By Peter Ingle

Debbie Marlowe has been operating The Wine Shop of Charleston since 1995. She started her career in the wine wholesale business before opening her retail shop now at 3 Lockwood Drive. Debbie is a premier authority with in-depth knowledge of international as well as domestic wines. As a longtime chef and foodie, she also specializes in helping customers pair wine with food, which is as much of a skill as knowing about wines themselves and which is not common to most wine merchants or sales people. Peter Ingle sat down recently with Debbie to talk about wine, food and the art of appreciating them together.

Mercury: Debbie, do you remember the first wine you ever tasted?

Debbie: It was a bottle of Bouchard Beaujolais-Villages. I thought it was the best beverage I had ever tasted and I bought a book the next day and started studying.

Mercury: Was it the alcohol you liked?

Debbie: No. It was the taste of the wine and I loved it. For the next two years I wrote down notes about every wine I tasted. That was seven or eight years before I got into the wine business. But even when I got into the business and started tasting a lot of different wines, I kept writing down descriptions of everything. I trained myself how to store the information.

Mercury: Any tips for someone first learning to taste wines?

I usually suggest the five S’s: see it, swirl it, sip it, swish it around in your mouth and then swallow it. Analyze what is happening in your mouth each time. But the best thing anyone can do is keep notes about what they like. Wine then becomes an education that you never receive from anyone else.

Mercury: What is your advice in general about decanting red wine before drinking it?

A lot of the wine I sell goes home with customers who drink it within 30 days. In the case of reds I often tell them, “You can open it today if you’re going to drink it tomorrow.”

Mercury: Do you mean leave it open completely?

If you put the cork back in, you have not exposed anything to air except that little circle at the top and then closed it again. The easiest thing to do, especially with a red wine high in tannin, is to pour it into a decanter or pitcher and let it sit for maybe an hour before pouring it back into the bottle. If I am serving wine in the evening, I will decant it in the morning for an hour, pour it back in the bottle and put the cork back in before I leave for work. Then it’s ready to go for dinner at 7 p.m. And my favorite way to get red wine to the right temperature is to put it on the air-conditioner vent and leave it there during the day.

Mercury: A lot of people store white wine in their fridge and end up drinking it too cold. What’s your approach?

I don’t usually store whites in the fridge. I put them in the fridge for an hour before serving. An hour will take care of it. If a white wine frosts your class, it’s too cold and you’re not getting what you paid for.

Mercury: What about reds in the fridge?

Debbie: I vacu-vin both reds and whites after they’ve been opened and then put them in the fridge. I take the reds out and let them sit to warm up to serving temperature, about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I usually have pretty good luck keeping open wines this way for three or four days.

Mercury: What about the best place to store wine for those who don’t have a cellar or wine cooler?

Debbie: Inside interior walls or under the stairs. Somewhere the temperature stays consistent. Never at the top of the room because that’s where the heat always rises. Even under the bed is fine.

Mercury: What do you like to drink with a hamburger?

Debbie: For everyday drinking, I drink in the same price range as my customers—in the $15-18 range. For dinner parties or special meals, I will step up in price. But for everyday drinking, I drink a lot of Cotes du Rhone because there are a lot of excellent values in the $9 to $15 range.

Mercury: Wine connoisseurship in America surged in the 1970s and 1980s as the wine industry expanded in California. After that, wine started to become a fashion. What do you think happened?

Debbie: I think a lot of it was marketing motivated by people who made a lot of money in another industry and decided to move into the Napa Valley wine business. Due to the amount of money they invested, wines became more expensive. What had been selling in the mid 80s for $20 soon became $60 and prices became prohibitive for the American consumer.

Mercury: Was the quality of the wine affected?

Debbie: No. Quality continued to increase among the top wines. But there’s a lot of wine on the bulk market with flaws that are usually covered up by adding sugar. Adjustments are also often made to acidity through the addition of chemicals. But many flaws are masked by sugar. As a result, you see a lot of American wines under-$15 with a very sweet mid-palate and a very sweet finish.

Mercury: In terms of masking, are you referring mainly to white wines or also reds?

Debbie: Both. There are a lot of red wines that are sweet because we’re a country that drinks “sweet.” We drink sweet tea, sweet colas and sweet juices, so we don’t perceive how sweet many of our wines really are.

Mercury: There are now so many choices available, some very expensive. Is the difference in quality proportional to the difference in price?

Debbie: Not always and not very often. A good example is champagne. Most champagne houses hold a certain amount of reserve wine to blend back into their “house” style to keep quality consistent year to year. They may not declare a vintage one year because their stocks are low, but in a great year they will declare a vintage and they will have a Grande Marques. So if you’re drinking Louis Roederer Brut Première, Louis Roederer vintage, or Louis Roederer Cristal, the Cristal is never worth $225 more than the everyday champagne. Never. You’re paying for the prestige of the Grande Marques—the time it has spent on the lees (residual yeast deposits at the bottom of fermentation tanks which add texture, weight and flavor), as well as the time spent in the cellar and in the bottle.

Mercury: What about the value and price of reds?

Debbie: Sometimes a winery will introduce a wonderful pinot noir, for example, made from a single slope or vineyard and then start making it from six different vineyards, but at the same or higher price. You then wonder, “Where did the quality go?” The same thing happens when wine that had been made from older, mature vines starts being mixed with juice from newer, young vines.

Mercury: Is it reasonable for restaurants to mark up their wine prices 400 percent?

Debbie: I don’t go out to eat and drink wine anymore because of that. I think people want to pay for a bottle of wine about what they pay for an entrée. But if your credit card is not maxed out, you can have a $60 bottle of wine with a $30 entrée. It’s also true that percentage wise, higher priced wines tend to have less of a markup. But restaurants typically don’t sell anything for less than $30.

Mercury: How have you seen the wine market in Charleston change?

Debbie: Charleston became restaurant savvy at the time California wines were coming into their heyday. Before that people were still having wine dinners at home, very much under the European influence. The restaurants here then went big time and became comfortable — and still are — with primarily American wines on their wine lists, compared to wines from anywhere else in the world.

Mercury: Does that have anything to do with import costs or distribution in the U.S.?

Debbie: It has to do with the comfort level of the person selling the wine and their knowledge of wines.

Mercury: If they want to, they can get virtually anything, can’t they?

Absolutely. Another factor is that more people are now taking the sommelier exam and looking farther afield for wines that aren’t the norm. They are so busy looking for novelty that they’re overlooking the reason why the greatest wines of the world are the greatest wines.

Mercury: Why do you think those wines are so great?

Debbie: Soil. Climate. Sun exposure. The proper grape varietal planted. And the proper clone of that variety. Historically, Europe, South Africa and Australia have had that reputation.

Mercury: I heard that Australian wineries purposely started making drinkable wines to compete with French wines and to appeal to the American palate.

Debbie: They certainly did that. They made sweet wines that were very affordable and they put animals on the labels and they have destroyed their credibility as far as fine wine, even though there are still some good wines being made in Australia.

Mercury: If you had to choose, would you still choose the traditional tree cork?

Debbie: I would choose the tree cork for anything I was going to put away long term in the cellar. For anything I plan to drink in the next 3 to 5 years that I am buying it for its fresher quality, I have great respect for the screw cap closure. Especially for rosé. It’s too much trouble to go get the corkscrew for a rosé!

Mercury: What about wine bowls — glasses without stems — that are now fashionable? Does that make a difference to you?

Debbie: It makes a big difference to me. I only use them if I’m around the swimming pool or hot tub. The stem is there for a reason. It keeps your fingerprints off the glass so you can see the clarity of the wine. It also keeps your hand from heating up the wine in the glass. Once you start fondling all that glassware, you are heating up the wine even though you can’t see it.

Mercury: What food do you like with rosé?

Debbie: Salade Niçoise and seafood. The French have always drunk rosé because they don’t want red wine in the hot summer. If you’re in the south of France, you want something cold and rosé (which comes from red grapes that are stripped of their skins) has a lot more character than white wine by virtue of having been in the skins. Rosés are also typically dry, fruity and very fresh because they’ve never been in oak barrels. Descriptions of them are often things like “strawberries” and “watermelon.” They are really good for light lunches and light suppers when the weather is hot. I prefer Chenin Blanc with an edge of sweetness (not the more acidic ones) for fried shrimp, but rosé is the best choice for steamed shrimp.

Mercury: How do you rank the wine regions of the world? What characterizes each of them?

Debbie: Mostly it’s about what they end up producing based on the grapes they grow. For example, Burgundy with its pinot noir and chardonnay, Bordeaux with the five red grapes used there and Germany because there is nowhere else in the world where Riesling grows the way it grows in Germany and which can be used to make different styles of both sweet and dry wines. Then there is the Alsace region, which is known for Gewürztraminer, which is great with turkey. The South African wines, which first came into America after Apartheid, didn’t sell at first because by the time they had gone through the legalities of our distribution-wholesale-retail chain and finally reached consumers, they had aged in bottles that were standing upright and consumers didn’t like them. It took a while for them to catch on. The reds are also more earthy than the average American palate is accustomed to or likes, so South African whites are having more success than the reds which don’t have the same elegance of the categories of French reds. Meanwhile, New Zealand wineries made an immediate hit with their sauvignon blancs, especially from the Marlboro region in the southern end of the north island and the northern end of the south island. It’s a unique spot influenced by rapidly changing wind currents from Antarctica.

Mercury: What about South America, where a number of European wineries opened or refurbished operations down there during the last 40 years?

Debbie: I would love to be fan of Chilean reds, but I can’t be even though they have improved dramatically … I get too many off flavors in them. But Chilean whites — sauvignon blanc, for example — can be very good. I also think Argentina makes better reds than Chile. The Argentinian cabernet is probably more acceptable and more approachable to an American palate that likes American cabernet. There are a lot of similarities. Once again, it comes down to the soil, the area and the exposure, which are more like North America.

Mercury: Vine management and winemaking techniques have become dizzyingly complex. Is all that better for the wine?

Debbie: Yes, Absolutely better for it. It all starts in the vineyard with things like the right kind of trellising, how you prune the vines and whether you choose to intensify the fruit by trimming green grapes off the vine — which large wineries tend to avoid because they want to get as much volume as they can even if it means less intensity of flavor. In Europe, you can produce only a certain amount of liters per hectare. In America there is no restriction like that. In Europe, if you exceed the specified amount, you have to declassify the wine and label it as such.

Mercury: What would you say is the most misunderstood or underappreciated thing about wine in America?

Debbie: Learning to taste wine with food. If you really want to understand wine, you have to understand it, not as a cocktail, but as a major beverage that is meant to go with food. Start by having a taste of your food, then have a taste of the wine. You’ll start to understand that a tannic California cabernet, for example, cleans all the fat from a rare steak. A sip of it cleans your palate and makes the next bite of steak taste fresh. That’s the magic that most people don’t understand about wine. Too many people — even with a nice glass of wine in front of them at dinner — eat much if not most of their meal first and only then start drinking the wine. Wine is meant to go with food and change your perspective on the food.

Learn about Friday evening wine tastings at The Wine Shop by visiting www.thewineshopofcharleston.com or calling (843) 577-3881.

Peter Ingle is the owner of StrategicBusinessWriters.com and founder of the online arts publication CharlestonToday.net.

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