If you’ve noticed a rise in the number of wine bars in Charleston, you’re not alone. After years of huffing craft beers and sipping creative cocktails, us Charleston drinkers have noticed that the city is offering more and more small plates and wines by the glass.
Ed Note: The wine bars we talked to are by no means an exhaustive list of the wine bars in the city. We love Park Circle’s Stems & Skins and Accent on Wine. Where would we be without Bin 152? Bistro A Vin and Mt. P’s Shellmore are becoming new go-tos as well. The wine at spots like Renzo continue to excite us. New shops like Graft and Monarch help us navigate the wide world of wine. We’re looking forward to Tradd’s champagne-exclusive bar. The list goes on. And, with any luck, continues to grow.
We sat down with three downtown self-described wine bars, Vintage Lounge, Wine & Co., and Josephine Wine Bar to see who they are and how they got here.
Wine & Co.’s Josh Walker will be the first to tell you that he’s not the person we should be thanking for all the new wine in the city. “There’s been an exceptional food and cocktail scene, and there were wine pioneers that laid the foundation,” says Walker. “All the guys opening places now — I don’t know that we deserve so much credit. Rick Rubel laid the foundation for the wine excitement right now. For us we saw the excitement. There’s a demand — that’s why we exist.”
Charleston Grill sommelier Rick Rubel had quite the impact on most of the wine purveyors we’ve talked to in the past year — including Graft Wine Shop’s Femi Oyediran and Miles White, the subjects of a recent cover story. From Oyediran and White to Walker to Vintage Lounge co-owner, Nathan Wheeler, the history of wine in Charleston has put them on the path they’re on today.
“The only job I could get was in a restaurant,” says Wheeler of his time in Charleston after graduating from Clemson years ago. “I worked for Rick Rubel for six years, and to make money you gotta sell wine. You learn more and then a hobby turns into a passion.”
So how’d we get from wine programs at fine dining restaurants (lest we forget, FIG took home the James Beard award for best wine program this year) to more casual settings, i.e. wine bars, drawing younger crowds? We shouldn’t count out social media. As Wheeler says, “With Instagram and social media, you can take a picture of what you drank at dinner, and I may not know what it is but I can look it up. It connects you to the winemaker so much more.” Customer service, in the palm of your hand.
Jill Cohen, owner of Josephine Wine Bar, thinks that wine bars are a natural progression of a growing city. A Chicago native who has traveled the world, Cohen fell in love with wine bars in Paris and other metropolitan cities, and she knew one day, when the time came to open her own place, she’d want to create a space she’d like to visit.
“I called it a wine bar because it conjures up an image of a place to go that’s fun, letting customers decide what they want to do,” says Cohen. “With a ‘restaurant,’ it’s more rigid in the experience.” Josephine joins Vintage in their quest to fulfill the dreamy title of chef-driven wine bar. “We believe food and wine need each other. To have the whole experience, you can drink a glass anywhere, but when you pair amazing food with it, it completes the whole thing,” Cohen says.
Both she and Wheeler acknowledge that customers head to their spots for their wine (it’s in the name, after all), but more often than not, stay for the food. “We have a smaller plate menu, a progressive dinner — everything we do is very approachable. We keep our price point pretty low to make sure you can come more than once a week,” Wheeler says.
Approachable is the name of the game for all of these wine bars, which is part of the reason Wine & Co.’s Walker has no shame in his potato chip game (seriously). The bar serves it on their cheese plate (part of a very limited food menu) because it tastes good. We can attest.
“We’re not trying to decide what’s appropriate,” says Walker. “If it’s working for you, do it. The best thing wine has is bringing people together. We have $4,000 bottles, but if you’re not having a good time it’s all a waste.”
Josephine Wine Bar’s in-house sommelier, Ashley Broshious, is of the same mind as Walker — who she worked with a decade ago: If you’re not having a good time, what’s the point?
“We have fun $30 bottles and classic benchmark producers for $600. We have fun wines for a Tuesday night and the college kids can drink affordably,” says Broshious. “But we also want collectors to know we have a world class list. We’re here to help navigate it.”
Wine has such a long history and there are so many kinds — it’s OK to admit that the world of wine is intimidating. Which is why Nathan Wheeler and the rest of Vintage Lounge crew headed out west earlier this year. The whole team, including both front of house and back of house workers, shut down the restaurant and traveled to wineries throughout California.
“We thought, ‘How do we stay competitive in this market?” says Wheeler. “How do you attract the type of employees and team members you want? How do you build a culture inside your establishment?” The answer, then, was to take 22 staff members out to California to meet winemakers, obviously.
“To take a group of people who are very excited about wine, and have never been out there and to see them pulling grapes out and eating off the vine, these kids were blown away,” says Wheeler. “In two years the grapes on this vine will be in a bottle and we’ll have it in the bar.”
You’ll feel this excitement at all the peninsular wine bars, like at Wine & Co., where Walker excitedly leans over the bar and asks if he can get more in-depth with the wine in front of you. You say, “Of course!” and he explains carbonic maceration.
“For us it’s about relationships and locals, being a part of the community is important,” says Walker. “I grew up here. You used to be in Charleston and there wasn’t much going on. The growth has brought us so much, so much development, so many exciting options. The only negative is that you used to walk into a business and the owner was there and if you had a terrible day they cared.
Wine is our passion, but for us, we want to serve old school Charleston; if you’re having a bad day we wanna say, ‘It’s so good to see you.’ If that means buying a bottle of wine, great. If not, we don’t care. That niche is so special, being old school Charleston is more important than carrying a perfect wine list. It’s caring about people that come in.”