By Alastair Cairns
SO Rhode Island
Wine Spectator’s two-glass Best of Award of Excellence, according to the magazine, is given to the restaurant that qualifies as a “destination for serious wine lovers.” The list of winners in Rhode Island has but four names. While one might expect the likes of Castle Hill to seek to impress well-heeled guests with its wine list, the excellence of Chef Matthew MacCartney’s Jamestown Fish flies under the radar. At this intimate location, wine isn’t a commitment to luxury so much as a reflection of the personal passion and life-long learning of its owner and executive chef. Matthew’s resume is seriously impressive, boasting time in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants abroad, as well as high-profile work in New York City at the Gramercy Tavern and as beverage director at Tom Colicchio’s Craft. Jamestown Fish distills all of this experience, with wine at the heart of Matthew’s vision for the restaurant. We talked about the study of wine, the curation of a wine list and the regrettable reputation of Riesling.
You seem to have decided early on that you wanted to understand both the world of the kitchen and the world of wine. What was the trajectory of your study of wine?
I had taken a wine class back at New York City Technical College (now known as City Tech/CUNY), and on a transfer semester in the UK, I took the WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] level one course. I continued with it back in the states while still working in the kitchen, and I really liked it. When it came to the third level, the diploma, I decided the only way I’d really be able to do this would be to step away from the kitchen and dive into wine 100 percent. Gramercy Tavern gave me a job, where I would learn the front of the house and be able to focus on wine, touching bottles, looking at labels, tasting with people, all of that. That worked out well, and in 2001 Tom Colicchio asked me to do his wine program at Craft. They actually paid for my last year of study. So all in all, from 1992 to 2002, I finished the diploma.
Even with hundreds of wines, do you focus on particular areas?
In a restaurant that is fish-oriented, I’m looking toward wines that are more delicate and focused, not the big, brooding, fruit-forward wines of the New World. I tend to focus on things with bright acidity that are food friendly, and fish friendly, and have a lot of umami. You’ll see a passion for Burgundy, both red and white, at a big range of prices, from $50 to $6,000 a bottle. They last a long time, many improve over time, and they go with a lot of different foods. Over the years Burgundy has become a passion for many people, the ultimate classic. I also have a passion for Italy as well, and think there’s a lot of great value there, and diversity. Even in the Barolos, you can bridge that gap with red wines that go with fish, in specific dishes.
What about including recognizable names, playing to the crowd?
That’s never, ever been how I do it; from my days working with Paul Grieco at Gramercy Tavern, I was encouraged to choose wines that are great, that express the variety and region. It’s not about a label, or marketability. We have people here to talk about the wine with you; that is where the service aspect comes in, to help navigate a wine list like we have. You might not recognize any of the names, but we’re going to find you a wine you like, at the price you want. The beautiful thing about what I do is that over time, when you get to know people, they start to trust you, and you create this rapport with a guest where “you know what I like” is all they have to say. You can give them pretty much anything that fits that description.
How do you figure out what makes the cut?
If we have 650 wines on the list, there are probably three times as many wines that I tasted in order to narrow that down. I taste constantly, and buy very little. I’m open to seeing every rep that comes in and just looking at stuff. I get tons of offers, but most things don’t make it on. I want that quality.
Are there wines that people think they don’t like, that they do?
The biggest one is Riesling – Riesling has such a reputation from 1970, you know, being sweet. That’s so not the case. There is so much Riesling that will rip the enamel off your teeth with the acidity and the brightness and not be at all sweet, from most places in the world except Germany. And even Germany is drying their wines more. In Austria, Australia, upstate New York, Canada, it’s dry Riesling. But it can’t seem to shake that sweet thing. It’s really ruined the reputation of that wine.
14 Narragansett Avenue, Jamestown