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Grape Expectations 

New wine bar at Northlake Mall is alarmingly good

Fifteen years ago or so, when the first wine bar opened in Charlotte with its state-of-the-art cruvinee, a wine bar opening was a big event. Nowadays, with so many wine bars around town, I'm surprised Park Lanes Bowling Ally doesn't have one. (It doesn't, does it?)

Drinking wine has become synonymous with both good health and positive self-image. With its friendlier labels and some with twist-off caps, wine has become part of the beverage culture and is no longer the exclusive purview of those who can correctly pronounce sommelier. Oh sure, a number of Charlotteans have top-notch cellars with stores of Harlan Estate and Colgin Cellars (two hard-to-find boutique wines), but for the majority of folks in all age brackets, drinking wine has become routine.

Stand-alone wine bars, as opposed to the ones in restaurants, are social destinations. Early this year, an 82-seat establishment called The Grape opened in Northlake Mall. The entrance is inside the mall but near an exterior door is a 53-seat patio.

Purple hues, including "concord grape" and lime green, color the funky upscale interior. The seating is comfortable with laced seats and squishy booths. The floor is corked, which prevents glass breakage, according to owner Christopher Smith, a native of Savannah, GA. Smith bought the Charlotte franchise of the Atlanta-based establishment and he plans to open three more: one in Dilworth, one in SouthPark and another in Ballantyne. The Grape currently has plans for 98 stores throughout the Southeast.

The Grape uses tabbed taste manuals instead of menus. Forget terrior, vintage, winemaker or even winery, it's all taste here. Wines are classified into ten color-coded numeric levels ranging from the light green "Light bodied white wines with a just picked fruity flavor" tab to the burgundy-coded "Full bodied red wines with prominent seductive aromas with an intense, rich berry taste" tab. Two categories are reserved for pricy, "special occasion" wines.

For wine connoisseurs and people accustomed to selecting wines by varietals, going back to Wine 101 is difficult and frustrating. For neophytes, this selection technique might be helpful.

The Grape is a gathering place. Although many tables hold twosomes, most tables are populated with girlfriends, not surprising since The Grape is located in a mall. And there's the catch: Women gather to talk, and although the menu looks deceptively simple, it isn't. After turning through the wine tabs, and then trying to match the color-coded wine with the short list of appetizers, some women turn to the servers and ask for suggestions. This is fine if the server is knowledgeable. However, our server had just started two days before and would have been of little help. We opted not to follow suggestions anyway and ordered the food and wines we wanted.

Wines are offered in flights, by the glass or by the bottle. Wine is also sold at an adjacent place called The Seller, a small retail space where bottles are showcased and spotlighted on columns. Prices at The Seller are approximately half the cost of a bottle sold in the dining room. I'm not sure what the wine mark-up is in the retail shop, but the overall dining-room markup is 100 percent over the retail price.

Some of the bottles, such as the De Venoge Champagne, are proprietary. The Grapes' wines are selected by Robert Chapman, the executive vice president of the Grape Corporation. The wine selection of 115 to 125 wines changes about eight times a year. Wines are priced from $9 to $500, with many of the more flavorful bottles in the $30 and $40 range.

Currently, there is not a trained chef in the kitchen, but dishes are only small plates. The kitchen in managed by Gary McCray, who is training to become general manager. Recipes are developed in Atlanta.

Knowing that a culinarian is not in the kitchen made some of the plates a pleasant surprise. The best were the bites of prosciutto with a velvety cambozola blue cheese on toasted pita, slathered with a fig spread. Another dish that got raves at the table was the deliciously roasted lamb chop marinated with rosemary and garlic then drizzled with minty port reduction sauce. Entirely compatible with wine were the modest bites of smoked salmon, cucumber and creamed feta drizzled with aioli. Spunkless, though, was the grilled veggie pita with goat cheese.

The real drawback to The Grape is not the fault of the owner. The mall, owned by Taubam Properties, too-frequently sets off loud fire alarms, which interrupts the dining experience. The other sound at The Grape is more enjoyable -- local bands, from jazz to light rock, on Thursdays through Saturdays. As a backdrop for a social gathering, The Grape succeeds in offering a selection of tasty small plates and a well-rounded wine list. Beware, though: The prices are full-blown and if you talk a lot, and continue to order, your check might be alarming as well.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need notice of events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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