No story on the C&O would be complete without mention of its wine cellar. We’ve crowned the calligraphied list Best of C-VILLE seven-plus years running and it’s won Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence every year since 1996. But regulars will notice a gaping hole in the list next time they visit—the person who (literally) wrote it for the past 30 years.
Wine buyer and sommelière Elaine Futhey was as much the face of C&O as Dave Simpson is, and these past two months since she retired have been revealing to him. Futhey preceded Simpson and, though she left for a few years, by the mid-’80s she was driving a top-rate wine program at the restaurant that launched Charlottesville’s dining scene. But limiting Futhey’s job to that would be a gross understatement. “We’ve hired two to three people to do her job. It’s a big pair of shoes that we haven’t all together filled,” said Simpson.
With an otherworldly grace and a distinctive serenity, the 70-year-old Futhey officially oversaw the restaurant’s six seating areas three nights a week. Of course, she was there much more often than that. It was what she did at 1pm on Tuesdays that built the C&O’s cellar into the 6,000-bottle treasure trove that it is. Rather than entertaining visits from wine distributors one by one, she would gather them all at once to taste their wares. “It was amazing to witness. They’d all be extraordinarily civilized for that hour,” said Simpson.
Although Simpson gave Futhey an unlimited budget, she bought wines that moved her rather than going by scores or reputations. Richard Hewitt, Keswick’s sommelier, along with F&B denizen Michael Lannutti and area oenophile Justin Stone, helped Simpson sift through the collection, which contained more breadth than depth (10 cases was the most they found of any one wine). Nothing was so old and fragile that it was in need of re-corking, but without Futhey’s categorical memory on hand, the cellar had to undergo some inventory management.
Anything in a questionable age bracket and possibly past its prime, the team sampled out to connoisseurs for assessment: 1) keep on the list, 2) cooking wine, and 3) Christmas gifts. Lannutti, who’s taken on a front-of-the-house position, is developing his own Excel spreadsheets and will cycle through much of the inventory by pouring it by the glass, giving diners an opportunity to try some older, more unusual wines.
And it’s precisely these offbeat wines—the ones that Elaine dedicated a “wines to charm and intrigue you” page to in her list —that Lannutti will buy when he begins his shopping. “We want the wine list to continue being unique and idiosyncratic,” said Lannutti, who aims to strike that balance between educating the diner who wants to learn and topping up the glass of the diner who just wants to drink. Simpson envisions the first few pages as “easy going” with the rest of the list for those who “like to put on a bow tie.”
Simpson describes his foray into the wine side of C&O as “unchartered and uncertain territory” and keeps credit where it’s due, but he has had some fun on the winemaking side recently. During last year’s demoralizing harvest, Simpson would come to Michael Shaps’ and Philip Stafford’s custom crush operation (Virginia Wineworks) bearing a hot meal for the crew. His payment? Getting to muck in. “I did anything they told me to,” said Simpson, whose efforts, other than providing mere enjoyment (“I loved moving fruit around and smashing it down”), resulted in a custom crush house white and red for the C&O. The 25 cases of Viognier hit the by-the-glass list in mid-July, and within a month, only five cases remained. I drank it with a recent meal there and it was as effortlessly delightful as a night spent at the C&O. The same amount of Cab Franc will arrive just in time for the chill in the air that makes sipping a red wine alongside honest food in a place where the walls speak, ever so appealing.
The C&O’s wine, neatly stacked in old Monticello Dairy milk crates, seems quite at home in the cellar that’s just a stone’s throw from the restaurant’s bustle, even if Simpson feels out of place: “This was Elaine’s domain. I can’t give her enough recognition or gratitude. She’s an extraordinary woman—one of a kind.”
And with a foundation like the one Futhey built, the wine list’s always bound to be too.