As a recent transplant from Southern California to Birmingham, it is fascinating to learn what the Southeast is all about. My first visit was last fall, and although I heard it is a great city, I also heard the typical silly generalities about Alabama. I am not one to judge until experiencing things for myself, so I waited to see what the scene was all about. So, I guess I should divulge that I am a Certified Sommelier, I was the first wine major at Cornell University, I have been in the wine business for over thirteen years, and I grew up in the restaurant business. Not to toot my own horn, but my major interest in a city is about wine and food. Wine and food are my passion, my work, and are obviously very important to me. My first trip to Birmingham was for fun, but I was also checking out the city to see if I wanted to live here.
A few weeks before my first visit, I randomly read an article about Birmingham’s amazing restaurant scene. I already researched and heard about the major players, their incredible national recognition, etc. but it was the first time I read anything about the wine scene. The gist of the article was that there are very few sommeliers present in these amazing restaurants, and it didn’t seem to make much sense since the food and service was so great. This was intriguing. A major part of my job is and has been to sell wine, which is highly dependent on the market: the demographics and the demand for types and price points of wine. I couldn’t wait to see what Birmingham was all about, but especially the wine scene.
So, I am sure you are dying to know what “typical generalities” I have heard and thought about Birmingham, and Alabama. I knew I’d find incredible BBQ, fried okra, collard/ mustard/ turnip greens, and all things pig. And y’all sure do know how to bake some amazing pies, casseroles, and brew up sweet tea. So, if Alabama’s palate is accustomed to bold, spicy BBQ, fried foods, vinegary-sweet-smoky-bitter greens, and sweet desserts and beverages, isn’t the thirst for wines going to be those that match these bold, rich foods? Usually, regional cuisine matches up with the demand for wines that naturally match…so I was dying to find out.
I have been pleasantly surprised. The wine selection at retail stores, casual- and fine dining restaurants is a pretty even mix of imports and domestic wines, meaning there is a wide range of demand for different styles. As a sommelier, this is comforting, refreshing, impressive and telling. It explains a lot about the people and the culture in Birmingham.
When I have friends in town visiting, I make sure to take them to the place that was my great first impression of the restaurant scene here: Little Savannah. It’s a perfect introduction to Southern/ soul food and Birmingham, naturally, since Clif and Maureen Holt (chef/ owner and co-owner) are Alabama natives. Although flavor maven/ bar manager Steva Casey’s inventive hand-made cocktails tempt, wine is what I drink here. During my first visit I enjoyed a bottle of Sine Qua Non Syrah, which is an extremely rare offering that is exceedingly rewarding if you can find it. I asked if they really had it available before deciding to order; from time to time restaurants will have prestigious, highly-scored, cult wines of this caliber listed to impress but do not really have it to sell. Steva laughed, and told the story of how she was able to purchase a few bottles for the restaurant. I ordered the duck with dirty rice…fabulously cosmopolitan and so Southern, exactly what I wanted to experience at this homey, cozy place, and enjoyed every delicious drop of the brooding, concentrated yet elegant and minerally Syrah. Speaking of which, it is a mystery to those of us in the wine industry why Syrah isn’t more popular. Rich in texture like everybody’s favorite red, Cabernet Sauvignon, but with interesting smokiness and fun black pepper spice, Syrah (or Shiraz as the Aussies refer to it) is often overlooked. Do yourself a favor and try a bottle next time your meal calls for a rich red. Or order a glass at your favorite Birmingham hangout…I’m sure you can find one by-theglass easily in this town.
You guys rock, and don’t necessarily need sommeliers in your fabulous restaurants. You know what you want; you are proud of your city, and you travel a lot. Maybe it’s because Birmingham has an “International” airport. I’ve been told by many natives that many people leave for a while but always come back, that they love this city, but I’m politely asked to not spread the word. This Magic City might as well be coined the “Secret Magic City.”
As I’ve heard from one of my favorite Birmingham natives, the top three things this city has to offer are: great food, beautiful women and a direct flight to New York.
I agree…and I’m glad I can now confidently use this saying from my own experience but add a fourth part: great taste in wine. I can also now proudly call myself a Birminghamian, and refer to myself as “we” from now on instead of “y’all.” Birmingham is already respected and known for the arts, from Reg’s Coffee House to the Vulcan to you...Birmingham’s Palate!
Alexis Douglas writes about our city’s history for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org