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Crafting a Spanish Wine List That Speaks for Itself

At the Durham tapas bar Mateo, the beverage director makes navigating Iberian wines easy

“I got sick and tired of seeing sherry buried in the back of the wine list,” Michael Maller told me, pouring an oceanic César Florido Cruz del Mar Fino to go with the salty Iberico ham he and I were nibbling and the pickled boquerones on the Ceasar-like Little Gem salad we were about to dig into. “There’ll be something called Dessert Wines, and then I see these dry sherries: fino and amontillado and oloroso. I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’”

So he decided to make a statement. Maller is the beverage director for chef Matt Kelly’s five Durham restaurants. At Mateo, Kelly’s six-year-old tapas bar, where Maller and I were eating, he put the sherries up front on the drinks menu from day one, bumping wines by the glass to page two and stacking 90 percent of the sherry list with dry expressions, to reflect the way sherry is actually produced. “People think that sherry is sweet,” he said, “but in reality maybe 10 percent of real sherry is sweet.”

Proving that sherry is a great food wine, no matter what course you’re on, is half of Maller’s mission at Mateo. The other half is introducing Durham to Spanish terroir, region by region.

He’s pulled off a similar trick before, at Kelly’s Vin Rouge, where except for a few of Maller’s beloved sherries, the list is all French. France might be easier for a terroir-driven wine list than Spain, where the concept of terroir goes up against the politics of the origins of denomination, the primacy of bulk wines, and drinkers used to privileging oak over soil. But there’s another reason Mateo’s list was harder to devise. The day I met him for lunch, Maller was going to eat and run. He was due at work in a few hours, but not at Mateo. He does shifts at Vin Rouge four nights a week. He’s never on the floor at the tapas bar.

It’s a feat: Maller has managed to create a list with a singular focus on a country whose wines Americans know little about, and he’s done it in such a way that the list speaks for itself, without him being there to translate. How did he do it? With easy visual aides, plenty of staff training, and a purist’s approach to selections.

Explain, but Don’t Over-Explain

Presented on a clipboard, Mateo’s list is six pages long. That’s not much, but Maller is concerned about customers’ lack of familiarity with its 140 or so wines, so he said, “We try to make it easy.” Pages are cut to nested lengths with labeled tabs—Cava/Vino Rosado, Vino Blanco, Vino Tinto, and so on. The list is organized geographically from north to south, and each page includes help for finding the type of wine you want. “I knew I wasn’t going to be around for that constant dialogue with staff or guests,” said Maller. “So I made a list that has maps and descriptions of each region.”

The maps are designed to appeal to the well-heeled customer base in an area whose economy is built on universities and tech. “Very often in the community here,” Maller says “people are lucky to do lots of world traveling. So we let them travel when they’re here too, at home. People might say, ‘I might not have heard of Rías Baixas, but I’ve been there.’” Maller flipped to the Vino Blanco section and pointed to Galicia on the map. “We start there,” he said, “and work our way over to Basque and then get more toward the central part, working our way south and to the Canary Islands, so we have all those regions highlighted on the map.”

Clean, succinct descriptions provide direction for selecting bottles —“oceanic, fresh, fruity, crisp, ranges from medium to very full bodied” for the Albariños of Rías Baixas on the northwest coast; “rich, lush, bold” for wine made with the indigenous Rufete Blanca grape in Sierra de Salamanca, on the mountainous border with Portugal. It’s all super efficient, an approach Maller has been honing since the first wine list he ever created, at a restaurant in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1998. “I produced this thing that I was so proud of. I look at it now, and it’s pretty funny,” he said. “We sold a bunch of Opus One, that’s for sure.” 

From there, Maller went to New York’s French Culinary Institute and worked on the lines at Per Se and Craft. But it was on the floor at Gramercy Tavern where he found his true calling. Like Mateo, the restaurant didn’t have a sommelier. Captains sold bottles, and Maller says, “I learned an insane amount about wine.”

Choose Wines Wisely

Though his tastes range far beyond Opus One now, Maller isn’t looking to be too esoteric. Because he’s not around to explain any outliers on the list at Mateo, he said, “I choose wines that are what I feel each region should be like. I’m not gonna have wines that really skew from that too much. It’s gonna be great examples of what they are.”

Case in point is the Albariño Do Ferreiro 2015 he poured for me to sip with the flounder in chorizo butter. “This is the Albariño I judge all others by,” he told me. “It’s just one of those wines [that] when I smell it, I kind of feel it in my heart. It’s all minerality.”

But even with all the hand-holding he provides, Maller worries. “It’s a little table with lots of dishes on it,” he said, “and then you’ve got this clipboard and have to flip pages. It could be overwhelming sometimes, so maybe someone says, ‘I’ll just have some Rioja.’”

Indeed, the two Riojas on the by-the-glass list are his most popular wines. In fact, Mateo sells more Luberri Biga Rioja than any other restaurant in the world. “I’ve threatened servers with taking it off the list,” he said. “I go, ‘You gotta start selling other things.’ But it would be an outrage. Our guests freaking love it.” Besides, as he understands it, Mateo pours the most sherry of any U.S. restaurant. “There’s never a week I buy more bottles of sherry than that one Rioja,” he said, “but I guess we’re doing all right.”

Bring Staff Up to Speed

Much of the credit for Mateo’s wine-sales success goes to floor staff. Since he’s not on hand to oversee them (though he’ll answer their texts during service), he schools them well beforehand. Maller tastes staff on new wines and invites winemakers in to speak with them, and every new hire goes through a sherry seminar. “We get as nerdy as we can,” he said, “prepping them for ‘I don’t like sweet’ comments or ‘I didn’t like it when my grandmother gave it to me.’”

Maller imparts a simple Spanish rule for food pairings: If it swims, fino; if it flies, amontillado; if it walks, oloroso. A basic guideline like that can result in a revelation, like the wonderfully meaty 15-year-old El Maestro Sierra Oloroso that Maller poured to go with Mateo’s house cheeseburger. But he’s also learned that, with tapas, you can’t take a dogmatic approach to pairings. “There are so many flavors and textures on the table at once,” he said, “and people aren’t choosing this to go with that. I was a little bit naive when we opened the place.”

Because he thought diners might match many wines to many small plates, he included half pours on the glass list. Diners order them, not for pairings, but to sip a little more, or have a few swallows at lunch. “It’s a little less romantic than I thought it would be,” Maller said, “but it’s useful.”

For the restaurant, it’s a dicey proposition. Doing the numbers, he realized that if all those small pours were off by a quarter-ounce in a year, it would ding the bottom line by $100,000. “So we keep a wine glass on the bar that has a Sharpie drawn on it: This is where 3 ounces is. This is where 6 ounces is. Bartenders over time get really good at it,” said Maller, “but every now and then I tell them, ‘Check yourself.’”

Put Lots of Choices on the Glass List

Maller wants each of Mateo’s 16 to 18 wines by the glass to be versatile and to fill a niche within the list’s range of expressions—from the white list’s big, rich Rufete, for instance, which the staff suggests for Chardonnay drinkers, to an aromatic, “Riesling-esque” Malvasia blend from the Canary Islands; from a “gulpable” Avinyó Rosado Brut Cava to a Bohigas Brut Reserva, which shows more finesse.

“I try not to let price get in the way,” Maller said. “It’s really about the wine first, and if it works out to be in that by-the-glass price range”—$7.75 to $13.75 for full pours—“I’ll replace something else so there’s not duplication.”

The eclecticism goes beyond wines. Beers, sidras, vermouths, and cocktails—including some Maller created using sherry and a selection of Spain’s beloved gin and tonics, are on the glass list, too. Mateo’s two sangrias riff on Kelly’s theme for the food: “Spanish heart and Southern soul.” The chef adds Southern peanuts to a pot of Spanish clams and ham steamed in sherry; Maller bases his red sangria on Cheerwine, a soft drink produced in North Carolina, and a white one on sweet tea.

That blend of playfulness and tradition keeps Mateo’s drinks program entertaining. “A lot of places find it important to educate the guest. We want the guest to have a good time. They’re not coming out to eat to learn, though it’s awesome that they do,” Maller said. He keeps himself entertained, as well, by changing up the wine lists every couple of weeks. “Most of the wines that we work with aren’t going to be available all the time,” he said, “and that’s exciting and keeps it alive and evolving and moving.”

Be a Good Customer

As he mixes it up, he’s lucky to have De Maison Selections in nearby Chapel Hill to tap. The influential Spanish-focused importer, Maller said, “put sherry … and Txakolina on the map.”

His close relationship with De Maison and his eight or nine other importers and distributors makes all the difference to his inventory. “It used to be a thing of mine when I was young,” he said, “to work with as many people as possible, but in the end, it’s a hassle, and it’s hard to be anyone’s great account if you spread yourself so thin. If you consolidate, people are more than happy to bend over backwards and make sure you get the good stuff”—like Mateo’s bottle of El Maestro Sierra Amontillado 1830 de Anticuario, one of only 75 produced. “Or you forgot to order something, and you find out at lineup, and they’ll be there in a hour with it”—a boon for a guy who has four other restaurant lists to manage.

That rare sherry costs $999 on Mateo’s list, which Maller seeks to balance in price. “I try not to let it get too top-heavy, but I want people to have the opportunity,” he said. So there might be a $915 Vega Sicilia Unico 1999 listed next to a $26 Bodegas Gormaz 2015 among the Tempranillos in the Ribera del Duero section. But most of what he sells is in the $50-to-$60 range. He knows he needs to keep his costs at 37 percent, so he “finagles” markups from between 1.5 and two times cost, giving better value at the higher end.

Everything gets poured into universal glasses—a Bordeaux glass for wines, a smaller, sherry glass for sherries, and for Cava, a flute. Even Txakolina doesn’t get special treatment. The house keeps porrons for customers who request them, but Mateo doesn’t stand on ceremony. It’s a tapas bar, after all, and in Spain, that’s a casual kind of spot. In addition, its “Southern soul” gives it a down-home vibe. It is, by design, an unintimidating place to discover the pleasures of Spanish wines and sherries.

Mateo’s lack of pretension just makes it all the more fun to list a few special finds, like that pricey amontillado. If that bottle was sold, Maller, for one, “would be sad to see it go,” but he’d also be jazzed. “I’d need to know right away everything about the people who bought it,” he said, “and how much they liked it and what they had with it and what their dog’s name is—and everything!”


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Betsy Andrews is an award-winning journalist and poet. Her latest book is Crowded. Her writing can be found at

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