Former English literature professor Maria Chiancola envisioned a neighborhood food and wine shop where education and conversation could flourish. So in 2008 she opened Newport Wine Cellar, adding a cut-to-order cheese counter, a specialty grocery, and a café serving charcuterie plates and sandwiches over the next few years. (Today Newport Wine Cellar & Gourmet occupies two neighboring storefronts.) From the beginning Chiancola has held weekly courses and tastings to introduce customers to new products: “There’s a lot of discomfort in the unknown,” she says. “Getting people to try something new is at the core of the classes.”
Chiancola also contributes to the local food community by relaying customer comments to makers. “The producers make these beautiful things—these gorgeous cheeses—and they don’t often get to hear what the consumers have to say and the excitement they often express,” she says. By creating a bridge between Ocean State gourmands and artisanal makers across the country, Chiancola has accomplished her dream.
culture: What makes Newport Wine Cellar & Gourmet unique?
Maria Chiancola: I’ve met a lot of the people who make the cheese, wine, and food that I sell. I think of the store as a conduit between the consumer and the producer.
culture: Where do you find inspiration for your shop?
MC: No matter where I go, I stop in a wine store and a gourmet store because I want to learn about how other people do things and meet others who are equally excited about being in the field.
culture: What cheese do you recommend the most?
MC: Pretty much any day of the week and twice on Sundays I’ll show [someone] Caseificio dell’Alta Langa La Tur; I can’t eat enough of that cheese. I tend to head toward softer, fresher cheeses—and La Tur is such a crowd-pleaser! It’s universally loved.
culture: Name a cheesemaker you’re excited about.
MC: I’m particularly excited about Goat Lady Dairy. Today I tasted Lindale, an aged goat gouda [from them], and it reminded me of Tête de Moine. It had this power and creamy meltiness on my tongue—it was fantastic. At the [San Francisco] Cheese Fest there were a couple of things that aren’t available here yet, like Stepladder Creamery. Their cheese was beautiful.
culture: What’s the strangest request you’ve ever received?
MC: I had a grown woman this summer ask me to cut the “skin” off her brie. We have a sandwich called the Oo la la [that features] Brie de Nangis. It’s a beautiful brie; you need the rind on it. It’s where the flavor is! Otherwise you have this wonderful buttery creaminess, but you don’t have any of the earthy, mushroomy part that makes it interesting.
culture: How do you explain the cost of artisanal cheese to customers?
MC: You can liken it to organic vegetables, organic meats, or pasture-raised meats—[it’s] the same thing. These products are more expensive because they are more costly to produce, and I think usually that’s enough for my customers.
Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Sun. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Feature Photo Credit: Ian McLellan