MYSTIC — Over the last year, with an award-winning wine list and a series of well-received wine dinners, Kathleen Standridge has put Shipwright’s Daughter on the map as the place to go in the area to enjoy wine on an even footing with the kitchen.
As the restaurant’s wine director, she’s done it with a minimum of pretension, a modest 150-bottle selection, with by-the-glass choices that never leave me feeling like I am missing out, and with wine events that consistently bring out the best in the kitchen, and from her husband, chef David Standridge.
Even better, she’s managed all this at a price point that puts many of the pleasures well within reach of the average diner, which I’m guessing is part of the reason why, in August, Wine Enthusiast named Shipwright’s Daughter one of their 50 favorite restaurants for 2022. It’s the only restaurant in Connecticut to get the nod.
Those are accomplishments that I’ve really been meaning to acknowledge since our first review in 2021 mentioned the wine service only in passing.
In a recent conversation by phone, I asked Kathleen about an upcoming “raw wine” dinner, and we dropped into a two-hour discussion about her approach to wine, and her background in the business before arriving in Mystic in 2019.
“All these ‘Big B’s’ like Barolo, Brunello, Bordeaux, Burgundy — and Cabernet from California, from Napa, and Champagne — they all have people to answer to,” explained Standridge. “They have created a product for so long, that it is really really hard to break that cycle for them because, you know, people have come to expect that Napa Cab tastes like this every time — and Champagne. I’m like, ‘please explain to me how in Champagne, we are having some of the worst seasonal weather that we’ve ever had, and we keep getting vintage champagne?’”
That’s not to say there isn’t delicious Burgundy, but the reality, Standridge said, is that at $200 a bottle, wholesale, that’s not where she sees the value these days. And it’s that price point, and the search for value, in part that drives Standridge, and a tight-knit community of importers, restaurants, and wine sellers in Connecticut to look elsewhere, off the beaten path to places like Hungary. Or in the case of David Mensch, who owns Spencer & Lynn and frequently collaborates with Standridge on wine events, to small producers in Beaujolais.
It’s a way of thinking about wine that allows you to draw a line from high-end wines of, say, Burgundy to the industrialized production of Kendall-Jackson.
“Kendall Jackson makes a few million cases of wine a year,” said Standridge. “How can they make a few million cases of wine that are reflective of anything? And the answer is they don’t … you can’t make a million cases of wine taste the same without a lot of manipulation to make it that way.”
It’s a line that doesn’t necessarily demarcate quality, in fact, Standridge and Mensch readily admit that the downside of winemakers less likely to inoculate yeast, add sugar and manipulate acidity — is that a lot of natural wine falls flat or worse.
Standridge compares more than a few bottles of so-called natural wine to “dirty sock water.”
But sometimes it’s the flaw you love or transitory perfection – lightning in a bottle — a small maker with the freedom to pursue a singular vision that teeters on the brink of failure.
“Definitely natural wines have a different style to them. They tend to be lighter, and they tend to have a little bit more… it’s funny, like the bacteria and the microbiology of natural wine, it feels like to me you can really taste that,” explained Standridge. “I know that sounds kind of crazy, but you really can. It just tastes more alive to me. Although, I like wines that use inoculated yeasts as well … they are quite delightful as well … and I’m not trying to say that you should dogmatically only drink natural wines… I just think it’s something worth exploring.”
In the business
After a colorful series of jobs beginning at a coffee shop in Union Square in New York City, learning Italian wine and the pitfalls of being on the cutting edge of it at Lavagna in the East Village, and the lean hustle of working for chef Rita Sodi at I Sodi in the West Village, a 2019 James Beard Chef of the Year, Standridge left the service side of New York City restaurants to sell wine with Massanois Imports, a boutique business.
“It was really difficult and it was kind of like not maybe the best working atmosphere. It was very intense, like old school, people screaming at you kind of thing. And I was thinking, you know, after that experience, I was like, I don’t know if I want to work in restaurants ever again. So, I started working for a distributor. I’ve always worked boutique. I don’t like working corporate because I like knowing my boss,” said Standridge.
The work allowed her an “amazing educational opportunity,” according to Standridge, to work from the high-end to the low-end, and to work with people like Joe DeLissio, the celebrated sommelier at River Café in New York with modest roots, who (in his own words) “made his bones on California” and was the first to feature big Napa Cabernets like Dominus and Screaming Eagle.
On the downside, she was never paid less in her life, said Standridge, and the work was “unsustainable.”
Offered the autonomy and opportunity in 2019 to pursue their own creative ideas, Kathleen and her husband David opened Shipwright’s Daughter at the Whaler’s Inn in Mystic. There the couple have quickly established themselves among the leading lights in a blossoming restaurant scene in southeastern Connecticut that’s starting to live up to its hype.
David’s cooking seems to shine just a little brighter in the one-off, almost gestural dishes he prepares for the five- and seven-course wine dinners at Shipwright’s Daughter.
A lamb tartar with harissa oil, cured egg, caperberry, lemon confit and crispy potato, served with an aromatic milky unfiltered 2021 Margins, Counoise from the Santa Clara Valley, was a highlight. The wine teased and danced around the old-school dish in a way that Kathleen compared to eating Smarties.
A 2020 Vino di Anna Palemento, Nerello Mascalese grown on the slopes of Mt. Aetna in Sicily played the elder, Kombucha-like foot-stomped wine to David’s au courant sunchoke flan with cured bluefin, grapes and smoked seabeans.
Love it or leave it, it’s the sort of lively vinegary wine that typifies more raw wine than not. I loved it.
Pink Gold, a 2021 sparkling Trollinger from winemaker Leon Gold in Swabia — electric pink and bottled with a crown cap — was maybe the most fun I have had in a wine all year — in this case served with fruit and sorbet to end the meal, but that would have done just as well to kick it off.
You get the idea — it’s joyful, playful, fun.