The Grape Life

In Charlotte, wine is the new martini. From uptown to the outskirts, wine bars are popping up in every neighborhood, wine shops are serving glasses in the back, and restaurants are adding "and Wine Room" to their names. No one meets for a martini anymore; instead it's "let's get together for a glass of wine." The great grape rush of 2007 is on. So much is happening so fast, it's hard to keep up. So we sent two writers out into the city to cover Charlotte's wine scene in a week (give or take).

Written by Van Miller and Richard Thurmond. Photographs by Chris Edwards


RICK: For simplicity, you cannot beat the name The Wine Shop. You know exactly what it sells. Owner Frank Redd has been at this a long time, and he knows what people want: they want wine, and they want it to be easy. It starts with the name.

After a week of drinking wine all across Charlotte, things got a little hazy for our writers.

After a week of drinking wine all across Charlotte, things got a little hazy for our writers.

Every Friday at 5 p.m., The Wine Shop, located in a little strip center on Park Road in Dilworth, hosts a free tasting. The format varies. Sometimes a store employee pours selections (those can morph into miniparties, I'm told); at this one, a distributor rep is in the house. A handful of regulars have brought their own glasses. One confides in me that she has stopped bringing her wallet to the Friday tastings: "If I bring home another bottle of wine, my husband…."

On tap is a Cosentino Legends, an unoaked Chardonnay endorsed by basketball star Larry Bird (I'm curious how he'd reconcile his tremendous schnoz with the sniffing portion of a wine tasting), a forgettable pinot noir, and a clever Washington state cabernet. It's fairly light, with a lot of cherry flavor, and I buy a bottle for twenty bucks.

Leaving the parking lot, I see something that makes me uneasy about the week to come. A nearby dry cleaner uses its sign to display pithy sayings. The current offering: "Hangover: The Wrath of Grapes."

A couple hours later, tickets to the Bourne Ultimatum (highly recommended) in hand, my wife and I are ensconced at the Dean & DeLuca Wine Room, surrounded by beautiful people. Or maybe the wine makes it feel that way. No, there are definitely some beautiful people, particularly the couple at the bar, he with grayish-blond windswept hair and Tommy Bahama outfit and she in a tight white strapless number. More people spill out onto the patio, which fills up most nights.

Like most wine bars in town, D&D allows customers to browse the shelves and open a bottle at the table. This is an appealing option, but we choose from the menu, which offers more than fifty wines by the glass and several flights, all from California (D&D offers the widest Cali selection in town). Said menu also includes food. One could easily make a light dinner of these sandwiches and salads-good to know for future movie excursions.


RICK: We have a flank steak marinating at home, so we dash out to the Wine Shop Foxcroft for wine and apps. Wise choice. This place used to be affiliated with the Park Road Wine Shop, but Conrad Hunter bought out Frank Redd and put in a wine bar. We missed the free Saturday tastings, which are usually hosted by distributor reps and run 1 to 4 p.m., but that doesn't slow us down.

I discover the pleasures of a Belle Glos pinot noir, from the Caymus vineyard (at $16 a glass, there'd better be pleasures). A charcuterie-and-cheese plate is the perfect snack. All the food, which also includes soups, salads, paninis, vegetables, fruit, and desserts, comes from Noble's, which automatically gives the menu credibility. An eclectic crowd lingers here. One young fellow polishes off a flight, followed by a glass of red, followed by a high-gravity beer. He reads a book all the while. Members of the country-club set converse lightly at one table, while two regulars discuss golf at the bar. There are two coolers stocked with interesting-looking beers, and I ask our server if beer geeks hung out here. "Yes," comes the direct response. But this is also a fine place for wine nerds, with a cruvinet that holds thirty-two wines available by the glass, not to mention the shelves and shelves of bottles, each of which you can open at your seat.

VAN: Winestore is holding a blind tasting today-the staff is putting paper bags over all twenty-four bottles on their Enorounds. The Enorounds are stainless-steel automatic dispensers activated by a magnetic card that you purchase at the cash register. Blind is my favorite way to taste wine, because it eliminates any pretense about labels or price. You have to use all of your senses to determine the character of a wine-good or bad.

This is not a big place, but the stock is choice. It's bustling this Saturday afternoon. The first two wines are easy. Sauvignon blancs, I'm sure. Yep. The third I pick as a pinot grigio. Correct: Coastal Vines, Sonoma, California, $7. The fourth, positively an albarino. Wrong-Austrian grüner veltliner. The next four bags are labeled "Chardonnay." The first has the lightly oaked character of Argentina or Chile. I declare this to everybody. Wrong, California. The next is neutral, austere, acidic. French.

Wrong-loser-California. Next, a big oakey mouthful. I declare California and even blurt out that I think it's Newton. Lucky guess. $25. The fourth is neutral, green, and dry. I don't believe it is a Chardonnay. I'm sure that owners Matt Hartley and Keith Messick are messing with us. Spanish albarino. Wrong. New Zealand Chardonnay. The whites were easy. Eight down, sixteen to go.
I spit as I go (although the Newton deserves a swallow), and after each wine, I eat oyster crackers and drink water. The place is hopping with excitement, everybody trying to guess, blurting out "peach!" and recommending the number three cabernet sauvignon, which is really a merlot. It's a respectful crowd. Nobody's getting hammered. I work my way through the pinot noirs and the cabernet sauvignons, my palate getting a little cloudy. The garnachas perk it up though. These are lively, original wines, especially the Spanish Atteca ($15) and the Mas Doix Salanques ($40).

Last on the carousel are tempranillos. My exhausted senses are revived by the Prima ($20). The last is the best. A Cenit ($40), a deep garnet, lovely wine with a spicy plum fruit. The crowd mingles, exchanging notes, careful not to spoil anything for those still tasting. People buy their favorites. I love this place.


RICK: After a dinner of leftover flank steak, we head out for the opening of Rooster's Wine Bar, which is in the same little mall as the popular SouthPark restaurant. Except it isn't open yet. Maybe tomorrow.

So we end up at Selwyn Wine Cellar. Every evening on our separate drives home, we glimpse at people seated at comfy-looking tables alongside Selwyn Avenue outside the wine bar, and most evenings we want to be those people. Now is our chance.

We saunter into the long, skinny shop, bypassing shelves of wine for sale, heading straight for the comfortable bar in the back. The few folks there seem to know each other, but they seem glad we've crashed their party. We get the last table outside, under a large umbrella, and a helpful server brings us a few tastes until we settle on our selections. To our left, four women in tennis outfits loudly discuss their husbands. To our right, two young women break down the area rental market. I am the only man, but that often seems to be the case at wine bars. (Single guys, take note: This is where they are.)

VAN: When I called to make a reservation for the Providence Café wine tasting, the woman on the phone told me it was sold out. The staff sends out e-mail announcements, and the response is immediate. There were fifty-one reservations, but she said I could come and sit at the bar. It's an upscale but unpretentious restaurant. The clientele is mostly working professionals and couples-regulars from the surrounding Myers Park neighborhood. The wine tasting is presented by Alice Rogers of Empire Distributing. The theme is "August Vacation-Around the World with Wine." She tells a little story about each wine and its region, then walks around giving generous pours.

It turns out there's room for me at the grown-up table. It's a naturally lit room with high ceilings, decorated with baroque-period oil paintings, impertinently overpainted with slashes and X's. The room is packed with people sitting at tables European style-elbow to elbow with total strangers.

We're served a 2005 Haras Estate Chardonnay, Maipo Valley, Chile ($10). It's not overly oaked, yet buttery. Lovely wine. The room hums as people start to feel more comfortable. People graze on the appetizers: small sandwiches, cheese, skewered chicken.

The next wine is a 2004 merlot by Columbia Crest Grand Estates from Washington. It has lively red berry fruits. Very good. Everyone seems relaxed and is enjoying themselves. The next wine is a stunner: 2003 Abadia Retuerta Rivola, Castilla y Leon, Spain ($13.50). It has great cherry, raspberry, and blackberry fruits.

Alice taps the last bottle with a spoon. It takes a while for the chatter to stop. People are feeling good. She talks romantically about warm breezes and the volcanic soils of Sicily, then pours a 2005 Feudo Maccari Sette Ponti Renoto ($11). It's 85 percent Nero D'Avola, a native Italian grape, with 15 percent Syrah. It has a hot aroma and deep, inky color with a concentrated pomegranate, cassis fruit flavor and very little tannin. A new and unusual wine.



RICK: Sticking to the SouthPark area -which seems to be flooded with wine all of a sudden-we meet friends at Arooji's Wine Room & Ristorante in Morrison, right across the street from the new Earth Fare. On Wednesdays, Arooji's usually offers a flight of wines plus an appetizer sampler for $15. Despite the name, this isn't really a wine bar. It's an Italian restaurant with a good wine list. Still, we hunker down at a tiny bar table, and the owner brings my flight and takes the time to explain what the wines are. He even checks back to see how I like them and to ask if I have any questions. I'm curious as to why the musician is stuck way back in the corner, but I do not ask him that. As we sip and snack, the place fills up-with women. I'm telling you, guys, the wine-bar scene is where it's at.

After Arooji's, we try again to hit the new Rooster's wine bar, which I had been assured would be open tonight. Nope.

VAN: Dolce Vita, in the heart of NoDa, is always a cool place to meet friends for wine tasting. It's very pleasant to sit at a table on the sidewalk and watch the world go by as you sip a glass of good wine. The crowd here varies. Tonight it's a mix of guys on Harleys, young professionals, and neighborhood regulars. I order a glass of Masciarelli Rosado, only $3 tonight, because Wednesdays are half-price wine night. Because of the unfortunate white zinfandel trend of the 1980s and 1990s, people are afraid of rosés. They shouldn't be. This is a good one, a fruity Italian rosé with a beautiful strawberry color and a dry finish.

The Wine Vault is located in the University area in the middle of an outdoor shopping mall. I thought it would be desolate on a Wednesday night, but as I circle the parking lot trying to find an empty place, I know I was wrong. The shop is small and almost cavelike. I give $5 to the cashier. She gives me six poker chips and points me toward the back of the room. It's packed with people gathered in cliques, laughing and telling stories I'm sure they're all familiar with by now. The bar is mobbed by people holding out their glasses. The server, a young man in his thirties, hustles back and forth, filling glasses with small pours. This reminds me of a winery tasting because of the repetitive, hurried way the guy pours and describes wines. And because most of the people tasting are drunk. One woman is going on about wine coolers and how they are the reason why she is such a wine lover today.

There are six wines. The first is a terrible pinot grigio that smells of sulfur. The second is a 2005 White Oak Chardonnay ($25), a nicely balanced Chardonnay, not too oakey, just enough to satisfy. After a couple of inferior reds, the bartender asks me if I'm sure I want to try the merlot, because this place is filled with people who saw Sideways and think they should hate merlot. I love merlot, and the Vega Sindoa Merlot is good. A woman sitting nearby tells me to try "the concrete," which is actually the 2004 Conn Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. It is good. The shelves in this place are filled with impressive choices. It's a small place with a loyal clientele of all ages-an oasis in the middle of a beach boardwalk-themed shopping mall.


RICK: Remember that sign from Monday? Wrath of Grapes? No wine for me tonight.

VAN: Plaza Midwood's Common Market shares the same clientele as the Penguin, Dish, and Boris + Natasha, so there is a lot of pierced and inked skin. It's a small shop filled with good beer and wine, other essentials, and a deli. The wine tasting here is conducted by local wine reps, who alternate hosting duty. Tonight there are four Spanish whites. The 2006 Toro Malvasia ($10) starts out sour, then ends up like butterscotch. They are also pouring four beers from different parts of the world. The tasters here are very polite and genuinely interested in the selections. A lot of people purchase what they taste, including me.


RICK: We head south tonight, to Ballantyne, and we have the best night of the week. We start at Henry and Barbara Tyree's Under the Grape, which is right next to the Ballantyne Village Cinema. The wine shop occupies the ground floor, and a chic wine bar is upstairs. The bar is all curvy lines and modern art and stylish seating, with a huge patio overlooking the shopping center.

The wine list is very personal, with descriptions written by the owners, who handpick each offering. As we try a cheese sampler prepared by a Johnson & Wales intern in the kitchen and sip a Martin Codax Albarino and a tart Saumur Chenin Blanc ("Just poking your nose into this glass should make you smile," reads the menu) the band Hipshack sets up on a tiny stage. UTG features live music several nights a week, and the joint jumps after nine. We're there closer to six, and most of the action comes from a birthday party setting up outside (more women!) in the 95-degree heat.

Before heading out into the steamy night, we stop by the shop, which is packed with people at a sold-out sampling of Carneros wines, including Cakebread. The $30 tasting sold out well in advance, as do most of the tastings, Barbara tells us.

We bookend our Ballantyne excursion with a stop at Vintage Wine Cellar, in a shopping center called Toringdon on the north side of I-485. We like this place immediately. Smallish with a sexy vibe, a store occupies one side and a lounge-ish bar is on the other. The wine geeks hold court at the bar, where the chef comes out to talk wine pairings. There's also table service and couches. This was dinner for us, and an imaginative Cuban sandwich and a brie-and-apple bruschetta more than satisfy. A guy named Judson Terrell is playing dead-on covers of Dave Matthews, and a small crowd of laid-back suburbanites half listen. The wine list is cleverly organized: reds are either "crowd pleasers" or "full and flavorful" while whites are "patio pleasers" or "thought provoking." I kick back with a big, rich, heady Justin "the Orphan" Cabernet and contemplate moving to the suburbs and living the wine-bar lifestyle full time.

VAN: At Trade and Tryon tucked away in the Overstreet Mall, right behind the giant bronze disc, is Vino 100. The small shop has a good selection of wines from around the world. It's ideal for uptown workers with wine needs. It has two wines open. The 2003 Mosen Cleto Campo de Borgia is good, but it is served in those tiny plastic cups used for cough medicine. I prefer glass.

Parking uptown these days is a bitch. When I pull up to the Seventh Street Station, the guy wants to charge me $10 for all night. I say, "I'm going wine tasting at Reid's." He looks at me-obviously envious-and waves me through. The wine tasting takes place around a bar located next to the respectable wine selection. The clientele is eclectic, middle-aged uptown-condo types as well as a few professionals, ties in their pockets, ready for tasting. I pay $20 for a flight of Brogan Cellars wines. There are cheese, crackers, and grapes. Of the four wines, I like the Chardonnay OK, don't like the merlot or Shiraz. The zinfandel is good, but I think these wines are highly overrated and the service spotty, confused, and inattentive. I think it would be better to come with a group and share flights.


RICK: Smack in the middle of a blazing afternoon, I point the SUV north on I-77, arriving twenty-five minutes later at Northlake Mall. Following the helpful signs, I park right outside The Grape. Alone at the bar, I chat with franchise owner Christopher Smith (he's the bald, ebullient one) and wine director Kevin Shumsky (he's the quiet one with the sly smile). Based in Atlanta, The Grape has several franchise locations in the Southeast (with one coming to SouthPark, albeit with different owners). There are two parts: the Retail Seller (it's a play on words-get it?) and the Wine Bar. The shop focuses on boutique wines, but I see several well-known brands, too. The wines are classified by number-the bigger the number, the richer the wine. I order a custom flight at the bar, where more than 120 wines are available by the taste and by the glass. I am pleased to receive a printout that describes each wine I'm drinking. I like guides. As Smith is excited to explain to me, The Grape is one of the only places in the country to offer Oriel wines, a boutique label founded by John Hunt, the guy who sold Seattle Coffee Company to Starbucks. He works with well-regarded, small-producing winemakers in different parts of the world to bring their wines to market at an affordable price. Now there's a story that will impress your next dinner-party guests.