Wine professionals’ frustrations spur new movement, retail shops
By Emily Stevenson
Charleston continues to be ranked on list upon list, ranging from best places to visit to best culinary destinations. But while the area’s restaurants continually drew accolades, the wine scene was in a grape depression.
“The food scene was continuing to grow leaps and bounds, and wine was lagging behind,” says Noah Singerman, wine director at HUSK. “The wine professionals of Charleston realized that, and in the last couple of years they have really grown exponentially with what they’re trying to do. The wine people maybe subconsciously looked around and said, ‘We are not on par with the chefs and the quality level of their food, and we need to do something about that.’ ”
Singerman, who has a long background in the wine industry, moved to Charleston from NYC in November 2015. Moving from a major metropolitan city to what he describes as a “wine desert” was eye-opening. Much of the trouble in the area centered on a lack of wine shops selling high-end and unique vintages.
“When people go to dinner, they are really there for the whole experience, but they’re going to probably stay within their comfort zone because wine markup is higher in a restaurant,” says Singerman. “A bottle you won’t mind spending $20-$30 on in retail, that wine is $80-$100 on a wine list. With retail expansion, the retail game will change the face of Charleston wine and increase the knowledgeable consumers in a restaurant.”
A lack of retail options is what spurred Justin Coleman to open Monarch, which debuted in late June. Also a NYC transplant, Coleman found there wasn’t really a wine retailer that mimicked the more specialty wine shops in New York or other metro areas.
“You can go to a restaurant and get wonderful wine to go with your food [in Charleston], but if you wanted to drink those wines in your house, they were not available locally,” Coleman says. “I would find myself ordering wine online from shops in other cities and having them delivered, and they said there’s obviously an audience for these incredible wines.”
A similar frustration led vino veterans Miles White and Femi Oyediran to begin plotting their wine shop, Graft, which is not yet open.
“Graft was born out of frustration,” Oyediran says. “The options were really limited. I find myself ordering a lot of wine from retailers outside the state, and it became a question of why are we doing this?”
Oyediran says the biggest issue with wine has been the fear surrounding it, created by a lack of education. He also says Charleston has a lack of energy regarding wine.
“For people who don’t drink wine, there’s really no reason for them to get excited and want to learn about wine,” he says. “I don’t blame them for not wanting to go to a wine shop or drink a bottle of wine at a restaurant.”
Like Singerman, he also says that the lack of retail options has led to customers playing it safe when dining out.
“You’re not going to have guests go to a restaurant and experiment with wine if they’re not experimenting on the retail level,” Oyediran says. “People have never seen these things in any retail location in Charleston, so they can have it and be excited about it, but where are they going to buy it afterwards? Restaurants depend on retail and retail depends on restaurants. Culture needs to change between the two for us to have a thriving wine community in Charleston.”
Oyediran and White are modeling Graft after the European model of wine shops, called cavistes. While you can grab a bottle and take it home, you can also open a bottle and drink it there. They hope to create a low-key environment around the wine.
“Wine has an unfortunate connotation of being snobby and stuffy, but there are ways to make it fun,” says Oyediran.
Joshua Walker, owner of Wine & Company, a shop and bar on Meeting Street, agrees.
“Don’t let anyone make wine too serious for you,” Walker says. “Wine’s just meant to enhance the moment you have. We – the wine industry in general – are constantly fighting this uphill battle of wine being pretentious or obnoxious. But ultimately, the people who make the wine aren’t that way.”
A similar motive drives Coleman, who says Monarch’s selection and knowledge are what set it apart. In addition, he and his team are passionate about the vintages they sell.
“We care for wine as a topic, but also the culture it represents and maybe even the politics behind it. Everything that’s on the shelf is representing a person or people or a family. The history of that family, in a lot of cases, is several generations of knowledge and culture and familial ties that are passed on,” Coleman says. “We have that knowledge for you if you want to see it, but there’s a deeper feeling that’s there, almost an emotional attachment for the products on the shelf.”
“Wine makers are farmers,” adds Walker. “They’re down-to-earth. I’m not sure where along the way it gets obnoxious, maybe because it gets expensive, but wine is meant to be enjoyed. If it gets too fussy, you’re doing it wrong.”
Walker credits the “old guard” that has helped to create a wine culture in Charleston, but says that the city is now at a tipping point where all of the protégés, the next generation, are coming out with new ideas.
“Sometimes people in that position feel like guarding their secrets, but we’ve been blessed that we have a bunch of guys willing to pour out into the next generation,” says Walker. “We’re blessed to be piggybacking off the demand they created. We don’t have to convince people that there’s a reason to drink quality stuff. They already believe that. Now they’re just looking for an outlet.”
Though the wine scene is still in its infancy, Walker says that in the next couple of years there won’t be any gaps. Still, he cautions that the most important thing is to maintain the sense of community the wine industry currently enjoys and to focus on the passion for the product, not profit.
“Wine is about people getting together, slowing down, and enjoying each other’s company,” he says. “One isn’t good without the other. The moment wine loses that, it loses its importance. Once it becomes about dollars, about selling, we’ve all already lost.”