Photo by Rey Lopez
Photo by Maya Oren
Maydan wine director Maria Bastasch clipping vines on a recent visit to Georgia.
At Maydan restaurant, wine director Maria Bastasch is working to bring the little-known wines of Lebanon, Turkey, Africa, and more to a wider audience.
Shortly after opening in November 2017 in D.C.’s Cardozo neighborhood, Maydan racked up an impressive roster of superlatives. Bon Appetit named it the second-best restaurant in the United States, Food & Wine deemed it among the top 10 restaurants of 2018, and GQ and Eater listed it among the finest new restaurants in the country for its live-fire cooking. Every accolade was well deserved, but somewhat missed the point—the winning part of Maydan isn’t the food, it’s the wine list.
Inspired by the food that owner Rose Previte grew up cooking with her Lebanese American mother, Maydan serves a range of traditional Middle Eastern fare, from lamb kebabs studded with pistachios to whole chickens fragrant with turmeric, coriander, and garlic. The wine list, however, is anything but conventional. Along with more familiar varieties like Spanish tempranillo and Italian nebbiolo, wine director Maria Bastasch sources bottles from Armenia, Israel, and even Tunisia. “By showcasing wines from lesser-recognized regions, I’m trying to expand our guests’ notion of what ‘good wine’ is,” she said.
With the rising popularity of natural wines, more and more restaurants are making a similar move. Still, Maydan stands out for just how unfamiliar many of its wines are to diners. In all 50 states, bars and restaurants are required to buy from a licensed distributor, who buys from an importer, who buys from a producer—a system that incentivizes distributors to only purchase well-known wines they’re sure they can sell. But D.C. isn’t a state, so Bastasch can bypass the distributor and buy directly from the small, independent winemakers she wants to highlight.
This flexibility has inspired her go to after producers with little to no footprint in the current market. Over the past two years, she’s traveled to such places as Lebanon, Georgia, Mexico, Bolivia, Turkey, and Morocco, visiting with winemakers in person to hear their stories, better understand their process, and ultimately bring their wines back to Maydan.
While exploring wine production on the Baja Peninsula, she met Lourdes “Lulu” Martinez Ojeda, who trained in Bordeaux but returned to her hometown of Ensenada to make wine in Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe. Today, Ojeda is the chief winemaker at Bodegas Henri Lurton, where she produces chenin, sauvignon blanc, and nebbiolo.
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After chatting with Ojeda about everything from natural wine to the challenges of being a woman in the wine world, Bastasch decided to sell her wines at Maydan. “Because the U.S. either still sees wine from Mexico as inferior—or doesn’t even know it exists—it was important to me to find producers of various sizes and backgrounds to bring to the U.S.,” said Bastasch.
In time, Bastasch’s trips have also become a way of helping the winemakers themselves. “I’ve stayed on their farms and worked in their vineyards and developed personal relationships with each of them, and those interactions have allowed me to see the impact that supporting them has on their business and community,” she said.
In no instance is this truer than her friendship with Abdulla Richi, a Syrian refugee who is now making wine in Lebanon. At the certified-organic Couvent Rouge winery in the northwest part of the Beqaa Valley, Richi employs a low-intervention process that he learned back in Syria to create a bold red wine from cabernet sauvignon and nielluccio grapes. He’s had modest success with his business, but his ultimate goal is to return home, where he can make his natural wines with indigenous Syrian grapes. “When we heard his story, we agreed that we would make a commitment to import all his wine directly, in an effort to get him one step closer to achieving his dream,” said Bastasch. “This wine, albeit delicious, is an investment in Abdullah’s winery in Syria.”
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In much the same way, she’s helped Baia and Gvantsa Abuladze, who were both under 23 when they started making wine in western Georgia. After receiving a grant from the Michelle Obama Foundation in 2016, the sisters converted their small family vineyard into a working biodynamic winery and began producing larger quantities of dry white wine from tsolikouri grapes. They were eager to make red as well but didn’t have the capital until they were introduced by a Georgian importer to Bastasch, who immediately began carrying their wines at Maydan. Every bottle they sold to the restaurant was used to fund the next phase of their business, which today includes a dry, full-bodied red made from an old otskhanuri sapere grape variety.
Using two main vines (both of which are more than 150 years old) and traditional kvekvri (large earthenware vessels for fermentation, storage, and aging), he managed to produce enough bottles to stay afloat but had never exported to the United States before meeting Bastasch. She worked to buy large quantities of his wine, and when she visited last year, Dato was proud to show her the six new kvekvri that he was able to purchase as a result of Maydan’s business. She stayed at his home and had a large feast to celebrate, but it’s Dato’s smile that sticks in her memory. “I was amazed to see how happy he and his family were to know that their wines are traveling to the U.S. and that people are cherishing these old-vine treasures as they do,” she said.
More than a sommelier, Bastasch considers herself an educator, matchmaker, and explorer, using wine as a medium for human connection. Through her stories—over a glass of Tunisian red, perhaps—it’s easy to understand exactly what she means.
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