Thanks to a spate of new wine bars, wine tastings, wine dinners and vino-savvy restaurants, Columbia is in the midst of a bona-fide wine craze. Here’s how to get into the spirit.
If someone asked restaurant owner Ricky Mollohan to name the most popular wines in Columbia 15 years ago, he says it probably would have been a toss-up between California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, though, things are vastly different. At Cellar on Greene, the wine bar he opened in 2009 in Five Points, customers are diving into cool varietals from exotic locales such as Macedonia and South Africa — and asking for more. “Our most popular wine is something people have never had,” he explains. “People are realizing that wine is fun, and they’re willing to try almost anything.”
Bryan Della Volpe, who runs the wine program at the Gourmet Shop, is impressed by the age of customers making knowledgeable choices about wine. “I’m seeing 23 year olds come in with serious questions about wine and a real interest in learning more. It’s exciting.”
McCutchen House Culinary and Wine Institute Director Brian Hay reports an increased interest in wine classes. “There’s such a great selection of wines out there now, people want to learn how to appreciate them.”
How to Taste Wine
There’s no best way to try wine — all that’s needed is a glass, a bottle and an open mind. That’s because wine is full of surprises. Red wines can be lighter than one might expect; whites brawnier. Varietals can be deceiving too, particularly Riesling, which has a reputation for sweetness that just won’t go away no matter how many lean, minerally bottles hit the wine list. Tasters shouldn’t let unfamiliar names scare them away either: Gruner Veltliner may sound like a German punk band, but it’s actually a versatile white wine from Austria that can be rich or light depending on where or when it was grown and how long it’s been allowed to age. “With just a little effort, you can gain great rewards,” notes Robert Sox, who owns WineStyles, a boutique wine retailer in Columbia that holds tastings on Thursday nights
And no one should be embarrassed about what they like. “I hear people say they don’t drink white wine anymore, as if that’s a starter wine,” laughs Kristian Niemi, who owns Rosso Trattoria Italia in Forest Acres. “I think there’s a place at the table for almost every wine. White zinfandel can be great with barbecue, for instance. Drink what you enjoy, but be willing to try something new, too.” James Alford, wine buyer for Morganelli’s, agrees. “Even if you don’t like what you’ve tasted, if nothing else, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of why you like what you like.” Fulvio Valsecchi, chef and owner of Ristorante Divino, suggests that novice drinkers study up on industry terms used to describe things they like and dislike about certain varietals. “If you can speak in the language of wine, even just a bit, you’ll have an easier time telling your server exactly what you’re looking for,” Fulvio says.
Where To Try Wine
In a Restaurant
Purchasing a completely unfamiliar bottle of wine at a restaurant can be risky. The taste that the waiter offers isn’t to determine if diners like the wine they’ve ordered, but to ensure that the bottle hasn’t gone bad. Lacking a sympathetic restaurant owner, diners are generally stuck with their order. Walter Kohn used to do most of his wine tasting in Charlotte or Charleston, where he not only liked the expanded selections available, but felt that wait staff had been well trained and could rattle off facts and tasting notes about particular bottles, letting him make a more informed choice. A few years ago, while dining at Mr. Friendly’s, he decided to try something new and took his server’s recommendation to try a bottle of Frank Family Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma. “I had never heard of Frank Family, but the waiter did such a great job explaining that particular wine, that I was almost certain I’d enjoy it,” he says. “Turned out the waiter was spot on.” After that, and another positive experience at the restaurant, Walter now feels confident ordering new wines. “It’s really a matter of trust,” he explains. “That staff is so well trained that I know I can believe what they say about the wine. It makes a difference.”
One of the benefits of tasting wine at a restaurant is the chance to experience it with food that will make it shine. Kristian took a chance when he curated the wine list for Rosso, which features authentic, rustic Italian food. “In Italy, you enjoy your wines with food, instead of alone, so they’re crafted with a bit more acidity and less fruit,” he explains. “It’s a bit of a challenge introducing these wines because they’re not necessarily what customers expect, but the ones who’ve taken the chance have come away with an appreciation for wine and food pairings based on regional connections.”
It also pays to seek out restaurants that have taken the time to teach their staff about wine. “You’ll be supporting their efforts, and you might find a new favorite wine,” notes Marc Anglade, who sells wine for Southern Wine and Spirits. Howard Jarrett, general manager at Terra in West Columbia, also believes that a well-trained staff enhances his customers’ experience. “To ensure that our servers are comfortable making recommendation to our diners, I suggest two basic wine books for servers to purchase and read before their first day,” he explains. “Most Fridays we also have a wine representative in the restaurant, teaching about and tasting wine that I have pre-selected. We discuss the region, nuances of the particular wine and food pairings.”
Or go straight to the source. Marc suggests eating at the bar rather than at a table. “Bartenders taste a lot of wines,” he explains. Sam Suaudom, managing partner and beverage director at Baan Sawan Thai Bistro, says, “That’s especially important at a restaurant like Baan Sawan, where the spicy food can be a challenging match. Traditional food wines like Cabernet Sauvignon aren’t usually the best partner to the food. If you sit at the bar, you can usually find something you like that also enhances the food, so you’ll be more knowledgeable when you return.”
Restaurants also offer an opportunity to sample wines not available anywhere else. At Garibaldi’s, for example, General Manager Richard Mackey says that increased access to boutique wines from all over the world makes it easier than ever to bring unique tastes to both Garibaldi’s and its sister restaurant, Cola’s. “Years ago, it was tough to get your hands on anything out of the ordinary, but that’s all changed,” he reports. “Now we can offer wines that are exclusive to our restaurants.”
At a Wine Tasting
There are almost as many types of wine tastings as there are types of wine. Some, like the drop-in tastings held at Rosso every Wednesday night — for $5, anyone at the bar can taste four different wines — are casual and easy and require no commitment. Others are a bit more involved, requiring reservations and possibly pre-payment. The Gourmet Shop in Five Points is particularly well known for its tasting events, each of which often focuses on a single type of wine — Champagne, say, or Bordeaux — served with light snacks. Some tasters prefer wine dinners, which are usually sponsored by a winery or wine-producing region and are meant to showcase wines by pairing them with their perfect partners. Although wine dinners can be expensive, they’re great ways to experience the alchemy between wine and food, particularly if the wine makers are in attendance and have worked with the chef to develop the menus. There are also huge wine-tasting events, where dozens of wineries and distributors set up tables, glasses and spit buckets and serve up wine. For 18 years, the city’s best-known large-scale tasting was probably the Central Carolina Community Foundation’s Food and Wine Festival Gala, which raised thousands of dollars for the organization and brought dozens of new wines to the region. This year, the event will switch to a series of dinners to be held in restaurants around the region; the final dinner, at Hampton Street Vineyard, is slated for April 23 and will be a showdown between old world wines (France, Spain and the like) and those from the new world (Chile, Australia and the United States). Tickets are $100 per person; for more information visit yourfoundation.org.
To get the most out of a tasting, particularly a large one where dozens of wines are on offer, James Alford suggests developing a plan. “If you’re there to have fun with your friends, go for it,” he suggests. “But if you’re there to learn, I’d say go in, check out what’s there first, then decide what you want to taste and focus on those wines. Keep notes and if you don’t love something, don’t be embarrassed to spit it out. Those buckets are there for a reason!” Marc Anglade says that tasters should also stay away from wines they’ve tried before and beeline to tables offering the most expensive examples of what they want to try. “Your palate will still be fresh, and it may be your only opportunity to try wines at that level.”
Wine dinners and some smaller tastings offer unique opportunities to visit with the winemakers and take advantage of their knowledge. “They may not be super famous, but that’s a treasury of information you can take advantage of,” says James. “If you’re interested in wine, it’s worth the time to seek out tastings where the winemakers or importers will be on hand.”
At a Wine Bar
Jess Vernon, a fine wine sales representative at Country Vintner, which represents smaller boutique wineries, says that wine bars are also great places to taste wines and learn about them at the same time. “Wine bar owners and employees are passionate about wine and want to share their knowledge,” she explains. Patti Butler, who opened Wine Down on Main in December 2011, is a great example. “When someone orders a glass of Merlot, I’m always happy to serve it, but most of the time I’ll suggest they try a little taste of something similar, just so they can open their palates to something new,” she says. “It’s been fun. Columbians love variety. They’re always looking for something edgy and fun, which makes me love my job.” Although Wine Down on Main is small, the list is impressive, with more than a dozen wines available by the glass.
Wine bars also make tasting and comparing different wines easy by offering half-pours (less than a glass, more than a taste) and flights of wine, which allows customers to judge a trio of wines that share a year, varietal, vineyard or other characteristic. At Cellar on Greene, for example, wine drinkers can compare unusual whites, red blends and wines from the Pacific Northwest. “Tastings can be too formal for some people,” notes Ricky. “Flights let you do the comparing yourself.” Wine bars also tend to offer more choices. Gervais & Vine, which opened in 1999 and was Columbia’s first bona fide wine bar, hosts tastings on Wednesday. For $7, participants receive two-ounce tastes of four or five wines and a mini cheese plate. Both Gervais & Vine and Cellar on Greene pour more than 40 wines by the glass and offer a full menu in addition to all those wines. Wine Down on Main serves cheese and light snacks; diners wanting more substance can have dinner delivered from Hampton Street Vineyard, which itself has been honored by Wine Spectator magazine for its wine list.
At a Retail Store
Unless a wine store is holding a tasting — which happens fairly regularly at many outlets — buying wine at a wine shop usually leaves potential buyers to wander the aisles in search of a bottle they had once before, choose a wine based on the label or — gasp — trust the sales person. Morganellis’ James Alford suggests seeking out a retailer who knows and loves wine and giving that person a chance to make a recommendation. “There’s nothing I love more than guiding someone toward a wine that I think they’ll enjoy,” he says. “I never mind answering questions, no matter how dumb you think they are. The best way you can help me guide you toward your perfect wine is for you to be honest about what you like. I promise I won’t judge. There’s nothing worse than a wine snob.” James also wants to know if the wine didn’t make the cut. “Please come back and tell us what you thought and why. Knowing what you don’t like is just as helpful to us in making recommendations as knowing what you do.”
Bryan Della Volpe notes that a savvy wine salesperson can also help wine drinkers in search of a bargain find a few surprises. “People think of Chile, Argentina and, to some degree, the United States when they think value, but there are some amazing wines out there from Spain, Italy and France that are in the same price range,” he explains. Although these Old World wines tend to be more restrained than their powerful New World counterparts — think nuanced French Bordeaux versus ripe, muscular California Cabernet — they’re often better with food.
All the wine experts agree that the most important thing is to go out and give a new wine a try. “It’s astonishing how much Columbia’s food and wine landscape has improved in the past five years,” says Marc, who visits dozens of restaurants each week. “My advice is, reward the places that are giving you something new to try. It will encourage others to go out on a limb and keep things exciting for a long time.”