Hanna Raskin’s monthly column, a partnership with The Food Section, looks at the stories behind what we eat.
Lulu sleeps around.
As unofficial mayor of Manteo, the 15-year-old toothless tabby has snoozing privileges at just about every business in town. Lately, though, Lulu has been spending most nights at NouVines, a wine bar that opened at the foot of Budleigh Street in July 2021.
Cats are notorious for never explaining themselves, but few would question Lulu’s choice. The humans of North Carolina have grown equally fond of small-town wine bars, opening at a quick clip since the relaxation of pandemic restrictions. Wesley Chapel, Sylva, Pineville, Nashville, and Corolla are all towns with fewer than 10,000 residents that have gained wine bars in the past two years, reflecting a trend sweeping the South.
“We get a ton of local support,” said Lori Wilkinson, co-owner of NouVines with her husband, Garret Cameron. “The locals even come out during tourist season.”
A wine bar boom wasn’t supposed to happen. According to experts, industry conditions were lousy. In February 2020, weeks before lockdown orders forced hundreds of wine bars out of business, Forbes published a story titled “Why the Wine Bar May Become a Thing of the Past.”
Granted, the writer based his thesis in part on a report from the now-disgraced Silicon Valley Bank, but other analysts reached the same conclusion. People were increasingly drinking spirits and hard seltzers—if they were drinking at all. Just about the only demographic showing an interest in wine was the over-70 set.
But the gloomiest forecasts failed to account for important regional differences, a few of which made North Carolina fertile ground for wine bars.
From an owner’s perspective, wine bars make more sense than cocktail bars in an understaffed era. After all, opening a bottle requires less time and know-how than crafting a bespoke cocktail. The challenges associated with pouring liquor are compounded in control states, North Carolina among them, where an owner is at the state’s mercy even after obtaining a hard-to-get mixed beverage permit. Under the Alcoholic Beverage Control system, bar owners must contend with a limited selection of spirits and sometimes wait a long time to get them.
Score one for the wine bar, which is rapidly becoming the must-have accessory for the type of touristy town that already boasts a brewery.
Still, wine bars wouldn’t succeed if potential patrons had traded their merlots for mezcal. What about those stats suggesting that the nation’s wine fans were weaned on Tang and Ovaltine?
Turns out, that’s another point in our state’s favor. U.S. Census data shows that in 2022, North Carolina was second only to Florida in attracting retirees.
Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests Baby Boomers aren’t the only ones choosing rosé flights over vodka sodas: the charcuterie board fad has also prompted some Millennial cured meat arrangers to wonder what they might pair with their snacks.
“Charcuterie boards are the best!” a 2021 vintage wine bar located over the border in Conway, South Carolina proclaimed to its customers a few weeks back. “Just don’t forget the wine!”
Wilkinson and Cameron confirm they see all kinds of customers at NouVines in Manteo. In fact, they see so many of them that the bar made Empire Distributors’ annual list of top 100 retailers, even though NouVines only buys about 10 percent of its wine from the company.
In terms of high-end sales, “we’re up there with New York and Miami,” said Cameron, whose long white beard makes him look like a maverick physicist or the only guy you’d trust to fix your Subaru.
Cameron said he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency before retiring to Hertford from Washington, D.C. “You can only float around the pool and binge bad TV for so long,” Wilkinson said of their decision to get into business. He has emerged as a community leader in Manteo, successfully lobbying for the adoption of a social district.
As wine bar enthusiasts see it, Cameron’s civic involvement is emblematic of how wine bars enhance their towns in ways that traditional bars might not. While that may sound snobbish, Wilkinson is allergic to elitism: She liked to scandalize stuffy D.C. social climbers by telling them she was a Walmart greeter. (She ran a global consulting firm.)
“When people have too much wine, they get giggly or sleepy,” said Wilkinson. “They don’t get loud. You don’t get fights.”
NouVines’ patrons listen so respectfully to the musicians who perform there that Wilkinson says every band keeps coming back. Just like Lulu.
Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink across the South. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.