Charleston’s charms, and a much-heralded dining scene, aren’t lost on its almost seven million annual visitors, which make the South Carolina city among the country’s top tourist destinations. Less known is that it’s become one of America’s best wine cities as well.
Pioneering wine-savvy restaurants like Charleston Grill, FIG, McCrady’s, Husk, The Ordinary, Leon’s Oyster Shop and Zero Restaurant & Bar have attracted and spawned a huge pool of talent. The city’s also seen an influx of hospitality professionals drawn by the region’s quality of life. Wine importers and distributors have also made the city a priority.
“Since Charleston is such an established culinary destination, it makes sense that the people living and visiting here would want the next progression in beverages as well,” says Miles White of Graft Wine Shop. “Cocktail bars and breweries paved the way, and now the wine scene is rounding out the trifecta.
“People often say that Charleston has big-market amenities with a small-town feel, and it’s finally getting there with wine.”
Wine Shops and Wine Bars
Wine & Company
South Carolina allows on-site alcohol consumption at licensed retail establishments, which enables Wine & Company to double as a shop and a wine bar. Its bottles can be enjoyed at the large wraparound bar or taken to go at a $10 discount. If you don’t want a bottle off the shelf, the store offers 36 glass pours, along with creative cheese and charcuterie plates. There are themed Wine Tasting Tuesdays, frequent winemaker visits and, as a bonus, the barstools are the coziest in town.
“Charleston is a sophisticated and open-minded market for its size,” says owner Josh Walker. “We actually sell more orange wine than oaky Chardonnay, though we’re happy to offer that, too.” Ask for The List, a leather book with hundreds of rare one-off bottles, many priced well below retail. Recent sightings include ’66 Château d’Yquem and ’62 Pétrus.
Graft Wine Shop
Graft is also a combo retail shop/wine bar where bottles are priced at retail and a nominal corkage fee is charged to enjoy in-house. White and co-owner Femi Oyediran, a 2018 Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree, opened Graft in March 2018 as a place to share the wines they love in an unintimidating environment. The relaxed vibe makes it a great place to taste wines that can be hard to find in other cities.
“Femi and I just want everyone to be comfortable and communal,” says White. “We have people drinking Grand Cru Burgundy rubbing elbows with people drinking skin-contact whites from Slovenia, and it’s really rewarding.”
Monarch Wine Merchants
“Charleston has gone through an enormous amount of growth and immigration since my arrival in 2013, and the wine scene is a direct reflection of that,” says Justin Coleman, owner of Monarch Wine Merchants. “The variety of wine now available in Charleston is 10 times what it was then.”
Monarch focuses on small and cult producers, Old World icons and rare and back-vintage bottles. The unpretentious neighborhood spot also has a back room for winemaker tastings, seminars and private sommelier-led events. Coleman says that many people from larger cities stock up on wines that are long gone from their hometown shelves.
“It’s a credit to the distributors and importers who have been able to get so many hard-to-find, allocated, boundary-pushing wines to such a small market,” says Coleman. “Someone from NYC or San Francisco can actually get their hands on l’Anglore, Roulot, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey and more. ”
Stems & Skins
Many credit this North Charleston wine bar as the genesis of the city’s current wine scene, when it opened in 2016. Owners Justin Croxall and Matt Tunstall, a former wine director at Husk, focus on natural wine, with a full bar and cocktail program as well.
More than a dozen premium pours are available by the glass via Coravin, in addition to a bottle list with almost 200 labels. A small food menu includes a lengthy list of tinned seafood, from trout pâté with Port to razor clams and sea urchin. Stems & Skins remains as popular and influential as ever.
Edmund’s Oast Exchange
The Exchange is the retail arm of Edmund’s Oast, a popular restaurant that serves globally influenced Southern fare. The restaurant’s general manager/wine director, Sarah O’Kelley, stocks hundreds of selections.
Look for the daily 3@3 happy hour with $3 half-pours from 3–4:30 pm, wine tastings on Thursdays to benefit local charities, a happy hour that features Champagne and live jazz on Fridays, while themed Somm School classes are held on Saturdays. Each Wednesday, it becomes a wine bar with $15 blind flights of three wines. No corkage is charged on bottles bought at the shop.
Restaurants With Great Wine Lists
This space, formerly home to the iconic fine-dining restaurant Cypress, has been reborn as a bright, airy modern American restaurant with a buzzy lounge and cozy Champagne bar.
Executive Chef Brandon Buck helms the menu, with dishes like halibut with carrot flan and English peas, and roast duck with turnips and housemade spaetzle. Caviar, which includes selections from North Carolina’s Marshallberg Farm, is sold at near-retail prices, a no-brainer when paired with the extensive Champagne list. There are more than 30 by-the-glass pours that include several sparkling and reserve selections.
Renzo is a casual wood-fired pizza joint that might be the hottest place in Charleston. It boasts one of the city’s only all-natural wine lists, curated by co-owner Nayda Freire. The pizzas and pastas are fantastic, but don’t pass on the rest of the menu. It features such dishes as swordfish Milanese, roasted radishes with preserved lemon and an addictive crispy eggplant with XO sauce. A late-afternoon happy hour offers a Detroit-style square slice of pizza and a glass of wine for $10, and Saturday brunch is among Charleston’s best.
Ask if there are any off-menu wines by the glass or bottle, as the restaurant often gets very small quantities of specialty wines that aren’t included on the list.
Joséphine Wine Bar
Joséphine has the cheery atmosphere of a wine bar, but with serious gastronomic appeal. Executive Chef Shaun Connolly’s refined comfort food not only complements the wine list, but sometimes uses it, as evidenced by Sherry-roasted beets with pickled blueberries and pistachio vinaigrette, and handcut pappardelle with wine-braised short ribs ragù.
The restaurant’s name is an homage to Napoleon’s wife and noted wine collector, Joséphine de Beauharnais. Accordingly, the wine list skews French. It’s one of the most popular additions to the hopping Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood.
Out and About Drinking Destinations
Deep Water Vineyard
On Wadmalaw Island, about 30 minutes southwest of downtown Charleston, Deep Water is one of the Lowcountry’s only wineries, as most are located in the northern part of the state. Deep Water grows only the Muscadine grape, or Vitis rotundifolia. It flourishes in the region’s hot, humid climate that wouldn’t suit other wine grapes.
Deep Water makes both white and red wine from four Muscadine cultivars, as well as wines from California grapes. The winery’s 48 acres are a great place to spend a sunny afternoon. Visitors are allowed to roam the grounds freely, and they’re encouraged to picnic.
Wine Down Wednesday in West Ashley
Held eight times from the end of March through October, the Charleston County Parks sponsors this after-work wine party in Old Towne Creek County Park, just across the Ashley River from historic downtown Charleston. Drinking in parks, or any public space, is otherwise illegal in Charleston, so it’s a great opportunity to enjoy the area’s area’s natural beauty and live music with a drink in hand.