St. Cecilia, one of Ford Fry's seven — soon to be eight — restaurants around metro-Atlanta, opened in Buckhead in January 2014. Over the past year St. Cecilia has gathered numerous accolades for its seasonal, coastal European-inspired menu that combines an old world approach with quality local Southern ingredients. The restaurant also maintains a vast, European-focused wine list that offers a wide selection of old world wines at prices that can fit most diners' budgets.
Eater recently talked with St. Cecilia general manager and wine director Matt Crawford, who has worked at several of Ford Fry's restaurants and will leave Atlanta this summer to open Fry's first restaurant in Houston.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in wine.
I grew up in Greenville, S.C.; my first job at 16 was in a restaurant as a dish scraper, sweeping up peanuts at a roadhouse. I later got on with Olive Garden where I was trained really well. From there I worked at a small mom-and-pop restaurant in Greenville right outside of downtown, where I was hired as a general manager when I was 22. I managed a 60-bottle wine list with a focus on California. I got to go to Napa and Sonoma a few times and I thought I knew a bit about wine. After the economic downturn in 2008, the revenue fell off, and I realized it was time to move on to a bigger city and bigger market to work with great chefs and great sommeliers.
I came to Atlanta and ended up working at [Tom Colicchio's] Craft, and quickly realized I really knew nothing about wine. I got introduced to Spanish wines, Sherry, things I really had no experience with. I worked at Craft for a about year until it closed. After realizing I didn't really want to live in New York City, I was fortunate to get a job at Aria. While I was working with Andres Loaiza at Aria, I realized again I didn't really know anything about wine. Andres was great; he got me on the path to be serious about going through the Court of Master Sommeliers and I completed my Level 1 while I was there. After that I worked at Woodfire Grill for a while, where we did tasting menus and I got a lot of experience with pairing wines with all the various dishes.
From there I worked with Fifth Group as opening beverage director at Alma Cocina, and I owe those guys a ton. I loved working there. During that time, I earned my Level 2 and continued to study wine, travel, and taste as much wine as I could. Around that time, Ford Fry reached out to me and I signed on with Ford just over two-and-a-half years ago. I was at JCT. Kitchen for a year, and then when St. Cecilia came about it was a good fit for me to move here. It's been great.
How do you approach putting together and maintaining the wine list at St. Cecilia?
I coordinate the wine list here along with Kerrin Deretchin, our wine captain. Lara Creasy, former beverage director for Fry's Rocket Farm Restaurants, put the wine program together and then handed it off to us. We sustain it from there and continually update the list and bring in wines that we are passionate about. We all work together in maintaining the list; it's a team effort. The wine program here is huge. We have the entire old world to play with, but we have plenty of new world options for guests that are looking for that. Lara did a great job of setting this program up to play well in every area.
How do you approach pairing wines with dishes on the menu?
The wine list changes often, as do the dishes, with the seasons and new inspirations. Chef Craig Richards is crushing it right now. His plates are beautiful, and it's a pleasure to work with him. We have a coastal European, almost a coastal café feel, so obviously we often think of lighter white wines and roses. But we have plenty of substantial dishes, too, like the short rib agnolotti, or the NY strip, that lend themselves to the bigger Barolos or Brunello di Montalcinos that we carry. We have a wide range of wines to play with, and there is something for everyone.
How do you help customers choose a wine they might not be familiar with?
When we set up the list we decided the by-the-glass offerings were going to be all Old World wines. We thought this was going to be a real challenge, but it's actually been an opportunity to challenge ourselves. When we have a customer expecting to find a buttery California Chardonnay on the list, we guide them to something like a Viura from Rioja, a white wine with similar qualities. The guest gets to taste a wine they've probably never tried before, that offers the same kind of palate experience, and they are usually very appreciative of the experience. It's an opportunity for us to dig in, ask great questions with our guests, and confidently guide them to try a wine they will probably love despite never having tried it before.
What are some of your favorite bottles on the list now?
Our offerings from $45 to $85 are substantial and diverse. There are some really unbelievable bottles that you can get for $60 or $65 on our list. We want to have a high perception of value. There is great juice in the $45 to $85 price point. We have a Palladino Barbera d'Alba Superiore that we carry on the list. It's a single vineyard, masculine and nuanced, and we have it on the list for under $70. It drinks like a $120 bottle of wine. It's like a baby Barolo.
What about the best splurge bottles on the list if we're out celebrating?
We do have our Siren List, which is our reserve wine list of very limited bottles. Some of these wines we have in very limited quantities, like two or three bottles. So, for a splurge, how about we start with little vintage Champagne, like the 2000 Krug on the list for $700? For me, if I was really going to splurge, Barolo and Burgundy are really near and dear to my heart. I feel a great connection with those wines. So the 2005 Aldo Conterno Barolo Granbussia, which is only made in select years, would be my next choice ($815 on the list).
Do you remember your "lightbulb" wine, the wine that made you first say, "wow"?
The first time I had a sip of 2000 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, I knew I had to go and work a harvest in Barolo and be on a winemaker's porch eating fresh pasta and drinking a lot of that wine. And that is going to happen one day. When I think about great wines that I've tried, I think about Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir as a lightbulb wine. Not necessarily as a lightbulb wine because of my enjoying it, but because of me reading about it and then it being the first bottle priced over $100 that I sold to a guest. And the guest was just blown away by it. I also remember a birthday dinner I had in Greenville with some friends who all really wanted to impress each other with our wines. I was still pretty green on my wine path at that point. I brought a 1999 Chappelet Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill that crushed a bunch of other great wines that night. Those type of emotional connections for me are the lightbulb wines.
What's a hot wine region for you right now?
Sicily, Italy. The Etna region. Also, the Gravner stuff in Friuli. He's getting away from Chardonnay and Sauvignon and more into indigenous varities like Ribolla. I love what they are doing in Campania. My heart is always in Italy and France when it comes to wine and Sicily is really doing some fantastic things these days.
What are you drinking these days when not drinking wine?
I've been drinking a lot of wine lately, especially over the last year. My go-to right now is Chenin Blanc, Savennieres. I love Nicolas Joly when I can get my hands on it. It's unicorn wine. I paired a 1997 Coulée de Serrant, made by Joly, with a dinner Ford did recently at the James Beard House. I do like a good craft beer from time to time and I try to support the local brewers when I can. But, it's mostly wine.
— Eater Atlanta contributor Dennis Attick