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A Breath of Fresh Air

Kim Marcus
Posted: February 3, 2000

A Breath of Fresh Air
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor

I have lived in New York for almost six years, and most of the time I feel fortunate that I can choose among the greatest selections of wines in the world when I go out to eat. The diversity of wines offered for sale in the city's restaurants is one of the reasons why New York can rightly be considered the world capital of wine and fine dining.

But by and large, it ain't cheap. True, there are some value-priced lists in town, but finding real bargains is a tough assignment. And that's just trying to buy wines by the bottle. Worse, sometimes, are the wines offered by the glass. I've heard all the reasons why: Wine and alcohol sales are the major income generator for most restaurants, the rents are high, the economy's booming, or whatever. But it still galls me when I see relatively ordinary wines priced at levels approaching or exceeding $10 a glass. On a wine list at a Manhattan restaurant that I visited recently, I was dumbfounded to find Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, which sells for just $18 a bottle retail, priced at $14 a glass. Yikes! I think I'll take a double martini instead at that price.

I experienced a refreshingly different attitude on a recent trip to the South. I was in Columbia, S.C., and stopped by the city's first wine bar, called Gervais & Vine. It is located on up-and-coming Gervais Street, west of downtown.

The owner is an energetic wine lover named Kristian Niemi, who also owns Mr. Friendly's New Southern Cafe in Columbia, which holds a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its wine list. He opened Gervais & Vine to satisfy a growing demand for fine wine in this Southern state capital -- and to fulfill some of his personal desires as well.

"I wanted someplace where I could come and drink the wines I like," says Niemi. So far, business is doing well, following an early March opening, and for good reason. Of the 50 or so selections on the list, most are priced in the $4-to-$6 range for a full 5-ounce glass, or around half those prices for 2.5-ounce pours.

You could really make America a wine-drinking nation with prices like these for top quality wines: Gallo of Sonoma Chardonnay Laguna Ranch 1996, $6; Giesen Riesling Canterbury 1998 from New Zealand, $4.50; or Paul Jaboulet Aine Cotes du Rhone Parallele 45 1997, $4.50. If you want to check out the wine list in more detail, log on to Gervais & Vine's informative Web site: www.gervine.com.

Niemi has a simple and fair formula for pricing: He takes the wholesale price, adds $12 and divides by five to get his per-glass price. No doubling or tripling or even quintupling the bottle price, as is the wont of his more greedy brethren in the restaurant trade. Instead, Niemi is truly interested in nourishing the Columbia wine community by giving it the best and most interesting wines for the price. If more restaurateurs did that, they might find that whatever short-term profits are lost would be more than made up by the long-term growth in fine wine drinking it would engender. It's a simple equation: more wine drinkers equals more wine sold.

In addition, Niemi runs an adjoining wine shop, where shoppers can buy from a solid selection of wines and drink them in the wine bar for what amounts to a $10 corkage fee. Niemi, a native of Minnesota, is well aware that his clientele faces a fairly steep learning curve and that the cultural heritage of the deep South is not naturally inclined to fine wine drinking. But he notes that he's been pleasantly surprised so far with the interest and enthusiasm of his patrons.

"A lot of people thought Columbia wasn't worth it," Niemi says. "But people really do want to learn more about wine. We've sold out every wine tasting we've had." Niemi notes that South Carolina is low on the totem pole when it comes to receiving tightly allocated wines, but he hopes that will change if its wine culture continues to grow.

If a recent Saturday night is any indication, times are indeed changing when it comes to wine in the Bible Belt. Gervais & Vine was packed, and the wine glasses were being refilled at a fast rate. The clientele included a good mix of all age groups; Niemi is especially trying to get a younger crowd to drink and enjoy wine.

The wine world needs more folks like Niemi. In fact, vintners and wineries should pay people like Niemi for their efforts in trying to educate and increase the pool of wine drinkers in this nation. And they should take to task restaurateurs who charge $14 a glass for their greed and shortsightedness.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

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