As a kid, New Hampshirite Andy Chabot wanted to become a chef. But like many young kitchen worker bees, Chabot, now 35, would soon find the nectar of wine hard to resist. While an intern and line cook at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., between two degrees at the Culinary Institute of America, the cellar piqued his interest: “It seemed to me that the wine people were having more fun than anyone else. Tasting wine, traveling, dressing up … and we were in the kitchen burning ourselves, never seeing the light of the day!”
Chabot made an unlikely move from posh Aspen to moonshine country in eastern Tennessee, settling in at Blackberry Farm in November 2002. Rural Blount County had been dry until just a few years prior, and Blackberry Farm’s meager wine program showed it. But the owner at the time, Sam Beall, had taken over the resort from his parents and had grand designs on crafting a world-class wine destination. He enlisted Chabot, and Blackberry Farm went on to earn its first Grand Award from Wine Spectator in 2006. In the hamlet of Walland, population 259, Chabot heads one of the most comprehensive restaurant wine programs in the United States, with a list that now stands at 7,500 selections.
Chabot spoke to assistant tasting coordinator Emma Balter about navigating tight liquor laws, his love for Grenache and how he remembers his colleague and friend Sam Beall, who died in February 2016.
Wine Spectator: What drew you to the job at Blackberry Farm?
Andy Chabot: When I worked at the Little Nell, it was my first experience working in an operation of that level. But I wanted to be on the East Coast; I like the Appalachian Mountains. I’d heard a little about [Blackberry Farm]. I never thought I’d live in Tennessee, but I came down here on a job interview and really fell in love with the place. There was a good energy, it felt like it wasn’t set in its ways and was willing to do some great things.
WS: What wines and regions have you been introducing your guests to lately?
AC: Our guests are definitely used to trying something new. We probably introduce more guests to the grape Grenache than maybe any other place. Often we do that through Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but we also have some incredible Grenaches including the great ones from Spain, the great ones of our country and Australia. It’s a great grape, it’s such a chameleon, but it also works so well with our cuisine.
I recently spent time in Paso Robles in California. That’s one of the most exciting wine regions right now in this country, for those people who want what Napa was 40 years ago, as far as farming and talking to the owners. It’s not polished. I love the parallel between small, family-run wineries and the family-run Blackberry Farm.
I do think there’s [also] some really good wine being made in Virginia. I would say that is the South’s best opportunity for quality wine.
WS: What is it like sourcing wines in a county that used to be dry?
AC: About 17 or 18 years ago, this was a dry county; that means that when I got here the wine program was really small and fledgling. Tennessee does have some interesting laws; it is a strong three-tier state. The challenge always was getting a great winery, that has maybe one case available, to sign up with a distributor in Knoxville to sell it to a small resort in Walland. In the first five, seven years of building the wine program, that was really hard.
We combated it in a number of ways. We started this food-and-wine event series that brings winemakers and chefs here to let them see the caliber of guests that we were hoping to share their wine with. To convince [wine] people that it was great, we had them come here.
WS: What is your favorite food and wine pairing at the moment?
AC: There is an egg dish that we do, it has grits that we mill here from corn we’ve preserved. It’s a poached egg, kind of rich, smoked chicken broth and then chicken cracklings on top. I absolutely love that dish with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but in a certain style—more Grenache-heavy, unoaked, lighter in style like a Pialade [Côtes du Rhône] from Château Rayas. Or like an old-vine [version] from Domaine de Marcoux. It really matches well with the meatiness of the dish, and it adds a refreshing fruit quality.
WS: Did you have a particular "aha" moment with wine?
AC: Early on when I was here at Blackberry, spending time with the owner at the time, Sam, just learning about wine together. I remember one time we took a run around the hills here, found some chanterelles, brought them back to his house and just fried them up and ate them with some really great Burgundy. It wasn’t so much a moment or a single wine as much as a number of moments and a number of wines, and getting to learn organically that way.
WS: We were all very sad to hear about Sam Beall’s death earlier this year. What did you learn about hospitality from him?
AC: I would say that if there’s one thing that he taught me, it was to be generous, don’t be selfish. He was always so generous to share experiences, to share wine, to travel with. He was always so interested, that the people around him were excited to learn something. I don’t think there’s a better lesson to have learned from him. He had a real joy of life and he liked to share that.