When I moved to Nashville from New York City in 1981, courtesy of RCA Records, I arrived in town on an early Saturday night in late August. I opened the car door to a wall of humidity so oppressive it nearly knocked me to my knees. I had been to Nashville several times before, butI realized much too latenever in the thick of summer.
While awaiting an available suite at the Spence Manor, which would be my home for the next two weeks, RCA put me up that first night at the Hall of Fame Hotel on Demonbreun Street, where I was checked in by an Elvis imitator. I was a little taken aback but knew it would make an amusing story to tell my friends back in New York.
After depositing my luggage, I went out to find a place to eat. I didn’t know the town very well, so my restaurant search was confined to the Music Row/Hillsboro Village/West End Avenue area. I grew increasingly frustrated as the few restaurants I did manage to stumble across were closed or closing. I was getting hungrier and crankier by the moment until finally, in utter frustration, I pulled into the Arby’s on West End and just managed to get a roast beef sandwich and curly fries before the eatery locked its door at 10 p.m.
At that point, I was ready for a bottle of wine, but liquor stores seemed as scarce as open kitchens. Finally finding one on Church Street, I walked in and looked for the very common white Italian table wine that I bought by the 1.5-liter bottle back in Manhattan. Seeing nothing of the kind, I inquired at the front counter. The womanwho was not an Elvis imitator but could have been his mothersaid she had never heard of the brand I was seeking but that they did have an “Eye-talian” wine that was very popular.
I took a bottle, paid the $4.99, and sped back to the Hall of Fame. Inside my room, at 10:30 on my very first Saturday night in Nashville, with my Arby’s repast spread on the Formica bedside table, I took the outer wrapper off the bottle and uncovered a screw-top lid. I poured a glass and was horrified to find that my bottle of “Eye-talian” wine was carbonated. I burst into tears and cursed Joe Galante for luring me to this Godforsaken, culturally bereft wasteland of Elvis impersonators, fast food, and carbonated wine.
The Elvis impersonator I could deal with, and the Arby’s wasn’t so bad, I guess. But it was the carbonated wine that got me. Had I really moved to a town, I worried, where I couldn’t find a decent bottle of vino?
Hoyt Hill remembers the bad old days as well, albeit from the other side of the coin. A Nashville native, his restaurant experience as a child and teenager was limited to Shoney’s. While attending Vanderbilt, he began working in restaurants, eventually ending up at Julian’s in 1970, right after it opened. Even though it was quite a few notches above Shoney’s, Julian’s had not yet evolved into the fine French restaurant it became for nearly 20 years. When it came to wine, the options were slim indeed. “At the time I went to work there, Julian’s, like every other restaurant in town, served Gallo Chablis Blanc and Gallo Heart Burgundy out of gallon jugs as the house wines,” Hill remembers with a laugh.
The day Hill graduated from Vanderbilt, Julian’s owner John Haggard made him manager, and his education in the food and wine industry began in earnest. The wine list Hill inherited at Julian’s consisted of four white wines and four red, with only one vintage available in each. Hill began his wine lessons by listening to his customers at Julian’s, tasting, and reading. Later, he received more formal education and became one of Nashville’s most knowledgeable authorities on wine. After leaving Julian’s, he owned or partnered F. Scott’s, Valentino’s, and Wild Boar before spending two years as an independent wine consultant.
About a year ago, tired of the long hours and transient nature of the restaurant business, he consulted with a friend who was a very successful businessman. “He said, ‘Why aren’t you selling wine? That’s what you know best,’ ” Hill recalls. “He told me that he just happened to know of a liquor store that was up for sale, and he helped me put the deal together.”
In March 1999, Hill purchased Hillsboro Village Wine & Spirits, a neighborhood fixture for more than two decades, and renamed it Village Wines. He hired two fellow wine experts, Elise Loehr and Pam Janco. “This is a pretty easy business,” he says. “People will tell you what they want to have, and that’s what you carry. I buy wines that I think taste good for what they cost.”
Hill’s clients have followed him to Village Wines and rely on him for advice, whether stocking their wine cellar or taking a bottle along to a dinner party. “The most important thing you can do when you want to buy wines is develop a personal relationship with a knowledgeable salesperson in your store. They want to help you find something great.”
In the past 30 years, Nashville has come a long, long way in the food and wine field. Besides Village Wines, there are more than half a dozen stores with oenophiles on staff, among them Nashville Wine & Spirits, Bud’s Liquor & Wine Shop, Frugal MacDoogal’s, Mr. Whiskers, West End Liquors & Wines, West Meade Wine & Liquor Mart, and Midtown Wine & Spiritsthe very same Church Street store from my bleak Saturday night 18 years ago. There are wine dinners and wine tastings held almost weekly in Nashville, and several local restaurants have received awards from Wine Spectator for their top-notch lists. And Un Eté du Vin, the wine auction that this year celebrated its 20th anniversary, has raised more than $7 million for cancer research; it’s the largest non-industry charity wine auction in the country. How do you like them grapes?
As the holidays approach, serious and casual wine drinkers alike rely even more on the expertise found in their corner liquor store. Whether entertaining at home or attending a holiday party, people want to know what kind of wine to buy. Hill says when it comes to wine, chardonnay or merlot is the norm; the type you buy depends on how much you want to spend. “You can’t expect the same flavor profile from a wine that costs $9.99 a bottle as one that costs $50 a bottle. But you don’t have to spend $50 to find a decent bottle of wine.”
He says champagne is the perfect thing to take to someone’s home, a festive beverage whose consumption is at an all-time high; of course, it’s uppermost in people’s minds as we approach the New Year’s Eve countdown. While champagne makers and distributors have sent out early dire warnings of champagne shortages, Hill says that ain’t necessarily so.
“If you love Veuve Cliquot, Dom Perignon, Cristal, Krug, or Perrier-Jouet, you should buy it now. But there will be plenty of Korbel, Freixenet, and Totts on hand, right through the end of the year.”
Red wines, says Hill, should be served at about 65 degrees, white at 55 degrees. Champagne should be served a little bit colder than white wine and always in a tulip-shaped flute. If you do not have a wine cellar, store wine on its side in a dark, cool place with no vibration. A bottle of wine will pour about five glasses, and if you’re counting those holiday calories, a five-ounce glass of dry table wine contains just over 100 calories and absolutely no fat grams. Cheers.
On Nov. 20, Sunset Grill celebrated its ninth anniversary with an invitation-only dinner cooked bydrum roll, pleasenew chef Michael Tuohy, a San Francisco native who has spent the past 13 years living and working in Atlanta. Tuohy’s résumé is impressive: After graduating culinary school he worked with Joyce Goldstein, a charter member of the Alice Waters-Chez Panisse posse. In 1986, he moved to Atlanta and opened Chef’s Cafe, a restaurant similar in concept to F. Scott’s. Tuohy was chef-partner of that restaurant, also opening Chef’s Grill at the High Museum. Most recently, he was at Tom Tom in Lennox Square, owned by Tom Catherall, our region’s only certified master chef.
Visiting Nashville over Fourth of July weekendhis wife is from hereTuohy got together with Sunset owner Randy Rayburn. One thing led to another, and voilà, Tuohy officially took over the kitchen this month. He has already streamlined the menu some, has added a couple of dishes, and is playing around with daily specials. Tuohy’s primary influence is Mediterranean, though his focus is on cooking seasonally with the best and freshest products of the region. Very Chez Panisse, oui?
Tuohy’s arrival isn’t the only new news at Sunset. On Jan. 2, the restaurant will close for a $200,000 overhaul; when it reopens on Friday, Jan. 7, it will boast a new roof and a refurbished and expanded kitchen, all the better to show off the new menu from the new chef.
Rayburn continues his search for a location for what will eventually be his third restaurant, joining Sunset and Midtown in his culinary empire sometime in the year 2000.
Kay West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.