Perhaps surprisingly for a city in the American South, where Vitis vinifera suffers in the summer heat and humidity, Charleston has cultivated a long relationship with wine. Founded by English colonists in 1670, Charleston (‘Charles Town’) evolved into a key East Coast port through which volumes of Madeira flowed.
In the early 1800s, social clubs dedicated to fortified wine popped up. During the American Civil War, the South Carolina Jockey Club, a racing organisation, hid its valuable Madeira stash in the basement of a Columbia asylum on news of an advancing Union Army.
Traces of this vinous legacy remain as Charleston balances the preservation of its heritage against reinvention for a modern world. Today, the ‘Holy City’ is enjoying a new wine renaissance, with numerous wine-centric restaurants, wine shops and bars opening regularly over the last several years.
During the pandemic, I relocated from New York to this small coastal city, seeking a better quality of life. Other wine and restaurant professionals had the same idea. Many moved temporarily, fell in love, and then stayed, contributing new dimensions of expertise to a region famous for its Lowcountry cuisine and Southern hospitality. Charleston’s interest in wine had already been growing, however, says Kellie Holmes, a restaurant wine consultant who relocated from San Francisco in 2011. Over the past decade, she’s witnessed countless changes.
‘I’ve seen smaller distributors enter the market, smaller wine shops and bars open, more natural wine and emphasis on sustainability, plus more wine lovers interested in categories like pét-nat and grower Champagne,’ she says.
The Charleston Wine & Food Festival, founded in 2005 by community leaders, helped catapult the historic city into the spotlight. The five-day event takes place every March, with the 2024 event scheduled for 6-10 March. Big-name chefs, sommeliers, bartenders and even wine writers started attending, generating a buzz that fuelled itself and contributed directly to the growth of the hospitality sector. ‘It’s an unexpected but pleasant surprise for travellers to learn that Charleston has such a vibrant wine scene,’ says Holmes, ‘thanks to the young professionals who have been working here, staying put, and turning into business owners who are passionate about wine,’ she says.
Your Charleston address book
194 Jackson Street, Charleston SC 29403
What started as a pop-up wine bar now has a permanent home. Bar Rollins, a natural-wine spot on Charleston’s East Side, opened in June 2022 with a selection of whites, rosés and reds by the glass, including Chenin Blanc, Fer Servadou and Grolleau. Tapping into the zero-alcohol trend, it also offers several non-alcoholic options.
Before opening, owners Chris Rollins and Jess Vande Werken spent a few years working hard on social media to announce pop-up locations and collaborations with local chefs, including FIG’s Jason Stanhope, to generate buzz for their concept. Their ‘wine dive bar’ occupies a classic Charleston single house (long and narrow, just one room in width), featuring bar and lounge seating inside and a patio and porch at the back. Guests get a verbal hug before entering from the ‘Bar Rollins loves you’ inscription on the sidewalk outside. Mismatched bistro furniture, a communal wooden bench, exposed brickwork and original fireplace details give the space a schoolhouse vibe. Open Thursday to Monday, 4pm-10pm. No reservation required.
Graft Wine Shop
700B King St, Suite B, Charleston, SC 29403
Opened in 2018 by wine and music lovers Femi Oyediran and Miles White, Graft has become synonymous with eclectic, minimalist wines, served and sold in a contemporary space. For wine drinkers visiting Charleston, Graft usually lands at the top of the must-visit list. Success, however, was a decade in the making. The pair met 10 years prior while working at local fine-dining institution Charleston Grill under the tutelage of the city’s wine maestro and connector Rick Rubel.
Both Oyediran and White have gone on to win accolades for their talents but have never strayed from the goal of making wine accessible and fun. They’ve welcomed guest chefs for hip-hop events, including at Graft’s yearly contribution to the Charleston Wine & Food Festival. As music junkies, White and Oyediran release a monthly playlist to match the seasonal wine mood. The bar menu covers categories such as ‘White Wines Are Cool’ and ‘#Reds4Dayz’. Cured meats, conservas (speciality tinned fish and seafood) and cheeses provide snacks. Wine shop open daily 12pm-10pm; bar open Monday to Friday 4.30pm- 10pm, Saturday and Sunday 12pm-10pm.
106 Grove Street, Charleston, SC 29403
The relaxed energy of this two-storey modern farmhouse restaurant belies the level of detail paid to the wine list. At first glance, burgers, poutine, pumpkin ravioli and fancy cheese toasties sound like comfort food in need of comfort wine. Read a little deeper into the menu, however, and a theme emerges: globally inspired dishes using sustainably and locally sourced ingredients, which form the foundation of the kitchen. The meat hails from Leaping Waters Farm, a 240ha pasture in Shawsville, southwest Virginia (which is also owned by the restaurant’s owner) and is butchered in-house at Herd. As such, the menu requires a broad, characterful wine list that matches the restaurant’s ‘farm-to-table’ ethos.
Curated by restaurant wine consultant Kellie Holmes, the wine list spans regions from California to Chablis, with particular attention paid to cooler-climate areas such as Alto Adige and Austria. Where she can, Holmes looks for sustainable, organic and biodynamic producers that also match her philosophy (she is a board member of Slow Food Charleston’s ‘Slow Wine’ arm). Open Monday to Thursday 3pm-10pm, Friday and Saturday 11am-10pm, with happy hour 3pm-5pm daily except Sunday (when closed). Reservations are not required but are appreciated at dinner.
The Obstinate Daughter
2063 Middle St, Sullivan’s Island, SC 29482
Though open on Sullivan’s Island since 2014, this eclectic Southern restaurant with a Mediterranean twist grows more popular each year. The name references the island’s ‘obstinance’ during the Revolutionary War when American Patriots defending Fort Sullivan saved Charleston from British capture in 1776. The menu, devised by owner-chef Jacques Larson, changes seasonally with the ingredients sourced from Lowcountry farmers and fishermen.
The wine list looks to Italy, especially Italian whites, given the breadth of fresh seafood featured on the menu. There’s a good range of crisp, savoury and mineral-driven expressions from the north to explore, whether Piedmont or Alto Adige. It’s no coincidence that wine distributors like to have meetings here – languorous lunches over a platter of glittering oysters and a bottle of Gavi feel like a holiday even when talking business.
Larson takes pride in sustainability, having earned the two-storey spot Green Restaurant certification, and he extends that philosophy to wine selections where possible. Open daily 11am-3pm and 4pm-10pm (Friday and Saturday until 11pm). Dinner reservations are essential; lunch gets busy, but walk-ins are accepted.
The Restaurant & Bar at Zero George
0 George Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Tucked away in Charleston’s historic Ansonborough neighbourhood, a visit to The Restaurant & Bar at the Zero George Hotel evokes dinner at a friend’s meticulously renovated 19th-century home. Gas lanterns flank the entrance off the leafy street, inviting diners into a lush setting of ferns and palms fit for the fine, inventive food of chef Vinson Petrillo. Beverage director Megan Mina curates the wine list with as much care given to her $50 selections as her older vintages from Burgundy and Bordeaux, some commanding $2,500.
In addition to the dinner tasting menu, guests can now book a caviar tasting at The Caviar Bar. While seated on the terrace, they can also access Mina’s wine list, along with selected Champagnes by the glass and bottle, to pair with exquisite briny bites. Petrillo’s previous experience as chef de cuisine at Caviar Russe in New York City shows in his refined dishes integrated with Regalis and Regiis Ova caviars.
Anyone who wants to delve deeper into the wine and food program can book an afternoon at the restaurant’s cookery school. Petrillo and sous chef Chavis lead students through a multi-course meal preparation with wine pairings. The restaurant is open Tuesday to Sunday 6pm-10pm; bar open daily 5pm-11pm. Cooking classes Saturday and Sunday, 11am-1pm. Reservations essential.
SAVI Cucina + Wine Bar
1324 Theater Drive, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464
Located in Mount Pleasant, SAVI Cucina takes the wine experience seriously, having assembled a team with more wine credibility than entire American towns. Co-owner Ty Raju and SAVI Society Wine Club director Makayla Woodford have recently added beverage director Emerson Ewald to the team. Ewald spent six years as a certified sommelier at The Modern (at New York’s MoMa) and as lead sommelier at Verōnika in New York City.
Together they have created an Italian list to cater for neophytes and experts alike, with bottles to match the house-made pasta, cheeses, sauces and dry-aged steaks. Guests can have a drink at the bar, enjoy dinner inside amid Italian coastal decor, or relax outside with a flight of Italian wines or a weighty, collector-worthy bottle. The wine club keeps locals engaged with special group tastings and private wine dinners. Open daily, with an aperitivo hour from 4pm-6pm; dinner service begins at 5pm. Reservations are preferred but not required.
Stems & Skins
1070 East Montague Ave #B, North Charleston, SC 29405
Always in search of New York neighbourhood parallels, realtors have called North Charleston’s Park Circle the next Williamsburg. While this is a stretch of the imagination, the area is cheaper than downtown Charleston, thus attracting a younger clientele. Stems & Skins, with its tagline ‘Fresh and Freaky ferments’, stepped in to serve that younger audience with a neighbourhood natural-wine bar.
Owners Justin Croxall and Matt Tunstall (formerly of the renowned Husk restaurant in central Charleston) hold weeknight specials such as Aperitivo Hour, Vinyl Night and Meatball Night to cultivate a local vibe. A roster of minimalist wines, classic cocktails and craft beers paired with Mediterranean-style plates including charcuterie and conservas earned Stems & Skins a James Beard semifinalist nod for Outstanding Wine Program. In December 2021, the pair debuted a seafood-based eatery called Three Sirens on the same block with wine selections of a similar ethos. Open Monday-Friday 4pm-12am, Saturday and Sunday 2pm-12am. No reservation required.
The Tippling House
221 Coming Street, Charleston SC 29403
Sommelier Matthew Conway, formerly of Marc Forgione in New York, and his now-wife Carissa Hernandez, fled south when Covid shuttered the city. A stint with family in Charleston turned into a permanent relocation with the October 2021 opening of Conway’s wine bar, The Tippling House. Conway spent much of the pandemic renovating the ground floor of a Charleston single house to prepare the intimate space.
41 Bogard St A, Charleston
Newcomer Vern’s, opened in July 2022 by former staff of the city’s shuttered institution McCrady’s, boasts the most exciting wine list to debut in Charleston last year. This modern American bistro, occupying a windowed corner spot downtown, radiates a convivial, intimate ambience and is ripe for becoming a neighbourhood joint with a twist – an ambitious, fun but philosophical wine list. Bethany Heinze, co-owner and operations/ beverage director, together with her husband and executive chef Daniel ‘Dano’ Heinze, designed the food and wine selections around the local, seasonal and sustainable guiding principles. Though you may have heard that line before, you’re unlikely to have seen a wine list as rich and quirky with the ‘pioneers, renegades and old-school producers’ of low-intervention farming and winemaking.
For a program of almost 100 selections, Bethany uses at least eight distributors to capture the breadth and singularity of labels she hopes will keep guests curious and coming back, whether for Aligoté from Sylvain Pataille or one of four skin-contact wines she rotates. ‘I admit I was surprised with the level of demand for orange wine given the perception of Charleston being more traditional in taste,’ she says. Clearly, change is afoot in this southern coastal city. Open Thursday to Monday, 5pm-10pm (closing 8pm on Sunday), brunch on Saturday and Sunday, 12pm-2pm. Reservations essential.