In the Kitchen: Matthew MacCartney of the Ocean House

The wine director of Watch Hill’s world-class hotel takes the pretension out of wine culture


While a student in the hospitality management school at the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, Matthew MacCartney immersed himself in all facets of the industry, but it was an opportunity to explore the slow food movement in Europe that ignited a spark in the young culinarian and future wine enthusiast.

“They took us on this full-immersion tour, three weeks in Piedmont, Italy. We visited 35 wineries and food producers, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is an amazing business with amazing people!’” he recalls. At the time, he was working weekends at Daniel, chef Daniel Boulud’s renowned Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, so jetting off to the lauded, vine-covered countryside was a bold move on MacCartney’s part.

“The restaurant wasn’t happy with me leaving to go to Italy for truffle season in the busiest season of the year. In fact, he was a little bit jealous, I later found out. Daniel was like, ‘I never got opportunities like this when I was your age!’” MacCartney says with a laugh.

Indulging his new passion and love of travel inspired a semester abroad in England, where he earned a diploma from the internationally recognized Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). “I knew that I really needed to be working more in wine and not in the kitchen,” says MacCartney, who today holds a WSET Level 4 diploma, and was also a student of London’s prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine.

With no front-of-house experience, his baptism by fire was back in New York at the acclaimed Gramercy Tavern, working his way up to floor manager. “[Celebrity chef] Tom Colicchio loved the idea that I was a cook and also knew wine, so he had me going around the corner with him to open Craft in 2001, and that was my first wine list.” Being amongst the who’s who of the wine world in the heart of his native New York City at a restaurant by the celebrity chef who’d become best known as the head judge on the television show Top Chef was an education unto itself, gushes MacCartney.

Despite his coveted position at the buzzy hotspot, it was there he learned one of the most important lessons of all: “That whole restaurant’s philosophy was to make wine more accessible,” he says. Decades prior, he explains, the wine space was remarkably pretentious, with no shortage of “stuffy French sommeliers” who had no qualms about making a guest feel “less than” for not having a command of all things wine.

When MacCartney relocated to Rhode Island and opened a restaurant of his own on Conanicut Island, Jamestown Fish (open from 2011 to 2018), he adopted the same approach. During his tenure there, the restaurant was a five-time recipient of Wine Spectator’s “Best Award of Excellence,” and named one of “America’s Best 100 Wine Restaurants 2018” by Wine Enthusiast.

His mission of wine for all, paired with an encyclopedic knowledge of producers around the world, positioned him perfectly to assume the role of wine director for the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival, which he continues to guide today. When the Ocean House in Westerly was in need of a wine director early last summer, MacCartney was a natural fit.

MacCartney concedes that approaching a wine list at Ocean House or its sister property, the Weekapaug Inn, without much wine know-how can be intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. “Trust the sommeliers and ask questions,” he advises – that’s what they expect. And don’t be afraid to express what you’re looking to spend, as it helps the sommelier point you in the right direction. “Put it on the sommelier or the person you’re talking with about wine, and be honest,” he says. “Say, ‘I like zinfandel,’ or ‘I like cabernets and this is my price range,’ and if you don’t want to mention the number because you’re in a group, just point to it.” MacCartney says that far too often, people who are not sure of which wine to choose take their best guess, which can easily lead to a glass or bottle you don’t enjoy, an experience no sommelier wants to see.

For those eager to explore wines at a deeper level, the Ocean House’s Center for Wine & Culinary Arts offers wine tastings, pairings, and hands-on culinary experiences, including employing a specific focus, like rosés, summer cocktails, or California cabernets. This time of year, you’re likely to spot MacCartney selecting vintages and popping bottles at the seaside hotel’s dining options: The Bistro, COAST, or in the salty breeze outside on The Verandah at the Ocean House or Weekapaug Inn. Even if you don’t know your sancerre from your sangiovese, feel encouraged to ask him to help you find a palate-pleasing pour. Watch for monthly From Vine to Wine tastings by visiting



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