Big awards after grape expectations for Silicon Valley’s high profile wine curator
When he started at Madera at Rosewood Sand Hill in Menlo Park almost 10 years ago, Wine Director Paul Mekis was given a lofty goal: achieve the coveted Grand Award from Wine Spectator magazine, which honors restaurants that show an uncompromising, passionate devotion to the quality of their wine programs. Only 91 restaurants worldwide have been granted the Grand Award (twenty of which are in California), signifying the highest level of service within the industry.
After building Madera’s cellar from scratch over the past decade, Mekis garnered the magazine’s prestigious accolade earlier this year. Now, he’s on his way to New York City—with his family and longtime sommelier John McDaniel—to receive the Grand Award at a gala event at the Marriott Marquis Hotel.
We caught up to him before he boarded the plane to discuss the nuances of a great wine program and where he plans to take Madera into the future.
What does it feel like to have achieved the Wine Spectator Grand Award for Madera?
It’s fantastic! I couldn’t have asked for anything better! What an honor. I also have a new baby, who was born in May and is four months old now. (Ed: Paul was married three years ago in May, the same month he was notified of the Grand Award.) May was a banner month for me!
Can you describe what it’s been like to build a Grand Award-worthy cellar here?
It was literally just me in an empty cellar when I started. And there was this recession (2008/2009). I’ll never forget the managing director coming on property. I pointed out how tiny the cellar area was: “Did you see the wine cellar? It’s not big enough!” Even though I had only 600 selections to start, I had to store wine all over the restaurant. Now, we have 2,500 selections on the wine list and the cellar is one-third the size of the entire dining room. I now have a full-time staff of four sommeliers!
This isn’t the first time you’ve achieved a Spectator Grand Award, though, right?
I’ve been a sommelier since 1986. I studied with Ronn Weigand [the first person to achieve Master of Wine and Master Sommelier status] and Nunzio Alioto at Alioto’s. After that, I worked for five years at Christophe’s (San Francisco), where everyone was French except me. Then I opened The Lark Creek Inn (Larkspur) with Bradley Ogden, after which I replaced Tim Gaiser at the Cypress Club (San Francisco), where I had the honor of working with Mike Bonaccorsi and Randy Goodman, both of whom have sadly passed since. I was at Aqua (San Francisco) for six years, after which I went to the Plumed Horse (Saratoga). I earned the Grand Award for The Plumed Horse nine of those 10 years. But that restaurant was already 30 years old, so they had quite a good collection of older vintages. I had a great feeling about building the Madera cellar. To me, this Grand Award is a far bigger honor because I built it from scratch, purchasing every bottle.
How are wine sales? Strong?
When I started, we figured we’d be lucky to have $800,000 yearly in wine sales. With the restaurant booked for breakfast, lunch and dinner these days, our wine sales are one-third of the total food and bar sales on the property. Yearly, we are doing $4 million in wine sales alone.
What’s the secret to a great wine list?
You have to offer variety. We have 160 different half bottles, and they are a healthy part of my sales. I train my sommeliers to offer people half bottles. That way guests can try more wines. Our clientele includes a lot of business people who may be dining alone, so a half bottle is ideal. We also have a good selection of verticals and large formats featuring older vintages. I have 54 wines on the by-the-glass list, including a whole page of Coravin selections.
Any local wines on the list?
Oh, yes! I’m a Santa Cruz guy, born and raised. I’ve always included many selections from the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’ve currently got Neely, Alfaro, Kathryn Kennedy, Mount Eden, Ghostwriter, Mindego Ridge, Big Basin Vineyards, Ridge and Windy Oaks, among others.
There’s a lot happening with the Rosewood hotels and resorts these days. How are you involved with the expansion?
We have projects going on all over the world. We’re expanding in Paris, Washington DC, Cambodia, and Montecito in Santa Barbara. We have a new place going into Napa off Highway 29. It has a winery on property. It’s a couple years out. As for my role, I consult with our properties in America, Mexico and the Caribbean on setting up their wine lists. When I started, there were eight (Rosewood) resorts; today, there are 21 existing resorts worldwide and we have 19 in the pipeline. They constantly ask if I want to go to consult, but I have a new family now!
What’s happening at Rosewood at Sand Hill?
We are in the process of remodeling all our rooms. Recently, we made a big change to the lounge. For a long time, Thursdays were known as “Cougar Nights,” but this isn’t the image that Rosewood or Stanford wanted. We changed the entire area to have a higher-end feel, with beautiful furnishings, a stunning chandelier and bar service. There is security and attendance is limited to 150. We have a check-in stand now. We’re still crowded, but our sales are better. We also have all new furniture outdoors and a new roof over the deck that will allow guests to enjoy being outside even in the winter.
What are the trends you see in wine?
I’m personally liking lower alcohol wines, particularly pinot from the Sonoma coast, Bien Nacido and Santa Maria. Cabernets from Napa are pulling back from their big, rich style. The Italians are learning how to soften their wines — we have a lot of Barolos and Barbarescos. The Spanish wines are not as big and ripe as they once were and I love the variety we are seeing now. Personally, I’d like to get some more older vintages of American Cabernets.
What are people asking for?
People like to try new things. They’re asking for Viogner, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Grigio, Albarino, Sancerre and Gruner Veltliner. I try to give them a variety of sensations.
Madera at Rosewood Sand Hill is located at 2825 Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. Daily hours are: 6:30–10:15 a.m., 11:30 a.m.–2:15 p.m., 5:30–9:45 p.m.
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