Nashville for wine lovers

Joe Scutella, co-founder of Bonus Bev in Nashville, songwriter and music publisher, argues that Nashville is more than Music City. Listen to his Wine Song here. See also this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

On a crisp, bright, early autumn North-Western Pennsylvania day in 1960, I stood as a six-year-old on the hump upon the back-seat floorboard of a big black 1955 Buick. My elbows rested upon the top of the leather seats in front of me, where sat my father, driving, and my grandfather as passenger. They spoke, alternating between English and a southern Italian dialect. All that I knew was that we were headed to the train depot to pick up crates of grapes that had been shipped from California. Following us in a cadre of similar big black cars were my uncles, Pat, Frank and Ernie. We arrived at the loading dock and the four big black cars backed in, their cavernous trunks opened and the crates loaded in. Then off we went to my grandparents’ house where the grapes were hauled down to the basement and dropped, stems and all, into a large wooden press. This was my inglorious introduction to wine and wine making. A little over a year later, upon the occasion of my first communion, I was afforded the honour of sitting at the adult table where my grandmother spiked a small glass of my grandfather’s wine with simple syrup and placed it in front of me. It was bloody awful.

I left Pennsylvania more than three decades ago and I have lived south of the Mason Dixon line since. The last 25 years of that time has been in Nashville TN, where I was recruited as a songwriter. Today, in addition to songwriting, I am a principal and the co-founder of a wine and spirits distribution company. In Pennsylvania, we seemingly had bars and taverns upon every corner. Here in Nashville we have churches. Indeed, the typical Protestant denominations are everywhere, but so are those to which I had never been exposed. Korean Baptists puzzled me, as did African Baptists. Who knew? The Church of Christ denominations are of varying levels of strictness and there is even a smattering of Catholic churches and synagogues. In fact, most of the long-standing wine and spirits distribution houses in Nashville were founded by Catholics and Jews, because the Baptists just would not go there, as it were, following Prohibition.

When I moved here in 1994 the food and wine scene in Nashville was rather dismal. The town was ripe with a restaurant style called ‘meat and three’. Essentially, you get a tray and a plate when you walk in and you move through a sort of buffet line in which you can chose your meat and then three vegetable side dishes. Sweet tea is the beverage of choice. Yes, there were a couple of fine dining restaurants with serviceable wine lists. Randy Rayburn’s The Sunset Grill was a popular music-business hang out back then, serving nouveau California cuisine with a Southern twist, and the Wild Boar did have a wine list which made a Wine Spectator top 100 list.  Neither of those places exist any longer; although Randy Rayburn still commands at The Midtown Café which has both great Southern-inflected food and a very diverse wine list.

Fast forward into the early 21st century and Nashville’s culinary and wine world started to mature. Margot Café and Bar in east Nashville set the tone early on and still stands today as a beacon of creative, French country-influenced cuisine, paired with a superb wine list which also leans towards France. A few years later Tandy Wilson, a former Margot chef and now a James Beard award-winner himself, opened City House which leans more Italian country in its style of both cuisine and wine list. These remain two of my personal favorites and those of many locals.

By the beginning of the second decade of this century a veritable land rush took place in Nashville. The population soared as 80 to 100 people a day were moving into Nashville and its surrounds. Chefs from places like New York, Chicago, Charlotte, Miami and elsewhere soon followed, pouring in and opening restaurants. The explosion of restaurants has been mind-blowing. For those of us in the wine trade, as frenetic as it has been to keep up with, it has also been fun and profitable. The influx of new Nashvillians who have moved here from not just other US cities, but from all over the world, has created a more youthful city and multi-cultural quilt worthy of a great city. In addition to the early adapters, Margot Café and Bar and City House, here are a few other spots that wine and food lovers should not miss.

  • Husk, the Sean Brock-founded restaurant is a must. Nashville was the second incarnation of this Charleston-founded restaurant. Nicolette Anctil is the sommelier and has curated a superb wine list. The list itself is uniquely separated by soil types. Nicolette is also a trained chef and her pairings are superb. Lovers of brown spirits will be in heaven as well when they get a gander at Husk’s superb whiskey selections.
  • Etch, by well-known chef Deb Paquette, sees her bringing her creative take on a Mediterranean-influenced menu to downtown Nashville. The wine list leans French and Italian fittingly. Deb’s place in Nashville culinary history is legendary. She is not just a figurehead either. You will find her hands-on, working the line most nights.
  • 360 Bistro, Nick Jacobson’s award-winning casual dining wine bar in West Nashville has a superb and rather large selection of wines from around the world. General manager Brett Allen assists in the buying and their list has made the Wine Spectator award of excellence in consecutive years.
  • Wine lovers should also find worth checking out Barcelona Wine Bar, Union Common, Folk, Lockland Table, Rolf and Daughters, Moto and Kayne Prime Steakhouse. All have excellent wine lists and great food.

Those seeking out adventures in the retail wine world will not be disappointed in Nashville’s fine wine merchants. On the east side, Will Motley’s Woodland Wine Merchant is a beautifully-curated wine shop. You will be hard-pressed to find one commodity brand (or focus group wine, as I call them), upon Will’s shelves. The store itself is an artfully beautiful space and Will and his staff are extremely well versed.

Just west of downtown is Grand Cru Wine and Spirits. Jason Ross, minority partner, GM and buyer, is as good as there is, and has led his loyal followers up the Everest of wine and spirits, like a master sherpa, for 15 years. Their selections range from daily go-to wines for his neighbourhood clients, to world-class selections for the cellar dwellers among us. You won’t find a single shelf talker in sight at Grand Cru either. The staff are walking shelf talkers.

As you head further west down West End from Grand Cru and pass over the 440 beltway, West End becomes Harding Road. With apologies to U2, Nashville is where the streets have three names. That said, as you head into the Belle Meade area you will happen upon The Wine Chap; Londoner Richard Payne’s semi-eponymous well stocked wine and spirits mecca. Richard’s selections are vast, varied and voluminous. He has all the bases covered, no matter where you fit within the wine food chain. You can browse his shop for hours.

The dash between my first sip of wine at age seven, sitting at my grandparent’s table following my first communion, to the Pomerol my wife and I shared over dinner last night, has been filled with life and love. Indeed, there have been losses, trials and travails as well. But there has always been, in the balance, like fine wine itself, joy, music, song, delicious food, good friends, adventure, and of course, wine. Twenty-five years ago, adventure led me to Nashville. I have never lived anywhere longer. I have seen the city grow from a quaint town to a world-class destination. We are more than country music, more than music city. Certainly, come for the music, but stay for the food and wine. You will be delightfully surprised.    

Broadway all lit up in Nashville TN