I was seven, maybe eight, the first time I dabbled in wine. I was at Faith Temple Baptist Church and I remember anxiously scooting down the mile-long pew, racing down the aisle to the altar to get my thimble of wine to wash down those horrible sacramental wafers the pastor gave out. Come to find out, I wasn’t drinking wine — or the blood of Jesus for that matter. It was really Welch’s grape juice. I’d been duped, but not deterred.
I soon graduated to sneaking swigs from jugs of my mama’s homemade scuppernong wine. It was primitive, but strong and delicious, and even to this day whenever I’m in Brunswick County, N.C. I make a detour to a familiar backroad vineyard to snag a gallon.
From there, I ventured shamefully into “brown bag” territory — Thunderbird, Peaches & Cream Mad Dog, and Wild Irish Rose — whatever I could afford on my meager dishwashing salary. Occasionally the needle of my Suzuki Esteem would dip below E because I’d bought a bottle of Moet instead of unleaded gas, but that was rare.
In the early days of Drake’s reign, he had all my female friends thirsty for Moscato, so naturally I indulged myself. For damn near a year, the bottles of Martini & Rossi Moscato d’asti moving down the conveyor belt at my local Harris Teeter were never-ending and all of us are probably suffering from cavities due to that era.
My wino growth came in the form of Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. It was ultra-luxe and festooned with mention of Tom Ford tuxedos, Jeff Koons balloons, and spilling Opus One on mopeds. The same way College Dropout vintage Kanye made me ditch my Roc-A-Wear jorts and throwback jerseys for corduroys and pink Polo oxfords, Jay-Z elevated my taste. After that, ponzu glazed tiger prawns weren’t as delicious without a chilled glass of Sahara-dry Riesling and brunching wasn’t legit without my orange juice being fizzed up with Prosecco.
Five years later and the gold on my teeth has been replaced with grey in my beard. All the mischievous edginess of my youth has petered out into a soon-to-be soccer dad. (These days, I invest in expensive corkscrews from Williams-Sonoma and stemless Riedel wine glasses.)
It’s safe to say, I’m maturing, but still, without proper guidance, I found I’d once again fallen off the yacht, relapsing back into mediocrity. Whenever morale and funds were low, I’d succumb to the wine that came in a pouch that came in a box that came affixed with a silly little nozzle.
I thought I was doomed, until in the distance, I saw the neon glow of Biggie Smalls lyrics “It Was All a Dream,” and like a capsized sailor seeing the beacon of a lighthouse, I knew. Refuge was near.
Femi yanked me up, all 220 pounds of me, from drowning in an ocean of atrocious white Zinfandel. Turns out it was not “All A Dream,” it was the real Graft Wine Shop (700 King St.), a mythical wonderland of libations, full of complex, but easy-drinking Nebbiolo, crumbles of dank cambozola cheese, J.Dilla relics, and vinyl from the boom bap era.
It was a place where a born-again hooligan like myself would be spared the fate of being twirled over the flames of snobbish opinion for not knowing how a wine could be buttery, doughy, or bloody. A place where a decanter of vintage bordeaux seems as casual as a bottle of strawberry Yoo-Hoo.
I decided to sit down with Graft Wine Shop owners Femi Oyediran and Miles White to learn more about their love of wine, music, and everything in between. Here, we toast to my oenophilic deliverance:
D.R.E. James: L.L. Cool J likes to tell the story about how he called Def Jam’s founder Rick Rubin for two weeks straight to see if he’d heard his demo tape. How did a young Femi get the attention of Sommelier Rick Rubel of the Charleston Grill?
Femi Oyediran: I started right before my 21st birthday as a server assistant, and as soon as I was hired I asked for a day off to see Nas and Talib Kweli at the Music Farm. I was young, ambitious, but needed income to build on ideas I had at the time, and also, of course, because I had bills to pay. I sort of stumbled into my job at Charleston Grill. I knew Quentin Baxter played there and it was an expensive place to dine and that was about it. I didn’t really have much restaurant experience and I knew nothing about wine. Whenever I got hired I was learning about the food world on the fly. I guess that fear of seeming “behind” made me ask questions that eventually developed a serious interest in a new hobby that became a career. Rick is one of the most authentic people I’ve ever met. He made wine seem interesting and I was really wanting to impress him. There was no apprehension on his part, he was excited to “put me on.”
DJ: The first song I’d ever heard from chef turned rapper Action Bronson was called “Shiraz.” You mentioned once a 22 oz. ribeye and bottle of Shiraz changed your life. Can you tell me about that night?
FO: I mean, think about it in context, I didn’t experience fine dining growing up. Maybe a steakhouse or something before prom, but nothing too fancy. That night at a friend’s graduation at the Charleston Grill was just an “oh shit” moment. It was like going into hyper drive from the standpoint of a broke 21-year-old whose experience with wine never surpassed a $15 grab at the corner store. A gorgeous ribeye and an in-your-face juicy and delicious red wine like the Elderton was like discovering life on Mars to my taste buds.
DJ: Being a great D.J. and being a great sommelier can be one in the same. What wine best fits Nas’ “Made You Look?”
FO: Nas raps so well about luxury, it’s only right I pop something like this. Fidele Champagne Vouette et Soubee. It’s clean, balanced, and delicious and made from 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes. It’s definitely a game changer.
DJ: What about “You Got Me” by The Roots?
FO: Wow. I have a personal connection with this song, which is perfect on so many levels. My brother, who’s an amazing drummer, could play Questlove’s solo to a T! And I remember being a junior in high school getting bit by the “Roots bug” I wanted to rap like Black Thought immediately. Tinto Castrillo de Duero from Spain is the best wine for this song. Deep, earthy, smooth with an old soul.
DJ: Is 1996 Billecart-Salmon Grande Cuvée still the best wine you’ve ever had ?
FO: Probably not, but damn that wine was good! I’d have a hard time answering that question now. There are so any wines that I love.
DJ: What’s the best hip-hop album from 1996?
FO: Reasonable Doubt was the best record that year, but A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats Rhymes & Life stays in rotation daily for me.
DJ: It’s only right I ask, who are your top five emcees?
FO: It changes every day, but I could argue Black Thought, Nas, Andre 3000, Notorious BIG, and Rakim right now.
DJ: What are you top five wines?
Miles White: NV Jacques Selosse champagne Grand Cru, Vouette et Sorbee Extra Brut Champagne Fidele, 2016 Azienda Agricola Valentini Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, 2010 Arnaud Ente Meursault Clos Des Ambres, 2013 Antica Terra Ceras, 2009 Thierry Allemand Cornas Reynard
DJ: One half of the duo The Clipse, No Malice, has a line in a verse called “Freedom” where he says: “Napa Valley vintage, my flow is fermented.” How was your experience in Napa Valley?
MW: My experience in Napa was pretty eye-opening. To be thrown into one of the most visited, over-the-top, historical wine regions in the country was a great opportunity to see big wine and to see a side of the industry that I hadn’t been exposed to. You hear stories of Napa Valley, it’s like Disney World meets a really fancy Bourbon Street: it’s beautiful, indulgent, luxurious, and people are throwing around money getting trashed on Cabernet in limos. I learned pretty quickly what I wanted out of it and what I didn’t. I found myself drawn more to the guys off the beaten path blending wine in barns and warehouses drinking longneck Budweiser and vintage Champagne. As boring and cliche as that sounds this day and age, there is some definite truth there. There’s a pretty distinct line between the Napa Valley Highway 29 Experience and all of the other nooks and crannies the valley has to offer — getting to explore those was fun and exciting.
DJ: Speaking of duos, I’d liken you two to P. Rock and C.L. Smooth. How would you describe your relationship?
MW: I think our dynamic works well because we’re totally aligned in what we want to give people. Two friends that want to make people happy. It helps that we both have a different way of delivering that same ideology: like you said he’s the emcee, I’m the DJ — sometimes he wants to listen to Digable Planets and sometimes I want to listen to smooth jazz. It feels like yin and yang, because we’re so different, but we both come together to try and do something genuine and honest. We bicker like an old married couple and I think that makes people laugh. I like to play pranks on Femi too, although he doesn’t like it at all.
DJ: In 1989 L.L. dropped Walking with a Panther. Its hit single was “Goin Back To Cali.” If you were goin back to California, what’s the first wine you’re uncorking?
MW: 2011 Lillian Winery Syrah Gold Series No. 2 — this wine is stupid good.
DJ: Unfortunately Walking with a Panther was the last time Rick Rubin and L.L. Cool J collaborated. What was Rick Rubel’s bit of advice that he dropped on you before opening Graft?
MW: In a nutshell, he told us to stay true to what we believe in. Don’t get too hipster, but give the people what they want and don’t lose sight of the original intention. Always be aware that you never know it all.