Wine bars carve a niche in Asheville’s beverage scene

DOUBLE DUTY: District Wine Bar owners Lauri and Barrett Nichols, pictured, repurposed the former River Arts District studio space of their late friend, sculptor John Payne, into a laid-back wine bar that doubles as an art gallery. The couple join other local wine bar owners in their focus on offering a well-rounded, unpretentious drinking experience. Photo by Luke Van Hine

Over the last decade-plus, Asheville has worked hard to earn its reputation as a center for craft beer, creative cocktails and fine dining. Today, it’s fair to add interesting wine experiences to that list; while as recently as 2000 there were only two or three sommeliers (trained wine stewards) in town, today that number has multiplied several times over. And wine bars have sprung up to meet the needs of those — especially locals — who are looking for something just a bit different from a brewery or cocktail lounge.

One of the first wine bars to open in Asheville was Santé. General manager and wine buyer Katy McClellan says the shop opened in the Grove Arcade in 2006 to “create a space for fellow wine enthusiasts.” She says that while beer and cocktail bars “tend to feel either divey or upscale, Santé feels more like a living room.”

Much more recently, Asheville native Lauri Nichols and her husband, Barrett, opened District Wine Bar in early 2018. “When we opened, there were only three options in town,” she says. “We wanted to bring things that typically weren’t offered at other wine bars.”

The couple repurposed the space formerly occupied by their late friend, local sculptor John Payne. In honor of Payne — a prime mover of the River Arts District’s revitalization — the laid-back District space still doubles as an art gallery.

Mere days later, Melissa Ward and Patty Wright opened Rustic Grape Wine Bar downtown. “There’s so much beer here,” Ward had told her wife a few years ago. “We need more wine.”

Along with others locally, these three wine bars have helped develop a scene for wine lovers. And they share a commitment to providing a wine drinking experience that’s flavorful, fun, educational (if that’s wanted) and — most of all — unpretentious.

“It’s OK if you mispronounce stuff here,” says Lauri Nichols with a hearty laugh. Ward echoes that sentiment. “Some people feel like they don’t know anything about wine and that they couldn’t ask,” she says, noting that at Rustic Grape, questions are welcomed. “I really want to focus on people learning and having fun with the wine.”

McClellan says Santé is “kept alive by regulars whom we know by name. They often forgo the menu to ask, ‘What’s new that I have to try?’”

Organic wines feature prominently at all three bars. And their wine lists emphasize specific qualities. “We focus on sustainably grown, really small production. family-run wines,” Lauri Nichols says. “We’re supporting families, not just corporate entities.”

At District, all wines are cooled or cellared on-site; you won’t see bottles lined up on a shelf behind the bar. “Wine’s a living thing,” says Lauri Nichols. “It starts to die when you open the bottle.”

District makes a specific effort to ensure that the wines on its carefully curated list — about 50 are available by the glass, and there are more than 100 bottled varieties — can’t be found at other wine bars in town.

The industrial-chic-styled Rustic Grape has the same policy, but it’s a small place, Ward says. “So I can’t have an extensive list. The wine has to have some character all by itself.” Rustic Grape offers 20 by-the-glass wines and two dozen bottled choices. “We also have half-bottles,” she says.

McClellan says Santé’s list emphasizes “quality over quantity, and thoughtful farming practices.” An intriguing selection of wines — reds, whites, rosés and sparkling — is key.

“A by-the-glass list of around 40 wines can be overwhelming to look at,” she notes, and a wine flight — something that District and Rustic Grape also offer — lets patrons mix it up. “There’s always something new on our menu. Include your favorite chardonnay, but why not throw a Hungarian furmint on there for fun?”

District Wine Bar recently acquired a very limited quantity — about two cases — of a sparkling orange wine called Costadilà Bianco Frizzante Moz. The first glass of this refreshing, subtly bubbly wine is crystal-clear; as one works through the bottle, later glasses are cloudy with a hazy, peachy flavor. By the time you read this, it’s likely to be gone from District’s stock, but something equally fascinating is sure to take its place.

Some patrons might not care about a wine’s backstory; others are curious. Either way, a knowledgeable staff is crucial. “We have a sommelier,” Nichols says. “And we have two [staff members] who are studying now to get their first-level certification. So if people want to sit down with us and geek out about some of this wine, they can.”

Barrett Nichols waxes eloquent about the biodynamic farming practices employed by some of the vintners whose wines District gets when it can. The method aims at carbon-neutral production, eschewing automation in favor of horse-drawn machines and other Old World methods. And he neatly sums up the endless rabbit hole that is the enjoyment of wine: “The more you know about wine,” he says, “the less you know.”

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About Audrey and Bill Kopp
Self-described “liquor nerds” Audrey and Bill Kopp enjoy a good cocktail now and then (and then, and then) but always imbibe responsibly. Everyday Americans with upscale tastes, they're always on the lookout for the best values in spirits, clever-yet-legal DIY strategies, and adventurous cocktail recipes. Find them also at http://fb.me.liquornerds/ Follow me @liquornerds

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