Premier crew: Charlottesville’s restaurant wine list visionaries

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Wine expert Elaine Futhey curated the C&O Restaurant’s remarkable list for more than 30 years. Photo: Michael Johnson Wine expert Elaine Futhey curated the C&O Restaurant’s remarkable list for more than 30 years. Photo: Michael Johnson

As we look at Charlottesville’s current landscape, it’s difficult to imagine that in the late 1960s, you could only dine out at a handful of places and none with the kind of wine lists you’ll find today. In a few decades we have summoned the vast global vino world to our fingertips—but this did not happen by chance. Over the last 20 years, some individual visionary tasters (though they wouldn’t consider themselves to be) have shaped our restaurant lists into the dynamic vinous scene we have today.

If you could pinpoint the genesis of the wine-centric movement, it might be when John Tuck opened the Gaslight Restaurant in 1961. During its three manifestations (two on Main Street and one in Barracks Road Shopping Center), just about everyone who ignited Charlottesville’s early restaurant wine scene cycled through the Gaslight—usually as a staff member, and definitely as a patron.

Tuck stocked the bar with classic bottlings from France, and he also brought in selections from Spain and California. This was before the renaissance of Virginia wines, and before most French importers ventured outside of Bordeaux and Champagne.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the by-the-glass era had not yet emerged, and most restaurants had an extensive offering of half-bottles to cater to those who didn’t want to drink more than a glass or two. The choices for dinner included the Gaslight, Lord Hardwicke’s, the Old Mill Room at Boar’s Head and The Monticello Room, where Bill Curtis (currently at Tastings) organized popular seafood buffets every Friday and Saturday night and would bring in special wines for the occasion.

In parallel to the development of the Downtown Mall, a restaurant boom ushered wine lists into a new era. Vinegar Hill Theatre and the C&O Restaurant both opened in 1976, and Fellini’s appeared in ’79, primarily catering to a cocktail scene, though Champagne flowed quite freely. And while Vinegar Hill became a movie hub, the C&O set the bar high for local lists, when Philip Stafford unveiled an assemblage of great wines that was likely the first world-class offering in Charlottesville. As the fine-dining world evolved, so did the C&O list, and eventually it was placed in the hands of Elaine Futhey.

Futhey is well-known for overseeing wine at the C&O for more than three decades. She started in 1979, but made waves even earlier. Ask anyone about Charlottesville’s wine scene, and most insiders circle back to her, beginning at the Gaslight with Tuck’s exciting selections. “In those days, Dom Pérignon was on the list for $25,” recalls Futhey.

She was likely the first person to include Virginia wine, when she added it at Galerie Restaurant (now a dilapidated building at the corner of Routes 240 and 250 near Crozet). At Galerie, she listed Archie Smith’s reds and whites from Meredyth Vineyards, “and everybody laughed, but it was okay.” Futhey says that in the beginning of Virginia’s wine reemergence, “it was really like pulling hen’s teeth to get anyone to try one.”

Another restaurant wave occurred with Miller’s hitting the scene in 1981 and Duner’s opening in 1983.

Enter Beryle Mayfield who held tenure at the Gaslight and Lord Hardwicke’s before heading up Duner’s wine list from 1985 until about three years ago. Mayfield took Duner’s through several phases, including a memorable experiment with Alsatian wines. “I got interested in them, so I put a big selection of them on the list,” he says. “It didn’t work, but Elaine came in and bought one once.”

Mayfield originally focused on classic American wines and Bordeaux, but after several trips to Paris wine bars he grew an affinity for the Loire Valley, Cru Beaujolais and Rhône reds. This shift in personal taste reflected outwardly, especially in Loire Valley wines, though “at first, it was a hard sell,” he says.

At its height, the Duner’s list had 175 selections, and Mayfield points to Curtis as a major influence. “Bill is Mr. Wine as far as I’m concerned,” he says.

The nickname is suitable for Curtis, whose Tastings, a retail/restaurant combo—one of the first of its kind—recently celebrated 25 years.

A year after Tastings opened, Metropolitain hit the market, and Vincent Derquenne (chef and wine enthusiast) generated a unique excitement about wine, as lists became less stodgy and more representative of a new generation of winemakers.

Since the early 1990s, the restaurant scene in Charlottesville has grown exponentially, but the wine lists still reflect the work of some of these early innovators, leaving us to reminisce about what it was like to drink $25 Dom Pérignon at the Gaslight.

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com

–Erin Scala