We travel for many reasons, but a central one is easy to forget: to have our assumptions challenged and our misunderstandings corrected. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds complacency.
Euphoria, an annual food, wine and music festival in Greenville, S.C., overturned beliefs and expectations late last month. The revision started with Greenville itself, which is a much more interesting place than one might imagine. (Part of its image problem is its unfortunately bland name: Greenville is the commonest city name in the U.S.) Somewhere on the cultural spectrum between Durham and Raleigh, only smaller and cozier than both, Greenville is a surprisingly enjoyable weekend away, Euphoria or no.
Euphoria made it also restorative—of the truth perhaps more than the stomach. (Honestly, by the time you reach the Sunday jazz brunch, the festival becomes more Dyspepsia than Euphoria). Michigan-based Master Sommelier Ron Edwards led a wine tasting and "seminar" (that awful word) that quietly re-established Sonoma County as an undervalued region of excellent, honest wine, both on and off the radar. It's much more interesting than Napa, its bullying neighbor.
Meanwhile, Burgundy, long known for its purity, rectitude and even austerity, sent its own preening jetsetter, part heir and part shyster, a type recognizable from every other winemaking region on earth. This would have had us believe that his family's million-bottle annual assembly line produces "authentic" Burgundy.
There was so much more than wine to drink at Euphoria, as there is in our lives. A select few drinkers imbibe only one thing—white wine, light beer, so on—but most of us drink on a continuum. I discovered a fondness for drinks I thought I didn't like. I needed a new environment, with expanded rules, to enable it.
First, beer. Beer should be fresh! And it is. But then it sits around in bottles and cans in your fridge and isn't fresh anymore; it grows glum and bland. Why can't anyone put fresh keg beer in a bottle and send you home with it?
Ah, well, they can. There's a wonderful little store in Greenville, with the infelicitous name of The Growler Station, that bottles fresh keg beer to go. The selections change often. The beer is stabilized with CO2 and dispensed from a gleaming apparatus made in, of all places, Siberia. The Growler Station is America's exclusive distributor of this technology. Why don't we have it here? Everyone should have this. I took home a delicious Greenville-brewed Oktoberfest.
The biggest corrective came from another kind of drink. Quick, what's bourbon? Kentucky whiskey? Must it come specifically from Bourbon County—or is it Bourbon Street, in New Orleans? Pure corn mash?
Wrong, wrong and wrong. Andy Nelson and his brother, Charlie, both in their 20s, produce Belle Meade, a Nashville-based bourbon. At Euphoria, Andy was happy to pour me a taste and show me the very simple, permissive rules governing its production.
Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. It must contain 51 percent corn in its grain mixture. It must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol), put in a barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof, and bottled at 80 proof or above. That's it.
The Nelsons are currently reviving their family's defunct but historic distillery in Nashville. Until it's ready, Belle Meade bourbon is produced in Indiana. Another assumption debunked: Indiana distills an enormous amount of American whiskey, including a fair amount (and esteemed brands) labeled Kentucky and Tennessee.
There's a problem with Belle Meade: You can't buy a bottle of it in North Carolina. Its lone outlet statewide, Nelson says, is by the glass at Crunkleton, the Chapel Hill bar. This is because of our state's desperately outdated (and sometimes corrupt) state liquor control board, which requires consumers to go to a stale, unwelcoming place that feels much more like the DMV or a county tax collector than a retail shop. There, you feel vaguely like a criminal, and you find shelves of mostly execrable, unchanging, mass-produced junk, along with salespeople who generally know nothing about the products because they don't have to.
North Carolinians have grown accustomed to this Hobson's choice of spirits, which jars against an otherwise lively, entrepreneurial, small-batch Triangle drinking culture that deserves much better. It doesn't have to be this way. I left Greenville with a bottle of Belle Meade and the renewed belief that we must redouble our efforts to privatize liquor sales. We travel to have our assumptions challenged, and the best thing about the challenge is that you bring it home with you. You see how things could be different right where you live.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Succumb to wanderlust."