Noel Sherr labored in the wine business in New York City for 10 years. He was the general manager of Chambers Street Wines, one of the city’s best retailers, and worked for top importers like Polaner Selections and David Bowler Wines.
So when he and his wife, Marie, decided to leave for better weather and an opportunity to open his own business, he was loath to give up that easy access to a diversity of wonderful wines. A number of his friends had settled here in Durham, and he investigated. “The horrible, paralyzing fear I had about leaving New York City was, ‘What am I going to drink?’ ” he recalled. “But it became apparent that we could find the wines we liked to drink. We realized we could live the life we wanted to live.”
Vibrant wine and food cultures thrive these days in all sorts of American cities — Austin, Tex.; St. Louis; Atlanta or even Birmingham, Ala. — as high-speed travel and communications make the world a smaller place. Still, one hardly expects to find a Shangri-La for wine lovers blossoming here in the rolling Piedmont hills of central North Carolina.
Sure, the Research Triangle, an academic and high-tech center formed by Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, has an educated, worldly population that welcomes the chance to eat and drink well. But many other college towns and affluent communities don’t seem to offer the same wealth of choices or ease with wine. As I discovered on a recent visit, the Triangle stands out for its openness toward unusual, unorthodox wines.
Mr. Sherr and two partners found enough of those wines here that they opened Cave Taureau in downtown Durham last fall, a small shop with a deliciously recondite selection that would be right at home in Brooklyn or San Francisco. Looking for lightly sweet, pink, sparkling Cerdon de Bugey from the Savoie region of eastern France? Or a Cornas from Thierry Allemand, one of the Rhône Valley’s most gifted vignerons? Or perhaps an enticing nine-year-old nerello mascalese grown on the foothills of Mount Etna in Sicily?
They’re all right there on the polished wood shelves among the horns, skulls and other bovine paraphernalia inspired (like the store’s name, Taureau, French for bull by Durham’s endearing moniker: the Bull City. And so far, sales are brisk.
It’s this broad-minded curiosity that appealed to Louis/Dressner Selections, a leading American importer of small, handmade European wines that brings a large group of its growers to the United States each year to meet members of the trade and to offer consumer tastings. Last year, it added Durham to the itinerary, which had included only New York and California.
“We’d been working in the area, and we’ve enjoyed a terrific market there, so we thought it was a good idea,” said Kevin McKenna, a partner in the company. “There really is a great wine culture in the Triangle right now.”
What’s most intriguing about that culture is that it’s entwined with the region’s fascination with food. For many in the Triangle, wine is not a matter of ratings on the 100-point scale, status labels, hushed tastings of benchmark wines and other trappings associated with connoisseurship. Instead, the area shows a rare comfort with wine that belies its relatively recent embrace of its pleasures.
“Here, instead of saying, ‘Ah, reminiscent of white pepper,’ they just say, ‘Wow, this is fun, what do I eat with this?’ ” said Ken Rosati, the owner of Centerba Selections, a local wholesaler that distributes wines from small-scale growers.
All over these hills, small restaurants that specialize in locally grown ingredients have blossomed. Farmers’ markets, even in the dead of winter, were packed with mustard greens, Olde Henry white sweet potatoes, turnips and squash, bacon and sausage and, this being the South, all manner of pies. Right alongside is a first-rate selection of wines at restaurants and at shops like Cave Taureau and Wine Authorities, many from small vignerons, demonstrating a clear understanding that wine is just one more ingredient on the table, subject to the same standards of production and purity as the food we eat.
“Farm-to-table is so active there that it’s sort of translated into wine, where other markets are really lagging in that area,” Mr. McKenna said. “It’s a great thing.”You sense this at Rue Cler in Durham, where John Vandergrift, an owner and chef, might add local collard greens to classic bistro dishes, served with an excellent Saumur-Champigny, a Loire Valley red. Not far away at Vin Rouge, another bistro, the general manager, Michael Maller, has served aged Muscadet by the glass with locally caught seafood. Mr. Sherr, who worked as a waiter at Vin Rouge after moving from New York, never imagined that many customers would go for old Muscadet, which is usually served young and fresh. “We sold bottle after bottle,” he recalled. “I thought, people are really open here, and they’re getting it.”
Last year, Matt Kelly, the chef at Vin Rouge, opened Mateo, a Spanish restaurant in Durham. Mr. Maller, who is also the beverage director there, put together an extensive Spanish wine list with the first page devoted entirely to sherry, a fortified wine that is having a renaissance after years of withering sales. His selection includes sherries from excellent small producers like El Maestro Sierra, Tradicion and Gutierrez Colosia.
“Because of the universities, people have been around, so there’s a lot of curious people here,” Mr. Maller said. “They tried it and they like it.”It probably doesn’t hurt that one of the country’s prominent importers of sherries and other Spanish wines, André Tamers of De Maison Selections, makes his home in Chapel Hill.
In Raleigh, the state capital, the choices include J. Betski’s, where John F. Korzekwinski’s central European cuisine is accompanied by a superb selection of beers and wines, including Elena Walch’s gewürztraminer from the Alto Adige region of Italy, rieslings from Austria and Germany, and good Austrian blaufränkisches.
One wouldn’t want to miss the star chef Ashley Christensen’s constellation of Raleigh restaurants, most notably Poole’s Downtown Diner, where Matt Fern, the beverage director, has accompanied the beautifully rendered expressions of Carolina cuisine with a glass of Bandol rosé from Pradeaux, one of the great old-school growers, or even an unusual Castello di Verduno Bellis Perennis, a white wine made from the red pelaverga piccolo grape. Mr. Fern, who settled here for good in 2002, remembers when the choices were far more narrow.
“When I first got here, the wine lists were the old standards: 20 chardonnays, 15 merlots,” he recalled. “This area has completely gone way more food-centric.”In Chapel Hill, a bucolic town dominated by the University of North Carolina, Lantern uses local ingredients to make Asian-inspired dishes, which would go beautifully with a Benoît Lahaye rosé Champagne or a chardonnay from Domaine de Montbourgeau in the Jura.
Not far away in Carrboro is Acme, where the chef and owner Kevin Callaghan has been serving North Carolina cuisine for 15 years, with a wide-ranging wine list. He grew up in Charlotte, about 135 miles to the southwest, and recalls a time when people rarely went to fine restaurants, and hardly ever accompanied a meal with wine.
“People might have ordered wine as a cocktail, then the food would arrive and they’d order coffee to drink with the food — that’s the South,” he said. The sea change, Mr. Callaghan believes, came from overcoming a lack of regional confidence and embracing Southern culture, in which agriculture has always been important. The connection to wine, he suggested, came from the realization that the best sort of winemaking was itself an expression of agriculture.
“There’s been a real renaissance of the South as a place that’s proud of who it is, reconnecting to its rural farming past, and proud of farmers whether in the Willamette Valley or the Loire Valley,” he said.
Craig Heffley, the owner of Wine Authorities, a Durham shop devoted to removing intimidation from the business, attributes much of the new local interest in wine to changing demographics. “You see far more young people drinking wine because of the Internet and social media,” he said. “It’s really dramatic.”
A fair amount of anxiety still clouds wine drinking, and many here are content with the mass-market bottles they can find in supermarkets. Still, the affinity for farmers, grape growers and vignerons is palpable. Éric Texier, who makes wine in the Rhône Valley and the Mâconnais, has visited the region not just with the Louis/Dressner group but also to see Mr. Rosati, his distributor, and French friends who work for biotech companies.
“I would say I find there the same spirit as in my village in southwest France: love for fresh food, eating and talking for hours,” Mr. Texier said. “It’s a laid-back kind of culture. Wine has to be part of this, of course.”