Interview with Wine Director Jon McCarthy of The Matheson Healdsburg & Valette Restaurant

Was there a moment that you remember when you knew that you wanted to work in Wine as a Sommelier and now a Wine Director at The Matheson and Valette, Healdsburg?

I think every wine professional has that “aha!” moment sometime in their career. For me it was a 2008 Peter Michael Les Pavots that a guest shared with me at Dry Creek Kitchen in 2012. I had enjoyed wine and enjoyed selling it before that, but I remember that sip of Pavots so clearly – it really opened my eyes to the potential that certain wines have to be an incredibly significant experience in and of themselves. I knew right then that I would be pursuing wine for the rest of my hospitality career.

Where did you study or learn about wine? Did you study Court of Sommeliers or WSET path?

I have gotten my certifications through CMS-A, though like the rest of my colleagues that have come up through that certification process I have largely learned on the job and through study on my own time. I am very interested in the WSET option and if I had come into contact with it earlier I would have likely pursued it then – I respond pretty well to a classroom environment. I know several people that have gone through both programs and are glad they did. If I get a chance to set aside the time for it I would love to do the same.

What was your first wine job?  

The first job I had selling serious wine was as a server in the DC Area. We didn’t have a dedicated wine professional on the team so we had to learn to represent the wines ourselves. At the time – I was very young, not even 21 yet – I was more of a craft beer fanatic. We had our own burgeoning wine industry in the area and it fueled an interest in good wines from California and the Pacific Northwest. Working with that program I realized that not only was wine interesting and delicious but that it was a critical element in mastering fine dining.

Share more about your role at Valette Restaurant and The Matheson?

I came back to Sonoma County after a two-year period working in NYC to help open up The Matheson. I had been planning to return to California for a while, and when I heard what was happening with this project I knew the time was right. I had the pleasure of spending quite of bit of my first year back working at Valette in addition to working on the spool up of The Matheson. The pandemic had literally just hit and we did a lot of pivoting. My role at The Matheson is primarily to oversee the beverage program, but in those early days and even now that has included a lot of general operations work. Restaurants have a lot of moving parts that guests don’t see and it takes all hands to keep things going smoothly.

For those who haven’t been yet can you explain the inspiration for the 88 bottle “Wine Wall” at The Matheson?

The wine wall is such a treat to work with. Every wine professional I’ve met struggles to answer the most common question we get: “What is your favorite?” How do you choose that? There are so many amazing wines in the world. One of the things I always feel is that I could someone a hundred new wines and never run out of things I think they will love and connect with. The wine wall gives us the opportunity to open so many different bottles. It’s great that when you are thinking of just the right wine for a person or to pair with a particular dish you can go pour it. It’s hard to do that with a traditional by-the-glass program that has a dozen relatively familiar wines.

How did you and the team go about assorting that? How frequently does it get updated?

The logistics of keeping the wine wall up to date are significant. It’s a pretty sizeable wine program by itself and it has great traction with our audience, so we have a lot of wine flowing through. We change wines incrementally. When one wine runs out, we already have something else waiting in the wings to take it’s place. Overhauling the entire wall in one go would be a staggering amount of work and would be a bit of a shock for the staff and the guests.

What is something you’d like to share with Healdsburg & Sonoma Valley that many consumers may not know or have a misconception about?

Something I always tell people about this area – including natives – is how special it is to have such world class restaurants in a place that isn’t a major metropolitan setting. I have a special place in my heart for DC, NYC, and SF but I am more of a country mouse than a city mouse, and for me a place like Healdsburg that has that open feel but still delivers absolutely world class dining options is such a rare gem.

As a wine director, you taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel bad about spitting because you LOVE it so much?

It’s a little sad to spit out wine when you think about the energy and love the winemakers put into producing it, but ultimately it has to be done to make sure the program is up to date and well attended to.

What is your strategy for curating a wine list?

Writing a wine program is by necessity a deeply personal proposition. While you write the program for your audience, you have to do it through the lens of what you personally connect with in the world of wine. You try to show people a representative arc of all the great regions and styles out there but ultimately you end up showing the things that stood out to you when you learned about them.

How would you say the Matheson Roof Top wine list compares to the ground floor fine dining Wine List?

The rooftop list is more concise and is designed to complement the culinary program there – approachable and food friendly wines with moderate price tags. The full cellar list shown in the main dining room by contrast is designed to be as close to comprehensive as we can get with a limited amount of space. It’s impossible to represent all the wines that are out there but we try to have a distilled down sort of snapshot of the larger range of wines out there.

Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?

I’ve learned more about business and hospitality from Chef Dustin than anyone else. He’s a major reason I was so eager to join on to this project when I first heard about it.

What is your favorite after work drink?

I drink absolutely criminal amounts of flavored sparkling water. I should have bought stock in La Croix.

What is your favorite local spot in Healdsburg where you and I now call home?

It’s impossible to pick a favorite. There are so many amazing places to go in this town. That’s what I love about it so much.

Tell us something that would surprise people about you?

I studied mathematics and physics for years in college and did really well with it. I never enjoyed working with numbers in high school or afterwards, but when I went back to school in my mid-twenties I wanted to challenge myself and develop a new skill set. At the time I was pursuing a career in engineering, and while that wasn’t the course I ended up on, the self-discipline I had to learn to make it through that kind of workload and the practical mathematical skills I learned have been extremely helpful in my work life.

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