When Henk Schuitemaker joined the Angus Barn steak house in Raleigh, N.C., as a server in 1985, he knew little about wine and had no plans to stay in the dining industry. Four years later, following the death of a co-founder and a series of departures, Schuitemaker found himself leading the beverage team and managing the formidable wine list at a restaurant that had recently become an early recipient of Wine Spectator’s highest honor for wine excellence, the Grand Award.
“It’s just one of those things,” says Schuitemaker, 55, who grew up in Pennsylvania. “It seems like there was a plan there for me.” But, he adds, “When I took it over, you can imagine I was pretty scared.”
In the time since then, Schuitemaker has become a mentor to many who pass through his restaurant. He helped energize the once-sleepy wine-and-dining scene in the Research Triangle, and has come to preside over a 1,650-selection wine list, which has maintained its Grand Award title every year since 1989. Meanwhile, the Angus Barn, family-owned since 1960, now delights a big house with wet-aged steaks, along with more buttoned-down prix fixe affairs and even a cigar lounge. As Schuitemaker says, “It seems like we never do anything small.” He spoke with editorial assistant Samantha Falewée about helping the local gourmet community select wine, what unexpected pairings you can find at a steak house, and what wine-and-food innovations to look for in North Carolina.
Wine Spectator: How did the Angus Barn’s 26,000-bottle wine list originate?
Henk Schuitemaker: [Co-founder] Thad Eure Jr. was president of the National Restaurant Association at one time, and he knew all the big restaurant owners. When he was in California, he met Marvin Shanken; this was years ago, early ’80s. He decided he wanted to have an award-winning wine list when he saw what Marvin was doing with Wine Spectator. He saw that wine was becoming a huge part of dining.
WS: You’ve been in North Carolina’s Research Triangle area for over 30 years. Can you talk about the changes in wine and food you’ve seen?
HS: There’s so much diversity here. A lot of restaurants are taking pride in purchasing local food, local beer, local wine. Our farmers markets have grown tremendously. We have really good Turkish restaurants, Chinese, Japanese, Indian.
When we first won the Grand Award, in 1989, you can imagine there weren’t a whole lot of choices in terms of dining and wine lists. Over the years, that has really changed. There have been so many people moving here over the years for the climate and job opportunities and the genteel way of life.
WS: Do you serve any local wines?
HS: I have 37 wines by the glass, and six of them are North Carolina wines.
WS: Which wineries seem to be earning a lot of attention in the state, and why?
HS: There’s a winery called Raffaldini, and they make a lot of Italian [styles] like a Vermentino and a really delicious Montepulciano. What’s really cool about them is that they have been experimenting with drying grapes like they do with Amarone in Valpolicella. If you have a really poor vintage in North Carolina—rains are a big thing that people fear during the harvest—drying of the grapes can concentrate a lot of those sugars.
There’s an old dairy farmer who used to have cattle and grow tobacco and cotton on his property. But the cotton industry tanked and then tobacco tanked, so in order for these people to be able to afford their property, generation by generation they started a winery called RagApple Lassie. If you look at the bottle there’s actually a cow on there and a tobacco leaf, everything that brought them to where they are today.
We’re finding that with other wineries as well. We’re having a lot of farmers who are selling their properties and people buying them up. That’s how the Yadkin Valley came to be; there are well over 100 wineries in that area. Ironically, North Carolina, prior to Prohibition, was [a top] producer and nationwide exporter of wine. They did that with their [indigenous] Muscadine varieties.
WS: What’s a pairing you personally enjoy at Angus Barn?
HS: There’s one pairing that is kind of unusual, but it really works. We serve baby back ribs, and we make our own barbecue sauce. The ribs are grilled and dressed with honey, then brushed with our sauce. To me, the pairing that best works with them is a Gewürztraminer, which isn’t what most people would think to pair it with—more specifically a Gewürztraminer from Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma. It has that honeysuckle sort of note and there’s a little bit of lychee nuttiness in that wine as well, and a slight sweetness. It’s got a strong structure that can hold up to the high acid and spiciness of the barbecue sauce.
WS: Are there any “rules” you like to break that you’ve found work especially well pairing food and wine at a steak house like Angus Barn?
HS: I like to do unique things for fun. If we’re serving a salad with a little goat cheese and nuts, fresh herbs and a berry dressing that goes with it, I’ll serve a Pinot Noir or a Barbera or a lighter red to complement the salad. And people love it.
WS: What are your goals for the future of the restaurant’s wine program?
HS: My biggest goal is to get as much of our staff educated to where they take their first or second level [exam] to becoming a master somm, or are comfortable selling wine and being able to talk about wine, not just at the restaurant, but in their personal lives. I teach a wine course from January through June for the staff, but I also love to bring people in from the outside that really want to learn but can’t necessarily afford it or don’t know where to go. It’s really a community of helping each other to succeed.