1. How long have you been a wine distributor here? What kinds of trends are you seeing with people taking chances, getting more sophisticated?
I was born and raised here , and have been a wine distributor here for eighteen years. Ten years with a big wholesaler who had just started here at the time, and the last eight years with Quality Wine and Spirits. When I started , we had two world class restaurants, Elizabeth’s @ 37th and 45 South. I, like a lot of people at that time, learned the art of food and wine from tasting with the Butch brothers at Elizabeth’s . In the mid 1990’s , Nuevo Southern Cuisine was really becoming popular , and they were at the forefront of that movement along with Frank Stitt in Birmingham. We did a James Beard Dinner together in Manhattan three weeks after 9/11, which was incredible and emotional on so many levels.
On the retail side at that time, there were two major players, Johnnie Ganem’s and Habersham Beverage. I was fortunate to be able taste incredible old vintages at Ganems, and I learned the business side of wine from Jeff Walsh at Habersham Beverage, calling on him every Monday for seven years. Wine critics were starting to shape the retail side of the wine business, and he was way ahead of the game as far as that goes.
Now , options for purchasing wines is so incredibly diverse , with wine shops all over town offering different selections. We feel our company has the one of the best wine books in the world, and there are so many retail shops and restaurants now that think outside the box. Farm to table is the thing right now, and farm wineries fit right along with it. We constantly preach wine made by people, not machines, and Savannah in the last five years has really embraced that. Just go to the Forsyth Farmer’s market on Saturday morning or stop by Davis Produce , and you see local chefs from around town buying for their restaurants. I don’t know if sophisticated is the right term, but I think practical would be a better description. Americans are becoming more European in the way we eat and drink. When people shop now, they buy fresh ingredients, and look for wines that pair well with them. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing a cooking show, and people are really becoming foodies on their own.
2. Are price points going up? What does that tell you?
Well, you have to be careful when thinking the economy is getting better, but it seems people are eating out more and entertaining. During the height of the recession, wines that retailed over $25 really took a hit. Now, those wines are pulling again, and with some recent tough vintages in California, those wines have the same quality but lower yields. There are less to buy, and they are being snapped up quickly. People are more savvy about wine than they have ever been, and young professionals are really shaping the wine and restaurant business. Farm wineries, artisan spirits, and craft beer is the future , and people are not really loyal to certain brands any more, as in previous generations.
3. What do you hear about food in this town? Getting better? Ways to go?
I think the food scene in Savannah is definitely on the rise, along with inventive wine lists , craft cocktails, and craft beers. With a few exceptions, restaurants here were always known as decent, but nothing special. Now you see restaurants here featuring local farms and using our incredible resource for fresh seafood. I could get in trouble here, but I think right now we have six-eight restaurants that can hold their own with any other town, and I know there are couple of new places coming that are really going to create quite a buzz. If things keep trending the way they are, in five years we could be considered one of the great food towns in the south.
4. I’ve been told that not enough chefs/restaurants work together here. Charleston is far more of a cohesive unit with the restaurant ‘scene’. Agree or disagree?
Charleston is definitely a leader in the industry in food, wine , and now the craft cocktail movement . For years they had Johnson and Wales, and that created quite the talent pool for restaurants to hire from. Also, remember most of the food and travel writers in the industry live in or around Charleston , which certainly doesn’t hurt with publicity. There is always going to be “friendly “ competition between restaurants , but I do see the a lot of restaurant owners and managers supporting each other throughout Savannah. There are certain places that have opened in the last year or so that have really raised the bar on what eating and drinking in Savannah can really be. Competition is healthy, and it will force some places to elevate their game or be left behind.
5. What does the popularity of my television show tell you about your hometown?
First off, when I started in this business, a show as inventive as yours probably wouldn’t have got off the ground. Now that our food and drink scene is on the rise, your show fits in perfectly with the current scene and is a great asset in getting the word out there of all the cool stuff going on. I am a proud Savannahian , and I am always being asked by wine professionals and foodies from all over the world about Savannah. I have been telling them for years that we are on the brink of breaking out, and I honestly think that time has come. Your show is a great ally in this noble pursuit.