. Over the past several years in the industry, I realized that offbeat wines are of a particular interest to me, and there weren’t really any places on Long Island to find these products, particularly by the glass. So each time I wanted that kind of wine bar experience, I had to ride the railroad nearly two hours each way to the city, and I thought, why not bring that sort of thing back to my own community? It’s very doable. A lot of people in the industry advised me to be careful because central Long Island might not be the most open-minded or wine-educated place for a concept like this. But by our one-month anniversary, we had a good idea of the open-mindedness in Setauket. The location seemed ideal and I believe it still is. It’s right in the heart of town, between Port Jefferson and Stony Brook, near three hospitals, a university and lots of businesses.
Q: Why “Madiran”? That’s not a wine region that many people know.
A: I chose the name Madiran because at my first master class as a sommelier, led by Master Sommeliers Fred Dexheimer and Scott Carney, several years ago, all the young sommeliers were led into a cellar room at Morton’s on Fifth Avenue, and when the doors opened, the intensity of the wine aromas struck me in a way I’ve never felt before — and most of the wines in that room were Tannat-based wines from Madiran [in southwestern France]. It’s as if they were calling to me. And I was inspired by them. Smitten, actually.
Q: Unlike so many local bar and restaurant wine lists, you also have some well-chosen local wines. What wines do you have on the list right now and why?
A: I still like to make sure that some local wineries are represented in the wine bar. Regarding New York, I work with Macari (sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cabernet franc), Lenz (gewürztraminer, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon) and Shinn (Wild Boar Doe, mainly a blend of cabernet and merlot) from Long Island, and the Shaw Vineyard (riesling, pinot noir and cabernet franc) from the Finger Lakes. My favorites are the Wild Boar Doe from Shinn because it is lovely, expressive, balanced and so satisfying. The cabernet franc from Shaw because it is so age-worthy, so food-friendly and very expressive of its terroir. Macari makes some fantastic wines and to me they are one of the benchmark wineries on the North Fork. And Lenz is an obvious choice for me because they remind me most of their French counterparts. Oddly enough, I thought customers would be very interested in the local wines, but very few bottles have sold in the first year. It seems they are more interested in trying practically unheard of wines from Europe.
Q: What wines have been your best-sellers to date?
A: The best-sellers by the glass are the Cheverny (predominantly sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley), Lagrein (a dark, medium- to full-bodied red from Alto Adige) and a Crémant du Jura sparkling rosé. By the bottle, best-sellers include several of the selections in the Madiran section and lots of bordeaux and brunello.
Q: Just over a year in, what has surprised you most about owning and running the wine bar?
A: I think the biggest overall surprise is just how well the concept has been received — a healthy lineup of both traditional and esoteric wines and a lot of customer enthusiasm. I was confident it would catch on, but I had no idea how quickly.
Q: What have you loved the most about the experience? And, what has frustrated you most?
A: I’ve loved most the opportunity to introduce customers to what will become their new favorites — and up until now they had never heard of these products before. After just one year, my customers could probably shock most wine industry professionals with what they’ve learned about wines and what they want to drink. I also love the opportunity to surprise everybody with a new wine each chance I get.
What’s most frustrating is that due to working with limited production wines, sometimes, after a few customers fall in love with an item, suddenly it is no longer available, either because production is so small or because the products here are not national brands. So sometimes they part ways with a distributor and there’s no telling when the wine will become available in the United States again. I hate disappointing the customers when that happens.
Q: What’s next for you and for Madiran?
A: It’s only been a year so it’s hard to say what’s next. I’ve recently started teaching monthly wine classes at the wine bar. I’m building up the reserve list. I’m rotating the wines by the glass even more often. We’ve made some seasonal changes to the food menu … but I’m not one to sit still for long and my customers and staff know I’m full of surprises. So what’s on the horizon? I never place limits on myself and so all options are always on the table.