At the age of 10, Nat Gunter sang his way into the American Boychoir School, where the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native shared classrooms, dorm rooms and a concert tour with young talents from all over the country. "Just to be exposed to different cultures of those different people was something I wouldn't have been exposed to," recalls Gunter, who was so keen to attend the New Jersey boarding school that he never explicitly asked his parents what they thought of the arrangement.
"It was a big sacrifice, but it shaped me," says Gunter, now 33.
Gunter later studied vocal performance at Birmingham Southern College, but the legacy of his Boychoir days has nothing to do with knowing how to breathe as a baritone. Rather, the experience taught him the value of bringing together divergent influences, something he does regularly as director of winemaking for Cultivate Wines, which produces affordable blends from California, Chile, Argentina and Italy. (According to Cultivate, "affordable" means less than $20 a bottle.)
"Our thought was to say, 'Hey, how can we get the best juice in the glass that we can?,'" says Peter Glander, executive chef of Ruby Tuesday, which contracted with Cultivate to develop six wines. "My first memory of Nat is you have this crazy chef guy and this crazy wine guy sitting at a table, talking about the acidity of Pinot Grigio. We hit it off pretty quickly."
While Charleston has acquired a reputation as one of the world's great dining destinations, South Carolina has geographic limitations, same as any other region. For instance, unless the climate changes drastically, fine wine will never originate from here. But with Gunter deciding to make Charleston the home base for his global vineyard treks, the city can at least boast a resident professional winemaker.
Singing, then suppers
Becoming a winemaker wasn't on Gunter's mind when he moved to New York City after college graduation. He worked the standard classical singing circuit, taking gigs at churches and synagogues. "Any decent musician out there can go to a Catholic mass, and then turn around and go to an Episcopal evensong and then go sing at Yom Kippur services," he says. When Gunter wasn't helping congregations proclaim their faith, he was waiting tables at The Mercer Kitchen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's 200-seat hotel restaurant in SoHo.
"It was there I started to get interested in wine," Gunter says. He took his interest west when a girlfriend wanted to move to Los Angeles, where he ended up at the Mercer hotel's sister property, Chateau Marmont. He'd been at the restaurant for just over a year when his bosses started talking about creating a wine program. Gunter, in a bold mood, offered to oversee it.
"I feel like, in hindsight, luckily for me, they didn't really know who to turn to," Gunter says. "They took me up on it."
Before Gunter was promoted, he spent his tips on a bottle of wine or two a week. After he picked up the title of wine buyer, he started making serial appointments with representatives of distribution companies, allowing him to sample a dozen wines a day. "You can't really taste that many wines and not learn something," he says. A few long-timers who sensed Gunter was grasping for an education taught him how to blind taste and hooked him up with the right reference books.
His mastery of the subject impressed California winemakers who stayed at the hotel, including the couple behind Schrader Cellars in Calistoga. The Schraders invited Gunter to spend a week of the 2008 harvest at their vineyard. Almost immediately after the trip, Gunter asked Outpost Wines' Thomas Brown if he could return to Napa Valley the following year as his harvest intern.
Harvest interns clean equipment, sort grapes and clean grapes, among other physical tasks. "I was just grateful it was a full-time job," Gunter says. But Gunter was quickly put in charge of a Pinot Noir project, which involved everything from ordering glass to making sales calls.
California to Chile to Charleston
The Cultivate opportunity arrived in late 2010. "They wanted to create a model where giving and doing good was built into the business model," Gunter says of owners Charles and Ali Banks, who arranged to donate the first dime of every dollar to nonprofits selected by customers. As the company's chief winemaker, Gunter was sent to South America to source juice for the Ruby Tuesday project, which "really provided the initial lift" for the Cultivate brand.
Unlike most winemakers, who buy land and three years later release a wine that reflects it, Gunter starts with a flavor profile and finds the grapes to fit it. "The way you're thinking about price and color and style is backward," Gunter concedes.
As he roamed about Chile, he also had to consider factors that don't bother the buyer concerned solely with quality: Old-fashioned production methods and late-ripening varietals, which a sommelier might weave into a compelling sales pitch, were strikes against growers expected to provide a consistent product at a predictable price. Additionally, "I was keeping an eye out for who might be fun to work with," Gunter says.
When the Ruby Tuesday line of three whites and three reds was completed, Gunter conducted in-store trainings for servers more accustomed to pouring sweet tea.
"Nat can make people pretty comfortable," Glander, the executive chef, says. "One of Nat's strengths is being a Southern gentleman."
Not all of Gunter's trainings went well: "I have been to some where I bombed. It was silent." But he's found emphasizing the brand's charitable contributions over aromas and spittoons usually works. "When you start off with 'blackberries and blueberries with a hint of cocoa dust,' that doesn't give them a compelling reason to listen," Gunter says. "I try to get them to feel connected to the brand."
In 2012, Gunter married Lily Peterson, who also worked in the wine industry. At their wedding, Gunter sang "If I Needed You." "No one expected him to get up stage and sing," says friend Bryan Lewis. "It was really sweet. He's a very genuine person."
Peterson grew up in Wilmington, N.C. When the couple visited her family, a road trip to Charleston almost always was on the agenda. "I just immediately fell in love with it," Gunter says. They moved here last May.
"For me, it's cool," Glander says. "You wouldn't think of a winemaker in Charleston. But Charleston is the Southern capital of food."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.