JUST IN TIME for the summer tourist season in the Smoky Mountains, the Asheville, North Carolina wine merchant James West finally had a sign in place last month for his shop on Merrimon Avenue. It only took 289 days from its opening for James to be able to announce Westlake Wines to passing motorists and the odd pedestrian. “Second from the top,” he pointed out to me recently. “Hopefully it will finally attract some attention.”
JAMES WEST’S NORTH ASHEVILLE WINE SHOP, Westlake Wines, is a good-looking space. The shop’s blond wood floors have a bright polish, and its slate blue walls are decorated with some of its owner’s photography collection that follows a surfing theme. Along with the central table set-up and a burgundy wing chair tucked away in a corner (Moxie’s favorite spot), furniture at Westlake consists of a pair of well-traveled lounge chairs in faded brown leather. But on second glance you notice that one of these is, quite incongruously, a barber’s chair. “The Chair is here,” James proudly declared in an Instagram post last October. “It’s even got an ashtray in the arm. Will be put to use Monday. Just a little up off the ears.”
During my visit last fall, when I complimented him on the actual lounge chair, an Eames reproduction, he mentioned he’d recently become friendly with the owners of The Local Barber & Tap, a downtown barbershop where, this being Asheville, craft beer is served. Courtesy of them, he was now awaiting the arrival of a piece of furniture to complete the shop’s layout. Aware that he hosted wine tastings and other gatherings, James’ new friends asked if they could set up their extra barber chair at Westlake to promote their services at one of his in-store events. They proposed, literally, to offer haircuts inside his shop. Not unlike the Italian wine specialist who took a look at the diverse Westlake inventory before pitching pelaverga, The Local Barber guys must have caught something in his non-conforming attitude that suggested an evening of wine, beer, scissors, and razors was not an outlandish idea. At least, not in Asheville.
WORK TRAVEL LAST FALL TOOK ME for the first time to Asheville, North Carolina, the city in the craggy, western band of the state that runs between Tennessee and South Carolina. On a cool weekday morning, I drove for 90 minutes up Highway 74 out of sprawling Charlotte, encountering the famous, smoky-blue mountain vistas as the road climbed to Asheville—weird for a native Angeleno accustomed to gazing upon the smoggy-brown San Gabriels—and arrived at my friends Virginia and Richard’s home in Arden, a woodsy suburb on the south side of town. I briefly caught up my hosts on the latest from Napa Valley, where they’d lived for years before deciding to return to their native Southeast. Then I headed out for the day to play California wine ambassador.
The agenda my friend and colleague, Gwen, had arranged for our two days together included stops at several of the more unique bars, restaurants, and retail shops I visited during all of last year. I knew before I got on the plane in Oakland that Asheville had a reputation as “Beer City, USA.” By extension, I figured there would be opportunities to sample some North Carolina chopped pig and a brown liquor concoction or two, and maybe listen to some live music (I wouldn’t be disappointed). But the level of wine appreciation I witnessed was something of a surprise, though maybe it shouldn’t have been.
Asheville is a picturesque, postcard-ready city of a little over 80,000 with a UNC campus, a minor league baseball team, and a tree-lined downtown that reminds me of the neighborhood around Shattuck and University Avenues in Berkeley. It’s perhaps most notable for its connection to the Vanderbilt family, whose scion, the imperial-sounding George II, built a chateau in the 1880s on a huge swath of land at the south end of town. He named it Biltmore Estate, an original Dutch-English moniker to honor his patrician heritage. To call Biltmore House “big” is almost comic understatement; it’s the largest single-family home in the United States, with a wide-angle façade worthy of any Loire Valley castle. Near the entrance to the estate, George 2 had a village laid out to house the workers he employed to build his mansion. Today, Biltmore Village is a section of Asheville and a charming little town-within-a-town. But before the city grew to absorb it in the early 1900s, it was a true village—a Craftsman shire, if you will, filled with Vanderbilt’s craftsmen and surrounded by misty mountains. Continue reading