Wine shops showcase some very peculiar social behaviors. In among the aisles of hooch you find a myriad of characters, some with heads down, carefully perusing the back labels of a trillion bottles trying to make sense of the foreign tongues and strange notations, some with noses in the air and lips flapping, schooling some poor unsuspecting chap on the merits of the '01 vintage in Tuscany or decrying the overuse of malolactic fermentation. It is a careful dance, the participants occasionally probing each other for a hint of viticultural authority or a telltale sign of a naïve palate — because we have made buying and drinking wine a terribly intimidating process. Sipping wine is not like eating, with only a fork needed for that; waiters never stand over you like some gastronomic buzzard, waiting for you to pick the correct utensil. If you screw up the salad fork, your transgression most likely goes unnoticed, but not with wine. Wine snobs hide in the woodwork, pointing out which goes with what, how to sniff, how to swirl, they even tell you how to spit. God forbid you forget what to do when they pour that little taste out of the bottle. But this wine world is changing. The big box store has invaded the bastion of the effete wine intellectual and small shops will adapt or they will die.
If you have been into Total Wine & More, then you know what we are talking here. It is a veritable Wal-Mart of wine. Hundreds of bottles, combined with rock-bottom prices and great, unpretentious service produces a winning combination. As it stands now, wine lovers have little reason to ever go anywhere else. Or do they?
People have discovered the real secret of wine — to drink it is to discover it. All the books in the world — knowledge of soils, appellations, grape varietals, vinification methods — will do you no good by themselves. If you want to know wine, you start by drinking the stuff — and that is exactly what small wine shops must provide if they are to survive.
Wine tasting is no new thing, but all too often, by the nature of appointed times and organization, they draw the same crowd of snobs that lingers between the shelves. Wine shops must do what restaurants figured out several years ago — the average consumer is buying higher quality, more expensive wine these days, and they want to taste lots of choices before splurging on a whole bottle or two. The nature of this realization has been, in large part, responsible for the explosion of "tapas" menus across the city last year. Places like Raval, Amuse, and Chai's recognized the demand for such "tasting portions" ahead of the curve.
Many places also began offering smaller pours (dispensed into proper glassware, not some cheap, clunky wine shop goblets) — small, quality tastes designed to educate the curious without the expense or inebriation necessary to do it by the 750ml bottle — and they are doing it alongside the grape's natural friend, food. Cordavi now runs wine specials at happy hour and slings small plates to accompany them. Great food paired with great wine and you do not have to lay down a Benjamin? What a novel idea.
McCrady's wine bar is perhaps the best example of the genre. Here you can settle into a comfortable sofa and enjoy Chef Sean Brock's exemplary study of gastronomy at a fraction of the cost of eating in the main restaurant. Currently you can explore "Fish and Chips," a tuna tartare served on crisp taro wafers, lobster grilled cheeses oozing with brie, and an incredible new foie gras experiment, based on an interpretation of the banana split, that will blow your mind. Couple that with various tasting flights that pair three generous pours of differing varietals and two people can experience some of the best food and wine in Charleston for around $50.
People in the wine shop world are starting to take notice. Across East Bay Street from McCrady's sits O'Hara & Flynn, which has transformed a lovely space looking out on East Bay into a wine sampling room. What is a small shop, whose shelves seem almost bare, to do when they face the gargantuan volume pricing of the Total Wine beast? They look across the street. If restaurants can downsize portions and offer value-added services to wine lovers eager to explore a wide range of tastes, then why not the retail outlets?
At O'Hara & Flynn you can choose from a limited (but hopefully expanding) menu of wines by the glass, offered up with a selection of cheeses, pâtés, olives, meats, and other assorted picnic fare. It is a pleasant space that, especially with the addition of live music on Thursday nights, is a really nice place to hang out. And with the ability to purchase a case of what you like, the value-added service of tasting could easily draw a crowd. Here is where the concept seems the most exciting. By exploring emerging regions for exemplary wines that still retail at a discount to more profiled bottlings, wine shops like O'Hara & Flynn are starting to shoot for educating the curious about wine, rather than entertaining the already knowledgeable oenophile and their ridiculous dog and pony shows. It's a welcome solution that guarantees the survival of individualized attention and service while introducing a whole new group of people to the true pleasures of the grape.