Dina Opici: 2019 Wine’s Most Inspiring People

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Dina Opici, President of Opici Family Distributing (photo credit: Opici Group)

I am honored to share my recent article for Wine Industry Network (WIN) Advisor, my contribution to their 2019 Wine’s Most Inspiring People series. Meet Dina Opici, fourth-generation President of Opici Family Distributing, and role model for women in the wine industry.
*CLICK HERE TO READ*

Ten Questions for Sam Etheridge of Ambrozia Bar & Bistro in Asheville, North Carolina

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Ambrozia’s signature deviled eggs paired with NV Gruet Winery Blanc de Noir, New Mexico

Another restaurant stop on my recent visit to my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, was Ambrozia Bar & Bistro in North Asheville, in the neighborhood where my mother grew up and where my uncle, aunt and cousins lived. I had not been to this part of the city in a long time, so imagine how delighted I was to learn of Ambrozia, tucked away in an unassuming shopping center. While interviewing owner and chef Sam Etheridge, I discovered someone that truly inspires me, a person who is committed to family and life-work balance, both of which are difficult to achieve being in the restaurant business. Below is the fantastic story of Ambrozia in Sam’s own words.

What inspired you to get into the restaurant business?
I have always been in the restaurant business. I began as a busboy as a teenager and worked at various restaurants throughout high school and college. After college, I attended culinary school in South Florida and the rest is history.

Why did you select your location?
We decided to move to Asheville from New Mexico in order to be closer to family. I grew up in Tennessee and my wife in Florida. We loved the food scene and lifestyle here and the city itself as a place to raise kids.

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Smoked salmon platter paired with 2017 Garzón Albariño, Uco Valley, Mendoza

How did you choose the name of your restaurant?
This is the second restaurant I have had named Ambrozia. The first was in New Mexico. I chose the name because it means “food of the gods” and had a Southern tie-in with the sweet salad you see at church picnics. After moving to Asheville and deciding to open a restaurant here, I kept the name because I just identified with it and loved the name.

Will you share with us details about your restaurant’s design and décor and how the theme complements your menu?
I had a friend of mine come in who is a contractor and help with design and décor. Being in a strip mall, our idea was to make you forget that you were in a strip mall once inside. We wanted an understated wine theme that was upscale and modern, but also comfortable enough to be an everyday hangout.

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Bison Reuben paired with 2015 Tacho Malbec, Uco Valley, Mendoza

What is your restaurant’s style of cooking?
We are modern Southern cuisine with a twist and a focus on farm-fresh, local ingredients.

What are your and/or your staff’s favorite dishes?
Our deviled eggs and fried chicken have long been our signature dishes. We change the menu constantly, so we have lots of favorites seasonally like tomato pie or chile relleno.

How does your restaurant’s beverage program enhance the cuisine?
We are very focused on wine that enhances the food. We don’t want anything too overpowering. We like high acid and well-balanced fruit. We also create seasonal cocktails that are focused on culinary ingredients and seasonality and local beers, for which Asheville is very well known.

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Bourbon butterscotch pudding paired with Notorious Coffee, Marshall, North Carolina

Do you have a philosophy as it relates to food, beverage, and hospitality?
My philosophy is to have fun, whether it be me, the staff, customers, everyone. It’s not always an easy thing in the high-stress business, but I think everyone is better off if they are enjoying themselves and it shows.

Do you have plans to open additional locations or restaurants? Why or why not?
No, I do not have plans. I have kids and a family, so that is my focus. I had tried to have multiple restaurants before, and it was not good for my family life.

Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming menu items, events, etc.?
We feel like we are a hidden gem in Asheville. Everyone is so focused on downtown, and it is great, but Asheville offers great restaurants all around the city and everyone should get out and explore the neighborhoods as well.

Editor’s Note: I recommend Ambrozia and its prix fixe menu during 2019 Asheville Restaurant Week January 21-27, 2019.

Ten questions for Sean Piper, Owner of Jargon Restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina

 

Earlier this month, I enjoyed an amazing opportunity to be hosted by four of Asheville, North Carolina’s off-the-beaten path, perhaps lesser known restaurants, in West, North, East, and South Asheville. As part of my Ten Questions for series, I interviewed the proprietors of each restaurant. Nothing excites me more than someone who turns their life upside down and does a complete 360-degree turn to follow their dream. Therefore, I am thrilled to share the story of Sean Piper and his new restaurant in West Asheville, Jargon, which opened about a year and a half ago, in Sean’s own words.

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Pickled Beet Salad

What inspired you to get into the restaurant business?
Before my movie production career, I had worked many years in the restaurant industry doing various jobs.  I was a dishwasher, prep cook, broiler assistant, bar back, bus boy, server, bartender, and eventually a dining room manager.  I absolutely loved it.  All of it.  There’s something special about having guests in your house and making them feel special and welcome.  Ironically, it’s very similar to movie production: a group of hardworking folks each with a specific job to do, working as a team, and providing that “escapism” for our guests.

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The lovely and unique 2017 Cuvelier Los Andes Rosé of Malbec, Uco Valley, Mendoza

Why did you select your location?
My parents have lived in Asheville for over 28 years, and consequently I’ve spent a lot of time here.  I fell in love with the entire area.  The eclectic vibe, the creative energies, the waterfalls are intoxicating!  An old mentor of mine told me that if I was truly serious about owning a restaurant, I must own the building.  After many years of searching for the right space (that I could afford), I found a small condemned building for sale at 715 Haywood Road.  It took four years to negotiate the purchase, and I later discovered that it’s a nationally registered historical building.  I worked with the Historical Preservation Office, saved the building, and was awarded the Griffin Award for historical rehabilitation in June.

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Yes, that’s me in front of the Scrabble tiles in Jargon’s amazing restroom!

How did you choose the name of your restaurant?
Honestly, it came to me one afternoon after some “midday inspiration” (drinking wine).  A friend suggested “Slang” which was too edgy in my opinion.  I immediately said, “Ooh, how about Jargon”?  I looked up the definition which says that “Jargon is a language that is understood within certain groups”.  I loved the juxtaposition of exclusivity and inclusivity, and the play on words that Jargon inherently presented.

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Scallops and Pork Belly

Will you share with us details about your restaurant’s design and décor and how the theme complements your menu?
Jargon has also been described to me as “repurposed language”.  This was a key to our branding, as we try to look at new ways to use ingredients and décor. We acquired 1952-era bowling lanes from Indiana that we used as my table tops and bar top, we also made glasses from recycled wine bottles, made a 1938 Philco radio as our host stand, used 1940’s Hamilton Printer trays for my bar facade, used antique game boards for our menu backs, and utilized 20,000 scrabble tiles as accent walls in our bathroom.

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Rabbit Agnolotti

What is your restaurant’s style of cooking?
Chef Marcus Day is from Louisiana and he has an Italian cuisine background.  You can find those incredible Cajun flavor profiles in his cooking, and his house made pasta is simply outstanding.  Our Sous Chef Jeff Crowder was born and raised in Western North Carolina, so there is also a Southern flare in many of our dishes.

What are your and/or your staff’s favorite dishes?
My staff’s favorite dishes at the moment are our oven roasted octopus, the scallops and pork belly, and the bacon and Brussels salad. Simply outstanding!

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Scallops and Pork Belly paired with a signature cocktail named True Story…and Deliciously Evil

How does your restaurant’s beverage program enhance the cuisine?
Chris Keane, my head bartender has a wealth of knowledge that he brings to our guest’s experience.  His craft cocktails are a fantastic way to start your evening.  My current favorite is his “Granddad’s Lunch Box” that uses a peanut butter washed bourbon and house made strawberry syrup. Think of it as a PB&J Old Fashioned! Also, I’m very proud of our wine program here at Jargon.  We store all wines at proper temperature, serve in appropriate elegant glassware, and decant medium to full bodied wines without asking to open them up as much as possible.

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Ice Breaker Cocktail

Do you have a philosophy as it relates to food, beverage, and hospitality?
Our philosophy is to treat every single person who comes through our door as a guest in our house. Forget about the outside world and be treated special.  My entire staff genuinely cares deeply about everything they do, and it shows.

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Pickled Beet Salad

Do you have plans to open additional locations or restaurants? Why or why not?
We’ve only been open a year and six months, so I’m focused on making this “little gem on the Westside” stand on a firm foundation. That said, I’m having some discussions with some folks who would love to put a Jargon in Chicago!

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Chocolate Hazelnut Chess Pie

Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming menu items, events, etc. We have some great things planned!  Starting with a special Valentine’s Day event!  We are also discussing a Godfather Dinner Theatre, a Prohibition dinner (where we lock the front door, and folks must enter through the back with a password), another New Orleans Jazz Dinner, a wine maker dinner, and much more!  Make sure folks sign up for our newsletter because those folks have first dibs!

Exclusive Interview with Crocodile Wine in Asheville, North Carolina

This young family just moved to the area from New York City, they just had a baby who is only a week old, and they just opened their dream wine shop on Friday, December 21, in downtown Asheville. G Social Media and I were so fortunate to stumble upon Crocodile Wine the day after the shop opened. Here is our exclusive, inaugural interview with owner John Hale, who brings an amazing selection of natural wines to Asheville, North Carolina. 

Asheville Wine Tour: Yes, please!

Have you ever been on a wine tour in Asheville, North Carolina? When I was there last month, I visited three incredible wine and food venues in the area with creator, producer, and maker of video magic, Gary of G Social Media. The first stop was wine and dinner at Rezaz – Pan Mediterranean Cuisine. Next, we walked up the hill to sample a few wines at the tasting bar at Appalachian Vintner. Last, but not least, we took Uber to plēb urban winery to celebrate their Beaujolais Day release of the inaugural 2018 wine, a lovely rosé of Maréchal Foch from North Carolina. What an amazing time I had. I cannot wait for my next visit and tour.

Ten Questions for Madeline Puckette of Wine Folly Magnum Edition

 

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When I recently received my review copy of Wine Folly Magnum Edition, I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the book’s cover design. I know that you should not judge a book by its cover (or a wine by its label), but dang, this is a beautiful book. The good news is that it only gets better inside. This book is a plethora of outstanding content, a fantastic resource for the wine novice to expert. With the assumption that one does not know anything about wine, this book starts at the beginning, then breaks this wealth of information into manageable chunks, presenting it to the reader in an aesthetically pleasing, colorful, and easy-to-follow design. While I am thankful for my more formal wine certification program, I must confess that if the content had been presented the Wine Folly way, learning would have been much more fun.

This sample copy of the book left me wanting to know more about Wine Folly – the brand, the books, and the website – so I contacted Avery Books, a division of Penguin Random House, to schedule an interview with author and designer, Madeline Puckette. When you read Madeline’s answers, you will understand why Wine Folly is such a delight in every way, and why you need Wine Folly Magnum Edition in your book collection.

When did you fall in love with wine? Was there a wine moment and/or a special wine?

Wine found its way into my life in stages.  That said, I did have an “aha” wine.  It was a $13 bottle of Côtes du Rhône from the 2005 vintage. Not at all fancy. My boyfriend and I sat there sniffing it, trying to pick out fruit flavors and nothing fit.  Suddenly, he blurted out “olives!” and my mind was blown. Who knew wine could be savory?

I tried to buy more but the vintage sold out and the next vintage tasted gnarly. (and not in a good way.) That experience taught me about vintage variation, French “terroir,” and active wine tasting all in one fell swoop!

What other wine industry roles have you held prior to Wine Folly?

Prior to starting Wine Folly, I worked in restaurants including several steakhouses, a French restaurant, a wine bar with 50 wines by the glass, a cool chef-driven spot (Poppy in Seattle), and even at a large casino hotel. (You’ve never seen a hotel until you’ve seen their laundry!)

I absolutely love working the floor. It’s exhausting and exhilarating all at once. The people who work in hospitality are some of the coolest people to work alongside.

What made you decide to share your knowledge of wine with the world? Was there a void you wanted to fill regarding wine education?

When I became certified in 2010 I was at odds with my level of wine smarts versus other people. It’s like knowing how to speak another language but not having anyone to talk to. And, at certified level, you’re still trying to practice. So, I started Wine Folly to bridge my knowledge to others. To practice communicating. As a communicator, I’m not particularly adept with words, but if you ask me to draw something… This is where I shine.

 What is the history/story and philosophical approach behind Wine Folly both the website and books?

The philosophy behind Wine Folly is intricate, even the word “folly” is multi-layered.  Still, the modus operandi of Wine Folly easy to put words to:  To communicate wine as simply as humanly possible. And, to explore the human condition through the lens of wine.

Side Note: The funny thing about wine is that it deals with a lot of root human behaviors, from our desire to connect with others to our ability to recognize patterns (as a species.)

Why did you choose the name Wine Folly?

Oh, you ask!  Hahaha. This is my folly!  I should have read ahead…

So, the word “folly” has multiple meanings if you look it up. It’s a foolhardy mistake as well as an architectural element that has little purpose (other than just looking good from a distance.)  So, why “folly?”

For those just getting into wine, being interested in wine seems like pure folly because it’s just an alcoholic beverage. Why should anyone care? That said, once you’re inside, you come to realize that wine is an edifice with deep scientific and cultural implications. In short, wine is deep.  It will go as deep as you’re willing to dive.

So, we named it “folly” for that moment when you decide to take the plunge and see what’s out there.

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Pairing Wine Folly Magnum Edition with Domaine Carneros Le Rêve

Who is Wine Folly’s audience? 

At this moment, I love teaching wine beginners. That said, we will continue to develop our content past this level. It’s surprising how quickly people are absorbing and using the information with the visual approach!

Wine Folly Magnum Edition is the follow-up edition of your hugely successful first book, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine? Why did you decide to create this new edition?

The Essential Guide was an MVP (minimum viable product) to use entrepreneurial jargon. I did it to test the model against the market. Sure enough, the model worked!  Hot cakes!

Of course, as soon as the book came out, I felt a burning desire to iterate on the model. Magnum Edition is the iteration.  I’m not sure where the burning desire comes from, but it’s there and it’s unavoidable.

What makes this edition different than the first? Why should purchasers of the first book buy this new edition?

Besides the fact that it has over two times the content and a stunningly beautiful cover, it does a better job of communicating the topic of wine. There is some repetition in the format (and I did save a couple of excellent infographics in book 2), but the added value well exceeds the cover price. It was also redesigned from the ground up so there’s lots of new stuff.

If anything, you can now pass down your last book to a well-deserving wine beginner!

Do you think anything has changed in the wine world, from the consumer and professional perspectives, during three years since the release of your first book? How do you address those changes in this edition?

I’ve observed enormous change since the first book launch.

These days, consumers care more about where wines come from, how they’re made, and what they contain versus the love story and hedonism that defined the past. Of course, the wine world has been very slow to adapt to this new mindset.

So, in this new book, we tried very hard to be information rich and answer the fundamental questions of wine that are often left out of the marketing story. In this way, the book helps consumers take a more pragmatic approach to exploring wine on their own. It’s more about how to think about wine and where to hunt for it than what to think and buy.

What is next for Wine Folly?

I was supposed to write out my five-year plan out today, but I thought answering your questions seemed way less intimidating.

Seriously though, we have the lighthouse vision built and it’s audacious.  We just need to figure out how to paddle there without killing the team or losing the passion. I promise it will be big, or the other option: you’ll find me washed out living by a vineyard in Oregon with a VW Vanagon and a Blue Heeler at my rear. One of the two.

Biltmore Winery: A Model of Quality and Hospitality

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The stunning sparkling wines of Biltmore. Photo Credit: The Biltmore Company.

Biltmore has been synonymous with quality and hospitality since the estate’s inception in 1895, with its French Renaissance-style château designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park fame. Today, Biltmore continues as a family-owned, self-sustaining 8000-acre estate and world-class destination, with hotels, restaurants, shopping, a plethora of events and activities, and a winery, which replaced the beloved Biltmore Dairy Farms and opened to the public in 1985.

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The wine tasting space at Biltmore

A visit to America’s Largest Home® includes a complimentary tasting at the winery, the most visited in the United States with around 600,000 visitors annually. Biltmore produces over 150,000 cases of wine to meet growing demand and universal appeal. The winery’s wine club has doubled annually the past three years and currently has around 6700 members at the time of this visit. Making around 50 wines for diverse palates and price points might seem like a daunting task, but not at Biltmore. After 32 years of winemaking – first as assistant winemaker, then winemaster – Bernard Delille, who retired in July 2018, along with Sharon Fenchak, who has been at Biltmore 19 years, have honed their craft, creating award-winning wines for everyone. The wines range from sweet to dry and include whites, reds, rosés, and sparkling wines. In addition to the complimentary tasting, Biltmore offers in-depth experiences such as the Premium Wine Tasting, Red Wine & Chocolate Tasting, Behind-the-Scenes Winery Tour & Tasting, Wine & Cheese Hour, and the seasonal Candlelight Winery Tour for an extra fee. With distinct wine collection categories and a Virtual Sommelier, the winery’s website assists online guests with finding wines and food pairing suggestions at all price points. Wines are widely available in the wholesale and direct-to-consumer markets. Biltmore ranks in the top 1% of wine businesses in the United States.

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The estate vineyards at Biltmore. Photo Credit: The Biltmore Company.

When the idea of a vineyard and winery first came to fruition in the early 1970s, George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V Cecil, realized the challenge of growing wine grapes in North Carolina and led the charge for statewide research. Like other non-traditional, grape-growing regions, Biltmore and other state producers have had to prove themselves time and time again that Vitis vinifera grapes grown in North Carolina can produce high-quality wines. The reality is that not every grape variety is suited to North Carolina’s growing conditions and some consumers prefer the riper, fruit-forward styles produced in winegrowing areas like California. Thus, Biltmore produces wines from its 94 acres of estate vineyards; key winegrowers in Polk County (NC), Arroyo Seco Vineyards (Monterey, CA), Pietra Santa Winery (Ciegega Valley, CA), Tenbrink Vineyards (Solano County, CA); and California AVA wines from Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma County. Biltmore makes and finishes AVA-designed wines in those AVAs, per TTB law.

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Touring with retired winemaker, Bernard Delille

During a recent visit and tasting with Delille and Director of Business Development, Jeff Plack, Delille revealed that the honor of making such a large portfolio of wines from different vineyard locations is what makes winemaking at Biltmore exciting and why he has spent nearly his entire career here. Both he and Fenchak travel extensively to partner vineyard and winemaking facilities to ensure that all aspects of wine production, from vineyard to bottle, live up to Biltmore standards. Plack, a 12-year member of the wine business team, echoed Biltmore’s pledge to wine excellence across styles and price points, as well as took it a step further to emphasize that it is the winery’s renowned model of hospitality which first leads visitors to the winery, where they are treated to tasting experiences led by brand ambassadors empowered to deliver personalized experiences to wine novices and aficionados alike.

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Bottling day at Biltmore

A tour of Biltmore’s production facility confirmed a real, working winery, complete with fermentation tanks, caves, and wines ready to be transported to the winery’s own fulfillment warehouse, not outsourced to a third-party company. It was also bottling day for one of Biltmore’s wines. The crew members were delighted to show off the winery’s bottling line, as they engaged in a friendly competition of most bottles produced in a day.

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Tasting with Bernard Delille

An opportunity to taste three of Biltmore’s estate wines, a Sonoma County wine, and an American AVA designated wine, demonstrated the exemplary breadth and depth of Delille’s and Fenchak’s winemaking talents. The tasting began with their grande dame sparkling wine, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs, North Carolina ($50), which recently earned gold in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. A favorite of the tasting, this wine showcases a lovely balance of zingy acidity, mouthwatering citrus, and a yeasty, creamy mousse. The second wine, the 2017 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Chardonnay, North Carolina ($24), is an outstanding value. Barrel fermentation, six to eight months of French and American oak aging, and malolactic fermentation gently cradle the wine’s zesty tree fruit flavors. The third wine, the 2016 Biltmore Estate® Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, North Carolina ($25), is proof that Biltmore can grow and make cabernet sauvignon in North Carolina and do it well. Its softer style and lower alcohol (13%) speak to those who think they do not enjoy red wines. In stark contrast stylistically to the first three wines, the 2015 Biltmore Estate® The Hunt, Sonoma County ($40 for the 2016 vintage), inspired by the estate’s former game hunts, is a robust, luscious, Bordeaux-style blend of 40% cabernet sauvignon, 35% cabernet franc, and 25% merlot, calling for rich meat dishes. At lunch in The Bistro, I enjoyed a glass of the NV Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir, American ($25), whose effervescence and vibrant red berry flavors paired exquisitely with the salmon dish of the day.

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Tasting with Director of Business Development, Jeff Plack

Biltmore’s reputation as a premium destination and lifestyle brand is unrivaled in the hospitality industry, so much so that they offer their own “immersion into luxurious world-class service” program through the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accredited Biltmore Center for Professional Development. This pursuit of excellence translates into every aspect of Biltmore, including the winery, which, after 33 years, continues to be a pioneer and a leader in American, East Coast, and North Carolina wine production.

Key Links
Visit Biltmore
Biltmore Annual Pass
Visit and Taste at the Winery
Wine Club
Purchase Wines