Spotlight: North Carolina's Triangle

Come with me and you’ll be in a world of Pure Imagination. Take a look and you’ll see into your imagination. – Willy Wonka

Twenty years ago, the Triangle wine scene had everything that I could ever possibly imagine. It’s as if I were Charlie Bucket seeing the candy and chocolate room for the first time and Wine was the great Willy Wonka. All that I started to read about wine—Bordeaux, the Rhône, Napa, Sonoma, Tuscany, and Piemonte—was available to try or explore. It was the perfect environment for a novice to be propelled into a world I could only imagine. Looking back, I could best describe the wine scene as being “classic.” It was traditional, sometimes staunch, southern dining. There were a few restaurants with amazing wine lists, and sommeliers on the floor were scarce. Those few restaurants were considered the most progressive and had the best-trained staff, in terms of wine. Most restaurants catered to what guests wanted with a lot of overlap and similarities in glass programs, size of lists, styles of wines, etc. Palates weren’t as progressive as they are now, but people wanted good wine and there was a great community of passionate people that could deliver the best.

The scene today is a beacon of light that has drawn the attention of nation. There are a multitude of brilliant sommeliers and wine professionals who are changing the landscape with forward-thinking wine lists and more global offerings. Diners are being enlightened because they are putting their faith into an ever-booming sommelier community. The potential energy and passion of 20 years ago is now a frenzy of kinetic energy that doesn’t seem to be slowing any time soon. There is a greater diversity of cuisine driving the style of wines sommeliers are offering. Today it would be unfair to compare what was and what is, but it can only be described as exciting. It isn’t just about staunch southern dining anymore it is about southern exploration.   - Brian Cronin, MS

Featured below are sommeliers from the North Carolina Triangle, including Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Sommeliers include Max Kast (Wine Director, The Fearrington House), Inez Ribustello (Owner/Wine Director, On the Square and 4th St. Wine Shop and Bar), Hai Tran (Head Sommelier, Umstead Hotel and Spa), Michael Klinger (Wine Merchant, Vino Vino Selected Italian Estates), Alan Phillips (Manager/Wine Director, Chamas Churrascaria & Piazza Italia), Elizabeth Cooper (Wine Manager, A Southern Season), and Paula de Pano (Sommelier, The Fearrington House).

What are some of your favorite regional food and wine or beer pairings?

Hai: I think I would get my new minted NC driver’s license revoked if I did not talk about our good ol' Carolina barbecue and the best wines and beers to drink with it. For those unfamiliar with Carolina barbecue (as I was when I first arrived in the state as an undergrad), it is essentially broken down into two camps:  Eastern-style and Lexington-style. Eastern-style barbecue uses the whole hog, chops it all up together, and adds a sauce of white or cider vinegar, sugar, salt, and plenty of crushed black and red pepper. Lexington-style relies on just pork shoulder; the sauce is similar, but it contains more sugar as well as a splash of ketchup. Hands down a white with some RS and high acidity does best with our barbecue— I am absolutely crushing on Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Kabinett and Domaine Pichot Vouvray with both styles. For something a little different, I also like dry rosé with our barbecue, like the Saint André de Figuière “Magali”. As for beer, I go for American Pale Ale, such as Fullsteam (Durham) "Cack-A-Lacky" Ginger Pale Ale or a nice Hefeweizen like Lonerider’s (Raleigh) "Shotgun Betty." 

Michael: Here in Chapel Hill—the town that put Shrimp & Grits on the culinary map—I love that dish with a richer white Burgundy, like the Bachelet-Monnot Bourgogne Blanc (from young Puligny vines). For a lighter take, a dry Riesling works; the acidity cuts through the richness of the butter in the grits. We’ve done particularly well with Ansgar Clusserath’s Mosel trocken and Kühling-Gillot from Rheinhessen.  

Inez: Some local-on-local favorites:

  • Eastern North Carolina BBQ (vinegar based) and Carolina Brewery Sky Blue (Chapel Hill)
  • Sweet Potato Ravioli with Dry Muscadine from Ventosa Estates (Scotland Neck, NC)
  • Shelled Pecans with L.L. Draughon’s Fishing Creek Hard Cider (Whitakers, NC)
  • Snead’s Ferry Clam Linguine with Shelton Riesling (Yadkin Valley, NC)
  • Rusty’s Peanut Brittle with Ragapple Lassie Rockford Red (Yadkin Valley, NC)

Max: To start, you cannot go wrong with a pulled pork sandwich from Allen & Son BBQ and a Fullsteam Southern Lager from Durham. Also not to be missed is a BAMF (yep that’s right) Burger from Sandwhich (yep, that's right) in Chapel Hill with the Mother Earth Kolsch from Kinston, NC. Part of me wants to suggest Krispy Kreme Doughnuts dipped in Cheerwine, but despite longstanding local reverence I am pretty opposed to that combination on any number of levels.

What are some of the best wines you are working with right now under $100 on your list?

Paula: For the longest time, our Spanish red wine section in the Family Bible (aka The Fearrington House Wine List), was tiny, tiny, tiny... at least compared to the other sections. When Max and I finally got down to it a year ago and added some fun stuff, that’s when it got really exciting. We have some old-school clientele at the restaurant that do not veer too much from the California Cabs or Bordeaux, and we've had success turning them towards Spanish reds. Two of my favorites right now are the Muga "Seleccion Especial" Rioja Reserva 2009 and the Noster Templari from Priorat, both at $75, way less than 95% of our Cabernet offerings. For the younger crowd who loves Pinot Noir, I love recommending the Dominio do Bibei "Lalama" from Ribera Sacra 2009 at $64 made from Mencia. The bright red fruit preserves, florality, and spiciness really appeal to them.

Elizabeth: 2005 Haderburg Obermairlhof Gewürztraminer, from Trentino/Aldo Adige Italy. It pairs oddly well with asparagus, seafood and d'Affinois cheese. And the 2009 MonteRosola "Canto della Civetta" (Volterra Italy, 100% Merlot) is elegant, with absolutely no rough edges, like a silk scarf on the palate.

Michael: Well, I’ll convert to retail and tell ya my faves under $50: I think the Rhône remains one of the better areas for delivering phenomenal quality without too much escalating cost, and I love the single-vineyard Châteauneuf project from importer Peter Weygandt, the Chapelle St. Theodoric wines—at less than $50 we have the 2011 "La Guigasse," a simply breathtaking example of Grenache at its highest level. For California, I’m a Pinot lover, and the Lioco Sonoma Coast bottling is stunning for its aromatic elegance and sense of terroir. And the best bet might be the Barolo Albe 2009 from Vajra, a rare steal for Barolo that completely over-delivers, year-in and year-out

Are there any local beers or wines you are working with in your program?  

Max: North Carolina is one of the best beer states in the Country so we offer A LOT of North Carolina beer. We have a collaboration with Fullsteam Brewery—four seasonal beers that we rotate with the weather. This past winter we offered a Coffee and Pecan Porter made with our own house-roasted coffee. We've done Crab Apple Berliner Weiss using a house-made cordial (The crabapples were picked right out back!), and an English Style IPA seasoned with Bronze Fennel, Lemon Thyme, and Honey from the property. For the Spring we are doing a Lager using Carolina Gold Rice as a grain base.

As for wine, I have two favorites: Raffaldini in Swan Creek and McRitchie Vineyards in Yadkin Valley. Raffaldini focuses on Vermentino, Sangiovese, and Montepulciano. Their Vermentino is one of the best domestic examples, and their Montepulciano Reserva is pretty unique—the grapes are dried for two months, pressed and fermented dry with an extended maceration. The wines age in neutral barrels for two years before release. Cool stuff. Sean McRitchie makes very elegant wines, including a damn-good unoaked Chardonnay, Viognier, a Bordeaux blend called "Ring of Fire," and a Petit Verdot which is a bruiser but has a lot of potential. There are over one hundred wineries in the state; in my opinion these are the best, but others are “getting there.”

Hai: Our beer program is almost exclusively centered on local beers. In North Carolina we have a strong craft beer scene, with Asheville leading the way and the Triangle really not too far behind; when I took over the beer program at the Umstead it was a strong priority for us to highlight it. We love Big Boss (Raleigh), Lonerider, Carolina Brewing Company (Holly Springs), Mother Earth, Duck Rabbit (Farmville), and Foothills (Winston-Salem).  Since we don’t have a draught system, we are limited to those that bottle at the moment.

Alan: North Carolina wine is... improving. Maybe one day we will be on par with Virginia.

How does College Basketball Season affect your business and which local university has the best fans?

Inez: During the ACC tournament, you can hear a pin drop in our restaurant. If Carolina, Duke or State are in the NCAA, just forget it... we better have some catering business.

Max: College basketball dictates how busy we are in March, plain and simple. If either UNC or Duke are going places in the tournament you come to expect drastic changes in reservations; it's almost comical. Before I plan any winemaker dinners, Sommelier challenges, or wine classes, I always check the tournament dates. As for the second part of the question: there is no chance in hell you are getting that out of me. I would be better off telling you which party I tend to vote for, or which church I belong to.

Paula: Fortunately, we are too far away from the UNC and Duke stadiums to get reports of windshield smashing and tire slashing here at Fearrington Village... (Kidding! Sort of...) I’d have to defer to my more learned colleagues (and devoted fans) about this one; I barely even notice that the basketball season is happening unless I get stuck in post-game traffic after work.

Hai: Do you need to seriously ask a Duke alumni this question? HANDS DOWN, Cameron Crazies are the best fans not just LOCALLY, but NATIONALLY. Love us or hate us, you can’t question our devotion and love for our Blue Devils. Now pardon me while I get into my Cameron Crazie mode: “D-U-K-E WHO THE F*CK YOU CAME TO SEE?!  DUKE DUKE MUTHAF*CKAS!”

Ahem. The season does bring in a nice mix of fans from various schools that we see at the hotel, and when the games are on, we do find guests at the bar rather than dining in Herons. As a whole, though, it doesn’t negatively affect our business at all.  People still want to eat and drink, just during the season they like to throw some basketball into the mix

Alan: The best fans are the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Duke fans call us the wine-and-cheese crowd as an insult but I am pretty sure anyone reading this would not consider that an insult.

(Off the record—and to stir the pot—we have it on good authority that Duke fans drink Cakebread, UNC-CH fans go for Dujac, and State fans drink... Gallo.  -ed.) 

What is your barometer for guest satisfaction?

Hai: It’s a combination: repeat guests, guests asking for the label of the wine (we print them on cardstock and place them in envelopes for guest with additional information about the wine), or just a guest's simple smile after taking a sip of the wine that was poured for them. Those are all clear signs for me that I am doing things right. On the other side of the coin, if the guest has not taken more than a sip of their wine, I always make a point to make sure I get something in front of them that they will wholeheartedly enjoy, even if the wine that is in front of them is a wine that I strongly feel works great with a dish. I always emphasize to my staff and to our guests that I want to make sure I match a wine not only to your food, but to your individual tastes as well.  

Inez: Does a guest come back? If they say they will be back, then I believe we have served them well.

Michael: We love repeat and loyal business, but for me the best indicator is how the number of new folks we get in the store via word of mouth. We don’t do any traditional advertising and we rely on our customers to spread the word; if people keep telling their friends to come see us, we must be doing something right!

How do you make selections for your program?

Elizabeth: Our retail program is based on breadth of selection (we have approximately 5000 wine SKUs and approximately 400 beer selections), so we rely on a mix of Nielson data for varietal wine sales, our staff tastings (and whether or not wines we like are salable), and the desire to maintain a broad representation of many regions, varieties and styles. Our restaurant program is a mix: I work with suppliers and wineries directly to make deals for our NC and SC locations (as well as an upcoming store in Virginia) so there is a standard set of “by the glass” options, but each restaurant can individually fill 50% of the bottle and BTG list, following a formula to ensure a range of varieties and styles.

Inez: I taste as often as possible with as many sales reps as possible and, of course, I look for holes on the list. Our menu is ever-changing and I believe I need an ever-changing wine list to match with it. We obviously have a few staples, but I am all about bringing in new producers. Tasting is key to me, much more than reading the write-ups. A lot of my customers are sold on a bottle by tasting the wine firsthand, and I don’t think I should be any different.

Where do you like to grab a bite to eat or have a drink when you have time to yourself?

Alan: I like Six Plates for something somewhat casual. They are farm-to-fork and have six plates that constantly change with the season, and also have a few menu items that never change like the Lamby Joes. They are open late and have a very diverse and thoughtful wine selection. They usually have some aged Riesling around and always have a Txakoli by the glass. For something more upscale it is hard to beat Fearrington House!

Paula: For two a.m. hunger pangs, nothing beats a HUGE cheeseburger from CookOut (In and Out Burger lovers really need to try this one out and see how much it beats its a** by a mile and a half), complete with mushrooms, bacon, and onions. If I feel like treating myself, there’s a great restaurant called [ONE, with an open kitchen. Or Mateo’s in Durham, a really fun tapas place with a great Spanish wine list. And since I have a strict hard liquor limit of one drink before I pass out or babble out my life story to every Tom, Dick, and Harry at the bar, I tend to make sure that a bar is gonna be worth it! Favorites include Peccadillo (best Manhattans and Negronis) and Crunkleton (barrel aged cocktails, and an amazing Vieux Carré) in Chapel Hill, Whiskey in Durham, and a new addition in Raleigh: The Green Light Bar inside The Architect, which has one of the more fun specialty cocktail menus I’ve seen in a while in the area.

Hai: Time to myself? What is this you speak of?! Being Vietnamese-American, I love my Asian food, and I’m excited that the Triangle is finally stepping up their game in this realm of the culinary world. I don’t have any strong Vietnamese recommendations, but my favorite sushi spot is Yuri (Cary, NC). I like Bida Manda, a trendy Laotian spot in downtown Raleigh. (If you’ve never had Laotian food, it’s like a marriage between Vietnamese and Thai flavors/dishes.) The Szechuan specialties at C&T Wok in Morrisville are a guilty pleasure. Last but not least, I love kim chi tofu soup during the colder months—Vit Gol in Durham is a hole in the wall, but a great find for the dish.

As for drinks, I love Bourbon, so it’s no surprise that you would find me either at Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, Whiskey in Durham, or Foundation in Raleigh. Three of the best spots with the best whisk(e)y selections in the area.

What’s your best food and wine “discovery”?

Michael: I love textured whites from Friuli and Slovenia with dishes that combine kim chi and bacon; the Edi Simic Rebula with a kim chi-fried rice recipe with bacon, hot dogs, and sunny side-up egg is a killer combination I’ve returned to more than a few times.

Alan: I had lunch with Sarah Pedrali from Bellavista, and she insisted I try the Grand Cuvée Rosé Franciacorta with a Lamb dis—I was floored by how well it worked. It is nice to talk to the owners and winemakers to see what foods they enjoy with their wines—they may have some surprising recommendations. But I guess my favorite pairings are classics: I love foie gras and Sauternes, vintage Port and Blue Cheese!

Inez: Pimento Cheese with California Pinot Blanc.

Max: Pfannkuchen, bacon, and maple syrup paired with Domaine Ostertag VT Gewurztraminer from the Fronholz vineyard in Alsace—this is pretty much perfect.

What are the most important and least important aspects of wine service in your opinion?

Inez: Make sure the customer is happy with the wine! The sommelier/server should never leave the table with a doubt that the customer isn’t sure if he or she likes the wine. The least important aspect, for me, is talking about the wine to the customer. There are some situations where the guest/guests/party isn’t interested in anything but you pouring the wine and leaving the table as soon as possible. The sommelier needs to be able to read the situation and not always feel obligated to tell the story of the wine. As much as I love a story, there are some who just want to enjoy the company of their guests OR who may not want an outside person at the table.

Paula: The most important aspect for me is to listen to what the guest wants and to understand their needs. Sometimes, as salespeople, we need to be able to read body language as well and empathize. I tend to do this when I’m helping my guests choose a wine—understanding if a guest is uncomfortable with discussing price ranges, or struggling to express what type or style of wine he or she likes (or even just discussing wine in general), and then adjusting my own style of service to cater to the guest’s particular (unspoken) need at that moment. Sometimes, it takes a lot of patience, but I find that being gentle and genuine during these sorts of interactions pays off in the longer run. Honestly, there is no greater satisfaction than being able to find that perfect bottle of wine for the pickiest/most particular sort of guest.

As for the least important aspect (for honesty’s sake and to the doom of our restaurant’s standards), I really am not a fan of trays. I am grimacing as I type this sentence attesting to my dislike for those things. Here’s the scenario that bugs me the most: our standard trays in the restaurant can comfortably hold around eight large Riedel stems. My two hands can transport 17 in one go. Alas, I am not allowed to do that in the restaurant. And no, I do not have sasquatch hands.

Max: Don’t try to show your guests how much you know—unless they ask, they really don’t care. Really. But do ask the right questions to find out what the perfect wine for each guest is. It’s sure fun to turn people on to geeky wines, but it’s even more important to find a wine that the guest loves.

How does the local sommelier community work together to become better?

Alan: The best way to learn is to hang out with people who know more than you. The Court does a great job of mentorship with its pay-it-forward attitude. Everyone can use a mentor, and having someone who has walked the path that you hope to walk one day is immensely helpful.

Hai: First and foremost, we have to establish and nurture that community. I think things like the Guild have really helped to further the sense of community and open doors for those of us that are in more rural areas and might not have all the advantages that a larger metropolitan area has. Going through this process and working in our field, the support that comes from the community is essential to our overall success.  And maybe our sense of Southern hospitality helps here, too! Learning from each other and pushing each other to our fullest potential, stoking our competitive natures—this allows all of us to succeed and become better as a whole.

Paula: Since we’re a smaller community, we pretty much know each other here in the Triangle. A few months back, Hai, Michael, and I formed a blind tasting/study group with the goal of producing at least five new Advanced Sommeliers within the next year. It’s been challenging to say the very least—forming a consistent group of people to attend weekly tastings in the past. We all know how that goes: great initial turn out, but in the following weeks the group dwindles to three people. This time around, we stressed and emphasized commitment. Attend these sessions, because practice, practice, practice—doing things (i.e. the grid) over and over and over again is key, alongside a strong theoretical background in wine.

It’s also about respect for the entire group as well. If a member doesn’t attend consistently, it disrupts the entire roundtable verbal tasting because he or she hasn’t practiced the grid as much as the others, upsetting the balance and fluidity of the sessions. Respectful feedback and critique is also something that we don’t hold back among each other—collectively, sugarcoating our weaknesses is not our strong suit (ahem, Hai. hahaha).

With such a dynamic and educated part of the world to draw customers from, how important is social media and mobile marketing becoming? 

Elizabeth: Very important. With more and more of our customer base coming from a younger demographic, we have to stay on top of the latest forms of communication. We have a great deal of positive feedback from our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Max: Social media is super important to Fearington Village and all of our restaurants and shops. Our GM does an amazing job on twitter, and we have separate Facebook pages for each restaurant and shop. We also utilize Instagram in a major way, and it is turning out to be a very effective avenue for letting guests know about special events, new wines on our lists, and new dishes in our kitchens. Follow us! @fearringtonnc

Inez: No doubt social media is important, but sometimes I think the tweeting and the instagramming and the facebooking takes away from actual people time. There’s only so much interaction you can have in front of a screen. The actual time you spend with people far outweighs the time you spend on a keyboard or a smartphone.

What does your relationship with Eric Crane mean to you?

Paula: Kind of like how much white rice means to a Filipino. Maybe even like karaoke for all the tone-deaf people like me.

Michael: Who?

Clockwise from top right: Max Kast, Paula de Pano Hai Tran, Michael Klinger, Inez Ribustello, Alan Phillips (not pictured: Elizabeth Cooper)