What wine would you order to go with your pan-seared grouper? How about a juicy steak? If you automatically go for a buttery Napa Chardonnay or a big Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ve probably been missing out on the explosive changes that have been happening in the wine world over the past decade.
At FIG, a restaurant whose wine program has been nominated for a James Beard Award and is considered by many to be one of the best in town, you’d certainly encounter a Chardonnay, but instead of those fat buttery flavors of old, you’d probably get a Chardonnay from Matthiasson, a small vineyard in Napa that has been on the bleeding edge of a revolution, producing wines using an old-world style — less industrial, more small craft — resulting in a wine that’s balanced and not so big and brash.
Matthiasson describes its Chardonnay as “soft and fleshy, with rich ripe fruits and a natural opulence. It is a happy, pleasing Chardonnay, reflecting the long history of happiness on the property.”
That happy grape mystique is the same that has informed the recent farm-to-table food trends. If a chef cares so much about where his radishes and eggs come from, it makes sense that he would want to serve wine that is produced not by a factory but by a farmer, using techniques that don’t require unnecessary additives or processes.
As Justin Coleman at Monarch Wine Merchants contends, “Wine is an agricultural product first and foremost.”
Coleman and FIG are part of the movement that began in California with winemakers including Matthiasson and has continued with a new wave of producers such as Lioco, Dirty & Rowdy, Massican, Enfield and Forlorn Hope, among many others. A group of these winemakers even started an organization called In Pursuit of Balance that in 2011 shook up the California wine world by calling for “a commitment to seeking balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”
Desmond Garrity operates Crushed, a wine shop in Mount Pleasant, and says a whole new generation is changing the wine scene in the Charleston area, too. “I’m seeing younger people than before, which is encouraging, and not just as consumers, but opening wine shops, and a lot of wine programs around town are being run by young and savvy people.”
Coleman, who moved here four years ago from New York, got his start in wine as a cellar rat at Balthazar, essentially stocking the shelves in exchange for tasting wines with the wine director. “The wine scene has grown exponentially since I got here four years ago,” he says. “It’s massive, especially for the size of the population. Charleston’s gotten to be a very progressive wine town.”
Brandon Underwood, who manages Monarch and has worked at area restaurants including McCrady’s, sees Charleston’s wine scene as being in the midst of a big change. “We’re in wine school,” he says, with more and more sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine shops stocking and selling new-wave wine that is starting to catch on with consumers.
But if we've all gone back to school, how do you make the honor roll?
The trick to learning about the new movement in wine is to embrace the new wine philosophy, and a good place to start on that journey is with Jon Bonné’s book cheekily titled “The New Wine Rules.”
Bonné, as wine critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, documented much of the new wine movement over 15 years. Today, he’s an editor at Punch and an advocate for embracing the new styles. His book provides a great road map for learning about wine, with maxims like “drink the rainbow” and “not every new-wave wine is cool” but we’re going to focus on Rule No. 3: A good wine-store employee is your best friend.
“If you want to learn about wine, the single most important thing you can do is find a great local wine shop and get to know the staff,” he writes. “As they get to know your tastes, they’ll be able to guide you to the wines they love — and the wines they think you’ll love, too.”
Garrity at Crushed likens it to finding a hairdresser. Underwood agrees with the comparison to a bookstore that Post and Courier food critic Hanna Raskin made in her Monarch review. Sarah O’Kelley, a certified sommelier who runs Edmund’s Oast Exchange, goes a step further as an outright educator, offering classes and seminars for consumers and industry people interested in getting their sommelier certification through the Master Court of Sommeliers.
At her fall series of Saturday somm school classes, O’Kelley found that she was teaching to all walks of life, from food and beverage workers to consumers who just wanted to learn more. The biggest response she had was to the more advanced topics. “The nerdier the better,” she says. “They like the hyper-focused stuff and not the more general wine 101 classes.”
You better shop around
On Wednesday nights, O'Kelley hosts a blind tasting challenge, inviting people to drop in over the course of the evening to challenge their senses by sampling an unidentified wine. There’s nothing much more intimidating than that for a wine newbie, but O’Kelley says it’s a great way to learn as it covers sight, smell and taste, and breaks evaluating wine down into specific characteristics.
Charlie Timmons, a server at Vintage Lounge, stopped by on a recent Wednesday to taste wine as part of his preparation for taking the introduction sommelier test. At work, he uses every chance he gets to taste wines and learn, and at the tasting he managed to do pretty well identifying the grapes of the three wines he tasted.
O’Kelley tends to stock wines that straddle the new and old schools. She wants to have some of the bestsellers on hand for those that come in hunting for them. “New school wouldn’t have a Torrontés from Argentina,” she says. “It’s polarizing. It’s too floral.” But she keeps it in stock because it’s a wine that people look for and that shows up on the sommelier tests.
Garrity at Crushed takes a similar approach to stocking his shelves. “I keep a classic Duckhorn Cabernet on hand,” he says, but he organizes by characteristics such as “light and crisp” as a way to slyly convince consumers to try something new.
Monarch is perhaps the most new-school of them all with a focus on natural wines and wines produced using traditional methods from small producers.
Tips for becoming a new school wine nerd
Whether you’re hoping to become a new school wine expert or just interested in finding some new types of wine to enjoy, there are a few expert tips we collected from visiting area wine shops:
- Avoid grocery store wines and wines that are under $10. Garrity says you can find a lot of value and character in bottles priced between $14 and $24. Coleman prefers the $25-$35 range.
- Taste as much as you possibly can. Attend tastings. Most wine shops and even big stores like Bottles in Mount Pleasant have weekly tastings where for a small fee you can sample before you buy and consult the wine shop worker who’s hosting.
- Join a local wine club. Crushed has one that is personalized. Garrity picks out a variety of wines specifically for you. Monarch has a three-wine-per-month CSA (as a nod to wine as an agricultural product) and hosts a monthly pickup party as a way to create a communal wine experience for members in addition to offering tasting notes.
- Read books like Bonne’s "New Rules of Wine" and Kevin Zraly’s "Complete Wine Course." Follow wine writers such as Eric Asimov of The New York Times to keep up with the latest. A wine critic is a lot like a movie or book critic. You learn his or her tastes as a benchmark to what you agree or disagree with.
- Whatever you do when it comes to wine, don’t be intimidated. Wine nerds enjoy sharing their knowledge, and tastes are subjective. If, after exploring the new Chardonnay, you still enjoy those big, buttery ones from the old school, go ahead and enjoy it. We won’t tell.