By Amy Holditch
My love affair with wine began in Dijon, France, 20 years ago. I was studying abroad and found myself smack dab in the middle of the Burgundy wine region and was eager to explore. I had only limited exposure to red wine at the time, and felt sure this excursion would expedite my knowledge and teach me the proper wine speak and drink. While there, we visited the village of Givry, a commune in the Saône-et Loire, Clos de la Baraude region to be exact. I toured the vineyard and the caves, smelling, swishing and tasting as I went, reveling in the fact that within each bottle lies an opportunity to explore the region from which it came. It was there that I had the most perfect glass of wine. I soon learned that no two bottles are alike, and to know the history of your glass is to truly dive into the experience. In fact, I found that learning the history of wine is almost as fun as drinking the wine. Almost.
Twelve years before my journey of discovery in France, Tony Meyer started Classic Wine Company in Homewood in 1988. The original idea behind the store came from visiting other regional wine stores and realizing a need for one in Birmingham. He wanted to offer rare and unique wines of all price points, something that many other markets were already able to do in neighboring cities. He set up shop on 29th Avenue in Homewood and served the community many years before retiring. From there Josh Terrell, formerly the Bon Vivant, wine/buyer and manager at Hop City in downtown Birmingham, took the reins, bought the store from Meyer in 2016 and reopened it in Soho Square, in a space not unfamiliar with wine since it previously housed Do-Di-Yo’s restaurant.
Josh clearly has a passion for what he sells. As he tells the story, “I fell in love with wine thanks to my father-in-law, Ed Allen. He gave me a nice bottle of wine from my birth year for my 22nd birthday. I began learning about wine from that point forward.”
And a key part of that journey, for him, is a great shop to help guide you and lead you to new experiences in the vast world of wine. “I love finding new wines, new wine regions and new wine producers,” he says. “I love meeting the people behind the product and listening to their passion about their wines or their vineyards. Being a winemaker takes a ton of confidence in yourself, your ‘place’ and your product. Their passion fuels me to tell others about this really cool wine or place.
“It’s absolutely the best way to take someone, especially these days, to another place where the wine is produced. I want to give them an experience of what it’s like to be there. The smells, the sights, and the sounds of the vineyard.”
By “these” days, he of course means COVID-19. “(It) has changed a lot of our worlds. We have gotten a lot busier. We started curbside service in March and did that for nine weeks. We have been wearing masks since day one and sanitize after all transactions. We sanitize customers’ cards to stop the spread and also table and carts after each use,” Josh says. “We shut down tastings until very recently, and our bar was shut down for most of the spring and summer. We have only just started offering socially distanced wine tastings on Friday with Zoom as an option, and our bar is now open with socially distanced tables.”
The store itself is large, and the wine selection expansive. Customers are immediately greeted and left to wander between the aisles of bottles French Burgundies and Oregonian pinot noirs, perhaps lingering a moment or two before moving on to the next one. Stryker, the shop dog, oversees his clientele with watchful eyes, assuring all is in order. Employees are busy stocking and restocking as customers come and go, but service and hospitality are clearly their main focus.
“I love letting my nerd flag fly here,” says Rachel Mobley, who has been a part of the Classic Wine Company team for about two years. “I love our events the most. It’s such a great opportunity to use my knowledge and get others excited about the wines that I am currently into. Our events are smaller now and we try to control the count so we can keep people apart. We still want to provide our customers opportunities to participate, but also to feel safe.”
Homewood resident Jennifer Salvant is a fan of the store. “I love that I can call and have my flavor profile matched by either the owner or an employee,” she says. “I place my order, call when I arrive, and they promptly deliver to my car, fully masked, with hand sanitizer in hand. Inside, you’ll be greeted by a kind-hearted dog with different colored eyes, which is truly a perk.” Plus, she says, “they are never pretentious. I am comfortable asking questions because I get the feeling they really just want to help their customers. They aren’t in it for the up sell.”
Sadly, not all bottles are perfect. Josh says there are two main reasons to send a bottle of wine back. Most commonly, a cork taint makes the wine smell like wet cardboard or mildew. Second, it could be wrong bottle or vintage. When it comes to ordering at a restaurant, Josh says, “Hopefully, your server is knowledgeable enough to help you navigate the menu. Give them a price point and tell them what you like.”
When pressed for a favorite, Josh doesn’t hesitate, waxing poetically about a 1985 Domaine Courcel. “It was Christmas dinner, and I sat alone with just an ounce left in my glass,” he shares. “I smelled it for thirty minutes. Everyone had left the table. But I was just there, by myself, with that lovely glass of wine. It smelled so intoxicating, like rose petals, violets and chocolate.”
A Chat with Josh Terrell
Ideal day: Sitting under the Cedar of Lebanon, at the top of the hill at Cordero di Montezmolo with a bowl of pasta with truffles and a glass of the Barola.
Favorite pairing: Oysters and Muscadet
To breathe or not to breathe: Certain wines will open up with a little air. Give it the 20-minute rule. Leave whites out of the fridge for 20 minutes or let them warm in your hands. Put your reds in the fridge for 20 minutes. Most people drink their reds at room temp, which is way too warm. Reds with a little chill actually smell and taste better.
What I’m drinking right now: These days I am getting into heavier reds as it finally gets cold. Some Bordeaux, merlot and, as always, an Oregon pinot noir, a staff favorite.
Future plans: We want to get this store established and then maybe expand around Alabama. We love our concept and would like to share it with more people.