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Charleston and the cheap quaff 

We got spring break right this year: The kids were out of school, my wife had put in for time off months ago, and I'm always looking for an excuse to get away. So we went to Charleston, five hours away as the van drives, and experienced the history, charm and cuisine of this 300-year-old bastion of an elegant, time-warped South.

Like most historic districts, the gouging of tourists reaches stratospheric proportions. This is the home of the two-aspirin blister pack for $1.50, and the $1 eyeglass repair kit for a nimble $7. Food prices on the other hand, being much more competitive, are just fine and quite comparable to our Triangle. Menus are posted at the entrance of every eatery, whether chic or quick (but don't look for a Subway or Wendy's!).

We ate lunch at the reasonable and quirky Gaulart & Malicet, which once inhabited Cary, but closed a year ago. "Too far away for me to control," said the owner. Too bad. It was a fun, relaxed atmosphere with colorful characters straight out of a Graham Greene novel scooting in and out. The meal was good bistro food without pretense, accompanied by a glass of true "vin ordinaire"! We then proceeded to tour the historical Nathaniel Russell house, down by the Battery, with a guide who, as she spoke, seemed totally entrenched in "the war"--between the states, that is. It was as if the fighting were still going on. This was an elegant, languid, balconied estate, while its intimate garden sported mournful Spanish moss dripping heavily over the camellias.

The first night out, our hotel, which backed onto Frances Marion Square, recommended Coast restaurant right around the block. It was dark, noisy via a pickup band, but boisterously fun and with very fresh, cleanly prepared food. Seafood being the specialty, we drank a vino verde and rediscovered the mouthwateringly fresh, brisk flavors that make this inexpensive Portuguese white such a delight. Locally, find the 2001 Grinalda that is very good. ($9) The non-vintage Casal Garcia is pleasant at $6, and 2002 Quinto Do Minho ($7), a top-notch producer, should be available soon. I think our hotel may have been in cahoots with this particular restaurant, because the mantra from all the staff during our stay was, "Have you tried Coast yet?"

After that, we used advice supplied by the Association of Food Journalists, of which I'm a member and (shameless plug) a writing award winner. The next evening was our daughter's 16th birthday, and we dined at 82 Queen, a quiet, homey, cozy place, reminiscent of Four Square restaurant in Durham. We dressed up and enjoyed the best she crab soup in Charleston (three years running according to local polls). It was a heavenly, floating on air concoction that melted in your mouth. The entrees were bright, original and lovingly prepared. A 2001 Adelsheim Pinot Gris was a perfect foil for the crustaceans; round, refreshing, with good body, acidity and minerally overtones. It sells for $13-$15.

In a momentary fit of last minute grandeur, I decided that we should patronize Charleston's most discussed restaurant, The Peninsula Grill, on our final evening out. It has a fine reputation and a great chef, Robert Carter. We may have been a bit underdressed, but my stubborn mind was made up, and thankfully they had a table for us. My mentioning being a wine writer warmed them up a bit despite our attire (I'm no fool), and the food, the presentation, the excellence of service and the leisurely but captivating pace of the place won us over. For formal dining and an old world charm of being pampered, Peninsula is wonderful. Every dish, from an opening chef's gift of thinly tempura'd scallop to quail on a bed of risotto, spinach and porcini--all was three-star quality. We drank the 2000 Guigal Cotes du Rhone, a wine that is showing magnificently from 1/2 bottles. It's round, velvety, supple and altogether lovable. The full bottle is available locally at $11. Run out, get some, and drink it over the next four years.

The next morning we left for home, well wined and dined. That is, until we decided to stop at South of the Border for lunch!

Two-buck chuck, etc.
In an article written at the end of 2002, I wondered in print, "Where are our inexpensive, American wines for everyday consumption? Where are those $2 wines that are unpretentious and readily available in Spain, Italy, France and Portugal?" Well, someone is listening. During the holidays last year, a wine called Charles Shaw appeared exclusively at Trader Joe's, a retail chain of discount specialty foods located throughout the West Coast that's slowly heading east.

Charles Shaw himself owned a real, working winery back in the 1980s, but he went bankrupt, sold out to Bronco Wine Company, and lent his name to these current bottlings. With a grape glut going on in the West, Charles Shaw cabernet, merlot and chardonnay appeared at the remarkably low price of $2. The response was nothing short of a stampede. Two million cases of "Two Buck Chuck" were sold for the holidays, and the beat goes on. Other California retailers, seeing this amazing response, have positioned themselves to promote their own $2 offerings, and the public keeps jumping in. Recently, Pop's Wines on Long Island, N.Y., began offering Robert's Rock cab and merlot for $2.12 a bottle. These particular wines are from South Africa, and made by the huge KWV conglomerate. They are not at all bad, and what a buy!

But what does it all mean?

1) The public has shown its deep longing for affordable, decent wines. It's as though a dream has come true concerning the idea that wine should fit into the budget as naturally as bread, beef and beans. The ridiculous success of these offerings should send a powerful long-term message.

2) Even though there is no way to know if this trend will or can last, I suspect that the very inexpensive, decent quaff may be here to stay, and it will be coming to a store near you. It's the age old business adage: We make very little profit, but we sell so much product that the end result makes good business sense.

I'm sorry that this revolution has not yet arrived in our market, but I feel sure it will--and the entire country will be better for it. To quote Thomas Jefferson, "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap." I pray, Thomas, that it comes to pass.

Wines of the Week
1999 Penfold's Yattarna Chardonnay, $65
Penfold's' first offering in the realm of super premium chardonnay is befitting of their illustrious heritage. Beautiful nose of faultless, immaculate fruit; penetratingly lush but not at all overbearing. Flavors are harmonious and creamy, but it's the subtlety that catches you off guard. One has learned to expect boundless oomph from Australian and California chards of this ilk. Instead, this totally seduces you with its balance and charm. There is great sorrow when the bottle is finished. Worth the price. A wonderful effort.

2000 Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon, $11
The pure, ripe, gorgeous smell of cabernet, without any herbal distraction or stemmy smells. A delight to sniff, bordering on thrilling. The flavors are excellent, rich and chocolatey, but a bit one dimensional. This is what I expect from a young, well-made cab. Satisfying now, and will improve through 2008. From Chile's Rapel Valley.

2002 Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon, $7.50
A totally different experience from the Lapostolle, but worthy in its own way. Sappy, juicy, highly extracted flavors with thick plums and black cherry on the roasted nose and palate. Shiraz-like and somewhat grapey, it pushes the button on richness, but what a great match for grilled foods or loaded pizzas. Serve it cool! Very impressive. From South Africa's Robertson Winery in the hot, dry region of the same name.

2002 Beringer Chenin Blanc, $6
This wine can often be good, and when it is, it's quite the bargain. The 2002 is a perfect picnic, beach or poolside sipper. I imagine that it has about 1/2 of 1 percent residual sugar, not unlike many French Vouvrays that so many folks enjoy. It's balanced, friendly with an easy lively finish. Can sometimes be found discounted down to $5. EndBlock


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