By Pam George | Photograph by Carolyn Watson
From the Holiday 2016 issue

wine The Grape Escape - Delaware Beach LifeWith his long hair and tweed sport coat, Larry O’Brien looked every inch the hip college professor. He stood before a class of 23 students, who gazed expectantly at the materials he’d placed on the tables in front of them. It didn’t take long before O’Brien was tossing out a string of similes and adjectives.

“This smells like a cigar,” he said. “But it’s not a good cigar, it’s a bad one, and it smells like it would if you touched the tobacco and it crumbled.” He followed up with descriptors like “silky,” “elegant,” “gorgeous” and “refined.” The smell of leather and cedar were all labeled enticing aromas.

O’Brien wasn’t teaching a creative writing class. Nor is he an English professor. He’s a master sommelier with Jackson Family Wines, which owns vineyards in six countries. On that October afternoon, O’Brien was leading the tasting of five wines at the Southern Delaware Wine, Food and Music Festival, held at Independence, a 55-plus community near Angola.

With a $420 bottle of wine in the mix, the tasting could have been intimidating. O’Brien, however, made it fun. So did the festival’s 18 participating restaurants, each of which presented a dish paired with wine from one of 10 distributors.

The event reflects a growing wine culture along the coast. “There’s a misconception that beer rules” at the beach, says Peggy Raley-Ward, owner of Nassau Valley Vineyards, located just off routes 1 and 9. “For those people who are wine enthusiasts, wine rules.”

Tom Poor, co-owner of Bin 66, a wine store on the “Forgotten Mile” between Rehoboth and Dewey, would agree. “At the average wine tasting [we host], we’ll see between 200 and 300 [people] in a three-hour period — all year long,” he says.
Credit the farm-to-table movement — a vineyard, after all, is a farm — well-traveled consumers and the area’s reputation as the “Culinary Coast.” From vineyards to wine lists to winemakers, the coast has it covered. n

Coastal restaurants cater to a wide range of preferences

 In the 1970s, Rehoboth Beach diners who wanted to order wine with their meal had a handful of choices, including Mateus, Blue Nun, Lancers and other semi-sweet-to-sweet brands. “This wasn’t known as a fine dining destination, and the general public’s consciousness about wine wasn’t that high,” recalls Keith Fitzgerald, co-owner of the Back Porch Cafe, who created the restaurant’s wine list in 1975.

Things have changed. The Back Porch now offers more than 70 selections, and the restaurant’s off-season wine dinners sell out before Chef Timothy McNitt even publishes the menu.

On Baltimore Avenue, Eden has expanded its wine inventory from 75 choices in 2005 to 200, and Wine Spectator took note. This year, the magazine included Eden on its list of the best restaurants for wines.

The rising interest in wine along the coast is part of a national trend. In 2014, U.S. News & World Report noted that Americans had topped France as the world’s leader in wine consumption by volume — nearly 12 percent of the amount consumed worldwide. According to a survey published in 2015 on Wine, 56 percent of respondents drank wine daily or several times a week.
As a result, more coastal businesses are catering to collectors and the curious.

Something for everyone

Crafting today’s wine list takes finesse. For one thing, it must complement the cuisine. At Lupo Italian Kitchen in Rehoboth Beach, one of SoDel Concepts’ nine area restaurants, Mike Zygmonski wrote an all-Italian wine list. “Italy is so versatile,” says SoDel’s director of wine. “The wines are so delicious, and they span the gamut.”

At Bluecoast, the company’s flagship restaurant in Bethany Beach, the options must appease a variety of culinary influences. Bluecoast attracts a well-heeled crowd, many of whom are collectors. In June, the restaurant sold six bottles of Opus One, a California cult wine priced at $450 each, in two weeks. But that in-demand selection might linger at Bluecoast’s siblings, the more casual Matt’s Fish Camp near Lewes or Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria near Fenwick Island, where wines by the glass are popular, as is beer.

While a list can include rare selections, it also needs the familiar. Despite the disdain that a chardonnay might elicit from a wine snob, it’s still a top-selling grape that commands a presence on any list. That’s also true for pinot noirs and cabernet merlots.
Some restaurants, including The Buttery in Lewes and 99 Sea Level in Bethany Beach, publish their wine lists on their websites, so patrons know the prices and the offerings before they arrive.

Fitzgerald refuses to mark up the wine as much as many restaurants do. The strategy works. Washington, D.C.-area residents are thrilled to see a wine at $90 that would cost $140 back home. “I buy from at least 10 distributors and they say I move as much inventory as larger restaurants,” he says.

Diners needn’t spend a lot to enjoy a good wine, says Chris Capriotti, director of operations for Eden. Ask for suggestions and be honest about your budget, advises Meghan Gardner, co-owner of the Blue Moon.

Server education is key to patrons’ satisfaction. Capriotti leads regular classes in the summer for seasonal employees. In October, SoDel Concepts invited two servers from each of its nine restaurants to attend a class with Larry O’Brien, a certified master sommelier. And Gardner asks her longtime servers to offer ideas for the wine list. “They are on the front line with the customers, so they know what guests want and where there might be holes,” she explains.

While restaurants with great wines are now plentiful, the Dela­ware coast — and, in fact, Delaware in general — hasn’t witnessed the wine bar boom that’s occurred in many resorts and cities. Bacchus Wine Bar in Milton lasted a year. “After an annual assessment of Bacchus, [we] have closed Bacchus, and are selling the business and building,” said an email from Debbie Sulkovsky, who owned the bar with her husband, Rich.

Some may effectively argue that Half Full in Lewes is a wine bar, given its name and its diverse wine list, which changes regularly. Joe Lertch wants to pioneer the concept in Rehoboth Beach. A longtime visitor to the coast, he’s president of The Vineyard Wine Bar in Havre de Grace, Md. Since many of his friends have second homes here, he believes Rehoboth is the natural spot for a second location. Renovations are underway in the old Espuma space. (Lertch declined to cite an opening date.) The wine bar will feature small plates and varietals from artisanal and family-owned wineries. “The goal is to bring an award-winning, first-class wine bar to people who love wine and want to learn more about it,” he says.

Sip and learn

Novices can take the plunge at the many wine dinners that local restaurants offer in the off-season. Catch 54 in Fenwick Island and Eden are known for their regular events. Many restaurants also offer half-priced bottles of wine during the week in the off-season.
The Blue Moon features food-and-wine-paired meals on Tasting Tuesdays. “It’s a way for me to bring in some fun [selections] that don’t necessarily fit on the regular wine list,” Gardner says.

Neophytes can also head to wine-centric boutique stores, such as Banks Wine & Spirits in Bethany Beach, Teller Wines near Lewes’s city limits and Bin 66 on the “Forgotten Mile” between Rehoboth and Dewey Beach.

User-friendly Teller Wines groups bottles in 10 flavor profiles, from “Fresh & Clean” whites to “Noble & Sticky” reds. Within each category, wines are arranged by price, from the lowest ($7.99) to highest (up to $500). Most are under $20.
“We talk to everybody who needs help,” says Catherine Hester, who owns the store with her husband, Kevin. “If they say they don’t like it too tannic, for instance, I’ll take them to the ‘Smooth & Structured,’ which is our pinots, our merlots, our Bordeaux, our Cotes du Rhone — wines that are smooth and have a lot of body.”

Bin 66’s interior design salutes a Napa Valley tasting room, complete with custom millwork, a tasting bar with shelves for glass stemware and a full kitchen, where in-house chef Pat Ochonicki prepares gourmet nibbles.
The store, which has more than 2,300 bottles of wine for sale, holds free tastings from 5 to 8 p.m. on Fridays and 4 to 7 p.m. on Saturdays, events that can draw upwards of 200 people each. Teller Wines’ tastings are from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. “All the locals come; it’s like a block party,” Hester says.

Once a year, the Hesters hold the Teller Wine Expo, a charity benefit that showcases more than 100 wines, along with food from area restaurants.

No matter where you go to educate your palate, the experience is intended to be enjoyable. “Figure out what you like and what you don’t like, but don’t be afraid of new grapes and regions,” Gardner says. “Don’t let it be too stuffy. At the end of the day, wine is alive, and it’s fun.” n

Pam George, a frequent contributor to Dela-ware Beach Life, has also been published in
Fortune, US Airways Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor and Men’s Health.

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