The man at the table for four looked over his choices and handed back the wine list.
“You choose,” he said.
That’s what Wes Wesley likes to hear.
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Of course, this customer at McNinch House, the fine-dining restaurant in Charlotte’s Fourth Ward, started by mentioning Opus One, a California red that’s $525 on the house wine list. So what the customer really said, without saying it, was: “Surprise me, and price is no object.”
What wine steward wouldn’t love to hear that? But in the Charlotte wine world, Anthony “Wes” Wesley is unusual. He’s spent 12 years taking the McNinch House from one of the city’s prime food experiences to one that is so wine-focused, they even arrange the butter in balls that look like grape clusters.
He’s also a black man in a wine world where the primary skin color is still white, with an easygoing, humorous style that’s far from anyone’s definition of the snooty wine steward.
“Quirky” is what wine teacher Sara Guterbock calls him. She first met him in 2007, when she was selling wine for Mutual Distributing.
“He stands out in the wine world,” she says. “He’s willing to get creative.”
On that Friday night when the customer said, “You choose,” Wesley looked down his wine list, huddled with McNinch House owner Ellen Davis, and picked Joseph Phelps Insignia, a fine bottle that sells for $100 less than Opus One.
“You’re not just buying a bottle,” he says. “You have to enjoy what you’re drinking.”
How did he get here?
Born in Liberia, he was raised in Scotland, Liverpool and Sierra Leone by twin aunts who didn’t have children and took their nephew abroad with them.
Barely 5-foot-5, even in his favorite kangaroo cowboy boots, there are so many other ways Wes Wesley, 63, stands out. His musical accent lends an emphasis that makes you listen closely.
He was 40 when he came to the wine business, after he had already been a stockbroker, an insurance salesman and a liquor store clerk. When he came to America to go to Rutgers University in 1971, he actually wanted to study physics.
“I liked having a good time a little too much,” he says, laughing. After he switched majors too many times, the dean called him in and suggested marketing.
Good choice. Moving around so much as a young man, he had learned to get along with everyone, everywhere. “People tell me I make wine-drinking fun. Less ego.
“I put people at ease.”
Beyond Boone’s Farm
Before he came to Charlotte in the late 1980s, Wesley says, he’d only had jobs, never a career. Living in New Jersey, he commuted to New York to work in the financial world.
Married with four kids, he and his wife (they’re now separated) wanted to find a better place to raise their family. They tried Atlanta, but it was too big.
Somebody suggested Charlotte. It was quiet and laid-back. Maybe too quiet, he admits. “I thought it was too country.”
Still, he was looking for a job here in 1989 when he went to SpringFest, the old uptown arts festival.
He ran into friends who introduced him to Mike Mills, the manager of the Lamplighter, one of Charlotte’s most respected restaurants. Mills needed a maitre d’ and told Wesley, “Put on a suit and come help me out.”
The Lamplighter had a huge wine list, 2,000 to 3,000 bottles. On Sunday afternoons, Wesley would tend bar while Mills would come in to do inventory. If it was slow, Wesley would step over to help count the bottles.
He didn’t know anything more about wine than Boone’s Farm and Lancer’s, the darlings of the disco era, but he started to marvel at the variety, he says.
“I was fascinated. So much wine.” Mills started teaching him, about balance and tannins, oakiness and fruitiness.
Wesley got hooked. He wanted to know more. Renowned wine teacher Kevin Zraly, founder of the Windows on the World Wine School in New York, had friends in Charlotte and came into the Lamplighter.
Wesley decided to take Zraly’s course, taught at the top of the World Trade Center in New York. Staying with family back in New York, he spent six months in 1992 going back and forth to Charlotte.
He focused on pairing wine and food, the way they go together to make each better.
“Balance. Flavor. Acidity. All those things, you want it to blend, to complement,” he says.
“You have ice cream, and it tastes good. Then you put chocolate sauce on it. It tastes better. It complements.”
Making the list
He was at the Lamplighter for 12 years, until it closed. He worked for a little while at Hops, a beer-focused chain, but it wasn’t for him.
He wanted something creative, something he could build.
The McNinch House holds a revered spot in the Charlotte restaurant scene. Owned by Ellen Davis in her restored Victorian home on North Church Street, it has always focused on food, with a set menu of multiple courses.
In 2002, Wesley started calling the manager, who kept putting him off: It’s a small staff. There’s no wine program. We don’t need help.
Finally, he gave Wesley a chance. But there wasn’t much to do at first. The McNinch House wine program was one-dimensional, he says.
“One white, one red. The white was Chardonnay, the red was Pinot Noir.”
Davis had a few wines in the basement, though, things she’d bought but never used. Wesley convinced her to let him put together a wine list and start letting customers have more choices.
That was a hit, so Davis let him try wine pairings, making the wine a bigger part of the dining event. Eight years later, the wine selection has become the restaurant’s signature. In the parlor, the sideboard is lined up with major-statement bottles: Silver Oak, Haute Brion, Cakebread, Caymus, Duckhorn. The menu has multiple options, from wines by the glass to the full $109 pairing with the $149 Chef’s Table menu.
“It’s one of the last bastions of old-fashioned, full-service, seven-course meals,” says Sara Guterbock. When she first started in wine sales, Wesley had her come for dinner and treated her to the whole experience, “so I could understand.
“You go there and it’s a real event.”
Through the week, Wesley tastes wine every day, usually starting with three to narrow down to the one he’ll recommend with a particular dish.
He plans for surprises, though. If you only like white wines, he’ll have a suggestion even if the dish is a natural with red.
He plays around with preconceptions, like starting with a light red, then going to a white wine, then back to reds. He’ll match crab cakes with a red wine, or line up a hearty pinot noir for sea bass and a light one for salmon.
Besides his love of the wines, Wesley loves the psychology of being a wine steward, the way you have to understand people to understand what they’ll want, even when the customers themselves may not know.
Baby boomers, he says, are more hesitant, nervous about spending a lot of money on something as fleeting as a good glass of wine. Millennials, the younger customers between 25 and 40, have grown up with wine and are more comfortable with it.
“They’re more adventurous, ready to learn. It’s part of the meal to them.”
On that recent Friday night, the restaurant got busy, with seven groups spread around the four hushed dining rooms. Wesley darted from table to table, making jokes, offering suggestions. He introduced a fan of Caymus’ popular white blend Conundrum to the newly arrived red Conundrum, and later amazed her with one of his favorite pairings, a slightly sweet vouvray with the artichoke bisque, notoriously difficult to match with wine.
“I’ll write the wine down on the back of my card,” he assured her. (We’ll save her the trouble: 2012 Michel Picard.)
At a table by the front window, Sandy Hardin and Wes Belew settled in for dinner. Hardin wanted a three-wine pairing, but was adamant that she didn’t like sweet dessert wines.
Wesley assured her he would come up with something before her dessert arrived.
At the end of her meal, Hardin ordered the Chocolate Tasting, a warm brownie with white chocolate mousse. Instead of a sweet wine or a champagne, Wesley poured that red Conundrum, a bold red with just a hint of sweetness.
“It was perfect,” Hardin agreed.
That’s just what Wes Wesley likes to hear.