No Tastevins Here 

Where to mellow out with a glass of vino

click to enlarge Gourmet selections populate the cases at Avondale Wine & Cheese - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • Gourmet selections populate the cases at Avondale Wine & Cheese

Wine needn't be complicated. For all the mystery and pomp surrounding its consumption, the basic process — from fields of grapes to purple tongues wagging loosely on the cocktail circuit — has remained relatively unchanged for a few thousand years. In the past, the preferred method for imbibing the grape in the Lowcountry involved a trip to Piggly Wiggly, a large glass jug or a box with a plastic spout, and a few clunky cut crystal goblets, probably wedding gifts from your Aunt Tilly. Everyone sat around sniffing, swirling, and sipping what invariably was a cheap swill of juice that began life in a California tanker truck. My, how times have changed.

Somehow, over the last 10 or 15 years, wine has shed the cloak of elitism and transformed itself into the de facto dinner beverage. Dine out these days at any of the more respectable places about town and you will confront a wide-ranging selection. Thick wine books of yesteryear, hefty tomes full of pretension and bottles that no mortal wage earner could afford, have mostly disappeared. Today's wine lists emphasize approachability, consumer education, value, diversity, customer relationships, and food pairing — all things that must be credited to that mysterious figure in the coat and tie, still lurking anonymously among the bottles with a corkscrew, but having hung up their shiny tastevins for good. The modern sommelier keeps his nose in a glass rather than in the air, and some of our favorite students of the grape have so much wisdom to impart, there's nothing better than enjoying a quaff of recommended varietal while they explain nuances of the grape.

Avondale Wine & Cheese
West Ashley. 813B Savannah Hwy. 810-0088

We love Avondale Wine & Cheese for two good reasons: a bodacious selection of cheeses and proprietor Manoli Davani's hospitality. Her emphasis on personalized service has quickly attracted a following of local chefs, artists, musicians, and assorted foodies, who pack the place for the numerous wine tastings and events that are hosted there. A small bar serves wine by the glass, a world-class assortment of fresh cheeses, award-winning French-press coffee, and great handmade sandwiches for lunch and early snacks in the evening. You can sit in the front window and watch the world go by, or retreat into the rear lounge, a perfect space for impromptu meetings and small gatherings of friends.

click to enlarge Assistant sommelier Sara Kavanaugh and sommelier Rick Ruben create a wine-friendly atmosphere at Charleston Grill
  • Assistant sommelier Sara Kavanaugh and sommelier Rick Ruben create a wine-friendly atmosphere at Charleston Grill

Charleston Grill
Downtown. 224 King St. (inside Charleston Place). 577-4522

Brand-new seats, great tunes, and a new attitude make Charleston Grill the place to be this spring. Sommelier Rick Ruben and frontman Mickey Bakst have put together a great lounge space, perfect for an early start to a Friday night romp though downtown. The wine list is still a staid old tome, but Ruben has a knack for pulling really fine values down by the glass and is unafraid of featuring unusual bottles that most may not have heard of. Want to try the latest Pinot Noirs coming out of New Zealand, or the spine-tingling weirdness of Château Muzar in several vintages? These guys have you covered.

Cypress
Downtown. 167 East Bay St. 727-0111

Hit the upstairs bar that overlooks the most awe-inspiring wine display in Charleston on the wrong night and you will be run out by the gaggle of loud, obnoxious drunks who tend to congregate there in an effort to look cool and sophisticated by virtue of their surroundings. Get there on a quieter night, when you can sit comfortably at a cocktail table alongside the translucent glass rail and peer into the two-story glass and steel beauty that they call a wine cellar, and you have found one of the most romantic places to sample a wonderful bottle of wine. The list is extensive and the cellar displays thousands of waiting selections. For special customers (ie. those throwing down some serious cash on wine), sommelier Bill Netherland has even been known to give personal, guided tours of the "cave" in search of a perfect bottle that may not even be on the printed list — now that's what we call service.

FIG
Downtown. 232 Meeting St. 805-5900

Adam Nemirow isn't widely known as a wine guru about town, but his list represents a very well thought-out effort. Nemirow puts what he likes to drink on the menu and the personal touch shows. FIG itself is often too busy to offer a great wine drinking experience at the bar, but Tuesday nights bring Quentin Baxter into the house and the always-cool space at FIG is transformed. When it all comes together, there is no better place in town to toss back a glass of juice.

Muse
Downtown. 82 Society St. 577-1102

An amazing combination of gorgeous food and the most wines by the glass in town, Muse offers the ultimate tasting bar tucked away in the fabulous old house at 82 Society St. Settle in at the bar and you'll be whisked away into a tasting list that can send you hopping throughout the great wine regions of the world. Owner Beth Anne Crane has leveraged her considerable wine world contacts to bring prominent vintners and sommeliers in for special events, but then again, every night is a special event at Muse.

click to enlarge "Wine stud" Wanza Carter will turn you on with flights of wine that explore flavor - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • "Wine stud" Wanza Carter will turn you on with flights of wine that explore flavor

Social
Downtown. 188 East Bay St. 577-5665

Make no mistake, this new wine bar possesses one of the best selections of wine in the Lowcountry. They are serious about the stuff, have a beautiful cellar, and a truly enjoyable space on nights where the crowd thins and you can hear yourself think. The menu allows for a very creative system of flights that lets you explore wine based on flavor profiles rather than grape or location, but the real reason they make the cut is the assuring fact that we've never been served a wine there that we didn't think was absolutely fabulous and a perfect example of its type.


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