The Faces of Wine
The revival of heirloom grains, Lowcountry cuisine and award-winning chefs and restaurants have brought a great deal of attention to Charleston in years past, but wine has long since been an afterthought.
Wine has an exceptional ability to unite people, facilitate festivities and cumulate crowds. And when supported by the right kind of people, it can also build an entire professional community and culture. Luckily for the Lowcountry, those ‘right’ people are present here in Charleston, and have become the force of the city’s progressive wine community. Avant-garde individuals in this area are bringing the Charleston wine scene to the same level as some of the most pioneering cities in the country, which is good news for anyone, from the casual wine enthusiast to the seasoned sommelier.
David McCarus had a vision of catapulting Charleston’s wine scene to compete with its food scene. A local wine importer and the founder of McCarus Beverage Company, McCarus once described Charleston as a “wine desert,” stating that the city was marked by wines with big scores and no heart. He recognized this void when he worked as general manager and wine director at FIG, where he pushed for more exposure and access to unfamiliar labels. He knew there was great wine in the world: interesting, different and more delicious than what was available locally. Knowing that customers might not immediately recognize unusual grape varieties, he championed these wines on his list, educated his staff and shared the wines with his guests.
Today, the city is more of an oasis, with conversations about natural wine, alternative selections and varieties from regions that are off the beaten path. McCarus imports wines with a sense of place; his choices express the soil and show respect to the Earth, which he feels is the best approach because it matches the attitude given to local cuisine. Because of his perseverance at FIG, the restaurant received two James Beard Nominations for Best Wine Program. Morgan Calcote, the current general manager and beverage director, has continued that success.
“Our staff is really great at getting those wines on tables by making them relatable to better known regions or varieties,” he says. Calcote explains that FIG gets a wide range of guests. “We may get a big cult Cali Cabernet drinker or a big Burgundy buff in the same night as an orange wine enthusiast and a natural wine fan.”
The wines showcased on Calcote’s list are diverse, like those that are oxidized—purposely placed in contact with oxygen in order to change their flavor. Some white wines follow the unconventional practice of having grape skin contact during the fermentation process (also known as orange wine), or be composed of little-known grapes like Trousseau Gris. These intriguing wines appear right alongside the classics, which is the real beauty of Calcote’s list.
Like Calcote, Femi Oyediran knows the classic wines and regions, but champions the interesting selections. He focuses on the feeling a wine elicits, rather than the variety of the grape. To him, wine is a moment in time; you are present when you drink it, and that can’t be summed up in “Pinot Noir from Sonoma.” Oyediran’s passion for the beverage has taken him from busboy to aspiring Master Sommelier. He has worked at Charleston Grill for almost 10 years, and was recently invited to sit for his Master Sommelier exam: a prestigious, invitation-only honor among sommeliers. Oyediran states that he wants “to bring people in, take care of them and make them feel the wine—like feeling good music.”
At one time, he was more interested in the five fingers of Hip Hop than the five First Growths of Bordeaux, but he will soon have both. Oyediran’s forthcoming wine bar, Graft, will have the wines he loves, in a setting where everyone is comfortable; “like my living room,” he jokes. A wine bar has always held a unique place in the wine world, as it can be a place for dinner, a place for a drink, or a place to learn; the best ones, however, are all three. Oyediran wants Graft to be a place not just for wine enthusiasts, but for anyone looking for an experience.
This is an environment that Matt Tunstall has created. In 2016, he opened Stems and Skins-a bar in the Park Circle neighborhood of North Charleston-and his passion for his work hits you the moment you step through the door. Stems and Skins quickly became known as a place for exceptional wine, but more importantly, it offers somewhere for everyone to have a personal experience. They have a regular DJ Winemaker series, where a visiting winemaker spins records (yes, actual records) and pours his or her own wine. Nowhere else in town can you listen to heavy metal with Barnaby Tuttle from Teutonic Wine Company, or old sailor tunes with Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Company.
Tunstall’s wine selections are lively and acidic, meant to refresh—or what he likes to call “Fresh and Freaky Ferments.” Tunstall has been buying wine for more than 12 years, four of which he spent at Husk, manning the soil-driven wine list. While at Husk, Tunstall pushed the boundaries for more distinctive and progressive wines, advocating for natural wine, unsung grape varieties and “wines that rock.” Now, at his own place, the crowd remains as eclectic as his wine options, from the layman to the wine professional. Ask him for a glass of what he’s drinking, and Tunstall—with his signature mustache—might say, “Guillaume Clusel, Gamay from Coteaux de Lyon?” To which the response is always “yes.”
Charleston’s wine scene was lacking 10 years ago, and until recently, so was its retail wine scene. In the midst of all the food choices, there were only a few local artisan cheese or coffee shops offering wine for sale in addition to their main business. Enter Charleston’s first caviste: Justin Coleman. Coleman opened Monarch Wine Merchant in late spring. As a genuine wine shop, the shelves are filled with bottles lining the walls, and tables are set up in the back for tastings and classes. Blind tasting classes are offered on Sundays, and Monarch also offers classes where local wine professionals lead discussions on themed subjects that everyone enjoys, like Rosé. Coleman is available on the premises to educate his customers, whether by simply suggesting a bottle, or by joining in one of the classes. He is the push behind Charleston’s retail wine scene, as his shop contains wine for everyone: geeky, hardto- find selections, easy-drinking porch gulpers, classic producers and choices that are off-the-wall funky. However, Coleman is especially passionate about natural wine, and wineries that care about being environmentally conscious.
Whether new, bold and unique or familiar with a fresh twist, the wines you will see McCarus importing, Tunstall and Calcote pairing, Coleman stocking or Oyediran pouring are the lifeforce of Charleston’s burgeoning local wine community. The way to drive a philosophy is to live it and share that passion with others, and these five folks are proof in action that Charleston is embracing natural wine and organic grapes, while supporting wineries and regions that are not yet household names. Whether you’re a tourist visiting the Lowcountry or a local going out on a Tuesday night, these are exciting times to drink wine in Charleston.